In 2009, reporter Chris Hedges and cartoonist Joe Sacco set out to capture the state of American desperation. Over the next two years, the men took a misery tour of some of the worst places in America: the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, which paces the nation in drug abuse, alcoholism, and teen suicide rates; Camden, NJ, one of the country’s poorest and most dangerous cities; Welch, WV, where coal companies have relentlessly mined both human and natural resources; and Immokalee, FL, where migrant farm workers toil in virtual slavery.
Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is the result, a messy albeit well-intentioned hybrid of reportage, oral history, and polemic. Hedges, who won a Pulitzer with The New York Times, and Sacco, an artist-journalist whose book Palestine won the American Book Award, have both been praised for their conflict coverage, and Days of Destruction bluntly depicts its subjects as casualties of war—a war waged by the malign forces of corporate capitalism against the hapless chumps who work for a living. It is an effective jeremiad that falls short as documentary, with solid reporting undermined by clunky agitprop that ultimately detracts from the book’s message.
Since leaving the Times in 2003, Hedges has reminded me of an Amish boy on rumspringa, rejecting his alma mater’s down-the-middle dispassion in favor of a stridently progressive, heart-on-sleeve approach to journalism. Days continues in this vein, and, to his credit, Hedges is quite clear that he and Sacco are acting not as neutral observers, but as men on a mission. Their goal: “To show…what life looks like when the marketplace rules without constraints, where human beings and the natural world are used and then discarded to maximize profit.”
They do this by depicting four American crisis zones in long chapters that alternate between text, in which Hedges describes the people he met and the challenges they face, and Sacco’s illustrations of residents narrating their own life stories. Though these visual segments are poorly integrated into the book, they are engaging and well-suited to the oral-history format; I found myself wishing there were more of them.
There are powerful textual moments in Days, too: the depiction of Whiteclay, NE, a block-and-a-half-long “town” that exists to sell beer to the residents of the Indian reservation across the South Dakota line; a glimpse of the squalid trailers inhabited by the Immokalee farm workers; a plaintive interview with three unemployed West Virginians, roommates in a crowded house purchased with FEMA money, one of whom dies of an overdose seven weeks after Hedges’s visit. These are people who don’t often make the news, and Hedges and Sacco deserve praise for finding them and chronicling their predicaments.
But Hedges can’t resist veering into manifesto mode, which soon becomes tiresome. After a moving segment about a West Virginia woman whose house is threatened by landslides caused by strip-mining, Hedges unloads this soliloquy:
As [societies] begin to break down, the terrified and confused population withdraws from reality, unable to acknowledge their fragility and impending collapse. The elites retreat into isolated compounds, whether at Versailles, the Forbidden City, or modern palatial estates. They indulge in unchecked hedonism, the accumulation of wealth, and extravagant consumption. The suffering masses are repressed with greater and greater ferocity. Resources are depleted until they are exhausted. And then the hollowed-out edifice collapses.
The entire book is like this. It reads like 300 pages of Studs Terkel constantly being interrupted by an overcaffeinated Howard Zinn.
As a result, the book’s human portraits too often seem less important than the political frame in which they hang. The problem, I think, is that Hedges and Sacco set out not to document the state of a gut-shot nation, but to demonstrate that corporate greed is the finger on the trigger. To that end, and to its ultimate demerit, the book consistently reduces its subjects to the sum of their miseries, and excludes anything that would hint at a diversity of experience. Hedges and Sacco talk to all the prostitutes and drug casualties they can find, but to few people who might complicate the pictures of these communities and the economic forces that made them the way they are. In their haste to name villains and victims, they neglect the nuance of reality.