Book Review: Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt

Reviewed: Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, Nation Books, 2012, 275 pages, hardcover, $28.

In Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, two veteran war correspondents — Chris Hedges (War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning) and Joe Sacco (Palestine, Safe Area: Gorazde) — tour the most desperate, impoverished, physically and socially devastated areas in the United States.  They offer harrowing descriptions of life on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, the slums of Camden, New Jersey, the migrant camps — in some cases, literally slave camps — of Immokalee, Florida, and the “surface mining” zones surrounding Welch, West Virginia.

In each of these chapters, Hedges tells the story, not only of the people but of the town, and despite the differences in setting, certain similarities show through:  poverty, addiction, violence; but more than that, a long series of broken promises and mounting despair.  Sacco illustrates these chapters with his distinctive, careful line drawings.  He includes portraits of their interview subjects and bleak landscapes.  Periodically he takes hold of the narrative, and focuses on the story of some individual person — an ex-con, a retired port worker, an African-American grandmother who has helped care for generations of neighborhood kids, a miner with black lung, a migrant farm worker.  He lets them tell their stories and, in his characteristic fashion, combines their own words and his pictures to create a compelling, if highly subjective, account.  Moving between Hedges’ prose and Sacco’s drawings, between the political and the personal, between history and the biography, one comes to feel the connections between these aspects of the story.  It helps make real the human consequences of our economic system.

If that were all this book did, it would be an excellent piece of journalism — engaging, troubling, and in its own way, beautiful.

Unfortunately there is a fifth chapter, which does not succeed so well.

The final chapter considers the Occupy Wall Street camp at Liberty Square.  The strengths of the rest of the book — the forceful descriptions, the carefully outlined contexts, the personal testimonies — are all absent.  Hedges’ writing here feels rushed, messy, and Sacco’s art is barely present — just four drawings, not his best, and none of them forming a continuous series.  The chapter becomes a weird patchwork — a brief summary of the origins of Occupy, then an anecdote from the fall of Communism, an interview with “one of the activists who first called for the occupy movement,” then maybe a line from a Bob Dylan song followed by a digression on the shallowness of pop culture, flash back to the fall of Communism, then more activist interviews, a half-page block-quote on the consensus process — and on and on until finally ending with a pretty good boxing metaphor.  It’s tedious reading — unlike the 223 pages of horror that precede it — not least because entirely too much of the final chapter is given over to Hedges’ indulging his worst vice, sermonizing.

The theme of his sermon is that resistance is both necessary and right.  It seems odd that Hedges is so insistent on this point, given that he also argues that it is inevitable and, for that matter, actually occurring.  Odder still, at the one-year anniversary of the Occupy movement, it comes across as Hedges urging us all on toward a moment that has already passed.  As a result, the overstated enthusiasm for Occupy — the comparisons to the fall of Communism and to the Paris Commune, and straight-faced references to “the revolution” — seem less like genuine optimism and more a desperate effort to cling to any source of hope one can find.

Meanwhile, and counter-productively, Hedges is simultaneously picky about the kind of resistance he wants to see, and confused about the nature of the struggle he is endorsing.  He scolds the Black Bloc for providing a pretext for repression; but he seems to have nothing to say about liberal critics like himself justifying that repression with their denunciations.  He urges protestors to remain peaceful, even in the face of repression, though he also writes that repression makes violence inevitable: “If peaceful protest is not defended, if it is effectively thwarted by the corporate state, we will see widespread anger and frustration manifest in an ascendant militancy, rioting, the destruction of property, and violence.”

The difficulty, I think, is that despite everything, including his own arguments and the evidence of his own reporting, Hedges cannot face the nature of the system we are up against.  “It is not a war,” he declares flatly.  But if we take seriously Hedge’s pleading about the “violence of poverty,” his warnings about the militarization of policing and the “security and surveillance state that seeks to keep us all on a reservation,” and his predictions about “suffering masses. . . repressed with greater and greater ferocity” — if it’s not a war, what is it?  Hedges tells us:  “This is a struggle to win over the wider public and those within the structures of power, including the police, who are possessed of a conscience.  It is not a war.”

As distinctions go, this one fails.  Hedges, in his effort to describe something other than war, only really describes a particular type of war.  The US Army Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, explains:  “The primary struggle in an internal war is to mobilize people in a struggle for political control and legitimacy. Insurgents and counterinsurgents seek to mobilize popular support for their cause. Both try to sustain that struggle while discouraging support for their adversaries.”

Hedges the war correspondent surely knows this; Hedges the theologian cannot allow it.  With his moral opposition to war clouding his vision, Hedges has to define his “revolution” in terms other than those of warfare.

I am reminded of a short review by George Orwell (whom Hedges cites with admiration four times in the final chapter).  In considering an anti-war tract written by a retired general, Orwell reflects:  “The test for any pacifist is, does he differentiate between foreign war and civil war?  If he does not, he is simply saying in effect that violence may be used by the rich against the poor but not by the poor against the rich.”

That is in fact Hedges’ stated position, albeit for different reasons:  “Nonviolent movements,” he writes, “on some level, embrace police brutality.”  Strategically speaking, that is true.  During the civil rights’ movement, for example, the violence of the police was discrediting to the system of legal segregation and won sympathy for the demonstrators.  Movement leaders knew that, and turned the state’s violence to their own advantage.  Of course, not everyone was particularly excited to “embrace” police brutality, and it was anger over the abuse along with dissatisfaction with the meager gains of the nonviolent movement that produced the shift toward self-defense.  As much as partisans on both sides like to stress the differences between, say, the Black Panthers and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in truth the militant phase of the struggle was an outgrowth of the nonviolent phase.  They overlapped chronologically and many people — Stokely Carmichael, who coined the phrase “Black Power,” for example — participated in both aspects of the movement.

The problem is not that Hedges is morally opposed to violence.  The problem is that his morality blinkers his political vision, and leads him into denunciations of anarchist window-smashing while tactically accepting the violence of the police.

I’m tempted to say that Hedges and Sacco have given us four-fifths of a very good book.  But that isn’t fair or accurate.  It would be better to say that they’ve given us an excellent book marred by an extraneous chapter.  Days of Destruction is a vivid, touching, and well-grounded portrait of poverty in America, while Days of Revolt is incoherent, sanctimonious, and entirely too grand in its claims.  There’s a kind of structural symbolism here:  The first four chapters deliberately expose the domestic sins of American capitalism.  The last accidentally embodies the intellectual flaws of the left.

Read chapters one through four.  Study them, discuss them.  Absorb everything they have to offer.  But write your own conclusion.

Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America and Hurt: Notes on Torture in a Modern Democracy.