The United States of America has been at war for almost sixteen consecutive years, but as a veteran quoted in Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles said when asked what it was like to be home: “I see no sign anywhere that we are at war.” Rarely are images from our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or any of the other countries we have attacked in some way on the front pages of national newspapers or discussed on national television. But there are signs, and Sarah Sentilles finds them in the art created during the seemingly endless wars of present and past.
Draw Your Weapons is a broad work of creative nonfiction in the tradition of Maggie Nelson or Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being that melts memoir, cultural criticism, and research-based reportage together. Sentilles structured her book in non-linear vignettes and sorted them into themed chapters. She tells stories in fits and starts, weaving personal narratives in with research on the United States’s Drone Program and concentration camps, as well as performance and visual art pieces centered on the cost of war, with excerpts from books by writers like Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes. It’s a wide-ranging collection of cultural fragments created by war, including, ultimately, the book itself.
Her central characters are men from different eras who had taken inverse paths. Howard is a conscientious objector who went to prison rather than serving in World War II. Miles volunteered to serve in the Iraq War, ultimately working as a guard at the Abu Ghraib prison after the revelations about the crimes committed there had surfaced. She shares the stories of both men through conversations with them and their families, which creates an intimate portrait of what their choices meant to them and those around them. She focuses particularly on the art that the men turned to in their time of peril. Howard attempted to build a violin while in prison and built many after. Miles painted while deployed and continued when he returned.
Sentilles frequently looks back at the work of past writers who themselves are looking back at the work of past writers, and one of her great gifts is summarizing and contextualizing those books and essays concisely. A particularly deft example of this comes early in the book. Sentilles writes about Virginia Woolf’s proposition in Three Guineas that photographs of war’s visceral consequences—in this case a photograph of “[a] body so mutilated, she couldn’t tell if it was a human being or a pig”—could prevent it. Sontag, writing in Regarding the Pain of Others, lacked the same faith, and Sentilles, who separated these sections by a few pages, frames it with skill and drama.
Yes, war is an abomination, yes, it must be stopped—Sontag agreed with Woolf’s conclusions. But who today believes war can be abolished?
No one, [Sontag] wrote. Not even pacifists.
Sentilles mostly refrains from explicitly taking one side or another when she’s explaining any of the debates, which means her structural choices have an outsized impact on how what the book is saying is digested. In this case, Woolf’s arguments take up more space and come earlier in the chapter, but Sontag’s argument ends it. And because of the structural force, Sontag’s argument hangs over the rest of the book in a small column of things Sentilles seems convinced art can’t do.
Sentilles does a good job transitioning the focus from practical (can we end war?) to the theoretical (should we end war or are there circumstances under which it is necessary?). As Sentilles makes clear, she is against the wars the United States is currently involved in, and war in general, but she’s critical of what that means. “I’ve called myself 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,” she writes. This leads into one of the most compelling and inevitable passages in the book, which comes from a conversation Sentilles has with Howard’s daughter, Kayleen.
I still see those images from the films [on the holocaust] in my head, Kayleen told me. I still have nightmares.
After Kayleen saw the footage from the death camps, she asked her father, How could you not go to war?
I can’t kill because others are killing, Howard said.
But how could you not go to war?
All killing has to stop, he said. It is a sickness all over the earth.
Sentilles provides no answer because there is no answer.
The most compelling character, and a wrench in the ideological arguments, is Miles. Sentilles loves him, or at least it feels like she does, and the rendering in Draw Your Weapons is beautiful. Veterans, in modern American culture, are spoken of in platitudes—always defending the country, no matter how unjustified the war—while the business of caring for them crumbles under the massive weight of the United States’s incompetent and inept bureaucratic and welfare states. Miles is only himself. He is glad to have someone to talk to about his experiences in Iraq, about why he reenlisted, about his own art, about his kids. Sentilles renders him fully human, and it creates a profound connection between reader and subject.
Draw Your Weapons’s successes are so massive and have so much gravity that some of its other elements—mostly the ones relating to the visual or conceptual art of others—often feel subjugated to the people and ideas that are being discussed around them. This is both unfortunate and inevitable. In the book’s most powerful example, Sentilles describes the 2007 work of Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal.
Bilal constructed a prison-cell-sized room in a gallery and lived in it for a month, alone. The white-walled room was in the line of fire of a paintball gun and a camera… The camera broadcast Bilal to internet viewers around the world so people could use their computers to shoot at him twenty-four hours a day. He offered himself up to anyone who wanted to shoot an Iraqi… People hacked into the site and wrote code to make the gun’s trigger automatic so it would fire continually at Bilal. Other people, calling themselves the Virtual Human Shield, coordinated efforts to keep the gun pointed away from Bilal… Sixty-five thousand individuals from 136 countries fired the gun at him.
This functions so well because the power of the work, or the meaning that Sentilles is working to draw out of it, is not fundamentally visual. The push-and-pull of those trying to hurt and those trying to help would have been hard to discern as it was happening, and the clarity hindsight provides is useful in understanding what Bilal’s art reveals about the world. This is not true for most of the art described in the book, and they naturally have less power on the page because of it.
Though Sontag’s words—“No one… Not even pacifists”—fundamentally shape the book, and it proves nothing if not how pervasive and intractable the culture of war is, Draw Your Weapons left me feeling rather like Virginia Woolf. It is an impossibly heavy book to read, as even the beautiful in it is tainted by its root cause, but it is heavy because it is challenging and brilliant and fierce. Readers will carry that weight and be better for it.