“War destroys all systems that sustain and nurture life–familial, economic, cultural, political, environmental, and social,” Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges writes. “Once war begins, no one, even those nominally in charge of waging war, can guess what will happen, how the war will develop, how it can drive armies and nations towards suicidal folly.” In this urgent, unscheduled segment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc talks with Hedges about the path that led to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and about his firsthand experience with the horrific, inhumane reality of war.
Chris Hedges is the former Middle East bureau chief of The New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a columnist at ScheerPost. He formerly hosted the program Days of Revolt, produced by TRNN, and is the author of several books, including America: The Farewell Tour, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, and War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.
Tune in for new episodes of The Marc Steiner Show every Monday and Thursday on TRNN.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Dwayne Gladden
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and as usual it’s great to have you all with us. The war in Ukraine is a complex matter. The reasons behind it, the politics at the moment, are what I like to call a dialectical dance of different factors. And we’ll be hearing those voices who decry the war, oppose Russian invasion, are aware of the Western interference, and offer an independent and nuanced analysis.
One of those who knows how to cut through the simplistic lies and jargon with the passion of someone who’s experienced war, and an analysis of one who has written hundreds if not thousands of articles as well as numerous books, is Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges, who I’ve interviewed numerous times before. He was foreign correspondent for 15 years at The New York Times, he served as our Middle East bureau chief, Balkan bureau chief for the same paper. He worked for the Dallas Morning News, Christian Science Monitor, NPR. And he’s written numerous books, and I’ve read them all: American Fascists: The Christian Right and The War on America; Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle; War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning; America: The Farewell Tour; Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. And Chris Hedges, welcome. Good to have you with us.
Chris Hedges: Thanks Marc.
Marc Steiner: So where to begin this, I mean, there’s so much here. Let me just start with you for a moment. I think one of the things that struck me about this piece that you wrote, and it’s been reflected in other things I’ve seen you write over the years and speak about over the years, is the passionate analysis you bring to this. Because as someone who has experienced the horrendous aspects of war, who’s been in the middle of it. So let’s start there, because that really is where you start this. I mean, you really start off from the kind of passion of human beings who have not seen this, you do not understand what it’s like to be stuck in a war, what war means, what it costs.
Chris Hedges: Yes. And it’s very facile and easy to, if you’re supporting Russia, defend war as an instrument of political pressure. It’s not, of course, it’s not politics by other means. It is about the destruction of all systems that nurture and protect life: environmental, social, cultural, political, familial, religious. It is demonic, especially when you are using the kind of industrial weapons that define war in the 20th century. So I wrote a piece called “Chronicle of a War Foretold.” I was in Eastern Europe in 1989 covering the revolutions that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union. And there was universal understanding that the expansion of NATO beyond the borders of a unified Germany would be an unnecessary provocation of Russia. And there was a promise made by the Reagan administration, the British government, the French, and the German governments not to do this.
Well, of course they broke that promise. They expanded NATO all the way up to the gates of Ukraine. The Clinton administration had promised not to then station NATO troops in Eastern Europe. And let’s just roll off the list of countries that are now NATO countries: that’s Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. Now the fact is NATO, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, should have been rendered obsolete. And there was all this talk about the peace dividend, I don’t know if you remember, and we wouldn’t have to plow the resources and money into weapons and the military that we did during the Cold War. But of course what happened was that the arms manufacturers saw a multi-billion dollar bonanza by refitting communist bloc countries to make them militarily compatible with NATO.
And that’s, of course, what happened. I was in Warsaw not long ago, there are billboards from Raytheon all over the city because of course they’re bilking all sorts of money from the Poles. And a lot of this is done through loans, but if you look at the stock prices since the conflict in Ukraine, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, et cetera, they’ve quadrupled, or they’ve certainly increased quite a bit, just as they did at the inception of the wars in the Middle East. That’s how they make their money. So the perpetuation or the expansion of NATO beyond the borders was done to feed these companies. It never made geopolitical sense. Everyone from Henry Kissinger, not a man I particularly admire, to George Kennan to others that were quite frank about this.
And now they’re constructing in Poland a NATO missile base that’s a hundred miles from the Russian border. We almost had a nuclear showdown – Or we had a nuclear showdown – Almost went to nuclear war with the Soviets over the establishment of missile bases in Cuba, which was 90 miles off the coast of Florida. So the Russians were clearly baited. They have every right to feel betrayed and threatened. And remember that the Soviet Union was devastated with the German invasion, the Nazi invasion in World War II. In the century before, devastated by the Napoleonic invasion. My father was a cryptographer at the Tehran Conference and coded all of Roosevelt’s correspondence. And that conference was, in many ways, about establishing the buffer zone that Stalin wanted so that the Soviet Union would feel protected.
Now all of that said, preemptive war, which is of course what we did in Iraq and what the Russians have now done in Ukraine, is under post Nuremberg law as a criminal war of aggression. It’s a war crime. I don’t think the invasion of Ukraine would’ve happened if the promises that were originally made to Russia, to Gorbachev in particular, had been kept. But then to understand is not to condone. The invasion of Ukraine is a crime.
Marc Steiner: So I do want to come back to how you began this article a little bit later before we leave each other today, but I want to pick up on something you just said about Russia and the invasion of Ukraine itself. Because I’ve wrestled with this question you just raised, and I’m raising it with a number of people. The provocation by the Western NATO is very real. And I want to come back to that because I think that needs to be understood by people, how that is a huge factor in what we’re seeing here at this moment.
Russia has a long history of invading countries around it for its own imperialist reasons. With Chechnya, the taking of Crimea, and these have been happening for over a hundred years, they’ve been involved in these wars including Afghanistan. But when it comes to Ukraine, they did, they seized Crimea, they’ve helped seize, in every way except the way of incorporating into Russia, parts of Ukraine. So why do you maintain that this would’ve not have happened had NATO not encroached so closely on Russian territory?
Chris Hedges: Because Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and in the early years of Putin, Russia wanted to build relationships and security alliances and economic agreements with Europe. That was the goal. And that was something that was rebuffed. Because in order to justify these massive arms expenditures you had to create an enemy. And if Russia wasn’t willing to be an enemy, Russia would be turned into one. Again that’s speculative, but certainly Gorbachev was quite upfront about building mutual alliances including security alliances between Russia, Europe, and the United States. But Gorbachev got nothing, Yeltsin got nothing, and Putin got nothing.
In fact, what they got was aggression. Of course, it’s speculation. And then we can go back to the old Soviet Union invading Hungary after World War II and Czechoslovakia and all that. All of that is true. But I do think that there was a genuine desire in the early years after the Cold War on the part of Russia to be integrated into Europe, and that was never done.
Marc Steiner: So, and coming back to Ukraine for a moment just in terms of that relationship. I mean the relationship between Ukraine and Russia is an ancient one, in a sense, ancient in terms of the 1600s when actually where it all began. The beginning of the whole Russian Empire actually began in the Ukraine under the first Vladimir there. So, the interaction between these two bodies, these two nations, has been going on for a long time. And Russia has always maintained that it has certain sovereignty over Ukraine. Even during the years when Ukraine was representing the United Nations by its own ambassador, not the Soviet Ambassador, as Ukraine SSR, we all knew that it was really part of the Soviet Union.
So, talk for a bit about that relationship and how you think that also feeds into what we’re seeing now and the complexity. I’ve talked to some people on the ground there that we hope to have on with us next week, and they also paint a picture in Ukraine right now of the resistance being everybody from the left to the right fighting the Russians. So I’m curious how all that fits into your analysis of what’s going on.
Chris Hedges: Well, there’s no question that the Soviet Union, like the United States, indulged in all the sins of empire. There’s been very fraught relationships between the Soviet Union, and before that, Czarist Russia and Eastern Europe. I mean, there were moments in the history, of course, when the country of Poland didn’t even exist because of Moscow. So yes, there always have been tensions. But there were also tensions within Europe, which of course led to, I mean, the most egregious example is World War I and World War II, but there were all sorts of conflicts before. So yes, historically there have been tensions and there have been conflicts.
Europe largely managed to move beyond that after World War II. And again, I will go back to the reconfiguration of Russia after the Cold War. I, as my reading of the first three leaders again in the early years of Putin, that they wanted integration. They didn’t want confrontation. But yes, of course the history itself is very bloody. But that’s also true though, in the middle of Europe.
Marc Steiner: I want to also talk a bit more about the role of the war profiteers in all of this because that really does get lost in many discussions.
Chris Hedges: Yeah.
Marc Steiner: Especially in the mainstream media. Just before you came on I started reading the lyrics of Masters of War by Bob Dylan and how it fits into this description of the world that we’re facing at the moment. And you list a number of things in this article and companies that are making profits off what’s happening at this very moment, will make huge profits if it continues. So that’s a fact we don’t often put into, at least in the establishment world, they don’t put that into the analysis of why in the situation we’re in.
Chris Hedges: So yeah, this is yesterday, all four: General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon hit their 52 week highs. Because, of course, fueling a conflict in Ukraine, expanding NATO, this is good for business. Doesn’t make any geopolitical sense, but it’s good for business. The European Union has now allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase weapons for Ukraine. Germany has said it will almost triple its defense budget for 2022. Biden has asked Congress for $6.4 billion to fund Ukraine, and that’s to supplement the $650 million in military aid to Ukraine over the past year.
So the permanent war economy was largely responsible for extending the debacles in the Middle East, in particular in Afghanistan. We know from the Afghan papers that all the policy makers realized that it was a quagmire, that they would not achieve control, but again the profit motive was a dominant factor, I believe. And in the same way the profit motive was a dominant factor in the expansion of NATO and those masters of war, as Dylan calls them, really control the political system. So while there was universal agreement that NATO should not be expanded, that Russia should not be provoked, the primacy of profit took control. And this is really, I believe, why we are where we are. Which does not, as I want to say again, excuse the crime that Russia has committed.
Marc Steiner: So tell me what you think about where we should go with this now. I mean, one of the things, again, and I’m really just trying to parse this out, hearing all kinds of progressive voices and independent thinkers and analysis from the left to kind of figure out what is actually going on, how the world should respond. And they’re really very different ideas. And how you end this conflict, how you don’t in the process – And maybe this is impossible to do – How you don’t desert Ukraine. And they’re going to have their own internal issues. If they remain intact, they’ll have their own internal issues battling right and left inside of Ukraine and the corruption they have to deal with, that will still be a factor in their existence. But what do you think?
Chris Hedges: A moratorium on weapon shipments to Ukraine. Because if this quantity of military hardware is shipped into Ukraine – We’re talking about significant quantities of military supplies – Then there’s no incentive to stop the war, number one. And number two, of course, the withdrawal of Russian troops. But if you feed the war machine in Ukraine as we are doing, this conflict will be extended and the cost to the Ukrainians and the Russians, I mean the Russians apparently are taking very heavy losses, will just be catastrophic. I mean, I think that Russia has every right to ask that NATO not be extended to Ukraine and that there is a kind of Swiss-like neutrality on the part of Ukraine. I think that’s not an unreasonable request.
Marc Steiner: Someone made this argument with me last night on the phone. How can you ask Ukraine to step down and not accept weapons when they’re being attacked by Russia? We can’t send troops in, that could cause World War III. But we can’t just let them swing in the wind. And this was somebody off the record who’s a fairly progressive congressperson. So, I mean, and we had that conversation last night. How would you respond to his question?
Chris Hedges: Well, I would look at just war theory. I mean, is this a war that the Ukrainians can win? And if they can’t, to fuel the conflict is not justifiable. So I don’t believe that this is a war the Ukrainians can win. I think that the more Moscow is pushed, I think we’ve already seen this, the more ruthless they’ll become. They’ve not yet delivered a kind of shock and awe attack on Kyiv, but they will if they’re cornered. And the numbers of deaths, the suffering on the part of innocents and the vulnerable and civilians will be catastrophic. So you don’t perpetuate war unless there is the very distinct possibility that you can be victorious.
I mean, we can go back and look at the Warsaw uprising in 1944, where again civilians rose up against Nazi occupiers. And the Soviet Union, which did not want to march into a Ukraine that was controlled by a home army that was hostile to Stalin, sat and watched and was complicit in watching the Germans destroy them. I mean, Warsaw by the end of it didn’t exist, the Germans completely razed the city. And the numbers of dead, I don’t remember the exact figure, I mean, were just staggering.
So you don’t perpetuate conflicts like that just to make people bleed. And I think that the policy makers in the West are quite aware that while this will prolong the conflict and probably provoke Moscow to be even more brutal in the war, ultimately because they won’t establish a no-fly zone. I mean, if they did that’s going to be an act of war in the eyes of Moscow.
You can’t, in modern warfare, dominate a country if you don’t dominate the skies. I was with the Marine Corps in the first Iraq war, and because of the aerial domination the Iraqis were obliterated. In fact, I was in the last big tank battle between the Marine Corps and the Republican Guard north of Kuwait city. And the Iraqis are quite fine soldiers, but the T-72’s don’t have the range of the Abrams. But what really destroyed the Iraqi tank battalions were the Apache helicopters that function as essentially flying tank destroying machines. And they just took out one tank after another. So because Russia controls the air, the game is ultimately fixed against the Ukrainians.
Marc Steiner: One of the things that you alluded to in this last thing, in your last statement, also reminds me of pieces in your article where you wrote about Russia’s nuclear arsenal placing a Sword of Damocles above our heads.
Chris Hedges: Yeah.
Marc Steiner: And you kind of alluded to that just a moment ago. Let’s explore the real dangers we’re facing here with nuclear powers at loggerheads in a very serious war and what that could mean –
Chris Hedges: Well the danger is that – And I speak from personal experience – Once you open the Pandora’s box of war, you lose control. War controls you, you don’t control it. You can go back and look at the lead up to World War I, the, largely, monarchy stumbled blindly – They were all related. They were cousins and all this kind of stuff – Blindly into this suicidal slaughter. And then you mentioned about the unification of the left and the right in Ukraine. Well, of course that is the very toxic and potent elixir of nationalism, also true in Germany. It’s why they threw Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Liebknecht in prison because they, unlike the rest of the social democrats, did not want to support the war bonds. But this is what nationalism does. It is a very heady and powerful force. It’s true in every war that I covered.
I covered the Falkland War out of Buenos Aires, but I was there before the war and the military junta was discredited. There were huge, thousands and thousands of people shutting down the center of Buenos Aires in protest. I was in one of the protests. First time I was ever CS gassed, where I was blinded. And then they invaded the Falklands or the Malvinas. And they were literally hauling labor leaders who had led these protests out of jail and their faces would be covered with bruises and bloodied. And they would repeat this mantra, Las Malvinas son Argentinas. And that’s when I realized that I had just become a cockroach in a Kafka story, all sanity was gone.
It was also true in the inception of the war with Iraq. I had spent seven been years in the Middle East. I was the Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times, months of my life in Iraq, I speak Arabic. To raise the issues, which I think all Arabics understood of this debacle or potential debacle, was not just to be criticized, but I would come into office at The New York Times and my phone bank would be filled with death threats. Nationalism evokes very dark passions. The flip side of nationalism is always racism. It’s about the elevation of us above them, the denigration of the other. And so, yes, of course Ukraine is as susceptible to this as anyone else. I don’t actually can consider it a very positive force.
Marc Steiner: We have to conclude in a few minutes here. But I want to read a short two paragraphs from the piece that you wrote, come back to the notion of war, and how we begin to address that in our world. And I just think you just wrote so powerfully and eloquently about what it means to be inside of a war and what you feel. Which people, unless you’ve been in any kind of conflict, don’t get, and how they begin to get it. Let’s just read real quickly for all of you out there. And of course the article will be attached here on the site and you can read it for yourself.
But you wrote, “I felt the helplessness and the paralyzing fear, which years later descend on me like a freight train in the middle of the night, leaving me wrapped in coils of terror, my heart racing, my body dripping with sweat. I’ve heard the wails of those convulsed by grief as they clutch the bodies of friends and family, including children. I hear them still. Does not matter the language: Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew, Dinka, Serbo-Croatian, Albanian, Ukrainian, Russian. Death cuts through the linguistic barriers.” And I think that you’ve done this before, but part of the eloquence of what you do is not just your analysis but how you portray what war is. Because I think that’s part of what motivates you to write what you do and to really think through the analysis you have is because of your experience inside of war.
Chris Hedges: Yeah, you don’t know war unless you’ve been to war. It’s mythologized by mass culture and it’s sanitized and censored by the news media. I mean, you don’t ever see war. Anybody who actually saw war… If you broadcast real images of war it would be impossible to wage war. I mean, for instance, I’ve seen people have their legs blown off by mines. It takes them about six hours to bleed to death. In real time we could set up, through a satellite feed, a camera and you could watch that full six hours, but you’d be so revolted you couldn’t support the war effort. So yes, I started in Central America in the ’80s, ended in Kosovo in the late ’90s. So I know it, I suffer from it. It’s hard to watch these images because they’re familiar and disturbing and war is its own force.
I mean, because war is the force that gives us meaning. There’s the first book I wrote that essentially grappled with it. But it is, in its purest form, about the culture of death in a myriad of ways. And once you step into war it is the inverse of everything around you and very hard to grasp unless you see it. I mean, part of the problem is you don’t smell it. You don’t hear it. There are all sorts of sensory – And then of course, fear. All of that’s erased in a filmic image of war and a discussion on CNN. It’s a bit like pornography where all of the sensory elements are removed and this really distorts the reality of war. So yeah, it’s horrific what the Russians have done. It’s inexcusable. It’s a war crime. But we cannot let those forces, our political leaders and, of course, in particular the weapons manufacturers that baited Russia into carrying out this invasion.
Marc Steiner: So finally to conclude, where just in your analysis and what you’re watching here, how do you think this concludes?
Chris Hedges: My guess is two ways. One, Putin – Who has been restrained, as far as I can tell, from really bombarding urban centers – Will get frustrated and lift all restraints and just kill staggering numbers of people. That’s kind of my guess as to where he is going to go. Or, because there is a steady supply of arm shipments, you create a war of attrition that just drags on and on and on, as we saw in Chechnya.
Marc Steiner: Well, we will see where this goes. And Chris, I just want to say once again, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you. I mean, it really is. I mean, and to read your analysis and to hear your thoughts on all of this because you’re one of the most, I think, cogent and the most eloquent writers when it comes to what we face in the world whether it’s the building of empire or war. So thanks again for your work and thanks again for being with us today. I really appreciate it.
Chris Hedges: Thanks Marc.
Marc Steiner: And I want to thank all of you for joining us today, and we will be linking to Chris Hedges’s writing. The article that got me started with calling Chris once again to come on, and more will be there on our site. And please let me know what you think about what you heard today because I really want to write back to you and just write to me here at [email protected] and I want to hear everything you think we should be doing and where you think we should go. So for Dwayne Gladden, Stephen Frank, and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.