The wars of history always seem more momentous and calamitous than those about to come upon us. As the US and Britain prepared to invade Iraq we continued to go to the sales, pick the children up from school and watch the football. The poet Louis MacNeice remembered how he spent the day before war was declared, in 1939, drinking in a bar in Dublin with his literary friends: "They hardly mentioned the war but debated the correct versions of Dublin street songs." There are passionate arguments to be had about the present conflict, but military technology and distance have increased the sense of detachment with which Britain has taken part in recent conflicts in the Gulf and Kosovo. Who now remembers where they were when Iraq was bombed by British planes in 1998?
This book by the American war correspondent Chris Hedges is addressed to his compatriots: "If the humility we gained from our defeat in Vietnam is not the engine that drives our response to future terrorist strikes . . . we are lost." It is an attempt to make them appreciate the meaning of battle, based on the assumption that each new generation comes to war as innocents.
Hedges began 20 years ago as a reporter in El Salvador, since when he has reported from the rest of Central and South America, from the 1991 Gulf war (during which he was captured by Iraqi forces and held for eight days), the civil war in Sudan, from Israel and from the wars that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia. He confesses to being addicted to war and the intensity of experience it offers. "There is part of me . . . that decided at certain moments that I would rather die like this than go back to the routine of life. The chance to exist for an intense and overpowering moment, even if it meant certain oblivion, seemed worth it in the midst of war - and very stupid once the war ended."
Four years ago, he took a year out to read books about war as well as classical poetry. This book is partly about his encounter with other books and that is the less successful side of the project. The more powerful passages are vignettes of his days as a war reporter. He describes how in El Salvador he entered a town with the guerrillas, diving to the ground when the shooting started. "I felt powerless, humiliated, weak. I dared not move." A wounded fighter near him dies crying out for his mother. Hedges writes well about the brutalities of the war in Yugoslavia, and about the funeral of an 11-year-old boy in Gaza who has become a martyr for the Palestinian cause. He describes how Argentinians - even those who were opponents of the military government led by Leopoldo Galtieri and who knew of its atrocities and mendacities - deluded themselves, in a fit of nationalistic fervour, into thinking that the Falklands conflict could be won.
His thesis is that war gives everybody who takes part a powerful sense of purpose that is absent from the daily drudgery of life. It brings, too, knowledge about ourselves and our capacity for evil and atrocity that perhaps we would rather not know about, which may explain why, when war is over, politicians and governments work to erase the memory of the truth of what went before.
To retain its legitimacy, war must be wrapped up in a justifying, noble myth. Hedges writes that most wars are "manufactured wars, born out of the collapse of civil societies perpetuated by fear, greed and paranoia, and they are run by gangsters who rise up from the bottom of their own societies". In particular, he focuses on the corruptions of nationalism and the demonisation of the enemy. But not all wars are run by gangsters and fuelled by greed. The action of war itself and the ambience of wartime may help to create an intense sense of purpose, but sometimes wars are indeed fought for noble causes.
The problem for Hedges is that he is always an observer, never a combatant, and this drains the force from his arguments. To the end, his own motivations remain elusive. Why, for instance, did he accept that he would be happy to die in El Salvador? To what purpose, for what cause beyond a sense of thrill?