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How to get war out of our eyes and heads

NONFICTION

Draw Your Weapons

By Sarah Sentilles

Random House

320 pages, $28

This book is a meditation “on art and war.” It’s meant to provoke you by changing the way that you see the world.

Our author writes about how "art and metaphor condition us to accept violence,” and offers a corrective about how to break its stranglehold on our sensibilities. The book cover is one of the most clever I’ve seen in years. It transposes a similar-looking paint brush in the middle of six ammo shells.

“Draw Your Weapons” is described by Sentilles as a combination memoir, history, theology, reportage, and visual culture. Her intent is to show that we can act – ethically, creatively and peacefully – in the face of violence that often feels as if it can’t be overcome.

If so, the obvious question for the reader to ask is how do we get into the game? Basically, we want to know how to put an end to the violence she describes.

Regrettably, the author is alternately halting and precipitate as she sorts out the material of life that so disturbs her. Her exposition is ragged. It may be that as a good visual arts teacher, she is permitting readers to fill in outcomes of her unfinished prose with their own experiences. This is a valuable approach but it’s not enough for "distance learning," i.e., reading a book. We’re not in class with her.

Sentilles has been a searcher all her life, beginning as a Catholic and moving through various Christian ministries to agnosticism. She’s a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Divinity School. At Harvard she wrote her doctoral dissertation on the torture photographs taken at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Sentilles almost became an Episcopal priest.

Instead she rejected that role and is now an agnostic college professor. She has taught critical theory for almost a decade, mostly to artists. Earlier, she wrote “Breaking Up with God,” “A Church of Her Own" and “Taught by America.”

Sentilles aim in “Draw Your Weapons” is to come to grips what is most real and God-like in our existence. What puzzles her – and us - is the disfigurement that art is able to put before us in photography, literature and music. It cries out for resolution by both writer and reader.  (It might be said that it’s the artist behind camera, computer, or brush who does the mischief.)

An example: “All photographs, Ulrich Baer, Vice Provost at NYU wrote, especially photographs of violence, signal that "we have arrived after the picture has been taken, and thus too late.”  In my view, art does far more than this in its broader context.

Our author cites John Berger, the English painter and poet, describing violence. Berger says, “First, shock. The other’s suffering engulfs you. Then, either despair or indignation. If despair, you take on some of the other’s suffering to no purpose. If indignation, you decide to act. To be able to act, you must emerge from the moment of the photograph and reenter your own life.” (I don’t agree with this conclusion of Berger’s; sympathy has its place in the scheme of things.)

It’s at this point that our author concludes that often, it is one’s sense of inadequacy – you’re too small – violence too big, that tells you that you’ve failed. She quotes Virginia Woolf: “Thinking is my fighting.” Well, that’s a start. And she offers some good examples about how war has led to some unexpected pluses. The Stradivarius violins were the result of poor wood sold by the Turks to the Venetians, in effect, “art derivative from war.”

One value of Sentilles’ book is that it offers examples – from World War I and II to Rwanda, Iraq and Afghanistan more recently – which eloquently make the case for people turning away from violence. Missing in Action: George W. Bush’s paintings of war heroes would have been a good insert in the book.  She devotes an article to them later.

Ultimately turning the tide against violence requires people pushing their governments to take concerted action against violence. As an entity, the United Nations hasn’t been very good at this.  In addition, many world powers seem to be turning their backs as protectors to the dispossessed of the world.

All the more reason for “Draw Your Weapons” to be read, thought about and acted upon as best one can.

Michael D. Langan reviews books for The Buffalo News. He was a senior expert at the United Nations dealing with the Taliban and al Qaeda issues.

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