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War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning

Bibliographic Content

Hedges, Chris



Kindle, Paperback (224 pages), Hardback (‎ 192 pages), Audible (6hrs:27min)

Synopsis from Author

General George S. Patton famously said, "Compared to war all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance. God, I do love it so!" Though Patton was a notoriously single-minded general, it is nonetheless a sad fact that war gives meaning to many lives, a fact with which we have become familiar now that America is once again engaged in a military conflict. War is an enticing elixir. It gives us purpose, resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.

Chris Hedges of The New York Times has seen war up close -- in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Central America -- and he has been troubled by what he has seen: friends, enemies, colleagues, and strangers intoxicated and even addicted to war's heady brew. In War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, he tackles the ugly truths about humanity's love affair with war, offering a sophisticated, nuanced, intelligent meditation on the subject that is also gritty, powerful, and unforgettable.

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war is a force that gives us meaning, chris hedges

There is among many who fight in war a sense of shame, one that is made worse by the patriotic drivel used to justify the act of killing in war. Those who seek meaning in patriotism do not want to hear the truth of war, wary of bursting the bubble. The tensions between those who were there and those who were not, those who refuse to let go of the myth and those that know it to be a lie feed into the dislocation and malaise after war. In the end, neither side cares to speak to the other. The shame and alienation of combat soldiers, coupled with the indifference to the truth of war by those who were not there, reduces many societies to silence. It seems better to forget. (pg 176)

Summary of Book from War Is My Business

The ethics of warfare, the barbarity that can arise, and the vitriolic hatred that can be witnessed between warring groups are heavy topics to cover. But here we are with Chris Hedges’ book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning. In this book, he discusses the nature of warfare that is often clouded in mythology. A nature that is obscured by the fervor of patriotic enthusiasm, the fanatic dedication to a cause, and the need to justify what was once unjustifiable - simply to continue moving forward. War is horrifying. Violence coupled with hatred can be brutal. Humans, however, partake in it like a drug; knowing its dangers, but being compelled to take another hit.

No doubt, the audience for this book is all members of the public. In an attempt to showcase the horrible nature of warfare, Hedge’s hope is to destroy the romantic perspective of warfare that is sometimes in the eyes of the people. Though, he admits, this may be a somewhat fruitless endeavor as this may very well be in the nature of our species. For our purposes, however, there may be a greater audience that transcends the purely martial concepts of the book. An understanding of why humans are sometimes irrational and self-destructive in the pursuit of military endeavors and violence not solely limited to warfare. Behavioral economics found in the business world may very well have connections with humanity’s propensity to brutality and the psychology that underpins it.

Each chapter covers a particular topic that drives groups of people to commit atrocities. These are the topics by their numbered chapter.

  1. There is a myth about warfare, or the drive to wage violence against other human beings, and that myth revolves around the dichotomy of good and bad. That we are right and just, and the enemy is wrong and evil.
  2. That the rise of nationalism within a people leads them to become aggressive to outside forces. People have a proclivity to follow the flow of the social cues of those within their groups, and the focus on national strength and superiority can lead to very few people arguing against the march to conflict.
  3. That the culture of a nation will change in order to prepare and sustain it in war. Truth will be altered, fear of the threat will be a major focus for policy and decision-making, and the rise in victim-mentality being used as an excuse to fight.
  4. That in the conduct of war we can become addicted to it. The advent of industrial warfare and the development of long-range stand-off weapons offers nations the ability to apply force without the negative emotional consequences of actually killing humans and destroying lives.
  5. That at the conclusion of war, those that committed heinous acts will seek to hide the facts to avoid punishment, and in the case of a civil war many are guilty of some crime; even those who are just trying to survive.
  6. That when a nation or people go to war, the people that support it gain a cause that gives their lives’ meaning. The enemy is always the worst, and though we may commit atrocities; our atrocities are of lesser severity while theirs are heavy-handed, our crimes are rarer in occurrence while theirs are systemic, or our acts against humanity are in retaliation to the enemy’s unprovoked actions.
  7. That there are underlying human conditions that compel us to fight. It is our nature to fight and protect our own, and a consequence of this can lead to an extreme that drives brutality.

While the content of the book covers the nature of warfare in general, the author does, or at least appears to, make an emphasis on the destructive aspects of civil war. Indeed, even in a major theater war between nations these seven points previously mentioned can still apply; however, in a civil war, there is a potential to see the severity and brutality increase an order of magnitude. The reason being that nations at war, generally, utilize more disciplined and organized units, and while these units could be employed to commit atrocities; such as when an uncontrolled unit without effective leadership can see its subordinates lose themselves to passions of hatred and violence. However, in a civil war, an adversary may very well be a neighbor of differing political or ethic persuasion making fear and paranoia of the other an ever present feeling that compels action.

While the author acknowledges, as mentioned, that there may be no solution to solving this problem as it is apparently ingrained without our species’ nature, he does put forth one solution to helping alleviate the brutality of a civil war; international intervention. The international community may not be able to stop a major theater war between nations, but it may be able to leverage enough influence to deploy a military force to stop a regional conflict or civil war. Here their purpose would be to get in the way and prevent the various groups within the conflict from slaughtering each other.

We in the industrialized world bear responsibility for the world’s genocides because we had the power to intervene and did not. We stood by and watched the slaughter in Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Rwanda where a million people died. The blood of the victims of Srebrenica - a designated U.N. Safe area in Bosnia - is on our hands. The generation before mine watched, with much the same passivity, the genocides of Germany, Poland, Hungary, Greece, and the Ukraine. (pg 16)

Now, the utilization of an intervention force is an option; a third-party without any concern for the inter-political or inter-ethnic quarrels and whose designed purpose is to maintain order and peace. Just like the utilization of police and court systems provides arbitration between personal disputes, the international community can serve in much the same way. Though it must be questioned in how the international community determines under whose authority such a force will fall and under what justification they have to insert themselves into the conflict of others. Every nation has its own agenda; their own national interests they are looking to support, and it may be a bit naive to think that the member nations of an international force would spend capital and blood purely for altruistic reasons.

Might a foreign power seek to take advantage of the conflict for its own ends, maybe even exacerbate the existing problem? Under what conditions would you request the establishment of the international force and send them into a conflict zone? Is it during the execution of what appears to be an ongoing genocide, or prior when violence becomes increasingly heated? Who has the authority to make that decision? Many questions about competing interests, concerns about world policing and policy, and the justification of foreign involvement in domestic issues would need to be addressed. That isn’t covered in this book. The book simply covers the topic of the areas that compel disparate social groups within a nation or a region to commit brutal acts upon each other and feel reluctantly justified in doing so, and the atrocities committed that he personally witnessed or heard about during his time as a war correspondent and its impact on people’s perspective of the conflict.

The Cause

One particular topic that Chris Hedges discusses that compels people to fight is the title of his sixth chapter, “The Cause,” of which I would like to discuss in detail and to which we can find a business comparison.

War finds its meaning in death. The cause is built on the backs of victims, portrayed always as innocent. Indeed, most conflicts are ignited with martyrs, whether real or created. The death of an innocent, one who is perceived as emblematic of the nation or the group under attack, becomes the initial rallying point for war. These dead become the standard-bearers of the cause and all causes feed off a steady supply of corpses. (pg 144)

Single events that shake a group or people to action are powerful tools that can be leveraged, either intentionally or accidentally, to conflict. Rarely, if at all, does the event occur in a vacuum. The initiating event; an attack, a massacre, some form of violation, or a random criminal act is viewed as premeditated. The victim sees it as just another event in a series of transgressions. For the one initiating the event; the aggressor, it may be viewed as unintentional, accidental, or even revenge for a previous violation brought upon them.

As a chronological example, here are some of the events that Americans have used to rally themselves to fight.

  • Boston Massacre and military occupation (Revolutionary War)
  • Mediterranean pirate attacks on American traders (Barbary Wars)
  • Impressment of American sailors and other treaty violations (War of 1812)
  • Frontier conflicts with native tribes (American Frontier Wars)
  • Mexican attack on the Alamo (Mexican-American War)
  • Fort Sumter, succession, slavery vs federal favoritism (American Civil War)
  • Sinking of the USS Maine (Spanish-American War)
  • Sinking of the Lusitania and the Zimmerman Telegram (World War I)
  • Attack on Pearl Harbor (World War II)
  • The Spread of Communism (Korean War and Vietnam War)
  • Iraq’s Invasion of Kuwait (Persian Gulf War)
  • Terror attacks of 9/11 (Global War on Terror)

Some of these events are directly tied to a decision to fight. Some are but one event out of many that led to a decision to go to war. Some are accidental and some are incidental to a greater conflict. But none of these events are isolated; divorced from greater events and geopolitics of the world. They all have their causes that we can evaluate in hindsight, but at the time was a great motivator to action. Similarly, for other nations and groups of people throughout history, they will have their events that compel them to action. This isn’t to say that any of these events should or shouldn’t elicit a response that puts people on a war footing, only that they occurred, were perceived as an attack, and were severe enough to rile up the people to fight.

Once the fighting occurred, once the decision was made to fight, the United States continued its fight until it was able to achieve its objectives, until the violation had been rectified through force. In most instances, the United States has succeeded. In a few, we failed short of our objectives and made the decision to disengage or seek an armistice; e.g. War of 1812, Vietnam, and Iraq and Afghanistan. As our wars progressed, we leveraged the loss of our warfighters and the sacrifices they and our partners have made for the cause at hand. We continue the fight, even at the risk of our national objectives, so that “those that have died, will have not died in vain” being a common call to continue to fight. It is a pain of loss that we seek to justify by eventually succeeding.

Indeed we lost many of our people in wars we eventually won, the Union in the American Civil War as well as World War 2. If we (including the Union-perspective) gave up after great losses then indeed those that did die would have been in vain, but with the eventual victory those loses were more palatable. They died in pursuit for a greater good. In conflicts like Vietnam or Afghanistan, those that called for fighting-on so those that died didn’t die in vain only added more lives to the final toll with no victory to make the loss worth it. The question for them would be, if they kept fighting could they have found victory or would the same conclusion still arise only with more casualties when the zeal and motivation finally evaporated?

Regardless of your position on cutting losses we begin to understand an aspect of business that economists know well. The costs of war which we can’t get back are the same as the costs of projects, labor, or services that we spend capital on that we can’t get back. These costs in business, as is the loss of life and equipment in warfare, are “sunk costs” and you can’t get them back. Additionally, we have the “opportunity costs” for things we could have done instead with those lives, equipment, and capital; such as bolstering other partners and supporting other operations.

The sunk and opportunity costs of warfare, as in business, is directly tied and reinforced by the cause in which it supports. The more important the cause is perceived the more likely a people will continue to throw good money after bad, the more they will continue to add more lives to the total tally in a hope that objectives can be met. The difference between whether that was a good idea or bad can only be effectively assessed at its conclusion - whether we win or give up. While we are in the midst of fighting, however, we won’t know. We do know that if we give up then the losses will be in vain, however, if we don’t give up maybe, just maybe, the sacrifice will be worth it if we can pull out a win.

When will a business endeavor, an investment, a military operation, or a major theater war be a failure to which we shouldn’t sink any more costs into? When should we cut our losses? While the author didn’t provide any solutions, only really seeking to inform us of the horrors of war and their causes, I do have a potential course of action, or at least a workaround for this aspect of human nature. And this solution involves the determination of maximum costs we should be willing to sink into a venture so that we don’t need to make these cost-benefit analyses while we are emotionally invested in the conflict or business project - a time when judgment can be clouded by the losses. Real estate investors may have a solution in a tool they use - the MAO.

The maximum allowable offer (MAO) is a calculation that investors use to determine the maximum amount to offer on a real estate purchase. Naturally, any buyer would like to get the property for the minimum amount of money possible, but naturally there will be negotiations by the seller to get the most on their part. Having a pre-established MAO will give the buyer the ability to know ahead of time when a price is getting too high to be profitable - the ultimate purpose of the investment. In other business endeavors, as well as in conflict, it may serve as a useful tool to assess the losses we should be willing to sacrifice and endure in order to support our ultimate goals.

Naturally, in more complex business endeavors and in military operations, during the course of operations, gains may be achieved that get us closer to the accomplishment of objectives, but may see us pushing past our initial MAO. There may be a benefit to having an MAO that is contingent on certain successes that we are able to measure objectively. This will allow us to cut losses quickly if we don’t make headway during initial operations, but will prevent us from giving up when we are mere inches from crossing the finish line because some metric just happens to tick a little higher moments before success. It should be noted that, just like a real estate investor won’t divulge their MAO to the seller, so too shouldn't we broadcast our MAO to adversaries and competitors as it will be knowledge that they can use against us, knowing when we will call it quits will allow them to shape their operations to force us to make that decision.

The specifics of an MAO for your unique purpose I will leave up to you to decide how to implement, but I do hope you realize the potential benefit of having an objective “cut losses” point - an MAO - during times when you or others may be involved in some conflict or business with which you are emotionally invested. A cause of great importance that may temporarily blind you to reality, much like it did for many of the people that the author, Chris Hedges, interviewed and wrote about in his book. This book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, has its value in that the author provides us a perspective into human nature where the call to fight can cloud our judgment. A valuable insight into the human condition.

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