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What Every Person Should Know About War

What Every Person Should Know About War

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by Chris Hedges

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Acclaimed New York Times journalist and author Chris Hedges offers a critical -- and fascinating -- lesson in the dangerous realities of our age: a stark look at the effects of war on combatants. Utterly lacking in rhetoric or dogma, this manual relies instead on bare fact, frank description, and a spare question-and-answer format. Hedges allows U.S. military


Acclaimed New York Times journalist and author Chris Hedges offers a critical -- and fascinating -- lesson in the dangerous realities of our age: a stark look at the effects of war on combatants. Utterly lacking in rhetoric or dogma, this manual relies instead on bare fact, frank description, and a spare question-and-answer format. Hedges allows U.S. military documentation of the brutalizing physical and psychological consequences of combat to speak for itself.

Hedges poses dozens of questions that young soldiers might ask about combat, and then answers them by quoting from medical and psychological studies.
• What are my chances of being wounded or killed if we go to war?
• What does it feel like to get shot?
• What do artillery shells do to you?
• What is the most painful way to get wounded?
• Will I be afraid?
• What could happen to me in a nuclear attack?
• What does it feel like to kill someone?
• Can I withstand torture?
• What are the long-term consequences of combat stress?
• What will happen to my body after I die?

This profound and devastating portrayal of the horrors to which we subject our armed forces stands as a ringing indictment of the glorification of war and the concealment of its barbarity.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Neither jingoistic nor pacifist, the book is about the moral authority of information, as it applies to the present and future nature of war. — Robert Pinsky
Publishers Weekly
"This book is a manual on war. There is no rhetoric. There are very few adjectives," Hedges proclaims in his introduction to this graphic primer. Framed as a question-and-answer manual for GIs, not "every person," the book gives perfunctory information about military social life, pay, housing and housekeeping (a "central latrine will be established for multiple camps"). But the bulk of it is concerned with battlefield carnage, madness and pathos. A gristly chapter on "Weapons and Wounds" details the bodily effects of artillery shells, incendiaries and several types of bullets. Questions like "What does it feel like to kill someone?" (exhilaration, then remorse) and sections on post-traumatic stress disorder and flashbacks probe the psychic wounds of war. A chapter on "Dying" covers topics like "Will I be frozen in the position in which I die?" ("You can be straightened out after rigor mortis has set") and "What will my last words be?" ("Many call for their mothers"). War correspondent Hedges, author of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (whose introductory paragraphs look a lot like their counterparts in this volume), presents this anxiety-provoking information as a grimly factual account of the true face of war-culled from "medical, psychological, and military studies"-that America shies away from in favor of sanitized myths of glory and heroism. He fails to note that depictions of gore, mayhem, psychological trauma and flashbacks have become staples of Hollywood's treatment of war even as such experiences have become less common in America's high-tech, casualty-averse military. Americans, soldiers and civilians both, could use a clear-eyed analysis of modern warfare, but this limited treatment doesn't yet provide one. (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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I have spent most of my adult life reporting war. By the time it was over, after nearly two decades, I had worked as a correspondent in about a dozen conflicts from Central America to Africa to the Middle East and the Balkans. I spent five years covering the insurgencies in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. I was there for the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in the West Bank and Gaza, and returned to write about the second. I reported on the civil wars in the Sudan and Yemen, the uprisings in Algeria and the Punjab, and the collapse of the communist regimes in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. I went on to the Gulf War, the Kurdish rebellion in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq, the war in Bosnia, and finally to the fighting in Kosovo.

I have been in ambushes on desolate dirt roads in Central America, in firefights in the marshes in southern Iraq between Shiite rebels and Iraqi soldiers, imprisoned in the Sudan, captured and held prisoner for a week by the Iraqi Republican Guard in Basra during the Shiite rebellion following the 1991 Gulf War, strafed by MiG-21s in Bosnia, fired upon by Serb snipers, and pounded with over 1,000 heavy shells a day in Sarajevo. I struggle with the demons all who have been to war must bear. There are days when these burdens seem more than I can handle.

There are few books that describe in raw detail the effects of war, what it does to bodies, to minds and souls. The trauma of war is often too hard for us to digest. We find it easier to believe the myths about war, the exciting call to duty, honor, courage, and glory, those abstract terms that are rendered hollow in combat. This is not to say these qualities do not exist -- they do -- but they rarely have much place on the battlefield. Modern industrial warfare is largely impersonal. The effects of these powerful weapons and explosives on human bodies are usually not disclosed to the public. The physical and psychological wounds are lifelong crucibles carried by veterans and civilian survivors. These wounds are often unseen. Those who suffer from war's touch are often left to struggle with the awful scars of war alone or with their families. War, when we understand it, forces us to confront our own capacity for violence, indeed for atrocity. And it is little wonder that most of us prefer to turn away.

"Few of us can hold on to our real selves long enough to discover the momentous truths about ourselves and this whirling earth to which we cling," wrote J. Glenn Gray, a combat veteran of World War II, in The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. "This is especially true of men in war. The great god Mars tries to blind us when we enter his realm, and when we leave he gives us a generous cup of the waters of Lethe to drink."

We ennoble war. We turn it into entertainment. And in all this we forget what war is about, what it does to those who wage it and those who suffer from it. We ask those in the military and their families to make sacrifices that color the rest of their lives. Those who hate war the most, I have often found, are veterans who know it.

War, I believe, is an inevitable part of the human condition. I doubt it will ever be eradicated. But it should never be waged lightly or without good cause. The cost is high. Most of those killed, wounded, and left homeless in modern warfare are innocents, families, including children. There are millions of people on this planet who, because of war, have been thrust into a life of want and misery. And their dislocation, along with their loss of dignity and basic human rights, has created legions of the disenfranchised.

The truth about war is hard to confront, especially if we have come to believe the romantic image of war. But the truth will arm us to wage war. It will make us conscious of the sacrifices we demand from those we send to fight. Our young men and women do not deserve to be deceived about the difficulties they must undertake. In a democracy, the voting public must grasp the exacting toll of war. And when we know what it is we face, and the possible consequences, we will be better prepared to cope with the stress, pain, and loss. Those who come back from war will be better able to handle their own trauma. They will understand that they are not alone. Perhaps they will also come to realize that we all need help. We all need each other. War is a cross no one should have to bear alone.

"Give sorrow words," William Shakespeare wrote, "The grief that does not speak whispers the o'erfraught heart and bids it break."

The book is a manual on war. There is no rhetoric. There are very few adjectives. It is a book based on research. The core of the research was directed by Cabe Franklin, who worked with Sam Frank and Byrd Schas. Laurie Kelliher, along with some of my other graduate students at Columbia University's School of Journalism, gave many hours to the effort. The book is also the product of a great deal of reflection by several veterans, especially John Wheeler who graduated from West Point, served in Vietnam, and went on to chair the drive to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. He significantly shaped and molded the book. Paul Woodruff, a philosopher who wrote Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue and was a military adviser in Vietnam, helped edit the manuscript. The novelist Christian Bauman, who joined the army after high school and served in Somalia and Haiti, along with Jarrad Shiver, who was a sergeant in the Marine Corps, made sure the concerns and dilemmas of the enlisted men and women were included. Christian wrote The Ice Beneath You, one of the finest books on life in the American army. And we are indebted to three members of the Hughes family, all West Point graduates, who helped us look at the issues that concern women in the military and made sure we thoughtfully asked and answered questions about wounds and warfare. Carolyn Hughes Copenhaver, a former army captain who served in military intelligence from 1992 to 1997, Captain John R. Hughes, an army surgeon, and Dr. William F. Hughes, a retired colonel who served three tours in Vietnam, all generously lent their expertise to the work.

We drew up basic questions about war and searched medical, psychological, and military studies for information. We were meticulous about footnotes, fact checking, and sourcing. If anyone wants more on any subject, the footnotes and bibliography show where to find it. We kept the book direct and accessible. And we operated on the assumption that the simplest and most obvious questions in life, and certainly war, often never get asked. The ancient Greek philosopher Heracleitus noted that "men are estranged from what is most familiar and they must seek out what is in itself evident."

The idea for the book came from the work of Harold Roland Shapiro, a New York lawyer who stumbled on medical studies from World War I during a law case. The medical descriptions, he wrote, rendered "all that I had read and heard previously as being either fiction, isolated reminiscence, vague generalization or deliberate propaganda."

He began to do research in the New York Academy of Medicine and the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. He published a book called What Every Young Man Should Know About War (Knight Publishers, Inc., 1937) in question-and-answer format. The book was published a year later in London by George Allen and Unwin Ltd. It described war in "dispassionate words" that were "as irrevocable as bullets once they have been issued from the mouth of a machine gun."

Mr. Shapiro, who hoped to avert another war, distributed his book on the eve of World War II. But when the war started, fearing that it would interfere with recruiting, he pulled the few copies in circulation. The book never appeared in print again.

Lawrence Walsh, who covered the war in Afghanistan, mentioned the book to me while I was on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. It was hard to find. Widener Library at Harvard, the second largest in the country, did not have a copy. I had to order it from the Library of Congress.

The book is dated. It deals with bayonet wounds, "trench fever," and "going over the top." And it pulls almost exclusively from medical studies. Its focus is on physical wounds, although one sees glimpses of the recognition of the deep psychological cost of war in vague medical references to "anxiety state." However limited, the concept was brilliant. And Mr. Shapiro, who died in 1985, did his country a great service. I want to thank his son, Dr. Jonathan S. Shapiro, for sharing with me his father's history and blessing our enterprise.
a lot of work has been done on the physical and psychological effects of war since World War I. Post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, was not officially recognized and named until after the Vietnam War. We now have a much better understanding of what the trauma of war does to us. But the military has also worked hard to make its soldiers more efficient killers. It has employed the tools of science, technology, and psychology to increase the lethal force of combat units. These studies strip away the gloss of military life. There is a method to the military's madness. And recruits will be better able to cope with what seems like insanity when they understand what it is the military is trying to accomplish.

Finally, there may be some who dislike this book. It is hard to read. But war is hard. And closing our eyes to the reality of war will not make it go away, nor will it make it better. Knowledge does give us power. It allows us to understand what is being done to us. It allows us to prepare ourselves for the hard task of warfare. It makes us cautious and hopefully hesitant about unleashing the dogs of war. Most important, it gives us a greater compassion and insight toward those who return from war. The invisible wounds inflicted on survivors are potent. They can destroy lives, long after the conflict has ended, as effectively as artillery shells.

This book is meant to give a glimpse into war as it is, not as it is usually portrayed by the entertainment industry, the state, and the press. War, however inevitable and necessary, must always be a final resort. It is always tragic. War maims generations. War sends out deadly aftershocks that ripple outward in ways we do not understand. War, the blood-swollen god, asks us to sacrifice our young. Beware of that sacrifice. Fear it.

Chris Hedges

New York City, April 2003

Copyright © 2003 by Chris Hedges

Meet the Author

Chris Hedges was a foreign correspondent for nearly two decades for The New
York Times
, The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science
and National Public Radio. He was a member of the team that won the
2002 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for The New York Times
coverage of global terrorism, and he received the 2002 Amnesty International
Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. Hedges is the author of the bestseller
American Fascists and National Book Critics Circle finalist for War Is
a Force That Gives Us Meaning
. He is a Senior Fellow at The Nation Institute
and a Lannan Literary Fellow and has taught at Columbia University, New York
University and Princeton University.

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What Every Person Should Know About War 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
SarahWorldCiv More than 1 year ago
Chis Hedge doesn't seem to take sides, but he does ask some amazing questions. In his book "What Every Peron Should Know About War.", his questions raise eyebrows, state clear facts, and even touch on the humanity in war. When people talk about war now days -especially after the Bush administration- they can't seem to not be biased. Either they seem to either love or hate war. They hate war and therefore sneakily hate Bush or they love Bush OR they like his politics but hate him..war doesn't have to do with Bush. He gives facts without seeming to promote war or bash it. This makes this book a good source for any person to read regardless of political ideas because it simply gives facts. Hedge's also delves into both sides of war, the emotional and physical, with a broad range of questions. He is very good at asking a physical and factual questions like question Like "What is war?", "What are the most common forms of torture" and What will it be like to be shot? and turning it into an all-encompassing answer. Emotional side of things "What will it be like to see my spouse again? (ch. , and Will I develop a friendship with my captors?" (ch. Imprisonment, Torture, and Rape), "What will the effect on my family be if I develop PTSD?"(ch. After the War) Surprising but interesting questions peppered though out like "Will I visit prostitutes?" (ch. 3 Life in War), "Should men try to protect their genitals in combat?" (ch. Weapons and Wounds), and "Will I have trouble having sex with my spouse?" (ch After the War) It answers every question imaginable it a factual and accurate way. Hedge's shows how war is but also how it affects humans both serving in and outside of the war. Put in a very easy format to read. A good read for those that have interest in war, humanity, or just learning something new.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While reading this book, I was truly shocked and fascinated at all the things that Hedges was telling us. One can only watch so much television and read magazines about the Middle East, and areas of the like. It was bound to happen that someone would actually tell us the truth about what happens during war. Who would have thought that could be so much said about what happens to you when you are captured. Chris Hedges, who is currently a senior fellow at The National Institute. Hedges spent nearly two years as a foreign correspondent in areas such as Africa and the Middle East. For the book What Every Person Should Know About War, Hedges collaborated with several combat war veterans. This is what makes this book so interesting. By joining forces with them it gives the book more authenticity. It is not just someone writing a book about war, it is someone writing a book about war with information from someone who was actually there. I would recommend this book for high school and college students. It is a great book to use for in-depth discussions. It gives high school students a chance to see how life in the military really is. Since a lot of high school students go into the military after graduation, it would be a good time for them to see if this is really what they want to do. For college students, it¿s a chance for them to explore all the aspects of war. Assignments may be attached to reading this book, such as researching what countries had wars and when. There are some uncomfortable moments in the book. There is a whole chapter entitled, ¿Imprisonment, Torture, and Rape.¿ It goes into details about what would happen if you were captured. While it may be uncomfortable and/or controversial, it does provide ¿tips¿ or ¿insights¿ on what could possibly happen. Also, there is a chapter about dying. Obviously, dying is a hard topic to talk about. But it seems to give some comfort on the subject. Later on in the chapter it addresses what will happen to your body, how your family will be notified and what your funeral will be like. It is true that every person should read this. There are many interesting facts that not everybody knows. Some people try to turn away from all the war stories in the news, when in fact we should try to understand it more. These men and women put their lives on the line every single day for us. The least we could do is try to understand why things are the way they are.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What Every Person Should Know About War by Chris Hedges is a very informative book that should be read by every teenage and adult American. Mr. Hedges is a journalist and author who has reported from wars in Bosnia and Kosovo as well as the Persian Gulf. His reporting comes from first-hand experience. He takes the reader through enlistment, war and post-war experiences. Mr. Hedges answers questions such as, 'What is war?', 'What will make me fire?', and 'How will I feel when I hear war discussed?' This book is a must-read whether you are entering the military, have a loved one in the military or are just a concerned American. I was assigned this book for a World Civilizations class and hesitated reading it. However, it has made me a more informed American. Are you between the ages of 16-216 and an American? Then this book is for you!
Guest More than 1 year ago
'What Every Person Should Know About War' is an excellent read that really makes one think. It was a book I was assigned in my history class in college and I was quite reluctant to read it. I automatically figured that it was just another book that me and my class would have to write on. I had no idea the book would be the easy read that it was and provide insight to questions I have had for years. The book takes you through different aspects of war and the most popular questions proposed on that topic. Topics range from enlistment to dying. Questions range from, 'What will it feel like to be shot,' to 'Will I want to go home after the war?' The author, Chris Hedges, provides great questions and answers in this book and has credibility as one that knows something about war from his first book entitled 'War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning'. Great chapters that answer questions that everyone is curious about. Overall, this book is a great read for a person of any age, however, I suggest it to the war enthusiast or one that is college-aged. This book sparked my interest and it was very intriguing. I remember interrupting my roommate every once in awhile to tell him an interesting facet about the book. A great book that every American needs to read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I think this is great! This book answers many questions about what war is like and the challenges, fears and doubts anyone threatened with possibility being in the middle of one might face.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is nothing but a long series of questions and answers There is no writing skill