In one of his first books – The Age of Missing Information – BillMcKibben contrasts what was on the television with what was going on “IRL” – in real life. Nowadays, we are more apt to turn on the computer or check our phone and the twitter feed than turn on the television; but McKibben’s question is still relevant: What is the difference between what we see on the screen and what is going on in the world around us? The “natural” world, that is.
Bill McKibben took all the TV from a 24 hour cycle, recorded it and watched it. Then he packed his tent and went to the woods for 24 hours to conduct his experiment in the style of Thoreau. Even the nature programs on Public Television had a kind of caffeinated, hyperactive quality to them as fruit flies mated and bear caught fish in a fast moving stream.
In fact, wrote McKibben, in his 24 hours in the woods he did not see one bear. He did not observe fruit flies – or any other critters – mating. Apart from a pesky mosquito or two there really didn’t seem to be a lot going on. Most of the time nature is not an action figure.
I think human beings crave action and war gives it to us. We are addicted to it. When we are not at war using guns we are creating games that require more protective gear than a SWAT Team. The most popular sports are the ones in which concussions are commonplace. And when the wars and games are over, words become our weapons. Oftentimes our words are aimed at others who don’t agree with us about the games we have just watched or the wars we are fighting. And the beat goes on.
Veteran war correspondent Chris Hedges wrote a book in 2002 called War is a Force that gives us Meaning. As President Bush was setting the political stage for the “War on Terror”, Hedges came out with his warning to those who would “evoke the emotions of war for the pursuit of political gain.” War requires combatants. The combatants each invoke the blessing of their particular deity and make the case for why theirs is the “right” side. But at the heart of the matter is this chilling fact of human existence: We want life to mean something. And Hedges says war accomplishes this. Those who engage directly in it react according to their training. They don’t have the luxury of time to reflect on the larger philosophical implications. And the “high” associated with war’s intensity is universally felt among all involved. In that sense there are no “losers”. The chance to exist for an intense and overpowering moment, writes Hedges, even if it meant certain oblivion, seemed worth it in the midst of war.
Hedges notes one other caveat regarding war. Once it is over, it all seems very stupid. After we clean up the rubble from our bombs and verbal assaults we are left with the hangover of continued meaninglessness. Getting high doesn’t do much to help us go deep. Soldiers return home to the drudgery of reality – changing diapers if they happen to be parents, earning a living, getting along with pesky neighbors. It’s kind of like the difference between watching an African lion chase down a wildebeest and watching a New England leaf fall slowly to the ground in autumn.
War keeps the adrenalin flowing. It has become as constant as the screen that gets turned on first thing in the morning and turned off last thing at night.
Fifty years ago there were only three television networks. They each logged off at some wee hour of the morning. I remember waiting on Saturday mornings for them to come back on – watching the screen and listening to the tone. I would sing around the tone, harmonies, dissonances. I would match the tone and try to see if I could mimic both the pitch and the timbre. Could I make my own voice disappear so that voice and tone were perfectly united?
Our world has become all war all the time on so many levels. More and more of us need combat of some kind in order to make our living. We do so to our own peril. The news cycle is what it is because of what we are making it. But that is not the only possible world. Maybe it’s time to put down the guns, shut down the blogs and turn off the screens and just sit for a while under a tree to see if something can be learned from watching a leaf fall gently to the ground.
 Listen to a 2009 Speech on the situation between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza.
 Quote by General Wesley K. Clark on the cover to the paperback edition.
 Chris Hedges, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. Published by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. © 2002. Page 7.