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War Is Beautiful by David Shields

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War Is Beautiful

Forty years ago, Susan Sontag, in an essay for the New York Review of Books, wrote,

“To photograph people is to violate them… Just as a camera is a sublimation of a gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder.”

This backed her argument that photography was “essentially an act of non-intervention” that shared “complicity” in “another person’s pain or misfortune”.

Susan Sontag noted that Nick Ut’s (Huỳnh Công Út) photo of Kim Phuc, a naked South Vietnamese girl with arms spread, wracked in pain from napalm,

‘Did more to increase the public revulsion against
the war than a hundred hours of televised barbarities’

These essays formed On Photography, such nuance earned it the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977, and it became one of the most important works of literary criticism on photography in the 20th century. The latest addition to this, in a book Noam Chomsky calls “Shattering,” is David Shields’ War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict. To provoke, Shields provides 64 photos taken from The New York Times, 1997-2014, with a brief essay on how Shields dissected thousands of images from front pages. Shields writes:

“Over time I realized these photos glorified war through an unrelenting parade of beautiful images whose function is to sanctify the accompanying descriptions of battle, death, destruction, and displacement.”

His conclusion:

“I found my original take corroborated: the governing ethos was unmistakably one that glamorized war and the sacrifices made in the service of war.”

Shields’ epiphanies lead him to accuse Judith Miller and the Times of,

“—intimate participation in the promotion of the war (that) led directly to immeasurable Iraqi death and destruction”.

Therefore he will,

“No longer read the New York Times”.

Does Shields think substantive benefits would come from such a proclamation?

I don’t.

Shields and I have combated ideas for years, leading to the collaboration on a book and film I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, as well as a curmudgeonly friendship. My understanding of his modus operandi leads me to suspect posturing and intentional irony in displaying the same photos that ‘glamorized’ war to enhance his art, the cover (reminiscent of Rothko) an example. Shields does not deny how photography has contributed to progress, from Mathew Brady’s Civil War black and whites, Walker Stevens’ pictures of the Depression era South, to the contributions of Robert Capa (who died after he stepped on a mine in Vietnam). His focus is only the Times.

The photos hold significance and power, separated into ten chapters, ‘Nature’, ‘Playground’, ‘Father’, ‘God’, ‘Pietà’, ‘Painting’, ‘Movie’, ‘Beauty’, ‘Love’, and ‘Death’, framed with quotes from Cormac McCarthy to Gore Vidal, the majority taken in Afghanistan and Iraq post 9/11, but also some from Aleppo, Bosnia, Gaza, Islamabad, and Arlington National Cemetery.

A soldier’s camouflaged helmet peeks out of a field of pink and white poppies in Afghanistan, an Israeli tank enters Gaza underneath clouds and dust, a niqabi walks in the rust ochre air on a Baghdad street; a crushed piano sits amidst rubble in Saddam Hussein’s son’s palace.

The most beautiful photos, though, display humanity, Shavali refugees in the ruins of the Russian Embassy in Kabul, street girls in Islamabad, an Israeli woman holding a toddler in one arm and leading another through a blood splattered hallway, a Palestinian holding a dying child in Gaza, a marine doctor in Iraq cradling an infant in pink, and Ali Hadi, a professional body washer, preparing a corpse in Najaf, Iraq, as relatives of the deceased watch. Let’s take a look at the selected photos:

They are definitely beautiful.

Do these images propagandize war or elicit revulsion? Does the photo of a one-armed woman bouncing a ball with her physical therapist at Walter Reed Medical Center lead “to immeasurable Iraqi death and destruction?” or to the question, “Was her sacrifice worthy?” In many cases, the verdicts embedded in Shields’ essay fail to complement the photos.

Shields, whose most profound line here is “war is a force that gives us meaning,” taken from Chris Hedges anti-war book, has judged before acknowledging paradox. What Bertolt Brecht wrote in 1931, “Photography, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, has become a terrible weapon against the truth,” contradicts how Don McCullin’s images of the Biafran War caught the attention of the French Red Cross and helped lead to the formation of Doctors Without Borders in 1971. John Berger and Roland Barthes questioned the ethics of photography, Diane Arbus may have exploited her subjects, but withheld judgment.

The relevance of beauty in Shields’ framework, also, betrays his argument. The clumsiness of four Sonderkommando photos does not take away from their spectral and accidental beauty, or the pathos. Should Gilles Peress or Allan Sekula or Sebastião Salgado have been better off using grainy blurred images? Visceral beauty promotes bellicosity as easily as it promotes pacifism.

But Shields will not budge as he asks “Who is culpable?” His answer a bromide, “We all are.” Sigh. Walter Benjamin wrote,

“There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a documentation of barbarism.”

Documentation demands involvement.

What did Nick Ut do after taking his Pulitzer Prize winning photo?

He rushed Kim Phuc to the hospital. I’d wager that most New York Times photojournalists, with encouragement from their higher ups, would have done the same.

(This review is a reprint, previously published at The Express Tribune Blogs)

 

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War Is Beautiful: New York Times war photography leads “directly to immeasurable death and destruction”

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War Is Beautiful
“Forty years ago, Susan Sontag, in an essay for the New York Review of Books, wrote,

“To photograph people is to violate them… Just as a camera is a sublimation of a gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder.”

This backed her argument that photography was “essentially an act of non-intervention” that shared “complicity” in “another person’s pain or misfortune”.

Susan Sontag noted that Nick Ut’s (Huỳnh Công Út) photo of Kim Phuc, a naked South Vietnamese girl with arms spread, wracked in pain from napalm,

‘Did more to increase the public revulsion against
the war than a hundred hours of televised barbarities’

These essays formed On Photography, such nuance earned it the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977, and it became one of the most important works of literary criticism on photography in the 20th century. The latest addition to this, in a book Noam Chomsky calls “Shattering,” is David Shields’ War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict. To provoke, Shields provides 64 photos taken from The New York Times, 1997-2014, with a brief essay on how Shields dissected thousands of images from front pages. Shields writes:

“Over time I realized these photos glorified war through an unrelenting parade of beautiful images whose function is to sanctify the accompanying descriptions of battle, death, destruction, and displacement.”

His conclusion:

“I found my original take corroborated: the governing ethos was unmistakably one that glamorized war and the sacrifices made in the service of war.”

Shields’ epiphanies lead him to accuse Judith Miller and the Times of,

“—intimate participation in the promotion of the war (that) led directly to immeasurable Iraqi death and destruction”.

Therefore he will,

“No longer read the New York Times”.

Does Shields think substantive benefits would come from such a proclamation?

I don’t.

Shields and I have combated ideas for years…continue

Written by Caleb Powell

March 24, 2016 at 12:36 pm

Holland: The Psychopath Sanctuary – Herman Koch’s The Dinner and the Murder of Greg Halman

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“In the Netherlands, for beating to death a fellow human, you might receive eight years, I figured. It wasn’t much. With a little good behavior, a little raking around the prison grounds, you could be out the gates within five.” – Herman Koch, from The Dinner

On November 21, 2011, in Rotterdam, Jason Halman killed his brother Greg. The tragedy of Greg Halman, a Seattle Mariner and one of a few Dutch nationals to play in the Major Leagues, parallels Dutch novelist Herman Koch’s The Dinner. Both show how psychopathy and mental illness can flourish.

Eddy Halman, Patriarch and Perpetrator of Domestic Violence:  The Halman family trials, told by ESPN, detail violence, envy, and restrictive family ties. Papa Halman played professional baseball. He became derailed by alcoholism, a virulent temper, and a penchant for violence, especially towards his wife. One son, Greg Halman, had special talent. He eventually was signed by the Mariners and made his MLB debut in September of 2010. The other son, Jason, took after his father.

Trouble in Holland: Greg Halman showed promise, and in 2011 had 91 At Bats and hit .230 with two homers. His power, speed, and defensive prowess looked to help the Mariners in 2012. After the 2011 season ended he returned to Holland. There, his brother stabbed him to death in an argument over loud music. Jason Halman was released less than a year later  because he suffered from a “psychoses” that was “exacerbated by marijuana use.” There’s more, as the ESPN link shows, but what a gruesome legal and medical system that gives criminally inclined psychopaths treatment with the aim of freeing them.

The Dinner:  Herman Koch’s The Dinner examines two brothers, Paul and Serge, and their wives, Claire and Babette. Serge is a prominent politician and Paul is an educator on leave. Paul and Claire have a son; Serge and Babette have a son, an adopted African son, and a daughter. The four adults dine at a very expensive restaurant in Amsterdam, where they will discuss the fact their three sons are complicit in the murder of a homeless person, fuzzy and ambiguous footage of their crime is caught on security camera. The African son did not commit the murder, but has evidence on his brother and cousin, and thus is  blackmailing them.

Psychopath Patriarch Number Two:  Paul has a past. He assaulted his brother, his superior at school, and received a “punishment” of paid administrative leave, counseling, and psychotropic drugs. Paul believes the elimination of “scum” improves society, and knows the Dutch penal system favors the criminal at expense of society and the victim. He almost obliquely coaches his son not to feel remorse or compassion. By dessert Claire also proves herself nuts. The finale’s disturbing message:  Most sociopaths, despite their craziness, are sane enough to take advantage of the system.

US vs. Holland: This is tangential, but some people may ask, what about the US? In a previous post, A Mexican Foreign Worker vs. Lila Abu-Lughod, a Mexican criticized Algerian culture. In the comments section a friend, rather than engaging, noted that Mexico had similar problems. This is counter productive. When pointing out violence, sexism, racism, and other societal problems, groups tend to look at others rather than themselves. This is especially egregious when a member of one country or religion feels attacked. They misread an attack on misogyny or other injustice as an attack on them. A pan-humanitarian philosophy can avoid this. No matter how different cultures are, humans are humans. What’s wrong in Holland is also wrong in the USA. Example:  Former Angel Lyman Bostock’s Tragic Death, Ethan Couch, ‘Affluenza’ Teen Who Killed 4 In Crash, Given No Jail Time. and Judge lets Spoiled Teen Killer Off. And so?

Freeing sociopaths is bad, period:  Sending the rich and/or insane messages that you can kill with minimum impunity damages everyone in society.

Written by Caleb Powell

March 6, 2014 at 4:36 pm

Murder or Suicide? Caleb Powell Interviews Poe Ballantine at The Sun Magazine

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My interview with Poe Ballantine is out at The Sun Magazine:  We discuss Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere (Hawthorne Books, September 2013), a combo of true crime and literary memoir, and also the subject of a forthcoming documentary by Dave Jannetta.

Literary True Crime Memoir? Poe accidentally fell into a genre that includes compelling books like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil , In Cold Blood, and Kathryn Harrison’s While They Slept.

Murder or Suicide?  Poe was searching for material when Steven Haataja’s corpse was discovered. Poe said off page that Haataja’s death brought to mind another similar case in Poe’s hometown of San Diego that involved the death of Medicis CEO Jonah Shacknai’s girlfriend, Rebecca Zahau. Zahau  had a rag in her mouth, she was found naked and bound, hanging from a balcony, but this was ruled a suicide.

Parallels with Steven Haataja: We segued from Zahua to how Steven Haataja’s tortured and burned corpse came, also, to be viewed by the investigating detectives as a “suicide.” As Poe told me, “The suicide scenario, after you pour in all the supporting evidence, weighs about two grams. Murder weighs about eighteen pounds.”

Small Town America:  Poe weaves settling in Chadron, Nebraska, with his wife he brought back from a teaching stint in Mexico, the birth of a son, and the wacky ordinariness of life in America with this puzzling mystery for a highly entertaining and thoughtful read.

The Sun Magazine excerpt:   Poe Ballantine calls himself a “whiskey-drinking, floor-mopping, gourmet-cooking, wildly prolific writer with a penchant for social commentary.” For nearly three decades he…(full excerpt here)

Jack Remick Reviews Scott Driscoll’s Better You Go Home

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Guest Post by Jack Remick:  Jack Remick co-authored The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, with Robert J. Ray. He has a collection of short fiction, Terminal Weird (Black Heron Press), a novel, The Stolen House (Pig Iron Press) as well as work in The Seattle Five Plus One, an anthology (Pig Iron Press). Jack’s stories and poems have appeared in national magazines such as Carolina Quarterly, Portland Review, Big Hammer, Cafe Noir Review, and Northwind. Remick has lived and worked extensively in Latin America. Check out his websites:  Remick Writes & Bob and Jack’s Writing Blog.

Better You Go Home

Scott Driscoll nails it here. Writing in America in the 21st Century is about family.

Early in our writing we hungered for adventure, the high mountains, the desert, the hunt. We wrote about the diaspora from the Old World to the New and in so doing we lost contact with our roots. Something happened—we fragmented. We got got off track. But family is salvation, and Driscoll makes that clear. Writing in our century is taking us home.

We have to write about family. We are so hungry now for home and family we write about the Marines as family, the family of a baseball team, a business as family. We seek out friends who treat us like family. Family is our great quest—we need to belong.

We are now a nation of single parents, lost children, broken homes, and brother and sister separated by insane immigration policies—once it was no Jews, please, no Chinese, please, no Irish, please. Now, nobody is welcome. Immigration built the country, but in this century, somebody slammed the lid on the melting pot and we’re all cut off.  In these first two decades of the 21st Century, we are shattered. We need to get home. Home, as Robert Frost tells us:

“is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.”

In Scott Driscoll’s novel Better You Go Home (Coffeetown Press, 236 pages, $13.95 trade paperback), you’ll find the word family 106 times, the word home 100 times. Something’s going on here. We return to the Old Country with the protagonist—Chico Lenoch—to a family torn apart by the early diaspora, the Nazi rape of Europe in the Second World War, the Communist theft of the body. Here, in Mother Europa, Driscoll dives into the meaning of family:  Family can hurt, family can heal. Family can punish, family can save. Chico Lenoch is in pain. He’s dying. “I’m looking at renal failure. My doctor gives me a few months, tops. If my internist had his way, I wouldn’t be here now. I’d be home on my couch preparing for dialysis…”

Chico needs help and there’s one chance for salvation—a half sister, the child of the father who abandoned the Old World. Searching for his sister, anxious about his future, Chico returns to his roots but can he even ask family to make the sacrifice that will save him? Family can give you a body part, save you, keep you going. Chico needs this half-sister. On the quest for salvation, Chico discovers that only family can give answers to all his questions about life and death.

The story is complex, the characters rich and thick and vibrant. There’s love and sex, there’s hope and redemption, there’s sin and forgiveness, there’s death and torture. But, as Driscoll tells us, in the right circumstances “…even torture can be a sign of love.”

Reversing the thrust of diaspora and immigration, Chico returns with his father to the Old Country. In the end, homecoming is what it’s all about: “I’m the lucky man,” the father says. “I am with my family in my birth land and free of the hungers that will eat him alive.”

This is a novel we all should read because it might help us get in touch with where we came from. We’re not all that different. Some of us just drive bigger cars.

Discloser:  Jack and Scott both write for Coffeetown Press.

Book Launch Party for Better You Go Home as seen in the Seattle Times Fall Arts Preview:
When: Wednesday, October 2, 7pm
Where: Hugo House, 1534 11th Ave, Seattle, WA 98122

More:  Seattle Times Bestseller Paperback Scott Driscoll / Seattle P-I Interview with Scott Driscoll

Written by Caleb Powell

September 24, 2013 at 4:42 pm

Posted in Book Review, Books

Tagged with ,

Scott Driscoll reviews Murdock Tackles Taos by Robert J. Ray

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Guest Post by Scott Driscoll: Scott Driscoll holds an MFA from the University of Washington and has been teaching creative writing for the University of Washington Extension for seventeen years. His short stories and narrative essays have been published extensively in literary journals and anthologies, including American Fiction ’88, Cimarron Review, Crosscurrents, Gulfstream, Image Magazine, Poets and Writers Magazine, The Seattle ReviewThe South Dakota Review, and others. His narrative essay about his daughter’s coming of age was cited in the Best American Essays, 1998, and while in the MFA program, he won the University of Washington’s Milliman Award for Fiction (1989).

Scott’s debut novel, Better You Go Home, is forthcoming from Coffeetown Press in September, 2013.

A Surprising Feast

Helene Steinbeck is in Taos, New Mexico to plug her latest novel at a writer’s conference.  But in Murdock Tackles Taos, a murder mystery by Robert Ray (Camel Press, 328 pages, $16.95, out June 15, 2013), Helene leads a more thrilling life than most writers. Hiking up Angel Mountain, Helene only misses becoming the target of a high-powered arrow when a stranger garbed in green camos slams her to the ground. Actually, she falls onto a still warm corpse, the latest victim of a local crime syndicate whose twisted boss, Theo Ulster, a Brit with “Special Air Services” training, “tougher than most army rangers,” sublimates a fetish for mother-lust into ritualized pack hunts for unusual prey.

There’s more, of course.  A menu of model-pretty female tennis pros offered for puerile sport.  White slavery.  There is no depravity, it seems, that Ulster’s band of archers has left untried.  None of which—no horror, no matter how gruesome—slows down our hero.  Murdock.  Sleuth for hire.  And, you guessed it, Helene’s savior in camos.

If you’re looking for a tight-lipped Elliot Ness going after baddies with a Doberman-like focus, you won’t find it here.  This is more Gary Cooper in High Noon, a loveable loner with a wry humor, much tenderness for the fairer sex, an unflappable exterior, and, perhaps most notably, an un-erodible belief that exposing corruption is worth any risk—if the pay is right.

Murdock, the revitalized hero of Ray’s earlier murder mystery series, is in Taos on a mission.  Find the missing daughter of an “old Army pal.” As luck would have it, Helene, a creative writing dropout, settled into a career as a detective.  They join forces on this quest and the expectant reader is rewarded with lubricious sex culminating in the kind of respect that makes you want to like the tough guy all the more: “Murdock…gave himself up to her…felt her magic, her mystery.  She was Mother Nature in all her earth-fire force.”

Trouble is, Ulster’s band of archers has no patience for romance.  Before even our heroes divine the full depth of Ulster’s depravity, the reader is treated to a ceremony.  “Silence kept them focused… welded them together in a sacred space where the only act was a ritual older than civilization.” In one of the more gruesome scenes in the novel, the reader has a gallery view as a drugged teen tennis player, surrounded by men and women wearing “robes, masks, and white latex gloves,” engage in “the delicate dance of death.” The victim’s crime? She is a “Lookalike.” She resembles Ulster’s mother, who molested the young-monster-to-be when he was young.

The action heats when our heroes themselves become prey in one of Ulster’s hunts.  But, don’t worry, the search for the missing girl has not been abandoned.  Without giving the ending away, suffice it to say even Murdock can still be “amazed.”  “This woman [Helene] had been battered, bruised, abused, raped, wounded, driven close to death—and yet…”

Ray delivers a hero you want for a pal.  Romance balanced on the knife-edge of danger.  A hunter’s view of the hills outside of Taos.  Bad guys profiting from macabre perversions.  This is a nerve-tingling story.

Packed between the opening’s deadly arrows and the ending’s battle in court, there is enough action to keep you on edge.  You’ll come away hungry for more of this Murdock.

Discloser:  Scott has a forthcoming book with Coffeetown Press. Camel Press is an imprint of same.

Written by Caleb Powell

June 26, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Scott Driscoll Reviews Gabriela and the Widow by Jack Remick

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Guest Post by Scott Driscoll: Scott Driscoll holds an MFA from the University of Washington and has been teaching creative writing for the University of Washington Extension for seventeen years. His short stories and narrative essays have been published extensively in literary journals and anthologies, including American Fiction ’88, Cimarron Review, Crosscurrents, Gulfstream, Image Magazine, Poets and Writers Magazine, The Seattle ReviewThe South Dakota Review, and others. His narrative essay about his daughter’s coming of age was cited in the Best American Essays, 1998, and while in the MFA program, he won the University of Washington’s Milliman Award for Fiction (1989).

Scott’s debut novel, Better You Go Home, is forthcoming from Coffeetown Press in September, 2013.

Gabriela’s Transformation

Jack Remick, in his new novel, considers societies that subordinate women. Gabriela and the Widow (Coffeetown Press, 260 pages, $14.95 trade paperback) opens with Gabriela, a 14-year-old from the rural south of Mexico, forced to bury her mother and embark north following the destruction of her village, violence that includes Gabriela’s brutal rape at the hands of a “Toad” soldier.  Her luck hardly improves. At first.

Her purity of heart and innocence, qualities that cling to her like a serape, attract those who would sell her into sex slavery. But the same qualities also attract a Norteña. Soon Gabriela is over the border seeking maid work in California. She becomes a domestic devoted to helping a wealthy widow archive her memoirs. The widow poses a different danger.

Remick’s novel is rich with heated language that can be harsh like the world that threatens to devour Gabriela, or lush with burgeoning sexual awareness. Still in flight from her persecutors, Gabriela encounters “the toad smell…the smell that tortured her most…it was the smell of something crawling out of the dark…the smell of a fearsome creeping animal, long of tooth and sharp of claw, the smell of the dead, the odor of dried blood, the reek of pus in a deep and infected wound…”

Time passes. Safe in the widow’s villa and sorting the “list” that brings the widow’s past mysteriously back to life, Gabriela has a disturbing reaction to the story of the death of the widow’s husband. While mining in Cameroon, each day railroad cars entered the mountain’s tunnel “and its heat scorched rocks, steam shot out of the rock…even their drill bits melted. When they punched…deeper into her, she spat back boiling water and then she broke. The entire face collapsed…one hundred and one men. Devoured.” Listening to the widow’s story turn the mountain into a metaphor for the destructive power of female lust, Gabriela reacts: “Gabriela’s head was hot, sweat breaking out on her skin, and her palms were wet.” Far from surprised by this reaction, the widow remarks: “You are all heat and sex, Gaby…Look at you. Tus tetas, tus piernas, esa cara. You have the jungle inside you swelling like the vulva of your flower goddess. You are a greenhouse of desire.” The widow sees in Gabriela a protégé, though the widow’s ultimate purpose is not yet revealed.

The end is riveting. Gabriela is transformed, though not into a butterfly of desire. Power is the legacy the widow passes on. Power. Armed, Gabriela hunts down her former tormentors. Not to give too much away, let’s just say their fate befits their crimes. Gabriela’s revenge is swift, exacting, and unforgiving. This is not a neat morality tale. Remick’s novel invites us to taste the blood and to roll in the sweat. It also invites us to enjoy one subordinated woman’s payback.

Discloser:  Scott has a forthcoming book with Coffeetown Press.

Written by Caleb Powell

January 14, 2013 at 8:37 am