Death On The Shelf: Megan Rosenbloom On Books Bound In Human Skin

When I was a child I had a hamster named Pepper, who lived for about three years I recall. When he died, I don’t remember crying. Pepper sat curled in the corner of his glass domain, his shut eye a soothing crescent, looking as if he simply fell into sleep. I asked my father if I could touch him, and my father said I could; so I reached in, and gave him one last pet. Rigor mortis had set in, and as I petted Pepper’s back I could feel his spine, stiff and knobbed although his fur coat still had shine, and curled tightly as he was he reminded me of a seashell, a conch or ponderous ark set on the shore or ocean bed. Pepper was buried in the backyard by the garage. I didn’t feel too bad—I had the distinct feeling he had just up and left somewhere.

This is my earliest memory of death. I probably had encountered it before this moment, but time loosens the bows. My hamster’s quiet, peaceful sleep, endless and never waking, is clearest when I hold shells, running my fingers over their bumps and edges. And not just seashells, but pasta shells and candy shells and gastropod shells and those little coat buttons shaped like clams… My little girl’s assumption that Pepper’s skeleton bore some connection to our underwater kin was surprisingly insightful. I think of it often, veering my brain into the wonder of whether symbolism is innate inside us. Very early in my life I linked death with the sea, and also with the stillness of sleep. Countless have drawn these parallels before me: Thanatos and his brother Hypnos in the ancient Greek; in Tom Stoppard’s Hamlet spinoff play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz asks Guildenstern, “Do you think Death could possibly be a boat?”

The question is refuted, but it stands. Humans oft associate death with the sea, and death with his ‘brother’ sleep. But death with books? Mm, perhaps with the binding, some poor PETA faithful mourning the loss of a beloved cow. More often then not though, we seem to associate books with immortality, the preserved written word transcending our mortal selves into the halls of meaningful permanence.   

Immortality is so far from death it could be considered its antithesis. Life everlasting—what’s dead about that? When we link death and books it feels more circumvential. One must maneuver around the obvious lifeblood to find the ghost.

In the state of Pennsylvania, in the city of Philadelphia, on South 22nd Street, there is an austere building, with an iron wrought gate flanked by two imposing lampposts. It is bulky, wide and congressional looking, and inside its walls is a macabre collection of medical oddities. It is the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and here rests perhaps the largest collection of anthropodermic books, or for the layman, books bound in human skin. Upon this a link between books and death slips not through our fingers, but rather assaults as one strolls through the Mütter’s aisles of wet specimens, medical models, instruments, and osteological wonders, including a corset skeleton with the alluding title “The Price of Beauty” and a vast collection of human skulls.

These books are dead. Yet, somehow, also living. A creeping ambivalence overtakes; the books are rather plain looking, so it is both surprising and skepticalizing, but then an actualization hits. Who are these people?, one finds themselves asking. It’s a question asked throughout the entirety of the Mütter Museum but it feels more acute here. After all, a skeleton is by natural law something that is discovered, not created—but a book? Bound in human skin? It pries forth a very specific fascination. If you are a human who feels its tickle there is a knowing it possesses an intangible pull. One is propelled forward and toward these strange covers as though on a sleigh. Librarian Megan Rosenbloom felt that pull, as her grey-blue eyes swept over the volumes. She wanted to know, Who are these people?, or, more accurately, who were they? What would they have to say about the fate and display of their derma? Would they object? Did they object? Were they pleased about their immortality? What were their names?

Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into The Science and History of Books Bound In Human Skin is that exploration, and so much more, as Megan Rosenbloom sets herself on a course to test, catalog, and build provenance for any and all anthropodermic books scattered and hidden about the globe. Like its subject matter, it is an oddity, and a gem of a read. 

“Anthropodermic bibliopegy has been a specter on the shelves of libraries, museums, and private collections for over a century. Human skin books—mostly made by nineteenth-century doctor bibliophiles—are the only books that are controversial not for the ideas they contain but for the physical makeup of the object itself. They repel and fascinate, and their very ordinary appearances mask the horror inherent in their creation. Anthropodermic books tell a complicated and uncomfortable tale about the development of clinical medicine and the doctoring class, and the worst of what can come from the collision of acquisitiveness and a distanced clinical gaze. The weight of these objects’ fraught legacy transfers to the institutions where they are housed, and the library and museum professionals who are responsible for them. Each owner handles this responsibility differently.’ 

“[…] the conservationists at Harvard Library had discovered that a simple scientific test could be employed to confirm definitively whether an alleged human skin book was genuine. Shortly thereafter, I joined forces with the chemist who carried out the Harvard test, another chemist, and the curator of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia to create the Anthropodermic Book Project. Our aim is to identify and test as many alleged anthropodermic books as possible and dispel long-held myths about the most macabre books in history. Sometimes the most unlikely candidates turn out to be real human skin, and some books with plausible pedigrees turn out to be frauds. As of this writing, my team has identified only about fifty alleged anthropodermic books in public collections and a few more in private hands. With such a small field of study, any test result could completely reshape our understanding of the scope of this practice. We have to approach every item objectively and let science out the truth.” 

Megan Rosenbloom, from Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into The Science And History Of Books Bound In Human Skin

In the mid to late-2000s a chemist named Daniel Kirby started utilizing proteomics to help museums better restore and protect their artifacts and artworks. With modern technology Kirby realized by looking at an object’s proteins he could help distinguish a painting’s egg tempera content, or the type of seal skin used in a nineteenth-century Yup’tik kayak, assisting in recreations. When Megan Rosenbloom found Daniel Kirby, the Anthropodermic Book Project was born. Taking only a sliver of the supposed skin binding (about the amount of a thin fingernail shaving) peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF) for the first time in history could prove whether an alleged human skin book was real or fraudulent. Soon, confirmed anthropodermic books started showing up all over the world, though there were still unanswered questions. For one, PMF testing cannot identify the race or cultural makeup of a person; homo sapiens “do not have enough genetic variability among its populations to justify either the identification of geographically based races or of evolutionarily distinct lineages.” For another, PMF testing cannot even really distinguish between homo sapiens and other members of the Homininae subfamily (i.e. chimps, bonobos, and gorillas); however, no book has ever (to modern knowledge) been bound (or allegedly bound) in gorilla skin. That said, Megan Rosenbloom wants you to know that if you do know of a book allegedly bound in gorilla skin to contact her immediately.  

The ghostliness of these books makes them uniquely opaque, despite their grim nudity. Stripped of their personage, decontextualized, their true pasts can only be cobbled together through dedicated detective work, old paper trails and the sort. Some anthropodermic books are terrible question marks: nameless, with limited provenance and nothing substantial to grab hold to. But others are blatant in their confessions. 

Patterns began to emerge as more and more anthropodermic books were wedged into the light. The majority of acquisitioners and tanners were doctors or part of the doctoring class; when alleged human skin books were outed to be frauds, a large portion of them were centered around ploys of racism; though PMF tests cannot determine sex, many of the skins were claimed to be female, alluding to a rather sinister result of what happens when the distanced clinical gaze collides with the objectifying male one, making women and their skins victims of physicians’ psychosexual pathologies. Yet some defied expectations. One such anthropodermic book, Narrative of the Life of James Allen, Alias George Walton, Alias Jonas Peirce, Alias James H. York, Alias Burley Grove the Highwayman, was the result of a deathbed wish. The inscription “Hic liber Waltonis cute compactus est” graces the cover, on a gold-tooled black leather strip: “This book by Walton bound in [his] skin.” George Walton, lifelong criminal bibliophile turned armchair philosopher in prison, took end-of-life matters into his own hands. When he died, he requested his memoir be bound in himself; skin was taken from his back, tanned to mirror grey deerskin, and sent to bookbinder Peter Low. He now rests at the Boston Athenaeum, his words preserved in his own suede. 

Though one might be inclined to believe Dark Archives is a book of grotesque goggling, it is chiefly a book of history—medical history to be precise. When we die, we inevitably leave something behind: our bodies. Much of Dark Archives circles around the dubious questions of what rights do these bodies have. Who owns them if not ourselves, ourselves which have flown away? Rosenbloom wends us through humanity’s troubling pasts of corpses and their defilements; the dead stolen from graves, criminals hacked up in front of storefront windows to the appeasement of oglers, the moral minefield of surgeons in need of practicing cadavers, the exchange of money for human flesh. In the long shadow of medical butchery, anthropodermic books are a niche, and at times almost seem quaint in the grand scheme of things. But so many factors must converge to make an anthropodermic book possible. It is this chain of compliance that is most fascinating, and it is this chain that presents the most challenging end result of why. What does an anthropodermic book represent? What does its existence mean? 

I am not so squeamish about death. From the fungi growth of human composting to how bodies explode when cremated, I am rather captivated by the human corpse’s embracing of ugliness and repellency of what is considered contemporarily aesthetically good. We spend so much of our lives overly concerned with our appearances… I am strangely refreshed with the reality that at the end death throws all that hard work and devotion away. Once dead, we stiffen then fall slack, we yellow and brown and grey; insects flume within us, our internal bacteria goes bonkers and we bloat, blister, and burst; we are all—essentially—eaten, whether by fire or dirt. What’s left of us? In time not even bones. Should your derma befall the fate of an anthropodermic book, your lifeless body will be flayed, your skin pickled in acidic juices then washed and beaten and pressed. It is all an odd, ugly sort of business, a wonderfully odd ugly business. But, why shouldn’t it be? Must we be preserved youthful and plump with intrinsic beauty? Encased in resin, pumped full of formaldehyde, or launched into the vacuum of space, so as to never rot and decay. I suppose what draws me most to anthropodermic bibliopegy is despite the frequent usurping of human rights, it feels like a second life, so unlike that of our first. 

These books exist, for now at least. Another ornament to be hung and considered on the tree of the Human Condition. What we can learn from them, and what we believe of their nature, is sure to vary with time. 

From 1497-1543 a German artist named Hans Holbein existed. While in his impressionable twenties, he endeavored on a series of intricate woodblock paintings. These paintings were small, small enough to cup in the palm of your hand. In them, Death in the form of a skeleton performs a dance, a dance that yanks the cowl off an astonished monk, steals food from a miser, skewers an adorned knight, pulls the covers off a resting duchess, and leads a crying child away from his parents into the coming night. It is The Dance of Death, and to all peoples of every class he is an intruder, enthusiastically performing his jig. Cut by Hans Lützelburger (who died before he could see the finished product over which he labored, in a crude stroke of irony) the sensational woodblocks were later sold to creditors and compiled for publishing in Lyons in 1538. They have never been out of print, the hypnotic movements of Death’s swinging arms and empty eyes enlivening and alarming viewers for over six centuries. 

And in 1816, a famous bookbinder by the name of Joseph Zaehnsdorf commissioned the skin of a woman to give what he saw as “an appropriate binding” for a copy of Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death. The quantity of the material he was given (meaning, human skin) was in his own words “scanty”, resulting in him having to split the human leather in two, creating a smooth finished cover but a lumpy binding. In the typed memorandum he signs conditionally, “Yours obediently, Zaehnsdorf”. It is macabre in its pragmatism, the capitalist system that incited and buoyed this tome’s creation.

This copy along with two other anthropodermic editions of Holbein’s Dance of Death were later displayed at an exhibition by Grolier’s Club in 1903. Supposedly, three more copies throughout the 19th century of The Dance were made, totaling the number of times Hans Holbein the Younger’s eerie woodblock series The Dance of Death being allegedly bound in human skin to six. Though perhaps the most well known anthropodermic books, Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives barely covers these volumes, likely because of their notoriety. Of these six, only two have been tested, and confirmed by PMF testing; Zaehnsdorf’s 1816 binding is one of them, obedient to the end.  The book now rests at Brown University, at the Jay Hay Library in Providence, Rhode Island, ‘rests’ holding more weight here than is perhaps norm.

Hans Holbein created The Dance of Death to showcase what he saw as an encouraging—and brutal—truth: Death comes for all of us, regardless of wealth, faith, condition, or class. Sometimes Death’s dance is like an assault, as to a jewel-laden emperor being denied his crown; but other times, Death is more a liberator, as to an old woman limping down a dirt road being released from her pains. Holbein also made The Dance as a sort of warning, a reminder to the most elitist classes that they will not be spared. But what Holbein’s enigmatic dancing Death misses is that though being dead will likely be the same for all of us, our dying—and the bodies we leave behind—will not become equalized the moment Death’s dance is finished. Rather, death just follows the path life has laid out. And, as all of us know, life is not egalitarian. 

The skins that bind Holbein’s [Dances] of Death were surely taken without consent, and with disregard of their owners. The commissioners, the bookbinders, the sellers, they all get to have their names passed on through history. But who makes Zaehnsdorf’s 1816 Dance of Death? No name is granted. We don’t know. Without the name, what immortality is given? They are doomed to mere superficial covering, a pale smooth beautiful nothing on a paper throne. Megan Rosenbloom gives new life to these dark volumes, and asks us to think about death, and our dead, more often. Through Dark Archives she invites us with compassion into a “more empowering relationship with our mortality.” 

An edition of Hans Holbein’s The Dance of Death bound in human skin, 1898. The only image of an anthropodermic book featured in Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives.

5 out of 5 stars for Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into The Science And History Of Books Bound In Human Skin.


The featured image is of the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. It is an American museum of medical history, and “helps the public understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body and to appreciate the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease.” Photograph via muttermuseum.org – Thank you.

Letter To An Old Man: Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

From 1968 to 1989 the western world was overrun with ghouls.

Crime was rampant, and not just the petty kind. Between 1980 to 1989 alone, some 600 active serial killers roamed. It was madness. The movie theaters filled their seats with slashers and methodical, cannibalistic swoll men, wearing masks, wielding axes, stitched into black gloves. People were scared. Single women made plans so they wouldn’t have to walk home alone in the dark. Each Halloween, Jasons showed up, in gaggles on the front steps of houses holding pillowcases aloft, caroling “Trick or Treat!”

By the 90’s, a cool down occurred; the shadows began to slither back into the cracks. The masks got peeled back. The gloves put away. We caught some, and the ones we didn’t got sleepy. By the 2000’s, the Era of the Serial Killer was deemed over. Now we have the Rampage Killers, with their trench coats and guns. Columbine changed everything. The forensic scientists came, garbed in their angel white robes.

Some of us are obsessed with those times. Some of us would rather bury it in the deep dark earth. Some could care less, but we all know the stories, and some of us know the checklist: 1.) Always park your car under a streetlight. 2.) Don’t wear a ponytail if you jog in the early morning. 3.) Always keep your blinds closed at night. 4.) Don’t be sympathetic to men in the dark.

Men in the dark; that’s how they get away. Sink into the oil pits and vanish like ghosts. In such foul, pathetically twisted minds we can’t breathe, but some of us dive in anyway. Some of us wade into the slosh, and try to feel out the skeletons laid at the bottom with our toes.

I’ve been reading True Crime since I was young. My mother always had mystery books and crime novels scattered about the house like autumn leaves. Patterson, Grisham, Garwood, Sandford, Johansen, Higgins Clark. Sometime in the 90’s the general nonfiction Pulitzer Prize nominee Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt showed up. I gobbled it like chocolate. I was hooked. I read True Crime on my back porch rooftop by flashlight, in my bed with the crank of the snake light; in my closet, when the sun set I’d climb into my haven and turn the switch and illuminate the bulb with a click. I developed a studious, unabashed love. The names of vile men and women stacked high in my brain; the tools they used, the odd ticks that inhabited them, the men and women they killed, the men and women who survived—those who had outsmarted them.

Contrary to the pop culture, the lump of serial killers aren’t meticulous geniuses. In the US, their average IQ runs below the national average, at about 94.5. They get away not because of their mountainous intellects, but rather because what they do is so chaotic and beyond reason, they simply fall out of sight.

But a slim few of us have eagle eyes. Some of us are dogs that get something in their mouths and refuse to let go. Bloodhounds with noses that continue hunting over the hills long after the trail has gone cold. One of those individuals lived in Los Angeles, with a famous husband and a little girl. Her name? Michelle McNamara. And her True Crime tour de force I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is destined to be a classic, and has shaken up the investigation world.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark_jacket“Precision and self-preservation were his identifying features. When he zeroed in on a victim, he often entered the home beforehand when no one was there, studying family pictures, learning the layout. He disabled porch lights and unlocked sliding glass doors. He emptied bullets from guns. Unworried homeowners’ closed gates were left open; pictures he moved were put back, chalked up to the disorder of daily life. The victims slept untroubled until the flashlight blaze forced open their eyes. Blindness disoriented them. Sleepy minds lumbered, then raced. A figure they couldn’t see wielded the light, but who, and why? […]’

“Drapery hooks scraping against a curtain rod awakened a twenty-nine-year-old woman in her bedroom in northwest Stockton. She rose from her pillow. Outside patio lights framed a silhouette in the doorway. The image vaporized as a flashlight found her face and blinded her; a force of energy rushed toward the bed. His last attack had been Memorial Day weekend. It was 1:30 a.m. on the Tuesday after Labor Day. Summer was over. He was back.”

In the decades of the ghouls, the Golden State Killer, also known as EAR-ONS (East Area Rapist – Original Night Stalker) was one of the most infamous. In the state of California, in a span of about ten years, the diabolical GSK committed fifty sexual assaults, terrorizing Sacramento and the neighboring counties before moving down south, where he murdered ten people, targeting male/female couples in their beds. He was an absolute plague. Whole towns filled their streets with floodlights. Worried and tortured men patrolled in their cars when night fell. Women couldn’t sleep, their minds buzzing like bees. GSK played with his prey, like a cat with a spider; hog tying victims, muttering incoherent nothing’s as he ransacked their homes, placing teacups on husbands backs as he raped their wives, leaving out milk and cookies, phone calls to the police. Behind him was a littered trail of puzzle pieces that didn’t fit together. He ducked, dived, slithered, and got lucky. The Golden State Killer was never caught. His sadistic legacy oozed through the 1990’s and 2000’s like molasses. But through that time, under the radar, armed with a laptop and a fierce, determined mind was Michelle McNamara. She believed that the case was crackable. That EAR-ONS was catchable. McNamara knew he had a face, and she worked tirelessly to drag that face into the light.

michelle&patton
Great picture of Michelle McNamara and her husband Patton Oswalt. Image Credit/Taken from: Bustle

A book of conflicting feelings, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is both a victory and a tragedy: A victory because Michelle McNamara’s stalwart resolve and keen brain has lit a fire; a tragedy, because the brilliant McNamara died before the work was finished. Lovingly and painstakingly put together by her husband, well known comedian Patton Oswalt, McNamara’s unfinished novel hangs in nebulousness, much like the Golden State Killer himself, who she hunted obsessively. Yet the book stands strong nonetheless, which is perhaps the greatest testament to McNamara’s deft, enthralling pen. Even released too soon, the arrow still hits its mark. The writing is clean, crisp; the visuals and sensations leap off the pages, and I was turning and turning them late into the night, my heart hammering.

Many times reading True Crime one can not help but be engrossed by the wicked killers and their sadistic actions; however, what is wonderful about I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, is that the most engrossing, captivating character on this dark wending road is McNamara herself. McNamara is fascinating, brave, intelligent—she feels like a secret weapon. Through all the blood, fear, and darkness, McNamara holds out a lantern, and by her little flame we all find our way out of the rumpus night. Bringing organization to chaos, hope to despair, McNamara doesn’t give up, and through her diligent collecting of the pieces, and her preening of the muck, a picture, a truth, starts to take shape. In the epilogue – Letter To An Old Man – she writes:

“And then, after May 4, 1986, you disappear. Some think you died. Or went to prison. Not me.’

“I think you bailed when the world began to change. It’s true, age must have slowed you. The testosterone, once a gush, was now a trickle. But the truth is memories fade. Paper decays. But technology improves.’

You cut out when you looked over your shoulder and saw your opponents gaining on you.”

Michelle McNamara, from I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Although now gone, McNamara’s hunt continues. GSK  may still lurk, but now, thanks to McNamara, the world is awake, and watching.

Michelle_McNamara Portrait
Portrait of Michelle McNamara. Image Credit: Robin Von Swank

Five out of five stars.

The Old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori – Chris Hedges Deftly Defines WAR.

“The days are hot and the dead lie unburied. We cannot fetch them all in, if we did we should not know what to do with them. The shells will bury them. Many have their bellies swollen up like balloons. They hiss, belch, and make movements. The gases in them make noises.”

Erich Maria Remarque, from All Quiet on the Western Front

In my sophomore year of high school I read Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel of war, and it changed me.

All Quiet on the Western Front was a book that captivated my mind, laden in the grotesque horrors of violence and the unblinking, unflinching nature of modern warfare. Young and angry when I read it, the refracted nihilism that scorches Remarque’s words created slow burns of thought inside me, and I was so in love with it, I stole a copy from the school library one evening. It was late 2002, and 9/11 had already struck. The cogs and pistons that would turn the engine of the Iraq War were being built; my country was wounded, and vengeful. I still have that mass market paperback, its spine riddled with crags, its corners dogeared and torn. The many hours I spent with Remarque’s novel, began to shape questions I wouldn’t be able to put answers to for years. What war was or wasn’t. What violence meant or did not mean. What victory or shame lied in mass murder and death.

In Chris Hedges descriptive and moving work, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, I was hearkened back to that time; that time of upheaval and new thought, and the challenges of examination into the unmanageable, unimaginable aspects of murky human action. For me, the book is a vindication. My study and thinking has always led me to understand Violence and Power exist not in parallel to each other, but in polarity. The same deep-cut axis runs through them, but their motives and roles play in opposition to one another, with Violence as the perversion of Power. War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a book that validated and echoed these long held feelings and thoughts of mine, and Chris Hedges accurately and elegantly, with harrowing prose and lived experience, explains war by explaining the continental clashes of Violence and Power.

WAR_Hedges“We are humiliated in combat. The lofty words that inspire people to war—duty, honor, glory—swiftly become repugnant and hollow. They are replaced by the hard, specific images of war, by the prosaic names of villages and roads. The abstract rhetoric of patriotism is obliterated, exposed as the empty handmaiden of myth. Fear brings us all back down to earth.

Once in conflict, we are moved from the abstract to the real, from the mythic to the sensory. When this move takes place we have nothing to do with a world not at war. When we return home we view the society around us from the end of a very long tunnel. There they still believe. In combat such belief is shattered, replaced not with a better understanding, but with a disconcerting confusion and a taste of war’s potent and addictive narcotic. […]”

It should be understood that War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is not about combat, but is a novel about the mechanisms that drive war into being. Cultural and governmental mechanisms like propaganda and mythos, pedantry and jingoism, and the destruction and perversion of tangible and intangible heritage. Chris Hedges is a veteran war correspondent, having spent large portions of his life as an observer in warzones and combat scenarios; from the Croat-Bosniak War of the early 1990’s, to surviving imprisonment in Sudan, to escaping ambushes in Central America, Hedges has witnessed firsthand the brutality, and emptiness, that is war. Hedges openly speaks of such painful and disturbing memories, and through the keen pen of a journalist is able to bring clarity and compassion to horrid scenes often never seen by citizens back home. Bit by bit, Hedges picks apart war, eradicating the radiant myths and elaborately ornamented slogans, and so strips it raw to reveal it butt naked. What is left is a disturbing portrait of addiction and denialism, corruption and greed, and of course, violence.

Living in this time of an unprecedented refugee crisis, and the inexhaustible rise of quibbling dogmatism and hate, Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a balm of rationality, analysis, and humility. The book does more than provide a window for the reader to peer into violent conflict, but provides a mirror into our darker, deeper selves. Hedges, in his heart, is a psychologist, and through his words performs a sort of logotherapy on us; we are caught off-guard by his undeniable authenticity and intuitive mind. The bite of the statistical, and emotional truths presented through him leaves one stranded on a very small island, and we are forced into a reckoning with the cold, hard realities of war, and our own individual parts within it.

Hedges does acknowledge that sometimes war is unavoidable. With maturity, it is acknowledged that human folly and power grabs are inevitable and that diplomacy will sometimes fail; yet, through this acknowledgement Hedges takes us out of this often overused excuse, and brings us back down to earth. War in its foundations is sinister, unrepentant, and destructive. In what Hedges calls “a collapse of the moral universe”, war turns right and wrong upside down, and all things are liquidated to “the cause”. People, men and women and children, are transmogrified into objects. War diversifies nothing and coagulates everything, stuffing the veins and preventing blood flow to the heart and mind. In essence, war is a collective stroke. In what Hannah Arendt coined “nihilistic relativism”, all loathful deeds are canceled out by other loathful deeds, each horrible act justified by each other horrible act; by dispelling the existence of moral truth, the parties of war create a vacuum in which no light can get in. War sits in this void, and after it is over, this void does not evaporate but persists, and is more often buried, rather than confessed. This demolishment of truth perpetuates the myth of war, and therefore war becomes not a teacher, but an invalid, dumb and deaf. No lessons are learned, no honest accounts are passed down. The hollowness hangs in the graves.

In the first pages, Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et decorum est” is shared. Though at the front of the book, for this review, I believe the poem works best for closing. War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is required reading, not because it is heavily anti-war, but because of the unfiltered reflection of all ourselves that exists within its pages. The old Lie, is at last, swept away.

Owen I think would be proud.

If in smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro Patria mori.

Wilfred Owen Portrait
Portrait of Wilfred Owen, beloved WWI poet and soldier. Image Credit BBC – Thank You.


The featured image is a screen shot taken from the 1930 movie adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic war novel All Quiet on the Western Front directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy and Ben Alexander.