Refugees perish when a ship sinks, animals are coated in oil after a spill, cousins are killed in a drone strike, and families are separated by genocide. Each day, a new article about war, violence, and destruction emerges, with little to no time between them to understand what to make of it. In Draw Your Weapons, Sarah Sentilles tackles the question of how to live and create art amidst our modern day tragedies and warfare.
Composed in a chorus of voices, Sentilles weaves together stories of a conscientious objector during WWII, a prison guard at Abu Ghraib, Biblical tales, and excerpts from video games with snippets of popular culture. Wound and bound into a book, Draw Your Weapons both combines and builds on the works of Susan Sontag, Elaine Scarry, Susie Linfield and Maggie Nelson--writers and women who have questioned the role of violence in lives, literature, art, and photography.
Howard is a pacifist who chose to become a conscientious objector in World War II. At first he joined the war effort on the homefront, but when his college roommate was imprisoned for refusing to go to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans, Howard realized that even assisting the war effort was too generous, and ultimately complicit. In his mind, abstaining from war altogether is the only way toward peace. Sentilles guides readers through a life lead with integrity, quoting his letters to his wife, and his daughter’s conflicted feelings about his refusal to help during the Holocaust.
The portrait that emerges of Howard the pacifist is compared and contrasted with Sentilles’s interactions with Miles--a student of the author, and former prison guard at Abu Ghraib. When they meet, it’s been two years since his stint in the army reserve, yet no one has asked him about it.
Amidst the unfurling narratives of Howard and Miles, Sentilles retells Biblical tales of war and strife. Some of the most powerful moments in the book are in the out of context one liners that bookend longer paragraphs:
“Explaining to Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America in 2003 why she doesn’t watch television, Barbara Bush said, Why should we hear about body bags, and deaths? ...It’s not relevant. So, why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?”
More than once I experienced a cringe of recognition. At times, inundated with news stories, we give ourselves permission to look away, tell ourselves those stories are irrelevant, and not worth seeing. To explain why this is problematic, Sentilles draws on Susan Sontag’s writing about the connection between the suffering and the viewer: “how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering.”
Readers of Maggie Nelson may note how the subject matter of The Art of Cruelty has merged with the structure of The Argonauts or Bluets. Combining reportage, memoir, theology, critical theory, art and literature, Draw Your Weapons is written in a series of one liners, short paragraphs and sections. The effect is like reading a series of photographs. Snapshot-like, the reader is left to connect the pieces, to make a semblance of sense out of the senseless acts of violence and warfare.
One might call these acts, like drone strikes and waterboarding, “not relevant.” One is tempted to look away, to focus on other things. There is tension in the looking-not-looking. And at the heart of this tension lies artists--the people who choose to look and make others see.
Howard builds a violin. Miles paints portraits of detainees. Sentilles crafts a narrative and literature.
“Here I am says every prophet called by God in the Bible, a phrase that is an English translation of the Hebrew word hineni, which means ready, a word the prophets speak before they know what they’re being asked to do.” (167)
The artists in Draw Your Weapons do the work without being asked, and without even knowing what they’re doing. They are not out to romanticize or glorify war, violence, or suffering. Instead, they confront, question, interrogate, resist, illuminate, make meaning, and bear witness. They hold a mirror up to our actions, giving readers and viewers time and space to reflect. And through creativity, one hopes we find new avenues to peace.