Good War Is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America

Overview

Inspired by the recent Abu Ghraib photos, David Griffith journeys through the vast catalogue of violent and sexual images that have accumulated in our collective unconscious, meditating on books, music and films from Star Trek to Deliverance, through filters ranging from Sontag to Warhol; but Griffith in particular suggests that Flannery O'Connor - whose writings explored the most potent insights into the failures at the prison.
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Overview

Inspired by the recent Abu Ghraib photos, David Griffith journeys through the vast catalogue of violent and sexual images that have accumulated in our collective unconscious, meditating on books, music and films from Star Trek to Deliverance, through filters ranging from Sontag to Warhol; but Griffith in particular suggests that Flannery O'Connor - whose writings explored the most potent insights into the failures at the prison.
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Editorial Reviews

Christopher Sorrentino
In the manner of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, the book is quiet, offbeat, at times intensely personal. Griffith claims that “the Abu Ghraib photos are the very picture of the American soul in conflict with itself,” that the reaction to them “calls attention not to a difference but a similarity in belief between author and audience.” He sees an enormous gap between the viewing of disturbing images and contemplation of the ways in which we are implicated in the acts they portray.
— The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781933368122
  • Publisher: Soft Skull Press, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/9/2006
  • Pages: 189
  • Sales rank: 860,229
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 7.40 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Read an Excerpt

A Good War is Hard to Find

The Art of Violence in America
By David Griffith

SOFT SKULL PRESS

Copyright © 2006 David Griffith
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-933368-12-8


Chapter One

Symphony No. 1 (In Memoriam, Dresden, 1945)

THE DAY THE BOMBS STARTED FALLING ON BAGHDAD my Notre Dame jacket, a dark blue satin jacket with NOTRE DAME stitched across the front and a pugilistic leprachaun on the sleeve-my most prized possession-had been stolen out of my locker. They also stole a package of Hostess Sno-Balls and a peanut butter and honey sandwich-snacks that I would eat after school to give me energy for wrestling practice. I weighed 110 pounds and wrestled in the 112 pound weight class.

A young police woman came to the house to take a report. It was maybe seven in the evening. Before the police woman arrived I was sitting downstairs in the dim living room trying to do my algebra homework, but instead watching live images of explosions lighting up the Baghdad skyline.

It was impossible to understand what was happening on the screen. There were no soldiers. My picture of war came from Vietnam: shaky handheld camera footage of soldiers cautiously trudging through the jungle.

Instead what I saw was a view of the action from a hotel rooftop, narrated by journalists who had chosen to stay in thecity even after being warned of the danger. The journalists, Peter Arnett and Bernard Shaw, tried to communicate what it felt like to see these images, rating the power of each bomb blast based on how violently the windows rattled, or the hotel swayed. At times the burst of light as a bomb detonated made the screen go completely white. I couldn't keep my eyes off the television.

When the police woman came downstairs she started watching the footage too. She looked stunned, as though she'd never seen a television. "They're bombing Baghdad," I said. "Wow," she said.

The entire time the woman took my statement about the stolen jacket her eyes cut back and forth between the note pad in her hand and the television.

I got the jacket back. One day I was walking down the hall at school and a kid passed me wearing the jacket. "That's my jacket," I said. "No, it's not," the kid sneered. One of the deans of the school happened to walk by at this moment and asked what the problem was. "Look in the sleeves," I told him. My mother had written GRIFFITH in permanent black marker in each sleeve. Sure enough, when the dean turned the right sleeve inside out, there was my name.

Things were like that then. Open and shut. Yes it is. No it isn't. Everything seemed good, clean and orderly. I learned that there was such a thing as justice-I had witnessed it.

At night, I was learning that war could be humane and just. Night after night, first person footage from the nose of smart bombs allowed me to see with my own eyes that American bombers weren't dumping their payloads indiscriminately over cities, like the Germans did to Britain and the Brits did to Germany and we did to the Japanese during World War II. These were "smart" bombs; this was a "smart" war in all the various connotations of "smart": intelligent; shrewd and calculating; amusingly clever; with a neat and well-cared-for appearance; fashionable and stylish; vigorous and brisk; causing a sharp stinging sensation.

Our history teacher didn't talk about the Gulf War. She didn't even pull down a map of the world and point to the Middle East so that we at least knew where it was taking place. Then again, I suppose she had bigger problems to worry about-some kids in the class couldn't locate Illinois on a map.

Neither do I remember talking about the war with my friends, unless it was to ask whether we'd seen the latest awesome press conference footage-General Schwarzkopf standing in front of a television monitor narrating the flight of a bomb as it entered the chimney of a building, or through the window of a munitions depot.

Oddly enough, I thought about the war the most when I was at band practice. That fall the band director, a man named Scott Casagrande, passed out the sheet music for Symphony No. 1 (In Memoriam, Dresden, 1945) a piece dedicated to the firebombing and subsequent obliteration of the German city of Dresden. One look at the part in front of me and I could tell that this was unlike anything I'd seen before. The parts were written aleatorically, meaning that instead of notes on the staff creating a melody and countermelody, there were diagrams and instructions telling us to play our instruments in unorthodox ways to represent the bombing of the city. The trombones were to drone on a low B flat to mimic the rumble of bombers approaching the city. The trumpets sounded the wailing air raid sirens. Next the score instructed the entire band to frantically whisper the words "firestorm" over and over in German, to capture the panicked gossip that spread through the city as the first wave of bombers dropped jellied gasoline in order to prepare the way for the incendiary bombs that would ignite the city.

The trombone drone of the bombers continued as the flutes began mimicking the sound of bombs whistling toward the earth. The percussion section commanded a whole battery of drums to conjure up the bomb blasts and shook thunder out of a sheet of metal. As Dresden burned we blew air through our horns to create the violent winds brought on by the rapidly rising heat that sucked victims into the burning rubble of buildings and blew over structures weakened by the initial blasts. When it was all done roughly 30,000 civilians had been killed, many buried alive in basement bomb shelters and then burned beyond recognition by the great fire that burned for weeks to come. After playing the piece I always felt emotionally drained and distant, as though I had experienced something traumatic, having felt the presence of a darker reality.

I don't remember when I first had the idea, but at some point I approached Mr. Casagrande and asked him if I could find some images that could be projected on a screen above the band while we played. I have to believe that this idea wouldn't have been possible without the live war footage I took in every night on CNN. I was not a technologically savvy kid. (I used to hold a tape recorder up to the television to record my favorite songs from MTV.) But hearing this music I saw images.

At the public library I found photos from books on World War II: bombers in flight, photos of bombs falling in a cluster, aerial photos of the majestic city of Dresden with its Baroque domes and soaring spires. I found photos of the city on fire, photos of the smoldering wrecked buildings and, finally, photos of a wooden cart piled with scorched black corpses.

The AV director, Mr. Baldwin, made the photos into slides and then over the course of several rehearsals I sequenced them to the music, so that the image of bombers corresponded to the droning of the trombones, the falling bombs corresponded to the whistling of the flutes, and so on.

On the night of the performance, I stood back behind the heavy black curtain at the rear of the stage with my finger on the button of the slide projector. I began with a picture of the city before the bombing and then toggled back and forth between the image of the bombers in flight and the cluster of bombs falling toward earth in order to give the sensation of many bombers dropping many bombs.

I felt powerful, like the Great Oz, proud to be inspiring fear in this audience of parents and school administrators, perhaps disturbing their pat notions of war and its costs. In some ways I've been trying to get back to that feeling ever since-trying to find moments where what I'm hearing and what I'm seeing come together to reveal a disturbing truth.

However, I must confess, at no point as I stood behind that curtain was I consciously thinking of the war in Iraq. Dresden was different, I told myself. Dresden was butchery, barbarity. The bombing of Iraq, as I saw on television every night for a few months, was clean, efficient, just.

Chapter Two

A Good War is Hard to Find: Flannery O'Connor, Abu Ghraib and the Problem of American Innocence

IT IS FOUR DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS, 2004. Earlier today, a U.S. base in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul was bombed-at least two dozen are dead, the latest casualties of an insurgency that seems to be gaining zeal as the first fully democratic Iraqi elections in over thirty years approach. It is an insurgency born, in part, by what the Bush administration has been calling the "catastrophic success" of the land war which ended-"mission accomplished"-now over nineteen months ago. It is an insurgency-a phantom, freedom hating force-made up of innumerable guerrilla outfits without uniforms, flags, or discernable national identity.

What unifies them, according to many, are the abusive practices of the occupying force. Nowhere are these allegations more visible and, perhaps, well founded than the photos that have emerged from Abu Ghraib prison.

The photos from Abu Ghraib have catalyzed a new generation of politically-motivated Iraqi artists. A large-scale mural on a wall in Baghdad's Sadr City reproduces the image of the naked and hooded detainee, standing atop a box, electrical wires attached to his fingers. Next to him stands the Statue of Liberty, dressed in a white robe and hood reminiscent of the Klan's famous disguises, poised to throw the switch that will send electricity singing through the wires. A more formal gathering of this new art could be seen at the Hewar Art Gallery in the Wazerieh district of central Baghdad. In June of 2004 twenty-five artists showed their work, the image of the hooded detainee is reflected over and over in plaster and marble sculptures, paintings and installation pieces. The image of the hooded detainee 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.

President Bush, in response to suggestions that the United States has lost the respect of the world community because of Abu Ghraib and the detainment of "unlawful combatants" at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said at a press conference on December 20th that the United States is a "nation of laws," and that the recent Supreme Court decision to grant Guantanamo detainees their right to the writ of habeas corpus proves the nation's dedication to justice. Any allegations of abuse are being investigated, and taken seriously.

But are the Abu Ghraib photos and the allegations of abuse at Guantanamo just a matter of a few American troops, a few "bad apples," acting on their own, or is the picture-taking more widespread: are digital pictures part of a new interrogation protocols tailored to exploit Muslim cultural values?

CIA, Department of Defense and Justice Department memos squabbling over the definition of torture, condoning low-grade torture in the war against terrorism confirm that there is no clear policy stating how prisoners in the War on Terror should be treated.

The Abu Ghraib photos as well as countless other allegations of abuse, torture are evidence of the shadowy boundary between legal and immoral.

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.

Images of such crass disregard become more than just evidence. They become icons, Rorschachs used by commentators to justify, criticize or deconstruct the war, and the United States.

Many of the pictures resemble grotesque political cartoons-human pyramids; a prisoner in a cruciform pose atop a box with red wires curling away from his fingers; prisoners pantomiming sexual acts; prisoners cowering before attack dogs. They're impossible caricatures, their effects exaggerated because removed from the larger, more complicated context of the war. They are images even the most zealous anti-war cartoonist would feel uneasy imagining, let alone sketching. And there are hundreds of unreleased photos that have been blocked for release by the Pentagon due to their outrageousness, their ability to inspire perhaps an all out Holy War, that are said to be much worse, scenes of rape and even murder.

Some commentators-mostly conservatives, such as Robert Knight of Concerned Women of America, but even left-wing social critic Susan Sontag-cited our society's addiction to hard-core pornography to explain the scandal. Why else would the abuse have included so much nudity, sex, sadomasochism-and exhibitionism, in the form of extensive photo and video documentation? In their view, the prison was an outpost of our debased, porn-soaked culture.

Consider the two main protagonists in this spectacle: Army Corporal Charles Graner, Jr.-an alleged wife beater once divorced, now serving ten years in a military prison for his role as the so-called ringleader of the late night abuse and Army Pfc. Lynndie England, seen giving exuberant thumbs-up gestures, while standing in front of naked, hooded prisoners, now serving three years for mistreating prisoners. (Some of the unreleased photos are said to show England having sex with other MPs.)

Military defense lawyers attempted to paint Graner, England and the rest as duty-bound reservists who were following orders from their superiors, whose apparent zeal portrayed in the photos was the result of extreme psychological duress: the pressures of guarding so many prisoners; the nightly mortar attacks; the knowledge that fellow soldiers were denying due to the lack of intelligence. After all, psychological experiments have proved that anyone, given the right conditions can become a torturer, right? In this scenario, the abuse is reduced to a problem of abnormal psychology.

But moral and psychological interpretations of the scandal-usually in the service of ideology-fall short. There's another tragic, spiritual sense in which to understand the disturbing images of Abu Ghraib, a view formed by notions of innocence, sin and grace.

* * *

CATHOLIC WRITER FLANNERY O'CONNOR would have considered the images of the prison scandal grotesque, but not in what she called "the pejorative sense"-of just plain images of ugliness and ignorance. For O'Connor-whose characters are some of the most memorable grotesqueries in American literature-the grotesque makes visible hidden "discrepancies" between character and belief. Such images "connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye."

Take Cpl. Graner, for example. His pick-up truck still parked in the driveway of his Uniontown, Pennsylvania home at the time the pictures broke into the news, bears a license plate with the word Jesus and a picture of a cross. There is also a smooth stone in, appropriately enough, a "weed-choked" flower bed in front of his house, painted with a verse from the book of Hosea: "Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of unfailing love and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to see the Lord, until he comes and showers righteousness on you." [Hoses 10:12 NIV]

This stone is mentioned in most of the early news coverage of the scandal, treated as a bit of profound irony, the kind of coincidence newspaper reporters salivate over. How could a man with this bit of scripture displayed in his "postage-stamp" of a front yard, as one Pittsburgh news weekly described it, commit such atrocious acts? It's an irony the media isn't equipped to engage at any depth.

Such ironies were the stuff of O'Connor's stories. Her characters think of themselves as Christians or otherwise "good people," but their actions or attitudes reveal otherwise. Their pride blinds them to their own flaws, and only violence-usually from an unlikely source-opens their eyes, and offers them a chance at redemption.

For O'Connor, her native American South was the perfect landscape against which to paint her grotesque figures. But to Catholics in the 1950's, O'Connor's fascination with bizarre characters from the nation's most Protestant region was unsettling. She addressed their "certain impatience" with her work in 1963 at a speaking engagement at Georgetown University, in a speech titled "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South":

(Continues...)



Excerpted from A Good War is Hard to Find by David Griffith Copyright © 2006 by David Griffith. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

I Symphony No. 1 (in memoriam, Dresden, 1945) 17
II A good war is hard to find : Flannery O'Connor, Abu Ghraib, and the problem of American innocence 27
III Pictures of the floating world : on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, in three parts 43
IV Some proximity to darkness 59
V Regarding the electric chair my wife's college boyfriend built in his house 89
VI Prime directive 121
VII City of lost souls 143
VIII Weavings of war (Erie, Pennsylvania, June 24, 2005) 167
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