Images of War

By | February 19, 2010

The New York Times had an intriguing “idea of the day,” The Morality of Web War Footage. It leads us to an online magazine that is new to me: Guernica – a Magazine of Art & Politics and specifically to an article by Nicholas Sautin, The Pleasure of Flinching.

Sautin cites Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others (2002), her look at the representation of atrocity–from Goya’s The Disasters of War to photographs of the American Civil War, lynchings of blacks in the South, and the Nazi death camps, to contemporary horrific images of Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Israel and Palestine, and New York City on September 11, 2001.

Sautin writes:

For Sontag, there is always a moral need to question our right to witness atrocity: “Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it… or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.”

The problem with voyeurism and the Internet, though, is that the idea of “the right to look” may have become obsolete. Atrocity footage has been taken out of the hands of those who would previously have held such moral responsibility—governments, journalists, censors, teachers, etc. The images are simply there for anyone who wishes to look. We imagine their existence, haunted by glimpses of what we have actually seen, and often choose not to look further.

We look at images of war in Lesson Seven of the Class of Nonviolence. In our Facilitator’s Manual we include a selection of nine classic images, which can also be downloaded as a slideshow on our Web site. (note: this link will open Powerpoint.)  Sautin article, which also includes links to the videos he discusses, is an important update.

Also recommended for those who wish to pursue this track is Virginia Woolf’s first essay in her book Three Guineas (1938) which can be read online. Woolf writes:

This morning’s collection contains the photograph of what might be a man’s body, or a woman’s; it is so mutilated that it might, on the other hand, be the body of a pig. But those certainly are dead children, and that undoubtedly is the section of a house. A bomb has torn open the side; there is still a birdcage hanging in what was presumably the sitting-room, but the rest of the house looks like nothing so much as a bunch of spillikins suspended in mid air.


Those photographs are not an argument; they are simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye. But the eye is connected with the brain; the brain with the nervous system. That system sends its messages in a flash through every past memory and present feeling. When we look at those photographs some fusion takes place within us; however different the education, the traditions behind us, our sensations are the same; and they are violent.

What resources do you use to teach the art of war?

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