Heavy-Handed Philosophizing Mars Reporter’s Well-Told Tale

Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America, by Chris Hedges. Free Press, 224 pages, $24.

Losing Moses on the Freeway falls flat as the meditation on the American soul it pretends to be, but tucked inside its pages lies a small memoir as good as any published in the last decade.

Chris Hedges made his reputation as a big-ideas writer just before the invasion of Iraq with his book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002), a powerful moral reflection on the years of bloodshed he witnessed as a war correspondent in Asia, Africa, Central America and Europe. A year later, he followed that surprise hit with What Every Person Should Know About War, a straight-faced study of how war works and what it looks like on the ground. Without any polemics, that book was one of the most powerful antiwar statements in recent memory. The unadorned and brutal facts spoke for themselves.

Mr. Hedges is a good reporter. He tells clean and vivid stories. He’s had the courage to go where the best and most dangerous stories are, and enough sympathy for his readers to tell those stories well. His new book collects any number of well-told tales from his own life and the lives of other Americans, but it’s the philosophical spin he puts on them that can leave you scratching your head-or make you put down the book.

Mr. Hedges brings his reader to a bar on Long Island where immigrant workers from Central America are entertained by Latina taxi dancers bussed in from Washington Heights. The women tell lies to wring a few more dollars from the men in exchange for weak drinks and fragments of sympathy. First-rate social documentary, important and new, but then there’s more. “These lies, the ones told in the bar, the ones told to us, create false communities,” Mr. Hedges says. “They weaken and destroy real communities.” Hard to argue against, but why beat the reader over the head with this flat-footed social analysis when the story itself has already insinuated all this and more?

Telling the story of an Episcopal bishop who served as a junior officer in Vietnam, Mr. Hedges writes that in war, “human beings become objects …. In a firefight, afraid and pumped up with adrenaline and excitement, they become agents of death.” Well, yes. We would hardly expect any different. But Mr. Hedges seems to have confused the fancy phrasing of the obvious with an interpretive revelation best left in graduate school.

What’s worst about the philosopher’s heavy hand in this book is that everything else in it is remarkably good. The buried memoir begins when Mr. Hedges quits the battlefield and moves to New York City. “My renewed fascination with the depth and breadth of the commandments came shortly after I returned to New York City,” he writes. “We lived in a tiny two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan …. The monthly mortgage payments plunged me into debt.” He found some solace in the clamorous life on the city streets. “I started early one morning at the very bottom of Manhattan,” Mr. Hedges writes. “I walked eighty blocks uptown, peering into some shops, ignoring others, brushing past the mix of races and nationalities, listening to the variety of languages and the din of the streets. These mosaics comforted me. There are too many differences in New York to force iron conformity.” Here, he sees clearly, is the promise of the 10 Commandments: a code that can bring us together while allowing our differences; something bigger than our wealth, our poverty, our families and our tribes, but still allowing all of our particulars and identities to remain.

The center of Mr. Hedges’ story (and perhaps the center of his life) comes early in the book, when he walks away from a Christian mission house in Boston’s Roxbury ghetto. He’s well into his divinity-school studies, living in a largely derelict manse owned by a dwindling African-American congregation. They put him up on condition that he guard the plumbing and windows from vandals. And those vandals, in the specific form of two teenagers mangled by drugs, cruelly incompetent parents and the circumstances of hard poverty, have decided to come kill Mr. Hedges.

After two years of training as a boxer in the neighborhood, Mr. Hedges can fight. And after witnessing these two young victims in turn victimize others, including a 12-year-old girl, he welcomes a couple of brutal clashes on the streets. But he knows that he’s no match for boys who might rather die than continue living as they must, and he abandons his place on the cross. As he leaves, he hurls an empty bottle at the church door, smashing a small idol like Abraham, perhaps, or nailing his better vision to the church door like Luther-though in fact he has no better vision and instead goes off to war.

This, without a doubt, is the good stuff. Telling his own story, Mr. Hedges writes better than anyone else in the game, without sentiment but full of love and hate.

Later we see Mr. Hedges returned, now giving the graduation speech at a small Midwestern college on the strength of his best-selling book about the meaning of war. But he and his audience don’t agree about that meaning-at least in the case of the newly unfolding war in Iraq. He’s against it, and tells them so in the smart words of an elite outsider. They shout him down. His hosts pack his bags and drive him to the bus station. Back in New York, his editors at The Times reprimand him for compromising the paper’s reputation for objectivity. He includes the speech in his book; it reads like the harangue of an old and distant relative.

Thus Chris Hedges emerges as an odd hero in this book about commandments and sin. He’s earnest in his attempts to do good deeds, but his deeds are less interesting than his stories. He walks out of these pages as a good enough man-better than most, perhaps-but best of all, he emerges as a teller of human tales with the unusual capacity to get them right.

Peter Temes, president of the Antioch New England Graduate School, is the author of The Just War (Ivan R. Dee).

Heavy-Handed Philosophizing Mars Reporter’s Well-Told Tale