The "Educated Elite" receive an excellent speech
b. 1956, Johnsbury, VermontChris Hedges on war in an age of twenty-four-hour television: '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 game. Its very essence—death—is hidden from public view.'
In May 2003, New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges gave the Commencement Address at Rockford College in Rockford, Illinois. During the speech students in the audience climbed the stage to disrupt him, and he was escorted out by the police before the ceremony concluded. Subsequently the president of the college apologized to students for having invited Hedges, and the New York Times sent Hedges a letter of reprimand. This is what Hedges said in Rockford:
I want to speak to you today about war and empire.
The 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 judgement, and we are very isolated now.
We have forfeited the goodwill, 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 will remind you are not Arab, is upon us. Look today at the fourteen people killed last night in several explosions in Casablanca. And this rage, in a world where almost fifty per cent of the planet struggles on less than two dollars a day, will see us targeted. Terrorism will become a way of life. (Someone in the crowd shouts, ‘No!’) 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 halt. 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 worshipped 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. (Whistles.) Once you master people by force you depend on force for control. In your isolation you begin to make mistakes. (‘Where were you on September 11?’)
Fear engenders cruelty; cruelty…fear, insanity, and then paralysis. (Hoots. ‘Who wants to listen to this jerk?’) In the centre of Dante’s circle the damned remained motionless. (Horns.) 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. (‘God bless America,’ a woman yells.) 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, the occupation of the oilfields.
(At this point, the microphone gets unplugged. When it is fixed, Rockford College President Paul C. Pribbenow addresses the audience: ‘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. 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.’ People blow horns and boo and some applaud.)
The occupation of the oilfields. (More boos. A woman says, ‘We’re not going to listen. We’ve listened enough. You’ve already ruined our graduation. Don’t ruin it any more, sir.’) The notion that 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 Saddam 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. (More boos.)
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, they 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 as occupiers, they began to kill them. It was Israel who created Hezbollah, and it was Hezbollah that pushed Israel out of southern Lebanon.