Preview of Coming Attractions: Sontag Looks at Images of War

Regarding the Pain of Others , by Susan Sontag. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 131 pages, $20.

In The Reprieve , the second novel of his “Roads to Freedom” trilogy, Jean-Paul Sartre captured the dismal atmosphere of France on the eve of war with Hitler, when defeatism often wore the badge of pacifism. His character Brunet notices the slogans-“No more war. Negotiations not war. Peace first”-and reflects sourly on how many of the activists are female: “Women always get it wrong; in 1914 they bundled their men off to the front, when they ought to have lain down on the rails to prevent the trains from starting, and now when there might be some sense in fighting, you’re founding peace leagues and doing all you can to break your men’s morale.”

I would not normally have dreamed of deploying Sartre against Sontag, but quite late in Regarding the Pain of Others , a beautiful but rather confusing book, she poses the following question: “Is there an antidote to the perennial seductiveness of war? And is this a question a woman is more likely to pose than a man? (Probably yes.)”

If it weren’t for the “probably,” she would not be Susan Sontag. She knows as well as anybody about the war-relish record of Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir, as well as the pacifism of Robert Lowell, Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy. So it’s a cause for regret that she doesn’t resolve to answer her own chromosomal questions, except by posing another one: “Could one be mobilized actively to oppose war by an image (or a group of images) as one might be enrolled among the opponents of capital punishment by reading, say, Dreiser’s An American Tragedy ?”

The difficulty here is the use of the word “war” without any definite article. It was Susan Sontag’s tough-minded stand on Greater Serbia’s war of aggression which helped galvanize many people to swallow their own misgivings about an American military counterstroke. On that occasion, she went very bravely to see for herself. But there were many photographers and filmmakers who made Sarajevo fairly real to those who never saw or smelled it.

This book, a successor in some ways to On Photography (1977), approaches the problem of imagery from multiple perspectives, one of which is female. Ms. Sontag quotes with apparent sympathy from Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (1938), where, in an exchange with a male correspondent, Woolf asserted that atrocity photographs from Spain would depend for their effect on whether the viewer was a man or a woman. I’ve always thought this a very dubious proposition: The fieriest propagandist for war in Republican Spain was Dolores Ibarruri (“La Pasionaria”), and one of the finest poems of the period is Edgell Rickword’s “To the Wife of a Non-Interventionist Statesman,” picturing the loathing any decent woman must feel for a man so spineless as to be neutral in the face of fascism. It may well be true that men have more feeling for war as a matter of pride or testosterone, but the most frequently offered justification is the defense (or avenging) of women and children, and there have been as many Pasionarias urging the men folk on as there have been Lysistratas. The war gene is part of our common mammalian makeup, proof of our animal and partly evolved status as well as a potent spur to innovation. With such large adrenal glands, we may one day exterminate each other completely; without them, we might have died out already.

Once at a bullfight and once at an execution, I experienced the simultaneous urge to look away and to keep looking. (One can experience the same conflict at crime scenes and accidents.) The central part of Ms. Sontag’s essay asks whether our exposure to cruelty and suffering, or rather our exposure in its vicarious form, has a coarsening or a pedagogic effect. And the cleverest part of it compares the recent prevalence of photography to the older school of painting. In my experience, Goya’s sequence The Disasters of War is infinitely more powerful than Matthew Brady’s rather wooden shots of the Civil War, or Robert Capa’s overexposed frame of a single Spanish soldier at the moment he apparently takes a bullet. Many of the most celebrated early war photographs were in fact staged and posed: Ms. Sontag points out that it’s not until Vietnam that we can be fairly certain we’re not looking at propaganda. Nothing can lie like a camera, in other words. Whereas Otto Dix’s Goya-like paintings of the Western front, or Jacques Callot’s series of 17th-century etchings, The Miseries and Misfortunes of War , will stand for all time as a reminder of what we do when we make war. And nobody ever accused the Old Masters of daubing away in order to titillate. Ms. Sontag, whose review of Callot is a high point, might have done well to quote Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” with its opening line: “About suffering they were never wrong / The Old Masters.”

The Old Masters also had briefer and riskier lives, whereas we permanently suspect ourselves of “glamorizing” or even “aestheticizing” violence, and of doing so from a safe distance. This moral danger can be overstated, as it often is by those who want to demonstrate their own superior sensitivity. (“Compassion fatigue” is a syndrome from which only others are alleged to suffer.) People want to see as much as they can, and this instinct is not deplorable. The photographers who bring us the most graphic and haunting material-I’m thinking of Don McCullin and Sebastiao Salgado and Susan Meiselas-do not become numbed or affectless by repeated exposure, and their desire to share at secondhand is not ignoble. Ms. Sontag deftly points out that witnesses of calamities or crimes like the World Trade Center attack now typically say “It felt like a movie,” where they used to say “It felt like a dream.” I’d say that was a slight improvement, from the point of view of realism. She also pleads for less shame about the beauty of certain images, instancing some of the hypnotizing panoramas of Ground Zero. One might go further and say that the film of planes blossoming into towering pyres is also weirdly beautiful-and should be shown more often than it now is, though not for “aesthetic” reasons.

In point of fact, the truly horrible is hardly ever recorded. Planes crash all the time, but this is the only real film we have of such an event. Those who made souvenir pictures of lynchings decided to show only the aftermath, not the drawn-out mutilation and burning. At the J.F.K. museum in Dallas, the exploding head of the President is not shown in the Zapruder film, and most people have never “really” seen this, the first televised assassination. There’s no film of the Final Solution, or of Rwanda while the machetes were still at work. Even the subhuman goons who decapitated Daniel Pearl spared us one or two crucial frames of their ritual murder snuff video. The ambition of the camera, to approximate as nearly as possible to reality, has some distance to travel before it’s vindicated. We’re still being shielded more than we’re being exposed-as Ms. Sontag implicitly concedes when she identifies past fakes and euphemisms in the photographic world. Surely she doesn’t feel that we were more humane then? (If the Somme and Verdun had become a “living-room war,” the conflict might have ended sooner.)

There are one or two near-miss generalizations that express her ambivalences. It may be true to say that “all politics, like all of history, is concrete.” But is it wise to add: “To be sure, nobody who really thinks about history can take politics altogether seriously”? Is it really the case that “Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time”? Muhammad Ali would seem to offer one refutation of this, and the recent evolution of “precision guided missiles” and selective targeting another, even more compelling one.

The book closes with a rather unsatisfying statement about the unimaginability of war except at firsthand. But this seems to risk a tautology-it was presumably unimaginable to the combatants and survivors also, until it became their turn, as it so often does. There’s no real way of being “antiwar,” but there are several means of evading the dilemma. Dalton Trumbo wrote Johnny Got His Gun (1939), one of the greatest “antiwar” fictions in the American canon, as a satire on the “war to end all wars,” and many years later made it into a splendid film. But when it was first published, he was appalled to see his masterpiece pirated and reprinted by American fascist groups, many of them masquerading as “Mothers for Peace” and what have you, and tried hard to prevent this abuse of his work. But was it really an abuse to take him at his word? Those who are most genuinely repelled by war and violence are also those who are most likely to decide that some things, after all, are worth fighting for. This supplies the element of tragedy in human affairs, but it also contains a much-overlooked aspect of hope.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair . His most recent book is Why Orwell Matters (Basic Books).