Sarah Sentilles's Draw Your Weapons Is a Timely Meditation on War and Violence

Image via Random House.
Image via Random House.

“The camera,” Susan Sontag famously wrote, “is sold as a predatory weapon.” Violence, it seems, is inherent to the photograph, born out in the language of the medium itself: “to shoot” or “to capture’ linguistically conjures violence. But if Sontag is correct, and photography is inherently violent, then its subject matter too is often one of violence. There is no medium is more bound to the representation of war; no medium more entangled by ethical and moral debates about the act of looking. Sarah Sentilles’s meditative  Draw Your Weapons is the latest entry into the growing canon of books that attempt to grapple with the violence of photography or, at least, the violence that it so casually depicts.


A mix of criticism, memoir, and history, Sentilles’s profoundly challenging book takes as its subject images of violence—from photographs of slavery to Abu Grahib, drone photography to highbrow artistic interventions—confronting the inherent reproductive nature of both violence and its photographic representation. Violence produces violence as images produce images; they both proliferate, posing as natural instead of revealing themselves as cultural and political constructs. “The world is made,” Sentilles writes. “And it can be unmade. Remade.” Both how the world is made and how it can simultaneously unmake us is at the heart of Sentilles’s inquiry.

Though Draw Your Weapons is broad and chaotically poetic in its approach, two men deeply tied to visual histories serve as Sentilles’s ideological bookends: Howard and Miles, subjects whose experiences with war were separated by six decades and millions of ideological miles. The book begins with a photograph of Howard, holding a violin and laughing, taken to celebrate his 87th birthday. Sentilles is drawn the photograph and, with the help of Howard’s daughter Kayleen, retraces his story. Howard and his wife Ruane were pacificists during World War II. He registered as a conscientious objector and, along with the nearly 73,000 men who also registered, was sent to a Civilian Public Service camp where they took over jobs abandoned to war (Howard fought forest fires). Howard was content with this iteration of pacifism until President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, sending Japanese Americans to hastily built prison camps. Among those ordered to internment camps was Howard’s college roommate, Gordon Hirabayashi. Soon after, Howard left the CPS, convinced that to continue to support the war in any way was a violation of his pacificism and, by extension, a tacit declaration that Hirabayashi’s internment was not an act of violence. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1943. He spent the remainder of the war in a penitentiary in Washington and it was there that he would make the violin in the photograph (instructions on how to build the instrument were essentially smuggled in by Ruane).

If Howard’s story is one of dedicated and determined pacifism, one of unyielding ethical commitment, then Miles’s story is decidedly more ambivalent—and deeply intertwined with the photographs from Abu Ghraib. Sentilles first saw the photographs in the newspaper like everyone else. “A man standing on a box wearing nothing but a blanket. A bag over his head. Arms stretched out from his sides. Wires attached to his body,” she writes. It’s a testament to the grim iconicity of the photograph that, with such a straightforward description, Sentilles can conjure up that photograph instantly, remade and remembered, archived in the accumulation of images that exist in our cultural memories. Sentilles wrote her dissertation on the photographs and taught them regularly as objects worthy of reflection. It’s in her classroom at an art school that she meets Miles, an aspiring painter who had served as a guard at Abu Ghraib.

Like so many men and women who served in either Iraq and Afghanistan, Miles didn’t intend to become a prison guard, he didn’t intend to have the notoriety of torture haunt him or to fill the canvas of his paintings. When Miles joined the Army, he trained as a cook but those positions were filled by private contractors so he instead became a prison guard. Miles wasn’t with the group of guards who took the photographs; Lynndie England and Charles Graner, with their dog leashes and thumbs ups, were already gone from the prison. But the guard-prisoner relationship, the war and the history of torture, still hung over Abu Ghraib and, by extension, Miles. Inta— a word means “you”—is what the American soldiers at Abu Ghraib called the prisoners, Miles tells Sentilles. She writes: “Calling another human being inta, calling other human beings you instead of addressing them by name, dehumanizes, creates distance between guards and detainees, but what if it had been... a way of saying to the people they were charged with watching, to the people who were watching them: Both of us are destined for the dark.”

Like Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida and Sontag’s On Photography, there are no photographs in the book, no reproductions of Abu Ghraib, no illustrations of the works of art that she traces. Instead, images like the Hooded Man are evoked, described almost as if they are mythical, forcing a reader to reconstitute the image on their own. It’s a ruthless approach—to render images invisible and yet allow them to haunt without any plans for an exorcism. But then, Sentilles quietly insists, that’s exactly how art made about war and art made during war work. Like the violent lingo of photography, war insists on such ghostly language. “They call the secret prisons outside the United States black sites,” Sentilles write. “They call the detainees whose names they don’t record ghosts. They call torture techniques that leave no physical marks clean.” Like art, war, too, can’t resist the visual making of a world. Elsewhere in the book, she notes the God’s-eye view that a drone or aerial photography both possess. Sentilles plainly states that marking the target for the Hellfire missiles carried by Predator drones is known as “painting the target.” She notes too that camouflage is an art, once fancifully employed by artists in a naval strategy known as dazzling. “The whole enterprise is a kind of fiction,” Sentilles writes of war’s insistence on invisibility.


Draw Your Weapons isn’t a straightforward history nor is it an argument, rather it’s drawn as a collage of reflections. Histories seemingly unrelated, bound only by their proximity to violence, are stitched together here in an act of contemplation. It’s a quasi-religious approach (Sentilles went to divinity school) that works as an act of reflection, particularly on the remains—bodily, historical and psychological—that underpin Sentilles’s arguments. Unlike so many books on images of violence, Sentilles isn’t interested in sussing out the ethics of looking at the pain of others. Instead, she’s interested in how those images serve to make our world, reflecting things we often stubbornly refuse to see. “Consider this sentence: The soldier kills the enemy,” Sentilles writes. “It sounds like a one-way gesture, but it’s not, because the act of killing doesn’t only change the person who is killed. The act of killing changes the killer,” she writes, quoting art historian James Elkins.


Sentilles hasn’t produced an easy book, but then, such an act of reflection on war and violence and an individual’s place in producing and reproducing it shouldn’t be easy. It is easy to treat the havoc we’ve wreaked in Iraq and Afghanistan as a mere abstraction, to treat these two seamlessly everlasting wars as invisible—think of how many online lectures younger generations have endured about their lack of grit and patriotism, even though those generations have fought America’s longest wars, tortured prisoners, dropped drones, etc—but we do so at our the peril of ourselves. The violence of these two wars is a fixture in our social and political cultures as well as a recurring theme in visual arts; Sentilles cites artists Wafaa Bilal and Martha Rosler as just a few examples.

Though the photographs from Abu Ghraib were published over 13 years ago, they are still with us, as we are still in Iraq. The images Sentilles contextualizes, particularly aerial photographs and those produced by drones, seem even more relevant as the president threatens “fire and fury” on yet another member of George W. Bush’s Axis of Evil. Both violence and images continue to reproduce. Sentilles is light on conclusions. She makes clear that she is a pacifist. And yet, she argues that simply to say so isn’t enough. “I thought it let me off the hook somehow, as if being against the wars my country fights means they have nothing to do with me,” she writes. Compassion isn’t enough, Sentilles argues. Following Ariella Azoulay and John Berger, Sentilles instead suggests that citizenship, “the spectator’s responsibility toward what is visible,” is what such knowledge demands.



Stassa, just a little design note… those block quotes look nice, but the effect is spoiled when you wind up with a single word – in this case, “work” – sitting all by itself on the last line.

I’d suggest turning the first line at the m-dash (I use spaced n-dashes instead, per Robert Bringhurst’s recommendation) and then judiciously turning if necessary to keep things looking natural.

The same approach in the second one… “She” could easily go on the next line.