Misreading War Literature

Chris Hedges’ basic message is simple: war is awful, and the ruling class cons the working class into fighting for them. “Any story of war,” he writes, “is a story of elites preying on the weak, the gullible, the marginal, and the poor.” Unfortunately, the simplicity of his argument obscures the complexities of the real human lives at stake. Veterans, active-duty service members, and the working classes are, in Hedges’s story, no more than “gullible” fools being led like “a herd of animals.” By dismissing the myriad ways humans have historically found meaning in military life and war, Hedges abjures the very questions of human violence and the appeal of martial virtues he claims to be discussing.

The errors that Hedges’s reductions lead him into are distinctly demonstrated in his throwaway lines about the literature of war: “Pick up Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, or James Jones’s From Here to Eternity. Read Henry IV. Turn to the Iliad. The allure of combat is a trap, a ploy, an old, dirty game of deception in which the powerful, who do not go to war, promise a mirage to those who do.”

It’s all but impossible to glean what relationship is supposed to obtain between the works Hedges alludes to and his argument about war. Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is unquestionably an anti-war novel, and explicitly frames Paul Bäumer’s experience of World War I as an act of betrayal. Although there are certainly moments of class friction in Remarque’s book, the betrayal staged isn’t the rich betraying the poor, but the old betraying the young. Henry IV, on the other hand, tells the story of Prince Hal’s ascension to the throne of England through his valor on the battlefield. Is Henry IV part of the “ploy,” then, in contrast to All Quiet? Or are Falstaff’s comic laments and indignities a revelation of working-class dupery?

The Iliad presents an even more complex problem. A saga of tribal warfare, the Iliad shows how “powerful” Agamemnon, king of shepherds, fights alongside the aggrieved Achilles, whose pride and prowess make him both a hero and a kind of monster. Courage thrives alongside horror, cruelty with compassion. When Hector’s son Astyanax recoils in fear from his father’s helmeted face, or when Achilles weeps with Priam over Hector’s brutalized corpse, we see neither a “dirty game of deception” nor its unmasking, but the intractability of human conflict.

The complexities of the war literature Hedges cites don’t offer easy support for his argument.

From Here to Eternity is Hedges’s most puzzling reference. Dedicated to the United States Army, Jones’s novel is a painstaking homage to Army life and the men who live it. Its two main characters, PFC Prewitt and First Sergeant Warden, are declared lifers, “thirty-year men” who, despite their hatred of military bureaucracy, disdain for officers, and impatience with “Regular Army bullshit,” find satisfaction, meaning, and self-worth in the disciplined, communal, rough-and-ready homosocial world of the infantry. Further complicating things, Prewitt, a Harlan County miner’s son, joined the Army after his family was destroyed in a union strike. Coming of age in the Great Depression and finding life as an itinerant laborer lonely and dangerous, Prewitt enlisted for some of the reasons Hedges mentions, but also for a sense of stability. Prewitt’s intransigent pride keeps him bucking the Army system, though, and eventually gets him thrown in the stockade, where he meets Jack Malloy—a former Industrial Workers of the World organizer who schools Prewitt in ascetic virtue, labor history, and passive resistance.

In an ironic twist, it’s this priestly self-development that gets Prewitt killed. Trying to sneak back to his unit after being AWOL, Prewitt is caught by the MP. He makes a run for it and the MPs, armed and jittery after the Pearl Harbor attacks, start shooting at him. Prewitt’s armed too, but rather than shoot back or dive for cover, he turns—his Harlan County pride surging up with his lessons in passive resistance—faces the MP, and is cut down by stray fire. It’s an affecting moment, not least because it represents a real spiritual achievement for Prewitt at the very moment that achievement is evacuated in the senselessness of his death.

However you read them, the complexities of the Iliad, From Here to Eternity, Henry IV, and even All Quiet on the Western Front don’t offer the easy support for his argument that Hedges thinks they do. His drive-by allusions suggest either he didn’t bother to reflect sufficiently on his own examples of the ways humans find war and military life meaningful, or he didn’t care. Either way, it’s disappointing to see such a respected journalist, of such progressive sympathies, showing such disregard for his subject, his evidence, and his audience.