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"Words Can Take Away Humanity, and Words Can Give It Back"

Draw Your Weapons

By Sarah Sentilles

How are we supposed to live in a world so full of human suffering? More to the point, what is our moral obligation in a world of war, displacement, and violent catastrophe?

Sarah Sentilles Draw Your Weapons bills itself as a narrative in search of answers in the fabric woven from two stories of war, peace, and art across time. In telling the stories of Howard, a lifelong peace activist who was a conscientious objector during World War II, and Miles, one of her art students who served in Iraq at Abu Ghraib prison, Sentilles covers a lot of ground.

But Sentilles is much more than a storyteller. With background as an art critic, theologian, and philosopher, the author gives the reader a collage of imagery ranging from photography and military history to cognitive science and biology. The book quickly becomes a delightful meditation on art, memory, violence, trauma, and healing.

Some of the conclusions Sentilles leads the reader to are as startling as the images she manages to summon into prose. Putting the point in a chapter-long pondering of place, she describes her visit to the modern-day site of Manzanar Internment Camp, where tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese decent were held during World War II.

She observes at the chapter’s beginning, “It’s possible to stand on land where great violence has been done and not know it.”

Her description of the camp’s history, made intimate by personal stories of some of its occupants, comes full circle with her stark description of its modern state. The camp was torn down, an erasure of history captured by Sentilles’ stark prose:

On the self-guided tour through Manzanar, Eric drove and I took photographs of the sties where things used to be: rose gardens, Japanese gardens, mess hall, baseball field, cemetery. If you look at my pictures, all you’d see would be numbered markers and blue sky and desert, an expanse of sage, blooming wildflowers, the Sierras reaching north and south. I stood near the site where the newspaper office used to be to stretch my legs before the drive home, and I wondered, if we couldn’t treat one another well here, under the wingbeats of red-tailed hawks and kestrels, under the shadow of Mount Whitney, where could we?

Draw Your Weapons is more than arresting prose and eclectic observations, however. My favorite passages return to a theme continued throughout the book, as Sentilles asks what it means to live as an individual opposed to violence in a society that implicates every member in a continuous cycle of state-sanctioned violence as part of its very existence. There are no easy answers.

Sentilles quotes Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabrialla Lettini’s criticism of the ban on publishing photographs of the flag-draped coffins that carried fallen U.S. servicemembers home from foreign wars throughout much of the Global War on Terrorism. "We choose collective amnesia about war and its aftermath, they wrote. Veterans return to a nation unwilling or unable to accept responsibility for sending them to war.

Then there’s this difficult gem, the author facing inward at her own culpability, “I’ve called myself a pacifist for most of my life. 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.”

If that’s enough to leave you ready to abandon humanity altogether, Sentilles is ready to rescue the project of living in a violent world. Yes, we’re all complicit. Yes, we’re all compromised. But, in the stories of Howard, the pacifist, and Miles, the art student and Abu Ghraib veteran, she finds a way out through art. By positioning our creative forces as a valid response to this flawed world, Sentilles gives an option for those of us overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all.

“Words can take away humanity,” she writes, “and words can give it back.”

Draw Your Weapons is a stirring book of great depth and beauty. It has a permanent home on my bookshelf, and I’ll be reading it again.

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