A Summons: #Reviewing Draw Your Weapons

Draw Your Weapons. Sarah Sentilles. New York, NY: Random House, 2017.

I have a tendency to read an author’s acknowledgments twice. Once after a few pages, before the narrative has hooked me, when the book and I are still feeling each other out. I read it again at the completion, because I forgot who was named, what was said, and why they were thanked. Not that I should recall; the gratitude is not directed at me.

Yet I read them all the same. They are the seeds to the book’s germination, sprouting, and eventual blooming. Or, perhaps, more like footprints, grounding the text with the imprints of others, and the interaction betwixt the author and those encountered. My curiosity in tracing such steps is mirrored in the method of Sarah Sentilles’s exquisite bricolage, Draw Your Weapons.

Sentilles’s staccato collection presents as a meditation on the pulsing heritage that underscores life and death. In her Preface, she acknowledges, “I began writing these pages after seeing two photographs.”[1] One was an innocuous photograph of a man, Howard Scott, holding a violin, while the other was of an unidentified detainee from Abu Ghraib. With this juxtaposition, Sentilles sets about to unravel their complicated legacies and reveal their common thread: war.

Draw Your Weapons is an odyssey. It is the story of a pilgrimage to acknowledge both photographs and appreciate how they came to be. Seeking to develop their conceptual, moral, and emotional negatives, she travels to the home of Howard and Ruane Scott to meet the man and see the violin. While teaching, she befriends Miles, an art student taking her critical theory course, who was a soldier in Iraq and a guard at Abu Ghraib. Meeting the subjects of the photos, however, is just the base layer in her collage, which draws on critical theory, her background in divinity studies, philosophy, and art, to name but a few perspectives.

The two photographs changed the life of Sarah Sentilles. “The changes took years, more than a decade, which is also how long it took to write this book. The United States has been at war the whole time.”[2] Such simple jarring observations are characteristic of her work. And while not quite a reflection on process, it is memoir-like; a critical elegy that engages with the low hum of war vibrating in the background. Sentilles listens and conducts a masterful orchestra uniting her quest to decompose the legacies, touch their reverberations, and wait for humanity’s echo.

Each war is a will. Each war is an inheritance. Each scorches the earth leaving behind the embers of discontent that will spark again, and again, and again. A rhythm of destruction where “Bodies are bound by a shared precariousness.”[3] The roots of war run deep, splaying out likes vines, weeds. War is a kind of string theory. At this precipitous edge, with bodies hanging in the balance, Sentilles notes: “It’s possible to stand on land where great violence has been done and not know it.”[4]

Author’s photo, First World War battlefield study, 2014.

Even knowing it though, is no promise to fathom the violence. Margaret Atwood, in her poem “The Loneliness of the Military Historian,” describes:

In the interests of research
I have walked on many battlefields
that once were liquid with pulped
men’s bodies and spangled with exploded
shells and splayed bone.
All of them have been green again
by the time I got there.

Walk the fields of the First World War where each hill undulates just like the last. Look out and say here lies pain and agony. Do you see it? Take a step further into the squishy grass and, under the leafy canopy, notice the micro-terrain: craters from man, the fossils of artillery. There, too, lay buried screams. Do you hear the echo?

Unlike Atwood, however, Sentilles is determined to march such fields, both known and unknown, to exhume the bones, and then to splice them amongst the verdant roots, interweaving death and braiding decay with blossoming life.

The knot, a summons: “Weapon or tool?”[5]

Paraphrasing Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, Sentilles explains, “The difference depends on the surface on which they’re used and on the intention of the person using them.”[6] What is a tool can be a weapon and what is a weapon can be a tool. It depends both on who uses it, but also on what, against whom. Sentilles writes:

Consider this sentence, James Elkins suggested: The observer looks at the object. It seems simple, even obvious, a given, but the sentence comes apart right away, because it’s built on the mistaken idea that the observer and the object are two different things. The beholder looks at the object, but the object changes the beholder, and therefore the beholder does not look at the object. Or consider this sentence: The soldier kills the enemy. 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, Elkins wrote. In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry put it differently. Every weapon, she wrote, has two ends.[7]

A tool’s reckoning. Acknowledge their legacy: tools become weapons, weapons become tools. In experiments conducted on mice, Sentilles reports, “Trauma can be transferred from one generation to the next, and the next, and the next. An inheritance written right into the body.”[8] The inheritance taxes the individual, but also the community and the nation. Violence confers its legacy between combatants, generations, and wars. It travels both ways coiling itself in history.

Author’s photo, Vietnam battlefield study, Khe Sanh, 2010.

Violence is cyclic. One war rolls into the next. Atwood reiterates, “For every year of peace there have been four hundred years of war.” Yet Sentilles writes, “The world is made. And can be unmade. Remade.”[9] Hills that were once pulped blossom anew. Peer over the wire. The foliage may be stunted, but it’s growing. A flower droops, but it’s still an ounce of beauty. Sentilles, again paraphrasing Scarry, notes, “The imagination is the first step for generating the objects we need, the objects we don’t have yet.”[10]

It depends on how we look: “Weapon or tool?” [11] 

I reread the acknowledgements, curious once more to see how this magnetic collection amassed. Skimming the names unbeknownst to me, I am struck by the inclusive aspiration: “Let’s hope language bombs can someday disarm actual bombs.”[12] One need not be a pacifist like Sentilles to heed her summons: “Weapon or tool?”[13] Equally, “Words can take away humanity, and words can give it back.”[14]

Draw your weapons, indeed.  

Olivia A. Garard is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, an Associate Editor for The Strategy Bridge, and a member of the Military Writers Guild. The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: A depiction of a scene from The Odyssey on a Greek national stamp, circa 1983. (Inquiries)


[1] Sentilles, XI.

[2] Sentilles, XI.

[3] Sentilles, XII.

[4] Sentilles, 55.

[5] Sentilles, 27.

[6] Sentilles, 27.

[7] Sentiles 79-80

[8] Sentilles, 120.

[9] Sentilles, 269.

[10] Sentilles, 250.

[11] Sentilles, 27.

[12] Sentilles, 278.

[13] Sentilles, 27.

[14] Sentilles, 254.