06 January 2010

Chris Hedges on 2nd Tour Hope I Don't Die and Afterwar ~ The Pictures of War You Aren’t Supposed to See

Chris Hedges has written this review of two photography books on war and its effects. Here is his basic thrust:
"In Peter van Agtmael’s 2nd Tour Hope I don’t Die and Lori Grinker’s Afterwar: Veterans From a World in Conflict, two haunting books of war photographs, we see pictures of war which are almost always hidden from public view. These pictures are shadows, for only those who go to and suffer from war can fully confront the visceral horror of it, but they are at least an attempt to unmask war’s savagery. [. . .]

Chronicles of war, such as these two books, that eschew images and scenes of combat begin to capture war’s reality. War’s effects are what the state and the press, the handmaiden of the war makers, work hard to keep hidden. If we really saw war, what war does to young minds and bodies, it would be harder to embrace the myth of war. If we had to stand over the mangled corpses of the eight schoolchildren killed in Afghanistan a week ago and listen to the wails of their parents we would not be able to repeat clichés about liberating the women of Afghanistan or bringing freedom to the Afghan people. This is why war is carefully sanitized. This is why we are given war’s perverse and dark thrill but are spared from seeing war’s consequences. The mythic visions of war keep it heroic and entertaining. And the press is as guilty as Hollywood. During the start of the Iraq war, television reports gave us the visceral thrill of force and hid from us the effects of bullets, tank rounds, iron fragmentation bombs and artillery rounds. We tasted a bit of war’s exhilaration, but were protected from seeing what war actually does. [...]

Look beyond the nationalist cant used to justify war. Look beyond the seduction of the weapons and the pornography of violence. Look beyond Barack Obama’s ridiculous rhetoric about finishing the job or fighting terror. Focus on the evil of war. War begins by calling for the annihilation of the others but ends ultimately in self-annihilation. It corrupts souls and mutilates bodies. It destroys homes and villages and murders children on their way to school. It grinds into the dirt all that is tender and beautiful and sacred. It empowers human deformities—warlords, Shiite death squads, Sunni insurgents, the Taliban, al-Qaida and our own killers—who can speak only in the despicable language of force. War is a scourge. It is a plague. It is industrial murder. And before you support war, especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, look into the hollow eyes of the men, women and children who know it."
In part, I admire Hedges and his convictions. Note how he shifts here from a discussion of the books to something of a harangue. I point that out not to criticize the outrage Hedges expresses. But his argument is politically naive and so runs the risk of an empty moralism that is incapable of mobilizing outrage. Sermons are out of place here.

In particular, Hedges neglects at least two crucial matters. The first is whether war photographs might have the effect he supposes. While he shares Sontag's premise from Regarding the Pain of Others that only those who experience war directly can truly grasp its horrific realities, he departs from her skeptical premise that images of those horrors might convey some understanding or sensitivity and that those effects might be motivating. Hedges clearly thinks they might - as he says ". . . if we really saw war." He thereby embraces the role into which Sontag casts Virginia Wolff. And it is on that basis that he praises the shift in focus that van Agtmael and Grinker, on his account, offer. They focus less on the glory and the heroism than on the suffering and the aftermath. But recall that Sontag too dwells at length on just such images and despairs that they might have anything like the effects for which Hedges hopes. In the end both Hedges and Sontag see those effects as haunting.

That leads to the second matter Hedges neglects is whether even if photographs had the requisite effects it would or could matter to the underlying reality of war and collective violence. Suppose the images van Agtmael and Grinker* are viewed widely and impress upon viewers a revulsion at war and the suffering it creates. What then? Will that revulsion be stillborn, generating only diffuse guilt and resentment? Will it, more hopefully, be translated into ameliorative efforts, into attempts to remedy or mitigate suffering after the fact? What chance is there that revulsion at war, its supposed glories pierced by images of pain and suffering, will translate in any way into effective political action to bring violence to a halt? Hedges' moralism blinds him to the realities of politics. And here I am not suggesting that our 'leaders' will adopt his views. I am wondering, instead, whether and how he thinks the rest of us, disgusted and sick to death of war, might coordinate politically to pressure leaders to stop. (That, I suspect, will require re-thinking the presumption that photographs convey 'evidence' rather than treating photography as a means of communicating, but that is a massive question I will set aside.) This naivety is something for which I have criticized Hedges here and here before. Perhaps it is unfair to expect anything like a political plan (or even a sketch) in an essay such as the one Hedges actually wrote. But he has had plenty of opportunity to think about the politics involved in his opposition to war. He seems wholly to have neglected the task.
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* I have mentioned van Agtmael in passing a couple of times before, but am completely unfamiliar with Grinker's work. I will say that I think the fact that her Afterwar focuses on former combatants from around the world is especially insightful .

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4 Comments:

Blogger mc said...

Given your note that you are unfamiliar with Grinker's work, I thought you might be interested in a review I wrote on it when it was first published: http://www.bluefilter.co.uk/2009/06/afterwar-lori-grinker/

06 January, 2010 15:47  
Blogger Matthias said...

A further argument in favor of your point is the photographic legacy of the first world war. The "never another war" movement used photography (in my opinion in a much more brutal and straightforward way than either Agtmel and Grinker), most notably by publishing books of portraits of the Gueules Cassées - the often horribly disfigured veterans, in the hope that there would be a realization of the type that Hedges calls for. It didn't happen then, with populations of wounded multiples of what they are now. This in an age where the impact of photography could have been much higher than it was now (the questioning of the reality of photographic representation wasn't, at least that i know of, as pervasive, especially with the general public), and public exposure to actual victims would have likely have been higher. The sad conclusion is that no matter what, a mediated strategy is ineffective, and confrontation to reality appears to be as well. The human being just doesn't get it.

06 January, 2010 16:49  
Blogger Dawei_in_Beijing said...

I don't buy the idea that there's some conspiracy to withhold gory war photos from the public. The internet is literally filled with tons of war porn -- pics and videos. Not only do many people not feel any moral outrage looking at this stuff, they actually enjoy it! Liveleak.com, anyone?

06 January, 2010 21:58  
Blogger Brian J Morrison said...

I started a response to this in the comments section and decided to wirte my own article.

http://shutteritis.com/2010/01/07/war-images-what-are-they-good-for/

08 January, 2010 09:00  

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