Books

Sarah Sentilles
Draw Your Weapons

“War,” observes the American theorist and former theologian Sarah Sentilles, “is right here”: on the television, in the drone factory an hour’s drive from her home in Idaho, and in the form of an art student, Iraq war veteran and former Abu Ghraib guard who takes a university course she is teaching.

The story of Miles, the veteran, is one of a number that are woven through Draw Your Weapons, in which Sentilles asks, “How to live in the face of so much suffering? How to respond to violence that feels as if it can’t be stopped?”

Draw Your Weapons is a patchwork of anecdotes, quotations from other theorists, personal observations, etymological and scientific nuggets, bits and pieces of biography and history, as well as the odd passage from the New Testament. Threading them together are concerns such as what it means to look at things such as the imagery of war and violence, thoughts on pacifism and its problems; and the power of art to reflect on, bear witness to and yet possibly even inure us to violence.

She takes concepts such as the “souvenir”, and pokes and prods them from all angles: in this case from postcards and photographs to saintly relics and the horrendous practice of lynch mobs in the American south claiming parts of the bodies of the African Americans they killed. It is a Rubik’s cube of a book that is constantly twisting to throw ideas and narratives into fresh juxtapositions.

One of the book’s main narratives is the story of Howard Scott. Sentilles introduces him via a newspaper photo taken on his 87th birthday. He is holding a violin that the newspaper tells us was “60 years in the making”. Scott, it turns out, was a pacifist and conscientious objector in World War II. By the end of Draw Your Weapons we have learnt the significance of the violin – as much a response to war as Miles’s Iraq-inspired paintings.

Moral issues are at the heart of Draw Your Weapons. Sentilles had once wanted to become a priest – one of her previous books is called Breaking Up with God. She writes: “I’ve called myself a pacifist for most of my life. I thought it let me off the hook somehow…” But on that hook hang questions such as what a pacifist ought to do in the face of genocide. Scott’s daughter Kayleen, she tells us, had been shocked to the core when she first saw images from the Holocaust: she demanded of her father, “How could you not go to war?” Scott replied that all killing had to stop.

Scott, who went to prison for his beliefs, and his wife, Ruane, believed in the power of “love and kindness”. Sentilles tells us, I’m guessing probably not without some pain, that Winston Churchill described pacifism as the “pathology of the privileged”.

To be an artist is a kind of privilege. In Draw Your Weapons, Sentilles considers the ethics and aesthetics of not just looking at but giving expression to other people’s pain. She tells us about the Iraqi refugee Wafaa Bilal, who has a borderless map of Iraq tattooed on his back. He sat on stage reading out the names of the war dead while a tattoo artist inscribed a dot for each one: some 5000 red dots for American casualties and for the Iraqi ones, 100,000 dots in ultraviolet ink that only show up in black light.

Then there is Anna Von Mertens, who creates quilts on which she maps the stars’ positions and trajectories at the time of violent, pivotal events such as the assassination of Martin Luther King jnr, 9/11 and the start of the 2003 Iraq war. Sentilles questions whether the creation or contemplation of such images simply make us feel better about ourselves, looks at the notion of “war porn” and asks if it is really possible “to see that my world is not the only world – or if not to see, then to remember that other worlds exist, as vivid as mine, as real?”

There is a short passage about halfway through the book that reads: “Transformational pacifism: a broad framework of cultural criticism that includes efforts to reform educational and cultural practices that tend to support violence and war. In the future, people will look back at war and violence as archaic remnants of a less civilized past.” Italics generally denote quotation in Draw Your Weapons; if you pursue this passage to the endnotes, you find “Fiala: ‘Pacificism’ ”. Online, I discovered that Fiala is Andrew Fiala, a professor of philosophy at California State University, Fresno, and author of Practical Pacificism, among other works. Yet I first read the passage as a straight observation by Sentilles.

Another tile in the mosaic describes a scientific experiment purporting to show how love makes plants thrive and indifference causes them to wither. That one prompted me to leap straight to the endnotes: was this a peer-reviewed, replicable experiment? But there was no source listed.

If one strength of the book lies in the way its fragmented nature forces the reader to forge her own connections, this is also potentially a weakness, or at least a source of frustration. I wanted to know if Sentilles believed that experiment was genuinely significant; and if she endorsed Fiala’s optimism, and why or why not; and, having set her phone to alert her every time a drone strike occurred, what these constant updates did to her state of mind. When she states “war turns the brain to dust” what exactly does she mean? I get how postmodern theory challenges the notion of the authorial or authoritative voice. Yet Sentilles has examined these issues so closely, I am inescapably interested in her opinions.

At the same time I also appreciate her answer to a student, who, reacting to one of the many photographs of war and violence that Sentilles shows her classes, asked, “But what are we supposed to do?” Sentilles responded: “I don’t know.”  CG

Text, 320pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 15, 2017 as "Sarah Sentilles, Draw Your Weapons". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CG

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