I recently bought a toy AK-47, listed as suitable for ages 3 and up. When you pull the trigger, you hear the realistic sound of gunfire, and the thing lights up and vibrates. There is even a transparent magazine with little plastic bullets in it, and the bullets move up and down rapidly so it looks like you’re discharging rounds. It feels like a “My First Mass Shooting” kit.
Toys like this are apparently less common than they once were. The Washington Post reported in 2014 that while “from the 1940s to the 1980s, toymakers competed to market the most realistic looking, sounding and feeling weapons,” in the 21st century “the idea of buying the kid a toy gun for Christmas is about as attractive as buying him a syringe and a heroin starter kit.” War toys have apparently gone through cycles of popularity that correspond roughly to America’s national moods: big after World War II, then much less popular after Vietnam, then popular again in the Reagan/Rambo ‘80s, then declining in popularity in the age of mass shootings. Especially given that parents can reasonably worry their kids will be killed by police if they’re seen with what looks like a gun—and research has suggested those little orange tips won’t make a difference to whether the cops perceive you as a threat—we can see why realistic plastic AK-47s such as the one that now sits in my office (I needed it for an art project, incidentally) are on the outs. That doesn’t mean, however, that kids aren’t still pretending to kill using realistic simulated weapons—Call of Duty: Warzone is the most popular video game at the moment.
Opposition to violent video games has always misidentified the real potential problem with widespread simulated and cartoonish violence. I don’t think it’s that kids are going to become more likely to be violent themselves. The research doesn’t suggest any clear link between playing violent video games and being more aggressive. Rather, I think the problem with the simulations of war and killing that we show to kids is, in a strange way, precisely that they’re not particularly “violent,” even at their most brutal and gory, because simulated violence is not actually traumatic or terrifying or heartbreaking in the way that real violence is. It’s hard to even create a “violent” video game, because nobody actually suffers or gets hurt. What it is possible to create is a simulation that makes war feel exciting rather than nauseating. And even beyond video games, U.S. children are raised without any understanding of what war is actually like for its victims, and so when they grow up to be adults who read about distant wars, they don’t really grasp the level of horror that is unfolding.
Ashleigh Banfield, who was ousted by NBC after speaking critically of the Iraq war, said in the lecture that got her fired that Americans did not understand what the war was really like because they were seeing sanitized images that didn’t show the reality of civilian casualties. Journalists embedded with U.S. troops, for instance, would show soldiers firing M16s into a building, but:
“You didn’t see where those bullets landed. You didn’t see what happened when the mortar landed. A puff of smoke is not what a mortar looks like when it explodes, believe me. There are horrors that were completely left out of this war. … Was this journalism or was this “coverage”? … [We got] a glorious wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news. But it wasn’t journalism because I’m not sure that we in America are hesitant to do this again, to fight another war, because it looked like a glorious and courageous and so successful, terrific endeavor. We got rid of a horrible leader, … But we didn’t see what it took to do that.”
When we hear, for instance, that the United States has bombed a wedding party, that sounds awful, but the word “bombed” can do nothing to convey what it is like for human beings who are faced with seeing their loved ones in pieces in front of them on what was supposed to be a joyful day. The true “horror” (a word we use constantly because there is none other, although it is so inadequate as to be almost useless) is literally indescribable. The reality of what it means for the United States to do something like this is so hideous that anyone who was there and saw it first-hand would likely be traumatized for life.
I don’t think there’s much understanding in this country of just how much real warfare differs from depictions on TV news, in films, and in video games. Nobody would deny that it does differ, but when I went to the World War II museum, what I saw was a strange depiction of a war that didn’t have any actual blood or gore. The story of the war wasn’t even really that upsetting.
Chris Hedges, who spent decades as a war correspondent for the New York Times, is deeply troubled by our collective lack of understanding of what war actually does to people. His new book The Greatest Evil is War is an effort to show just what a monstrous thing war is and to make readers determined to eliminate war from the Earth for good.
Hedges, like Banfield, wants us to understand that weapons kill. You might say that’s obvious, but it’s easy to talk about war weapons without talking about the killing they do. Consider this Wall Street Journal article about how the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (Himars) has given Ukrainians a decisive advantage in fighting back against Russian forces. We hear the system is “able to pick off Russian military bases, ammunition depots, and infrastructure” and halted a Russian advance. We hear a detailed account of what it’s like to fire the Himars—“the missiles roar into the night sky with a burst of flame, leaving a cloud of smoke over the field.” But we do not hear anything about what it is like to watch someone you know be hit by one of these missiles. We learn that on one of the units, Ukrainians have “stenciled 69 black skulls, commemorating significant confirmed hits.” We are not introduced to the people those skulls represent.
Hedges shows us the darkest parts of war, the parts left out of Call of Duty. He introduces us, for instance, to Jessica Goodell, a Marine in the Mortuary Affairs unit, whose job it was in Iraq to collect and process the remains of dead marines. Goodell had to go around the scenes of explosions picking up bits of corpses. She saw how real people, with letters and photos of their families in their pockets, were turned by IEDs into nothing but piles of meat, to be scooped into bags. (“We would open a body bag and there was nothing but vaporized flesh. There were not four hands or a whole leg in a bag. We tried to distribute the mush evenly throughout the bags. We had the last body bag come in. We opened it up and it was filled with the heads. I looked at four before looking away. Not only did we have to look at them, we had to pick them up and figure out who it belonged to. The eyes were looking back at us.”)
Goodell’s experience never aired as part of the cable news coverage showing the glorious American entry into Baghdad. But when George W. Bush sent young people into that war, that’s what he was sentencing them to. His decisions meant some of them would become heads in a bag, and others would have to sort and process those heads. Many, many more Iraqis would meet similar violent deaths thanks to Bush. Similar fates have now been inflicted on thousands of Ukrainians and Russians by Vladimir Putin.
The dead are not the only ones affected, of course. Hedges also looks at the veterans and their families who must suffer with lifelong trauma from exposure to extreme violence, or who live with debilitating physical injuries. The casualties of war do not appear in U.S. armed forces recruitment material, and Donald Trump infamously specified he didn’t want “wounded guys” in his military parade, because they wouldn’t look good. But Hedges wants us to come face to face with those who have burns across 90 percent of their bodies, who are paralyzed and disfigured. As he writes:
“If we really saw war, what war does to young minds and bodies, it would be harder to embrace the myth of war. If we had to stand over the mangled corpses of the schoolchildren killed in Afghanistan or Ukraine and listen to the wails of their parents, the clichés about liberating the women of Afghanistan or bringing freedom to the Afghan or Ukrainian people would be obscene. Therefore, war is carefully sanitized. Television reports give us the visceral thrill of force and hide from us the effects of bullets, tank rounds, iron fragmentation bombs, and artillery rounds. We taste a bit of war’s exhilaration, but are protected from seeing what war actually does, its smells, noise, confusion, and most of all its overpowering fear… The wounded, the crippled, and the dead are, in this great charade, swiftly carted offstage. They are war’s refuse. We do not see them. We do not hear them. They are doomed, like wandering spirits, to float around the edges of our consciousness, ignored, even reviled. The message they tell is too unpleasant for us to hear.”
Hedges introduces us to Carlos Arredondo, whose son Alexander was killed in the Iraq war. When two Marines arrived at Arredondo’s house to break the news that his son was dead, Arredondo became crazed with grief and set the Marines’ truck on fire, nearly burning himself to death (and receiving a $55,000 medical bill). He became a peace activist whose goal is to “show people war.” “If people don’t see what war does,” Arredondo says, “they don’t feel it. If they don’t feel it, they don’t care.” (Arredondo later became a hero during the Boston Marathon Bombing when he helped get injured victims to safety.)
Hedges tells the story of Tomas Young, a paralyzed Iraq war veteran who suffered years of extreme pain and depression before dying at the age of 34. Young wrote an extraordinary letter to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney that should be remembered every time anyone tries to rehabilitate one of these ghouls or nostalgically muse that they weren’t as bad as Donald Trump:
“I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole. … My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.”
Hedges argues throughout the book that the way war is represented in media and popular culture is immoral and dangerous, because it shows us the “exciting” bits of war (heavy machines that cause big explosions!) but none of the actual carnage. Hedges is even disgusted by war memorials, which he calls “temples to the god of war,” which “sanitize the savage instruments of death that turn young soldiers and Marines into killers, and small villages in Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq into hellish bonfires.” The problem is that they don’t show real war, which consists of “men or women with their guts hanging out of their bellies, screaming pathetically for their mothers,” “mangled corpses being shoved in body bags,” and “children burned beyond recognition or moaning in horrible pain.” Hiding these images from public view dulls people’s disgust and outrage at war and makes them less inclined to actively oppose their country’s wars.
Hedges also warns of the way that nations always portray wars as good and evil struggles.. The reality, however, is that every war is wholly evil, even if one side bears responsibility for initiating it. Even World War II, a “good and evil” struggle if ever there was one, featured horrible atrocities by the “good” side. The Allies deliberately incinerated civilian populations across Germany and Japan, destroying city after city culminating in the horrendous atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. War morally degrades all of its participants, because everyone is participating in mass killing, and there is no morally good way to set children on fire.
Hedges warns that the “good versus evil” mentality is always dangerous, even when it comes to a case like the war in Ukraine, where one party is clearly the aggressor. Like U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Vietnam, Russian soldiers have committed major atrocities in Ukraine, but soldiers on all sides, having been sent to war by their governments, are also victims of war. Both the Russian and Ukrainian parents who must grieve the loss of their children are victims of war, even if one child was a soldier for the aggressor. Hedges demonstrates the process by which flawed human beings are turned into Enemies and Evildoers whose complete destruction is perceived as necessary. In World War II, the Japanese were viewed as a subhuman pestilence, making it easier to drop atomic bombs on their cities.
There are, Hedges writes, powerful forces pushing us constantly toward a state of war. War may be “demonic,” the greatest evil imaginable, and yet there are those who stand to make huge profits from it. (The Wall Street Journal recently reported on how the M777 Howitzer has been such a “success” in Ukraine that the company making it has seen a flurry of new interest. Once again, the article contains no discussion or photographs of what happens when someone is hit by one of its shells. War is scrubbed clean.) Arms manufacturers were virtually salivating as tension between Ukraine and Russia heated up earlier this year. These companies’ bottom lines depend on human beings continuing to threaten to blow each other to smithereens indefinitely. Alarmingly, even though the arms industry’s interests are directly opposed to the interests of humanity in having lasting stable peace, even Democratic administrations are closely tied with the weapons industry.
Hedges has seen war up close, and tells us that it is too awful to even begin to be described. “All words and images, all discussions, all films, all evocations of war, good and bad, are an obscenity.” Hedges is deeply critical of “war porn” that makes violence look exciting instead of horrifying, but he also believes that even anti-war writing cannot begin to capture just how terrible the true experience of war is. He pleads with us to understand that there is no such thing as a good war, and to do everything in our power to eradicate the scourge of war from the Earth. He condemns Vladimir Putin for inflicting a hideous criminal war on Ukraine. But Hedges is equally biting toward those who are gung ho for a war with Russia and who see another “good and evil” conflict in which there are no moral gray areas and the U.S. can feel pure, noble, and virtuous.
The Greatest Evil is War is not a pleasant book to read. The truth is hideous. But I wish every person in the country could be given a copy and made to read it. It forces us to face the human consequences of our warmaking. Unless we grasp what war actually means to its victims, we will continue to be far too cavalier about waging it and not determined enough to avoid wars through diplomacy. We can’t just oppose war. We have to despise it and commit ourselves to finding the path to permanent peace.