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The Silencing of Dissent on Graduation Day

by via Pamenides Thursday, Jun. 12, 2003 at 6:29 PM

Text of the Rockford College, Rockford Illinois graduation speech by Chris Hedges Story published May 20, 2003

I want to speak to you today about war and empire.

Killing, or at least the worst of it, is over in Iraq. Although blood
will continue to spill -- theirs and ours -- be prepared for this. For
we are embarking on an occupation that, if history is any guide, will be
as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige, power, and
security. But this will come later as our empire expands and in all this
we become pariahs, tyrants to others weaker than ourselves. Isolation
always impairs judgment and we are very isolated now.

We have forfeited the good will, the empathy the world felt for us after
9-11. We have folded in on ourselves, we have severely weakened the
delicate international coalitions and alliances that are vital in
maintaining and promoting peace and we are part now of a dubious troika
in the war against terror with Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon, two
leaders who do not shrink in Palestine or Chechnya from carrying out
acts of gratuitous and senseless acts of violence. We have become the
company we keep.

The censure and perhaps the rage of much of the world, certainly
one-fifth of the world's population which is Muslim, most of whom I'll
remind you are not Arab, is upon us. Look today at the 14 people killed
last night in several explosions in Casablanca. And this rage in a world
where almost 50 percent of the planet struggles on less than two dollars
a day will see us targeted. Terrorism will become a way of life, and
when we are attacked we will, like our allies Putin and Sharon, lash out
with greater fury. The circle of violence is a death spiral; no one
escapes. We are spinning at a speed that we may not be able to hold. As
we revel in our military prowess -- the sophistication of our military
hardware and technology, for this is what most of the press coverage
consisted of in Iraq -- we lose sight of the fact that just because we
have the capacity to wage war it does not give us the right to wage war.
This capacity has doomed empires in the past.

"Modern western civilization may perish," the theologian Reinhold
Niebuhr warned, "because it falsely worshiped technology as a final good."

The real injustices, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, the
brutal and corrupt dictatorships we fund in the Middle East, will mean
that we will not rid the extremists who hate us with bombs. Indeed we
will swell their ranks. Once you master people by force you depend on
force for control. In your isolation you begin to make mistakes.

Fear engenders cruelty; cruelty, fear, insanity, and then paralysis. In
the center of Dante's circle the damned remained motionless. We have
blundered into a nation we know little about and are caught between
bitter rivalries and competing ethnic groups and leaders we do not
understand. We are trying to transplant a modern system of politics
invented in Europe characterized, among other things, by the division of
earth into independent secular states based on national citizenship in a
land where the belief in a secular civil government is an alien creed.
Iraq was a cesspool for the British when they occupied it in 1917; it
will be a cesspool for us as well. The curfews, the armed clashes with
angry crowds that leave scores of Iraqi dead, the military governor, the
Christian Evangelical groups who are being allowed to follow on the
heels of our occupying troops to try and teach Muslims about Jesus.

Hedges stops speaking because of a disturbance in the audience. Rockford
College President Paul Pribbenow takes the microphone.

"My friends, one of the wonders of a liberal arts college is its ability
and its deeply held commitment to academic freedom and the decision to
listen to each other's opinions. (Crowd Cheers) If you wish to protest
the speaker's remarks, I ask that you do it in silence, as some of you
are doing in the back. That is perfectly appropriate but he has the
right to offer his opinion here and we would like him to continue his
remarks. (Fog Horn Blows, some cheer).

The occupation of the oil fields, the notion of the Kurds and the
Shiites will listen to the demands of a centralized government in
Baghdad, the same Kurds and Shiites who died by the tens of thousands in
defiance of Sadaam Hussein, a man who happily butchered all of those who
challenged him, and this ethnic rivalry has not gone away. The looting
of Baghdad, or let me say the looting of Baghdad with the exception of
the oil ministry and the interior ministry -- the only two ministries we
bothered protecting -- is self immolation.

As someone who knows Iraq, speaks Arabic, and spent seven years in the
Middle East, if the Iraqis believe rightly or wrongly that we come only
for oil and occupation, that will begin a long bloody war of attrition;
it is how they drove the British out and remember that, when the
Israelis invaded southern Lebanon in 1982, they were greeted by the
dispossessed Shiites as liberators. But within a few months, when the
Shiites saw that the Israelis had come not as liberators but occupiers,
they began to kill them. It was Israel who created Hezbollah and was
Hezbollah that pushed Israel out of Southern Lebanon.

As William Butler Yeats wrote in "Meditations in Times Of Civil War,"
"We had fed the heart on fantasies / the hearts grown brutal from the fair.=

This is a war of liberation in Iraq, but it is a war now of liberation
by Iraqis from American occupation. And if you watch closely what is
happening in Iraq, if you can see it through the abysmal coverage, you
can see it in the lashing out of the terrorist death squads, the murder
of Shiite leaders in mosques, and the assassination of our young
soldiers in the streets. It is one that will soon be joined by Islamic
radicals and we are far less secure today than we were before we bumbled
into Iraq.

We will pay for this, but what saddens me most is that those who will by
and large pay the highest price are poor kids from Mississippi or
Alabama or Texas who could not get a decent job or health insurance and
joined the army because it was all we offered them. For war in the end
is always about betrayal, betrayal of the young by the old, of soldiers
by politicians, and of idealists by cynics. Read Antigone, when the king
imposes his will without listening to those he rules or Thucydides'
history. Read how Athens' expanding empire saw it become a tyrant abroad
and then a tyrant at home. How the tyranny the Athenian leadership
imposed on others it finally imposed on itself.

This, Thucydides wrote, is what doomed Athenian democracy; Athens
destroyed itself. For the instrument of empire is war and war is a
poison, a poison which at times we must ingest just as a cancer patient
must ingest a poison to survive. But if we do not understand the poison
of war -- if we do not understand how deadly that poison is -- it can
kill us just as surely as the disease.

We have lost touch with the essence of war. Following our defeat in
Vietnam we became a better nation. We were humbled, even humiliated. We
asked questions about ourselves we had not asked before.

We were forced to see ourselves as others saw us and the sight was not
always a pretty one. We were forced to confront our own capacity for a
atrocity -- for evil -- and in this we understood not only war but more
about ourselves. But that humility is gone.

War, we have come to believe, is a spectator sport. The military and the
press -- remember in wartime the press is always part of the problem --
have turned war into a vast video arcade came. Its very essence -- death
-- is hidden from public view.

There was no more candor in the Persian Gulf War or the War in
Afghanistan or the War in Iraq than there was in Vietnam. But in the age
of live feeds and satellite television, the state and the military have
perfected the appearance of candor.

Because we no longer understand war, we no longer understand that it can
all go horribly wrong. We no longer understand that war begins by
calling for the annihilation of others but ends if we do not know when
to make or maintain peace with self-annihilation. We flirt, given the
potency of modern weapons, with our own destruction.

The seduction of war is insidious because so much of what we are told
about it is true -- it does create a feeling of comradeship which
obliterates our alienation and makes us, for perhaps the only time of
our life, feel we belong.

War allows us to rise above our small stations in life; we find nobility
in a cause and feelings of selflessness and even bliss. And at a time of
soaring deficits and financial scandals and the very deterioration of
our domestic fabric, war is a fine diversion. War for those who enter
into combat has a dark beauty, filled with the monstrous and the
grotesque. The Bible calls it the lust of the eye and warns believers
against it. War gives us a distorted sense of self; it gives us meaning.

(A man in the audience says: "Can I say a few words here?" Hedges: Yeah,
when I finish.)

Once in war, the conflict obliterates the past and the future all is one
heady intoxicating present. You feel every heartbeat in war, colors are
brighter, your mind races ahead of itself. (Confusion, microphone
problems, etc.) We feel in wartime comradeship. (Boos) We confuse this
with friendship, with love. There are those who will insist that the
comradeship of war is love -- the exotic glow that makes us in war feel
as one people, one entity, is real, but this is part of war's intoxication.

Think back on the days after the attacks on 9-11. Suddenly we no longer
felt alone; we connected with strangers, even with people we did not
like. We felt we belonged, that we were somehow wrapped in the embrace
of the nation, the community; in short, we no longer felt alienated.

As this feeling dissipated in the weeks after the attack, there was a
kind of nostalgia for its warm glow and wartime always brings with it
this comradeship, which is the opposite of friendship. Friends are
predetermined; friendship takes place between men and women who possess
an intellectual and emotional affinity for each other. But comradeship
-- that ecstatic bliss that comes with belonging to the crowd in wartime
-- is within our reach. We can all have comrades.

The danger of the external threat that comes when we have an enemy does
not create friendship; it creates comradeship. And those in wartime are
deceived about what they are undergoing. And this is why once the threat
is over, once war ends, comrades again become strangers to us. This is
why after war we fall into despair.

In friendship there is a deepening of our sense of self. We become,
through the friend, more aware of who we are and what we are about; we
find ourselves in the eyes of the friend. Friends probe and question and
challenge each other to make each of us more complete; with comradeship,
the kind that comes to us in patriotic fervor, there is a suppression of
self-awareness, self-knowledge, and self-possession. Comrades lose their
identities in wartime for the collective rush of a common cause -- a
common purpose. In comradeship there are no demands on the self. This is
part of its appeal and one of the reasons we miss it and seek to
recreate it. Comradeship allows us to escape the demands on the self
that is part of friendship.

In wartime when we feel threatened, we no longer face death alone but as
a group, and this makes death easier to bear. We ennoble self-sacrifice
for the other, for the comrade; in short we begin to worship death. And
this is what the god of war demands of us.

Think finally of what it means to die for a friend. It is deliberate and
painful; there is no ecstasy. For friends, dying is hard and bitter. The
dialogue they have and cherish will perhaps never be recreated. Friends
do not, the way comrades do, love death and sacrifice. To friends, the
prospect of death is frightening. And this is why friendship or, let me
say love, is the most potent enemy of war. Thank you.

(Boos cheers, shouts, fog horns and the like)
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Listed below are the 10 latest comments of 18 posted about this article.
These comments are anonymously submitted by the website visitors.
As the Dead Kennedies put it Parmenides Thursday, Jun. 12, 2003 at 6:33 PM
This is NOT... daveman Friday, Jun. 13, 2003 at 1:20 AM
BUT ON THE OTHER POST systemfailure Friday, Jun. 13, 2003 at 1:23 AM
I dont think thats what the speaker meant at all systemfailure Friday, Jun. 13, 2003 at 1:43 AM
OneEyedMan KPC Friday, Jun. 13, 2003 at 11:36 AM
The ability to speak... Diogenes Friday, Jun. 13, 2003 at 4:10 PM
america's image think about it Friday, Jun. 13, 2003 at 5:13 PM
Up in arms - no. Diogenes Friday, Jun. 13, 2003 at 9:58 PM
This is just what.... Sy$teMF@iLuRe Saturday, Jun. 14, 2003 at 12:18 AM
Yeah, I read the stupid speech. daveman Saturday, Jun. 14, 2003 at 2:56 PM
What's the matter The Vet Saturday, Jun. 14, 2003 at 3:02 PM
The vetrinarian daveman Saturday, Jun. 14, 2003 at 4:11 PM
I feel sorry for you davegirl Sy$teMF@iLuRe Monday, Jun. 16, 2003 at 4:16 PM
Keep your pity, sissie. daveman Tuesday, Jun. 17, 2003 at 12:49 AM
kinda sux 3200fps Tuesday, Jun. 17, 2003 at 2:28 AM
I wouldn't know. daveman Tuesday, Jun. 17, 2003 at 4:53 PM
That's because... anti-moron Wednesday, Jun. 18, 2003 at 3:54 AM
Daveyboy The Vet Wednesday, Jun. 18, 2003 at 5:09 AM
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