“Even though a photograph is still … we trust it to tell the truth more vividly than a carefully-researched article. However, the reaction to the Abu Ghraib photographs show us a different tendency, to acknowledge that the images are horrific but to excuse the actions as stemming from circumstances not visible in the photographs, beyond the range of the camera lens. The images seem to show Iraqi detainees being abused and humiliated by American soldiers. But the terms ‘abuse’ and ‘humiliation’ are a matter of one’s subjectivity – we must ask whether or not we care that these detainees are being mistreated. We silently assess whether or not we feel that the treatment of these detainees is deserved. The terms ‘abuse’ and ‘humiliation’ hold no currency. And even if they do, the affective currency is judged to be less severe than the gruesome beheadings of American citizens, also captured on video.”(pgs 82-83.)
When I opened up to the beginning pages of this book, I expected to find a political discussion. But, to be sure, while the politics is there in the background, instead I found a thoughtfully crafted theological and philosophical discussion that focused upon the effects of art, violence and war in our society. Now the effects of art in our culture does not immediately strike one as closely related to such a topic as what has been called the American War on Terror. But Griffith argues otherwise, and he does so both passionately and convincingly.
This was a challenging book for me to read. I spent one year in Iraq in the Army. I saw just a little action (not compared to others who experienced far more than I did). But I had friends who died there. I have friends who were permanently hurt there. The topic of the war in Iraq is therefore a difficult one for me. I can’t whine or complain about personally going through any real suffering over there. But, it was life-changing. I met and made friends with Iraqis over there. They were people just like us who wanted to be free. And then again, they weren’t “just like us.” Their religion was obviously different. Their traditions, social conventions, beliefs, education or lack thereof, and practices were different from ours. Their history was different (and much more ancient) than ours. And yet, again, I would say they were still just like us.
Because of the American men and women who died over there, because of all the freedom loving Iraqi men and women who died over there, because of the friends I made over there, because of all the many children who smiled at me over there, because of all the time and effort and promises that Americans have made and invested over there, I want to see the Iraqi people be free. My prayer and hope is that we helped them. I want to believe that there are less evil men, less tyrants, less al-Qaeda, less political and religious oppression, and less human rights violations because American military forces entered the country in 2003 and then left the country in 2011.
Human nature being what it is, that may be too much to ask for. And yet, I don’t really think there’s anything else we ought to ask for instead.
But then Americans and Iraqis both have the same problems that are derived from an inherently fallen human nature. So, we didn’t help them as well as would be ideal. We didn’t even help them as well as we should have or could have. And, I fully acknowledge the argument to be made that, due to our own problems, we shouldn’t have attempted to help them at all.
After reading A Good War is Hard to Find – The Art of Violence in America, I can heartily say that I deeply appreciate David Griffith’s thoughtfulness and I look forward to reading whatever he writes in the future. After digesting it all, I can’t say that I’m quite sure what to make of the title. The idea of a “just war” has been a subject extensively explored in the writings of Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle and Cicero. St. Thomas Aquinas reflected upon it in his Summa Theologica, as later did the Jesuit thinker, Francisco de Vitoria, and the Dutch Enlightenment philosopher, Hugo Grotius. Machiavelli, Edmund Burke, and more recently Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz, have all engaged upon the subject with both brilliance and passion.
Now that I think about it, according to all these thinkers, a “just” war is both a legitimate cause and a difficult one. The vast majority of people who have fought wars in human history probably all insisted that their war was a good one, and the majority of them have probably been wrong.
But Griffith is interested, for purposes of his book, in exploring the relation of art and culture upon popular notions of war. He argues persuasively that Americans have been desensitized to violence, and that the haunting images of Abu Ghraib are proof of the result of the culture that we have allowed to develop in our own country. Many of us can get this far on our own. But then the questions begin on whether the culture of our own society now hinders our ability to do good – to use military force for what is right – around the rest of the world.
Griffith also seems to be fundamentally interested in our own responses to this “proof.” My friend, Nathanael Booth, told me that he thought Griffith’s book was less about image-culture or desensitization and more about “how we respond to moments – in film or photographs or prose – that threaten our self-image. What Faulkner and O’Connor and Blue Velvet and Abu Ghraib all have in common is that we cannot look on them indifferently.” We’ll explore this further.
No matter what your experiences or opinions, you cannot discount Griffith’s horror of war, which he effectively describes with intelligent insight into the art of images and with highly sympathetic descriptive detail. His questions are honest and soul-searching. His revulsion at the evil and brutality that human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another (in times of war or peace) is real, shattering, and infectious.
The questions he asks are worth asking – and I have not heard very many of them intelligently asked or reflected upon anywhere else before that I can think of. What do the Abu Ghraib photographs tell us about the “War on Terror”? What do they tell us about who we are – as Americans or as human beings? What do our reactions to (and our explanations for) these photographs tell us about who we are? How does abuse like this originate – and how have we created a culture of which this is a product?
When you see an eye-catching or devastating image, your first and perhaps unconscious response is to interpret for yourself what the image means and, often, to distance yourself from it. Most people do this when they see a horrendous photograph or a work of art, and then move on to the next thing. Griffith is asking the reader for more.
First, what does this image or work of art mean?
But second, what does your personal response to the image or work of art mean? And what does it mean about you as a person?
We usually do not reflect upon what can we learn from stepping back and looking at how we respond to news, art or entertainment. We often engage at the first level – discussing the news, the disturbing photographs, the ideas of a book or film. But we are also capable of engaging at a second level – looking at the effects that these things have upon us.
Iraqi, Afghan, Middle Eastern and worldwide reactions to events like the abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib are cold hard evidence that points to the conclusion that our modern day culture IS, without any doubt, hindering, handicapping and sabotaging our ability to lead and to be both a voice and a force for what is right and just in the rest of the world. Some liberal, libertarian and progressive voices question whether we have a “right” to be this force in the world. More on this also later.
You hear jokes about how the highest rated current American television shows are perfect al-Qaeda recruitment videos. But such jokes have an uncomfortable ring of truth to them. In fact, satirical filmmaker, Bobcat Goldthwait, just made a film, God Bless America, where modern American pop culture inspires a couple of mass murderers (all for comic effect of course).
“The photos from Abu Ghraib have catalyzed a new generation of politically motivated Iraqi artists … The image speaks to the perceived corruption of the American occupation and the deep hypocrisy of America, a nation founded on religious tolerance, compassion and universal justice.” (pg. 29)
Is this what we’ve become? Are most Americans now hypocrites? Do we ignore the very principles that are supposed to have created our very existence? Art works based on the inhumane abuse at Abu Ghraib are essentially declaring this to be the case.
“In Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, we hear American soldiers in Iraq discussing the specific type of music they listen to while in combat. One soldier describes how he plugs a portable CD player into the communication system of the tank so he can hear the music in his headset. The song? ‘The roof. The roof. The roof is on fire. We don’t need no water. Let the motherfucker burn. Burn motherfucker burn.’” (pg. 75)
Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three are not exceptions or atypical instances of the music and lyrics that most American youth spend their time listening to. It’s a highly popular type of music and it affects our attitudes, feelings, desires and opinions.
The idea here is that American culture is suddenly a good and understandable reason for the rest of the world to reject anything we try to do for them. We are supposed to hold to certain inalienable truths about mankind as self-evident, but because of the way we live and act, our pretending to act for these goals smacks of outright arrogance and hypocrisy. Why should any God-fearing Muslim, in Afghanistan, Iraq, or, for that matter, even Iran, want anything to do with what now remains of Western culture? How easy do we make it for them to think of us as corrupt, depraved, hard-hearted or evil? Quite easy.
ON THE NATURE OF EVIL AND THE IDEA OF SIN
Griffith is interested in the fact that the photos of Abu Ghraib show us evil. But our modern day view of evil is warped. Our society no longer lives as if we even understand what human depravity really is. The evidence for this consists in the explanations Americans give for what happened at Abu Ghraib. When those who are supposed to be the good guys commit acts of criminal atrocity, how do you explain it? The most obvious answer is that we are not the “good guys” after all. While it’s a popular answer for the anti-war crowd, it’s not an answer that many of us want. But even if it’s not necessarily the answer, Griffith points out that even our response to something like this can be damaging –
“The images of Abu Ghraib have been treated not as evidence of acts of sin and barbarity against other human beings but as pure deviance with no human origins except psychosis – a disordered brain. America’s response to atrocity on the part of its citizens has been to deny that those particular soldiers ‘speak for us’ or ‘represent’ the larger good America stands for. This is the most harmful response imaginable from a spiritual standpoint, revealing a profound misunderstanding of sin and evil.” (pg. 100)
Indeed, the idea of sin does not fit with modern sensibilities, sensibilities that have been attracted and comforted by the thinking of men like Peter L. Berger, Thomas Luckmann, John Dewey and B.F. Skinner. Bad things are the products of bad environments, they say. If American soldiers like Charles Graner or Lynndie England are capable of doing what they did, it is because their backgrounds shaped them to be that way. In this view, a bad environment won out over any good outside influences upon people like U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales or the French killer, Mohamed Merah. The result is a secularized reductionist version of Manichaeism. Mani’s dualistic/gnostic view of view was both watered down and not far removed from how behaviorist philosophers think of evil in the theoretical sense.
“‘Manichaeism’ – or Dualism – was a third century religion inspired by a Persian, Mani. It claimed the universe was governed by two, eternal, separate – and equal – forces: Good and Evil. Dualism has a certain attraction for Christians. In fact, in his ‘Mere Christianity’, C.S. Lewis said, ‘I personally think that next to Christianity, Dualism is the manliest and most sensible creed on the market.’ But, Lewis continued, ‘It has a catch to it.’ Lewis, drawing from St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, does his usual brilliant job of refuting Dualism – that the one eternal principle in Christianity, God, is good, that everything God made is good, and that evil is a perversion of the good:
‘And do you now begin to see why Christianity has always said that the devil is a fallen angel? That is not a mere story for children. It is a real recognition of the fact that evil is a parasite, not an original thing. The powers that enable evil to carry on are powers given to it by goodness. All the things which enable man to be effectively bad are in themselves good things – resolution, cleverness, good looks, existence itself. That is why dualism, in a strict sense, will not work.’
How to account for evil, then? Lewis continues: ‘God created things which have free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right.’ Evil is the pursuit of good things – pleasure, love, money, power, ‘by the wrong method.’” (pgs. 33-34)
Explaining away the abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib as merely psychological abnormality is a good example of denying the existence of sin or evil. It’s very easy to say that Graner and England were merely deviants, exceptions to the rule, products of irregular and twisted environments. All we need to do is just to keep molding our own environment so that it doesn’t produce this sort of thing. We just need to make sure that the forces of a good environment win out over the forces of a bad environment, nevermind where the very idea of good and evil actually originates.
“In America, as in most cultures, evil, when found thriving in one’s midst is ‘an embarrassment, a thing that one should diplomatically distance themselves from,’ according to Reverend James Schall, S.J. – an instinctive reaction that has serious problems. To step back, to wash one’s hands of evil, is to ‘make possible precisely the opposite state to that which [the innocent bystander] desire[s]. For they actually multiply evil by leaving the filed free to those who have little scruple with the good.’ Therefore, man cannot simply ‘withdraw’ from the evil world in some simple or naive fashion. For if one does not admit the possibility of the presence of God and evil in the same universe – which is logically what someone who wants nothing to do with evil really believes – only two alternatives remain. Either God does not exist or evil is something that can be removed by unaided human effort.” (pgs. 100-101)
I fully admit to be attracted to the idea that the abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib was abnormal. Wasn’t it? Most of my friends in the army would not do these sorts of things. Most American soldiers in Vietnam did not kill women and children. Most soldiers in WWII did not torture or sexually abuse prisoners. Most German soldiers in WWII did not run concentration camps. During the Abu Ghraib controversy, Congressmen were calling for heavy reform in the United States military. I’ve seen political “reforms” in the military before and they are usually pretty worthless. I was (and still am) persuaded by William F. Buckley Jr.’s logic when he wrote, on May 14, 2004:
“But we do not need any reforms … there are no reforms indicated in the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. What was done was against 1) regulations, 2) army convention, and 3) civilized tradition. What do the reformers want? Pre-induction courses for U.S. soldiers in which they are told not to strip and torture captives and photograph them naked? Should there be, also, a course on how they should not fire guns at their own officers? Is there nothing that can be taken for granted?
… The lieutenant affiliated with the delinquent soldiers should have done more than he did, should have passed word about what happened on to battalion headquarters … Rumsfeld held back for several weeks telling Bush about it, and he has been reprimanded. We reasonably assume that Rumsfeld thought the delay would give army investigators time to trace the special rot that infected the perpetrators. Something a little different from just plain original sin.
Everybody suffers from that, but not everybody ties strings to genitalia and simulates electrocution.
The singularity of this offense — precisely its failure to be routine — puts it on a plane with the singularity of those Arabs in Fallujah who hacked Americans to pieces and hung them up on a bridge. We swore to avenge that crime and are bent on doing so. But we have distinguished between those Arabs, and others who do not engage in such conduct.
Our singling out the men — and women — at Abu Ghraib as different, as criminals to be distinguished from non-criminals, is all the perspective we need in handling this case. No reforms are needed. What is needed is the reenergizing of codes of conduct. After the My Lai massacre in 1968, we needed not fresh rules, but reaffirmation of existing rules, and the vindication of American honor came in the corporate feeling of revulsion over what was done.”
War is a terrible thing. War involves the exercise of great power. The exercise of great power corrupts those men who exercise it. Therefore, in every war, there are instances of abuse of power. Civilian massacres, torture, theft, rape, pillaging, murder … it all sounds so easy to summarize with words on paper. And Buckley is not wrong that American abuses like at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantanamo Bay, the My Lai Massacre, the No Gun Ri Massacre, Operation Teardrop, the Bombing of Dresden, the village on the Motobu Peninsula, Wounded Knee … these are the exceptions to the rule. But what does pointing out that that only a minority of American soldiers are abusive accomplish? Isn’t the purpose to excuse American conduct as a whole? Isn’t it to prove that most American soldiers are not guilty of the same sorts of things? Yes, it is.
“So what do the Abu Ghraib photos actually show us? Cropped, yes, the pictures suggest the work of only a handful of reservists. But uncropped they show more soldiers, some identified as military intelligence officers, standing around, a few watching, others preoccupied with the most mundane activities. One picture reveals a man cleaning his fingernails.” (pg. 30)
There is far more to human rights abuse questions than who the perpetrators are. When Edmund Burke famously alluded to how evil is successful, he was looking at the majority … of us. We would all like to believe that most of us wouldn’t do things like Graner and England, and we would probably be right. But we would also like to believe that most of us, if we saw something evil happening, would act – would actually do something to stop it. On this point, history has not encouraged this belief. In fact, the images and and the violence that entertains us so often in our culture today does not encourage this belief either.
From a natural law perspective, or from a Christian perspective, we are not just culpable for the evil we commit. We are also culpable for the evil that we see and do nothing to stop or prevent. When we excuse ourselves by pointing out that criminal acts are committed by criminals (a minority of the population) are are excusing our own culpability. And it is perfectly natural for us to want to do so.
There is something about our culture where we have taught ourselves that evils committed, even by fellow Americans in the past, are deviations from the norm – separated from who we really are today, in our more tolerant, progressive and enlightened age. When we look at violent images from our past, what is our response? To distance ourselves from these images? Too use them as proof of how superior we have become compared to our recent ancestors? Griffith writes about visiting an Andy Warhol exhibit:
“Warhol was not a brave and courageous man but a depressed and morally dislocated artist with enough Catholic sensibility to see that America’s greatest art is not its plumbing, as Marcel Duchamp famously said, but its spectacularly banal violence.
I had this realization looking at the 2000 exhibit ‘Without Sanctuary’ at The Andy Warhol Museum, a private collection of lynching photographs made between the 1890s and 1930s in small town America. Some images were made into postcards and were sent to relatives in other states as souvenirs.
Sontag wrote of the photos: ‘More than a few show grinning spectators, good churchgoing citizens as most of them had to be, posing for a camera with the backdrop of a naked, charred, mutilated body hanging from a tree. The display of these photos makes us spectators, too.’
These horrific images were flanked by Warhol’s own silkscreens of lynchings. Standing in a gallery of the Warhol Museum, I was repulsed by the original photos but felt nothing for Warhol’s. And it wasn’t just me. All around me, school children who had been bussed in from the suburbs to take in the show glanced at Warhol’s, then quickly at the originals, then back at Warhol’s, and then moved on to the gift shop. Warhol’s images are executed with no passion, which requires an understanding of the events depicted. To Warhol, they were graphic and arresting, but what of the deep truth they reveal about humankind? I wanted some assurance that the students understood those photos weren’t simply ‘random’ – as young people like to say – or ‘demented.’ If the photos weren’t being seen as evidence of the human capacity for atrocity, then what the hell is the purpose of such an exhibit? I cringed at the idea that they would go back to their classrooms and spend the rest of the day saying isn’t it awful what those people did to those other people.” (pgs. 103-104)
We now live in an age where we cannot even conceive how lynching someone in your town square because his or her skin color was different from yours is possible. It doesn’t even register in our brains how people could do this. We’re so much better than that now. We’ve evolved to have a higher understand of what is really right and wrong. We’re past all that nonsense. No more Southern lynchings. No more concentration camps. No more genocidal cavalry charges through Native American villages. No more Spanish Inquisitions. No more Crusades. How incredibly stupid our ancestors were.
It is this kind of thinking that Griffith is afraid of.
It is this kind of thinking that Griffith’s book is devoted to challenging.
If good and evil are merely social conventions we have created, then evil is merely a breaking of the social norms of the majority. The majority is not to be blamed. The rest of us can look down our noses with disapproval at those who are abnormal and discuss how best to fix the environmental disadvantages and errors of education that caused all those distasteful episodes in history. But, if one takes theology and philosophy seriously, one might believe that this is the sort of thinking that allows evil in the first place. This is the sort of philosophy that dominated Germany in the 1920s and 30s. This is the sort of philosophy that is simply assumed in our current entertainment oriented culture.
One writer Griffith discusses throughout his book is the Catholic thinker and storyteller, Flannery O’Connor. Her often violent and gruesome tales are disliked by many. A large number of people didn’t, and don’t, like O’Connor’s stories. Sin and evil are real in O’Connor’s stories, and they dominate most of her characters actions and decisions. When she was criticized for this, she argued that removing the fact of sin from fiction has destructive consequences. Griffith explains O’Connor’s argument, that when you remove the idea of sin from your thinking:
“Life, or literature, becomes either sentimental or obscene, and while ‘preferring the former, and being more of an authority on the latter,’ the Catholic reader fails to see their similarity. ‘He forgets,’ [Flannery O’Connor] continues, that:
‘sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence and that innocence whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite … Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite.’
The opposite of innocence? Abu Ghraib, maybe? When we consider the United States, was there ever a country more naively, optimistically moral? But by separating sin from nature, we forever see ourselves as innocent and exceptional – a chosen people ordained by God to rid the earth of evil in a War on Terror. Was there ever a greater occasion for pride? Is this the real meaning of the Abu Ghraib photographs? Are these images evidence of the subterranean flaw beneath our benevolent, Christian surface?” (pgs. 35-36.)
As I understand it, O’Connor’s insight here is that rejecting the idea of sin is essentially a result of being too sentimental. Sentimentality is the indulgence in feel good emotions – feelings indulged in to make us feel better about ourselves. We often use violent and horrible images from history – at least our reflexive reaction to them – is to remind ourselves that we are not like that. We aren’t like those sinful people. And since we’re aren’t like those bad southern Americans who lynched African-Americans, then we can feel good about our own state of innocent superiority.
The images of lynchings are used by us (even if unconsciously) to remind us that we are the rule to be distinguished from the exceptions.
Our immediate reactions to the images of the abuse at Abu Ghraib are to remember that most Americans would never do that.
“[S]entimentality plays a central role in modern culture – it is the mask with which fantasy conceals its cynical self-regard. Sentimental feeling is easy to confuse with the real thing, for, on the surface at least, they have the same object … For the sentimentalist it is not the object but the subject of emotion that is important. Real love focuses on the other: it is gladdened by his pleasure and grieved by his pain. The unreal love of the sentimentalist focuses on the self, and treats the pleasures and pains of its object only as an excuse for playing the role that most appeals to it.
… Sentimentality, like fantasy, is at war with reality. It consumes our finite emotional energies in self-regarding ways and numbs us to the world of real people. It atrophies our sympathies, by guiding them into worn and easy channels, and so destroys not only our ability to feel, but also our ability to bring help where help is needed and to take risks on behalf of higher things.”
– Roger Scruton, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, pgs. 64-66
This is partly why I find David Griffith’s book so provocative. I believe he is asking the right questions. And the answers to his questions – that we are not as innocent as we would like to believe we are, that my reactions to violent imagery is demonstrative of my own erroneous thinking – have further consequences. Some of the reasonable deductions from Griffith’s thinking results in criticizing and condemning the American life that I so value.
EXPLANATIONS THAT CONDEMN AMERICA
“… those Christians who believe that the Abu Ghraib photos show nothing more than a few demented soldiers reveal a great tolerance for violence and a belief that psychology has the power to redeem. We can diagnose and heal ourselves.
In this way, the Abu Ghraib photos are the very picture of the American soul in conflict with itself. Because even though ‘bad apples’ have been punished and discharged from the military, and I imagine some more court martials are to come, there still exists the political will of the American people to fight the War on Terrorism. The court martials suggest that the acts of Graner and England and others are isolated, not in any way a product of the way war is waged, thus exculpating American policy. The United States has the political will to keep fighting the War on Terror because we fear another September 11th, a true tragedy in every sense of the word, a graphic, dramatic event whose rationale is unfathomable, nearly demonic, and whose image of the Twin Towers collapsing is lasting and haunting – an event that should cause reflection on mankind, but has drawn more reflection on what it means to be an American.” (pg. 159)
There are possible answers and conclusions here that we have to be careful with. I do not believe psychology can solve the problem of evil. Neither do I believe mankind can save itself. But I also do not believe the Abu Ghraib photographs are pictures of the American soul. I do not the believe there is anything wrong with the will to fight against terorrism. And I do not believe that fighting for natural law principles ought to be motivated by fear or that the image of the two World Trade Center towers ought to distinguish what it means to be an American.
These questions and ideas are much more sophisticated than that and when Griffith writes how he sees “America with all its attendant myths and legends stripped away” (pg. 180) I struggle to follow what he is trying to say. It is too easy to look the moral problems in American history and then condemn the country as a result. This is the sort of thinking that led Ron Paul to declare that American Foreign Policy was to blame for 9/11.
Griffith attacks the idea that America is a “Christian” nation, and I agree with him that this is an idea worthy of attack. But American Foreign Policy involves questions other than whether we are good enough to fight against evils around the world. Instances of abuse of power, human rights violations and military crimes in violation of the moral law occur during both just wars and unjust wars. Whether we ought to use military force to intervene in the affairs of the globe is a question that cannot be answered by exhibiting images of the sinful results of our own nature.
“The current foreign policy debate is at bottom about commitments and intervention – about when the United States should risk the lives of American soldiers overseas to solve other people’s problems. This debate did not suddenly arise during the cold war nor since it ended, but has instead been the central theme of American discussions of foreign policy since the country was founded. Does American security require intervening overseas to promote the expansion of democracy, or is the United States instead safer by avoiding entanglement in foreign crises? …
In December 1914, several months after the war had just begun, President Wilson told Congress that it was ‘a war with which we have nothing to do, whose causes cannot touch us.’ Wilson repeatedly sought ways to help mediate a peace settlement, as Roosevelt had done during previous conflicts, but had no intention of intervening if they failed. The most successful slogans during Wilson’s reelection campaign in 1916 were, ‘He kept us out of war,’ and ‘War in the East, peace in the West, thank God for Wilson.’”
– Elliott Abrams, Security and Sacrifice – Isolation, Intervention, and American Foreign Policy, pgs. 1 and 63
One of the things that these images ought to do is remind us that we are only interested in fighting “just” wars. There are moral laws that we ought to follow when we engage in war. There are considerable difficulties in making the decision to engage in war (and that is an understatement). If there are those who argue that the moral law demands that we never engage in war, then their philosophical or theological arguments must be met. However, our modern day political rhetoric ignores the nuances involved in coherently answering these questions. The result is the leaders of the free world end up saying a large number of stupid things. Griffith easily provides examples of this:
“Our mandate from God helped us to assume the role of moral superpower, a nation dedicated to defending freedom and the oppressed. But the vast majority of attention given to the issue of torture has not focused on measures to ensure that human beings are not tortured, but in legalistic squabbles over what constitutes torture and what is merely the necessary force to extract intelligence that may head off future attacks and bring terrorists to justice. American might is being applied in an end-justifies-the-means manner, with no thought to either the human rights of those innocent people who happen to get in the way or the moral imperilment of our soldiers.” (pg. 158)
“Such an ideology isn’t, in itself, heretical. And with the spilling of so much American blood on foreign soil in ‘redemptive’ missions, we feel we have earned our role as selfless redeemer, a god-like entity that may occasionally commit atrocities but only in service of the greater good, God’s will.” (pgs. 113-114)
We do not need to be declaring our intervention overseas as divinely mandated. The arrogance of such a claim cannot help but defy any real good we may be able to accomplish. Neither is it right or useful to attempt to publicly justify the torture of human beings as necessary for the gathering of military intelligence. No serious person involved in world politics will proclaim a mandate from God to use military force. To say that we ought not to speak in this manner ought to be understood at a elementary school level.
Beyond the practical implications of saying manifestly stupid things within the global public square, is the moral effect of theological error when applied to any political stage. As a nation and a people, the psychological effect attempting to justify real wrongs in how we engage the enemy can only desensitize us into something that we ought not to be. If we are genuinely trying to do good – even in war – then there are rules that we ought to follow. We ought to be better than our enemies in how we fight – you can fight in a manner that defeats the very purpose for which you fight.
In the modern age, abuses and war crimes are brought to national attention by technological mediums that war did not have exposure to in the past. Ever since Vietnam, the television has confronted us with images of war before unknown in human history. But this presents us with new problems in which Griffith is interested in.
“This is not to say that digital images, which can be effortlessly duplicated, disseminated quickly, narrated by commentators while being replayed at slow speeds on endless loops, from different angles, show us nothing of the truth. It just means that they show us something we are unwilling and unable to see – our complicity.” (pg. 177)
How we react to such imagery reveals facts about ourselves in profound ways that are still new. We are suddenly tempted to justify that which has no justification. We are encouraged to be so exposed to the horrific that it no longer has any effect upon us other than to sentimentally encourage us to view ourselves as superior. Griffith asks “At what cost do we demand to see ourselves as redeemers – the judgers of Good and Evil?” (pg. 40) And it is a question worth asking. One possible answer is that we view ourselves as redeemers at the cost of destroying any ability we might have to accomplish work that might actually be redemptive. Humility has advantages, even in foreign policy matters. It just might be true that only those who are willing to recognize corruption and evil within their own selves are those really able to successfully stand up to it elsewhere.
Griffith’s ideas here are to be valued because I believe acknowledging and asking his questions will both sober and caution anyone considering the possibility or methodology of war.
Criticizing our modern day culture often seems to easy. There are so many things that we can blame it for. It makes a good scapegoat. But culture, as thinkers and philosophers have understood it, does have an affect on us and it does influence the way we think.
The abuses at Abu Ghraib were a result of our culture. Every war has it war crimes, but every war crime in specific to it’s time. Photographing war prisoners naked … in sexually abusive positions … with dog collars around their necks … while smiling and giving a thumbs up … these actions may have been the actions of criminals, but they were actions of desensitized souls who were raised and influenced in a particular way.
Griffith tells of how he was invited to participate in a panel discussion at an exhibition entitled Inconvenient Evidence: Iraqi Prisoner Photographs from Abu Ghraib at the Warhol Museum. At the panel discussion, Griffith brought a collection of his students. At one point, the museum showed a slideshow – “Robert Capa’s famous photo of a Spanish partisan being shot. The burnt and mutilated remains of a lynching victim hanging from a tree. Iwo Jima. The first photo of an atomic mushroom cloud. A photo of a shadow left by a woman on the concrete steps of a bank in Hiroshima when she was vaporized by the heat from the bomb blast. A photo of a sit-in protest at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi: a young white man and woman sit in solidarity with a black woman; behind them a wall of angry white protesters scowl and pour food and drink on their heads. A terrified, naked Vietnamese girl runs away from her village, which has just been napalmed by American aircraft. South Vietnamese police-chief General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes Viet Cong Captain Nguyen Van Lem. Last come one of the Abu Ghraib images: the iconic hooded detainee standing atop a box with wires attached to his fingers.” (pgs. 110-111)
These photographs were (are) devastating. After watching them, Griffith struggled even to speak at the panel discussion.
These are the moments of war that we have captured as images for history. Personally, I have difficulty even comprehending them. Not only are they, to a certain extent, unspeakable. But, at the same time, I have to admit that I’ve seen them. And they do not have that much of an impact on me. How can I look at or even remember these photographs and act like everything is normal? Griffith tells of how he went over to talk to his students afterward:
“After the panel, I walked off the stage into a crowd of eight or so of my students … The first question I asked was, ‘What did you think of the slides?’ I gestured to the screen behind me where the terrible images had been. They looked around at one another and shrugged their shoulders. ‘They weren’t so bad,’ one said. ‘Yeah, I didn’t think they were so awful.’
I was floored. Already thinking of how I would write this moment, I asked point blank: ‘Do you think that violent images just don’t have the same effect on your generation?’ A leading question, I know, but I needed to hear someone actually say it. A voice from the back of the group said, ‘I’ve seen worse at the movies.’
Certainly we have. The Exorcist, with its unspeakable images of an innocent child spewing forth the most vile language imaginable, ultimately delivers us to a point of despair, where modern medicine exhausts itself. The images of Abu Ghraib evoke a similar disbelief, a tendency to seek a modern answer instead of an ancient one. The modern answer is abnormal psychology; the ancient problem is the existence of evil.” (pgs. 111-112)
I’m not interested in trying to make doom and gloom predictions about my own generation or even for the generation after me. The fact remains that we how have entertainment that makes the most gruesome images in human history captured of war look droll and unimaginative by comparison. I haven’t done a study on it, but having spent the time in the U.S. military that I spent, besides the war movie I would venture to say that the horror movie is the most popular kind of film watched by members of the armed forces. Watching a gruesome bloody film does not make you into a bad person. It doesn’t make you into a sinner (we’ve all already got that covered). But I’m not against the idea that we now have forms of entertainment that are damaging to the soul.
We have art forms in our culture that are inclined to warp the human spirit.
And when we react to these kinds of images like Griffith says that we do – distinguish them from ourselves as superior beings who are not capable of the same creative imagination that evil is capable of possessing – that is not a healthy thing either.
I could write a book thinking and speculating about Griffith’s questions. Believe me when I say that this long review, as long as it is, does not even scratch the surface of the unique ideas and questions Griffith asks the reader to think about.
He discusses other art forms, like music:
“Music, like certain drugs and alcohol, lowers our inhibitions and aestheticizes our perception, sensually charging our world so that it appears more beautiful, more heroic, more profound, more despairing. This is no revelation … Music might just be one of the most neglected components to understanding modern attitudes toward images of death and violence. Sure, it always made people drive a little faster, feel more sensual, dance in front of bathroom mirrors like they were rock stars, but the problem here is that when music and images become linked – as in music videos, big-budget Hollywood war films and action flicks, pornography, TV commercials and video games – the human being becomes merely a body in motion, perhaps the most titillating image known to man.” (pgs. 76-77)
He discusses films like The Exorcist, Twin Peaks, The Godfather, A Clockwork Orange , Blue Velvet and Pulp Fiction :
“The humor precludes any deeper meaning. Few moviegoers seriously contemplate the meaning of the passage from Ezekiel: ‘the righteous man is beset on all sides’ by the ‘inquity of evil men.’ No one really considers why Butch goes back to save Marsellus Wallace from being raped and almost certainly killed by ‘hillbilly rapists,’ or why a beautiful and charming woman like Mia would want to marry a murderous thug like Marsellus Wallace in the first place. Why? Because nobody is interested in why. The movie doesn’t invite any of these questions.
No one believes that Jules has witnessed a miracle – that God came down and stopped the bullets – but it’s fun to hear him rationalize it because it’s fun to hear Samuel L. Jackson talk.” (pgs. 72-73)
And Griffith discusses his work in teaching literature:
“But my students, who were mostly male, rarely shared my tastes. The majority favored Bret Easton Ellis and Churck Palahniuk, writers who specialize in the kind of violence and obscenity found on cable, albeit with – it would seem – tongues firmly planted in cheek … But after two years of homages to these writers – even though I believe imitation to be one of the best ways to teach writing – it became clear to me that my students didn’t hear the irony in Ellis’s and Palahniuk’s voices. I seriously questioned whether the popularity of these writers was due to what they saw as prophetic depictions of how American culture creates moral monsters, or how capitalist culture perverts American decency. There was no substance. No second layer. For the most part, their stories read like bad movie scripts: scant exposition; cliched dialogue; coincidence-driven plots; beautiful, shapely and easy women; improbable sex and violence.” (pg. 95)
I don’t agree with all his conclusions. I don’t share all this personal tastes, likes and dislikes. I enjoy and find both meaning and redemptive moments in Pulp Fiction. I revel occasionally in the prose and irony of writers like Chuck Palahniuk. I even enjoy occasional variations of violently pounding music. I might even ask if Griffith occasionally allows the tastes of his friends or students to shape his own tastes as he reacts in repulsion to some of their reactions.
But I cannot deny his main point. Our culture is desensitizing us. Our wars are desensitizing us. Our forms of entertainment are desensitizing us. And the images that we see – that we are often bombarded with – images that past generations in history have not been subjected to … affect us in powerful and often not immediately apparent ways.
“T.S. Eliot said, ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality.’ Donald Rumsfeld said, ‘Those pictures never should have gotten out.’ Out of sight, out of mind.” (pg. 178)
When I went to war, I didn’t see many of the horrors that I had been told to expect. Compared to many of my fellows-in-arms, I really saw nothing at all. It was more drudgery than anything else. But, looking back on it now, I cannot deny that it hardened me. I believed, and still believe, that it was the right thing to do. I believe fighting for the right, protecting the innocent, and working to help set the oppressed free are noble causes. But participating in any fight is not going to leave you unaffected. I am less sensitive now than I used to be. I care less about a large number of things – important things to many people – than I used to care about. I’ve changed in ways that are not good.
I don’t think this is unique to this one current conflict that our nation is engaged in. On the contrary, I’d argue that this effect is one that warps every man or woman who has ever participated in any war in the history of man. Just wars are rare. Unjust wars are many. But even good men cannot fight a just war without it changing them in ways that leaves them worse than they were before.
I am someone who believes Christianity is true. And I am also a person who used to buy much of the “Christianized” political rhetoric that is still so frequently and repugnantly infused throughout the modern day public square. I don’t buy it anymore. There are other far deeper, more lasting and more meaningful things to value and uphold. So when Griffith explains his similar discoveries, I can’t help but find myself surprised as to how much I identify with what he has to say.
Some things and some causes need to be changed:
“As a kid, I always believed that Christianity and politics were separate and surely not equal. Issues of faith were never ever discussed, it being such a private subject. Faith had no bearing whatsoever on current events, unless it was to pity those who suffered far away, or even right under our noses. Any twinge of guilt or feeling of responsibility could be quickly snuffed out by the words of Jesus in Matthew 26:11: ‘The poor you will always have with you …’ combined with a Puritanical belief that people must endure what is naturally, Providentially, theirs to endure. And they must do so with a smile and enormous gratitude for even being alive, and especially for being American. I came to believe that God had made some people poor and others rich, some handsome and others ugly for no other reason than to prove that He was in charge, when in fact, this is a heresy, a warped theological view that would by extension hold that 2 + 2 = 4 because God made it so. Grace has been shamed and muscled out of Christian faith in America in favor of a Manichean worldview that sees cultural orthodoxy aligned with Good and cultural grotesqueness aligned with Evil.” (pg. 101)
When my friend, Mr. Booth, told me that violent images, whether real or fictional, whether in art form or in material physical form, can threaten our self-image and that this was really what David Griffith’s book was all about, I was tempted, reflexively, to disagree with him. Now, as I’ve thought longer about it, I’m not so sure. One thing I will say. I am not convinced that my own personal self-image is something worth cultivating, anymore than I am sure that an American national self-image is very important either. We can hold to and follow valuable truths without worrying about our own self-images. Self-identity is something that really ought to pale in comparison to other and greater things outside of ourselves. So, to justify to ourselves why we are different from or better than the evil that we are confronted with – in war, in fiction, in entertainment or in history – cannot be very useful.
The “art of violence in America” is a problem that does exist. And it’s a problem that I’ve found myself encouraging and engaging in order to entertain myself. I still strongly believe that my country has principles worth fighting and dying for. But violence, even for a just cause, is not necessarily good for the soul – a viewpoint that is probably a minority one in our culture. And while, at the moment, I still believe in the use of violence when necessary to protect and defend the right, that doesn’t mean we ever ought to enjoy using it.
Thus, the photos and the art that Griffith discusses in his book are profoundly disturbing and thought-provoking. Some of it is really worth spending time with and some of it isn’t.
I am hoping that I am still capable of distinguishing between the two.
“… art – good art, that is, art that causes in us mysterious exhilaration – doesn’t give us some silly, arbitrary, alternate world. It is not a lie fabricated out of whole cloth to trick you or do you harm or even titillate you. It is a promise that what you know to be true and beautiful will be challenged and sometimes affirmed, in a form that you could have never imagined.” (pg. 178)
So when I say that I have only merely scratched the surface of Griffith’s book, I mean that I have only merely scratched the surface of Griffith’s book. The questions he asks are worth hours, months, years even, of discussion and reflection. They are questions that have been asked before, but they are questions you are not likely to hear very often anymore today.
If you like thinking about things that matter, if you are really interested in seriously engaging with current issues concerning war and American culture, then I cannot recommend this book to you strongly enough.
“America is often described as a Christian nation … Our history begets our duty to help the oppressed. More than any other people, we respond mightily to images of destruction; we are moved to action by any perceived ‘hatred of freedom.’ As such, America should be a place of overwhelming compassion for the poor, the oppressed and the war-torn.
Sadly, this is not the case. America considers itself Christian … because it speaks a language of easy redemption. Redemption is at the heart of Christianity – Corinthians 6:20: ‘For you are bought with a great price. Glorify and bear God in your body.’ Christian Americans have historically seen this country as a land of redemption … The Christian message of redemption has been grafted onto the myth of America, so that gradually American political thought and rhetoric reflects a belief that American power can restore human dignity to the oppressed and resurrect order where before there was chaos.” (pgs. 112-113)