Chris Hedges: American Bloodlands

The enraged, polarized segments of the population are rapidly consolidating as the political center disintegrates.

Fires and tear gas at the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse perimeter fence during protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Portland, Oregon, July 22, 2020. (Tedder, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

By Chris Hedges

The tinder that could soon ignite widespread violent conflagrations throughout the United States lies ominously stacked around us.

Millions of disenfranchised white Americans, who see no way out of their economic and social misery, struggling with an emotional void, are seething with rage against a corrupt ruling class and bankrupt liberal elite that presides over political stagnation and grotesque, mounting social inequality.

Millions more alienated young men and women, also locked out of the economy and with no realistic prospect for advancement or integration, gripped by the same emotional void, have harnessed their fury in the name of tearing down the governing structures and anti-fascism.

The enraged, polarized segments of the population are rapidly consolidating as the political center disintegrates. They stand poised to tear apart the United States, awash in military-grade weapons, unable to cope with the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout, cursed with militarized police forces that function as internal armies of occupation and de facto allies of the neofascists.

The spark that usually sets such tinder ablaze is martyrdom. Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a supporter of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer, was wearing a loaded Glock pistol in a holster and had bear spray and an expandable metal baton when he was shot dead on Aug. 29, allegedly by Michael Forest Reinoehl, a supporter of antifa, in the streets of Portland. A woman in the crowd can be heard shouting after the shooting: “I am not sad that a fucking fascist died tonight.” On Thursday, Reinoehl, allegedly armed with a handgun, was shot and killed by federal agents in Washington state.

Once people start being sacrificed for the cause, it takes little for demagogues of the radical left and the radical right to insist that self-preservation necessitates violence and is a prerequisite for victory.

Violence is a narcotic. It fills the emotional void. It imparts a feeling of God-like omnipotence to the powerless. It instills feelings of comradeship and belonging to the alienated. It gives to social outcasts, crippled by humiliation and rejection, a sense of meaning and higher purpose. It obliterates the despair that once defined their lives and replaces it with feelings of ecstatic self-importance and self-adulation, a state of being outside the self. The world suddenly becomes a Manichean battleground between them and us, the forces of dark and the forces of light. 

(Illustration by Mr. Fish)

When I wrote War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, a reflection on the culture of war after two decades as a correspondent in Central America, Africa, The Middle East and the Balkans, I meant it. I have seen this dark elixir at work in other disintegrating societies. I know too intimately the rush that violence engenders, the overpowering lusts that seize a mob or armed unit when it destroys, even human beings, and the heady attraction of suspending all personal morality and individual responsibility for the wild intoxication of violence. It is the absence of empathy, perhaps the best definition of evil.   

The words left and right, once violence becomes the primary form of communication, are meaningless. These are death cults. They venerate and worship death. The martyrs justify the murder of the enemy, including the detested voices that call for understanding, reconciliation and nonviolence. To suggest anything other than the total annihilation of the enemy—and the enemy includes all who do not fully and uncritically support the cause—is apostasy. It is the dead who rule. Their voices cry out from beyond the grave demanding vengeance and new heroes and martyrs to take their place. There are constant and repeated acts of remembrance for the fallen.

This cult of the dead is integral to combat units in the military. Those who attend the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program, an eight-week course held at Fort Benning, Georgia, to become an Army Ranger must select a “Ranger in the sky” who was killed in action.

An instructor explains the technical aspects of rappelling to his students at Ranger School, April 2009. (U.S. Army Ranger School)

Recruits, who are warned not to pick Pat Tillman, are required to know the details of the dead Ranger’s personal life before enlistment and his military career. They must carry this information on a piece of paper with them at all times. It is an inspectable item. Idealists, seeking to lift themselves up from the depths of social obscurity and be fêted as heroes, become, whether as Army Rangers or members of violent militias, willing sacrificial victims. But as deaths accumulate, these martyrs, once so important and precious, disappear into faceless, nameless piles of corpses.

The Nazi Party in 1930 found its primary martyr in the 19-year-old brownshirt Horst Wessel who led a branch of the Nazi paramilitaries that attacked Communists, especially those who made up the rival Communist militia the Red Front-Fighters’ League (RFB). Wessel was shot dead by Albrecht “Ali” Höhler, a Communist militant and petty criminal — later assassinated by the Nazis — after a complaint was made to the party about Wessel by his Communist landlady. Wessel instantly became a “martyr for the Third Reich.” The Horst Wessel song became the official anthem of the Nazi Party. Fascist and Communist violence, with deaths on both sides, exploded in the streets of Weimar Germany in the early 1930s. The mayhem, much of it instigated by the fascists, eventually exhausted the German public and made it susceptible to the right-wing and fascist promises to impose law and order.

Horst Wessel in his Sturmführer uniform leading an SA unit at a Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, 1929. (Bundesarchiv, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Martyrdom also played a central role in the eruption of the war in the former Yugoslavia. On March 1, 1992, a wedding procession of Bosnian Serbs in Sarajevo was attacked by Ramiz Delalic, a career criminal and a Muslim known by his nickname Celo. The father of the groom, Nikola Gardovic, was killed. A Serbian Orthodox priest was wounded. The shooting of Gardovic, like that of Wessel, was used by Serb nationalists to whip up a blood fury. It saw Serbs erect armed barricades and roadblocks throughout the city, that led not long afterwards to a war in which most of Bosnia was destroyed, 2.2 million people were displaced from their homes and at least 100,000 died.

I watched many funerals in Gaza for Palestinian martyrs. They were little more than recruiting ceremonies for militants and suicide bombers. A truck with a generator in the back and huge loudspeakers on the cab would be at the head of the funeral procession. The speakers would blast out verses from the Koran, along with slogans calling on heroes to fight and die for Palestine and become a “shaheed,” or martyr. Young boys would run alongside or behind the truck.

The funeral processions made their way slowly down the dusty, narrow streets of the refugee camps, past the concrete hovels, the walls decorated with pictures of the newest martyr or murals that depicted past attacks, such as a bus with the Israeli Star of David on it being consumed in a fiery explosion. “Don’t be merciful to those inside,” the Arabic script read below the picture of the bus. “Blow it up! Hit it!”

“It is the first death which infects everyone with the feeling of being threatened,” wrote Elias Canetti, a Bulgarian refugee from Nazi persecution, in Crowds and Power:

Elias Canetti. (Dutch National Archives, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

“It is impossible to overrate the part played by the first dead man in the kindling of wars. Rulers who want to unleash war know very well that they must procure or invent a first victim. It need not be anyone of particular importance, and can even be someone quite unknown. Nothing matters except his death; and it must be believed that the enemy is responsible for this. Every possible cause of his death is suppressed except one: his membership of the group to which one belongs oneself.”

The flashing red lights are all around us. Joe Biden and the Democratic Party will do little to restore the social bonds or address the social inequality and disenfranchisement of tens of millions of Americans, now facing evictions and bankruptcy, which is fueling the social collapse. Donald Trump and the Republican Party, along with media outlets such as FOX News, in a bid to retain power, are fanning the flames of violence, seeing in the incitement of far-right mobs a route to a ruthless police state.

In armed conflicts, facts and truth no longer matter. Lies become, if used to further the cause, righteous. Truth, if it hurts the cause, is blasphemy. If your side commits an atrocity, it’s justified by an atrocity, real or invented, carried out by the enemy. The ends always justify the means. The moral universe is banished, replaced by a self-serving pseudo-morality.

“In the beginning war looks and feels like love,” I wrote in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.

“But unlike love it gives nothing in return but an ever deepening dependence, like all narcotics, on the road to self-destruction. It does not affirm but places upon us greater and greater demands. It destroys the outside world until it is hard to live outside war’s grip. It takes a higher and higher dose to achieve any thrill. Finally, one ingests war only to remain numb. The world outside becomes, as Freud wrote, ‘uncanny.’ The familiar becomes strangely unfamiliar — many who have been to war find this when they return home. The world we once understood and longed to return to stands before us as alien, strange, and beyond our grasp.”         

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning NewsThe Christian Science Monitor and NPR. He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show “On Contact.” 

This column is from Scheerpost, for which Chris Hedges writes a regular column twice a month. Click here to sign up for email alerts.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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10 comments for “Chris Hedges: American Bloodlands

  1. firstpersoninfinite
    September 10, 2020 at 23:38

    A beautiful reminder of our shared humanity, Chris Hedges. Thank you.

  2. Gregory Ghica
    September 10, 2020 at 15:10

    A material full of truth. However, the most important question: How can we get out of this quagmire??

    Gregory Ghica

  3. Aaron
    September 10, 2020 at 15:00

    “They drew first blood sir, not me” – Rambo to Colonel Trautman, rationalizing his violent rampage

    As usual Hedges gets it right. In the solipsism of the cults, it’s the PERCEPTION of who drew first blood that matters to the followers. It seems to me we’ve crossed another ominous line with the recent killings in Kenosha and Portland. Now every side has their martyrs to incite even more violence, it’s a terrifying, miserable time in America. Now that truth or science or reality is irrelevant, we are at the mercy of sadistic psychopaths and any and every charismatic opportunist looking to score more and more personal wealth.
    How the hell did we get here? Like a rhinestone cowboy, the liberal and democratic politicians built their ambitions on “compromising” any and all principles, ethics, platform promises, etc. to satisfy their greed and lust for power and fame and fortune.

    ‘I’ve been walkin’ these streets so long
    Singin’ the same old song
    I know every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway
    Where hustle’s the name of the game
    And nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain
    There’s been a load of COMPROMISIN’
    On the road to my horizon’ – Indeed there has
    – Rhinestone Cowboy

  4. Realist
    September 10, 2020 at 14:39

    Hollywood, in cahoots with the deep state and the MIC, has produced so many movies glorifying war and American policy that the first photo accompanying this article struck me as any one of a hundred movie sets I’ve seen on the silver screen. You know, imposing the impression of fluffed up expensive drama for my viewing entertainment and propagandizing rather than sick disgusting reality which should not be tolerated in a “civilised” world.

  5. robert e williamson jr
    September 10, 2020 at 14:10

    Then on the other hand maybe the Deep State has carted him out to extinguish another DC fire they started that got out of control.

    Remember kiddies things are almost never as they seem in the land of “crooks and criminals”, taken from the tightly contained BCCI Bank crimes.

    I’m not sure any of us needed to be told King Fu Trump lied to us. Come on man!

    Time to wake up. Like I been saying “Trump the terrible” has unleashed a genocide on the poor, health workers, our doctors and nurses, our EMTs police and fire men. And all others with compromised health.

    Now where was it I put that guilotine?

    Still it takes a lot of balls to fool the public and I’m not sure Bob W wasn’t working under some official National Security State order. It would not be the first time. Deep State – Deep Throat – Deep Shit! I really hate co-incidences, and I stopped trusting Washington and and it’s insiders long ago.


  6. Stan
    September 10, 2020 at 13:57

    Like always, pure excellence in reporting, writing and grasping. Live long!

  7. robert e williamson jr
    September 10, 2020 at 13:39

    A lesson for the young.

    Mr. Hedges tells us in no uncertain terms where we are, Craig Murry tells us “First they came for the journalists., We don’t know what happened after that”.

    What would we do without the likes if Bob Woodward, who obviously has some real Kahoonas!

    • Manifold Destiny
      September 11, 2020 at 07:04

      Bob Woodward has blood on his hands. Why did he sit on such flammable information for so long? To make sure he could corroborate the facts as he now avers? Or to make the biggest publicity $plash for his forthcoming book?

      If he were a real journalist with “Kahoonas”, he would have divulged the contents of his taped interview much, much sooner.

      I hold his cohorts at WaPo, the New York Times, and all the Senators who were also debriefed as early as January, but chose to save their stock portfolios over the welfare of the American people, equally culpable.

  8. Jon
    September 10, 2020 at 08:26

    This reminds me of the scene in Dr. Zhivago where they come to a village devastated by the civil war.
    “Who did this to you,” he asked of a peasant woman.
    “Soldiers,” she replied in shock.
    “Which soldiers? Red or white?”
    “Soldiers,” she replied in shock.

  9. James Apone
    September 10, 2020 at 05:35

    Defend Goodness…

Comments are closed.