Writing Wars

  • Sherrill Grace (Editor) and Patrick Imbert (Editor)
    Bearing Witness: Perspectives on War and Peace from the Arts and Humanities.(purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Joel Baetz

Every war has its art. Poets and painters rush to their notepads and sketchbooks as soldiers rush to the front lines, war rooms, or conflict zones. Virgil wrote his song about arms and man; Shakespeare, Goya, Whitman, Woolf, DeLillo and countless others (with varying degrees of skill, with varying perspectives on the necessity and outcomes of their wars) followed suit. War is one of the great subjects for the arts. But because of its scope, ideological complexity, and affective burden, it is notoriously difficult to render in a painting or poem or play. Yet artists keep returning to the subject and insisting on their relevance or even their necessity to document and interpret proximate and distant battles.

For nearly every piece of war art, there is a defense of its existence. Picasso famously discussed his art, for instance, as a form of attack and defense against enemy forces; Tim O’Brien has long shielded his war stories against accusations of lying by talking about his elliptical narrative style as the best way for him to get at the elusive spiritual and emotional truths about the war. The frequency of these defenses (and, on occasion, their tonal intensity) betrays an anxiety about the relationship between war and art that they aim to justify. Even as these artists insist on the necessity of their productions to interpret war, they seem to realize how easily or how frequently their art can be dismissed, as frivolous or even harmful. Or as Sherrill Grace puts it, in the introduction to Bearing Witness (and this is the central motivation for the volume), “the voices and views of people working in the areas included in the broad category of ’arts and humanities’ were rarely heard in contemporary discussions of war or peace”; and they deserve to be. They make important contributions “to the wider discussion of issues usually considered the purview of government policy makers, political scientists, scholars in peace and conflict studies.”

Bearing Witness collects fourteen essays by historians, art critics, semiologists, artists, and literary critics on various aspects of war and peace in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. To give some shape to the volume, the essays are divided into four sections: the reasons why people fight; the art, literature, and photography of war; the rhetoric of war and peace; and two artists’ reflections (one by a filmmaker, the other by a composer) on the creation of war art. The essays themselves range in topic—from video game culture to WWI and WWII Canadian poetry to the depiction of corpses in Canadian war art to avant-garde German war poetry—and are diverse in almost every way. The third section, for instance, leaps from an examination of the rhetoric of war and peace produced by western democracies and the Taliban to a comparative analysis of South Africa’s negotiated settlement and the Israel/Palestine peace process to a rendition of a northern Aboriginal community’s participation in the extraction of radium.

There are some wonderful ideas—and some wonderful essays—in this volume. In particular, Alan Filewod’s examination of video games as warplay (and, for that reason, reminiscent of historical re-enactment practices) stands out as ambitious and erudite, especially for its emphasis on the obligation produced by homosocial bonding and for its careful reading of the practices by which war video games legitimize “a narrative of war as regulated and professionalized, as uniformed, and as the organized operation of legalized force.” Sandra Djwa’s essay offers a good catalogue of war work produced by three of Canada’s most recognizable modernists: E. J. Pratt, F. R. Scott, and P. K. Page. Christl Verduyn and Conny Steenman Marcusse’s history of Dutch photographer Emmy Andriesse’s most popular works is moving and thoughtful; their skillful combination of historical context and close reading (with particular attention to metaphor and composition) illuminate her “documentary intentions” and “aesthetic concerns.” Jonathan F. Vance’s essay is judicious as it reorients some longstanding ideas about motivations for enlistment in Canada. Finally, Peter C. Van Wyck’s history of the Dene community’s involvement in the mining of radium and the secrecy surrounding it (both rendered in vocabularies of toxicity and suppression) is an outstanding contribution; his ideas find fuller articulation in The Highway of the Atom (2011); but here they are a welcome introduction to the ethical dimensions of a hidden part of the north’s history.

More generally, I’m struck by the creativity of these essays, the diversity in approach and subject matter, their refusal of old and misleading binaries (which pit war against peace or the reality of war against the lies of the home front), and the careful attention to language, performance, and line. This collection stands as a rich archive of vibrant ideas about trauma, death, greed, violence, and recovery. The volume shows what is possible when smart people think creatively about the burdens of war and the exigencies of peace.

But I do have one reservation. With so many different approaches and so many different topics, I wonder if a more focused or clearer organization of the volume would be more helpful. These war and peace efforts are drastically different, each located in its own historical moment with its own particular circumstances. “War” is a broad placeholder for different events and different experiences on different continents in different time periods. And the specificity of the essays—their admirable and careful attention to particular formulations of historically-dependent ideas—makes it difficult to reach conclusions about war in the past hundred years or so. The gaps are sometimes too large to bridge or facilitate understanding. To recall the volume’s central motivation: with so many voices and views competing for attention, the risk is that they can’t or won’t be heard.

Still, this collection of essays is both admirable and useful. Its high quality is easily recognized and defended.

This review “Writing Wars” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 159-61.

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