Can the arts put an end to war?

Can the arts put an end to war?

Picasso’s world famous painting Guernica pictured on exhibition at Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum depicts the suffering caused by the bombing of the small Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. (PHOTO Ap, Denis Doyle)

February 26, 2012, Sunday/ 10:59:00

If only art could stop war! Artists of all genres have throughout the decades used their skills and talents to rail against the agony and the destruction caused by war.

Perhaps the most varied and striking examples have been from the 20th century -- the period when war ceased to be something that a few professional soldiers took part in on foreign shores, and began to be a horror that could engulf the whole civilian population.

Poets during World War I famously expressed what conditions were really like for “our boys” in the trenches, exposed the pointlessness of the sacrifice of so many young lives, and challenged the attitudes of a previous generation that war was a holy and magnificent thing. In one of the most famous poems of the period, Wilfred Owen’s anger barely seethes under the surface as he describes the dreadful realities of a gas attack and the death of a comrade who failed to get his mask on in time: “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”

This poem did not stop war, but it challenged the notion “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” -- Horace’s statement that it is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country.

A little later, in the 1930s, it was the turn of the artist to shine the spotlight on the effects of war of the civilian population. Guernica by Picasso is possibly the most famous image ever painted, and it depicts the horrific suffering caused by the bombing of the town during the Spanish Civil War. First displayed at the Spanish Pavilion in the Paris International Exhibition of 1937, Guernica was a statement aimed at drawing international attention to the plight of oppressed civilians in Spain, and at exposing the dangers of fascist dictators uniting together.

The painting did not stop war -- within a few years all Europe was to be at war -- but its long lasting effects include allegations that a copy hanging in the United Nations was deliberately covered over in 2003 when Colin Powell was giving a press conference in relation to the US’s call for UN military action on Afghanistan: Conspiracy theorists believe the Americans feared the power of the picture to prick consciences.

In the 1960s musicians such as the Beatles and Bob Dylan wrote and performed many anthems that were taken up by the anti-war movement. Songs such as “All you need is love,” “Imagine” and “Blowing in the wind” expressed the desire of protesters to stop conflict.

Songs did not stop war, but they gave a voice and a focus to civilian protest movements.

Recently released “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” the much talked about directorial debut of Angelina Jolie, continues in this long line of artists speaking out about war. Focusing on the brutality of the war in Bosnia, the screenplay was written by Jolie in an attempt to get out from inside her some of the frustration she had with the international community in general, and issues of justice in particular. As goodwill ambassador for the UN High Commission on Refugees, Jolie has seen more than her fair share of the suffering war causes for people who are displaced.

The film, sadly, will not stop war. But it causes cinema-goers -- and hopefully the politicians who rely on their votes -- to stop and think about the awful consequences of war. It also empowers victims of atrocities: Afghan newspapers and bloggers are excitedly reporting that Jolie is reputedly working on a screenplay concerning the 1993 Afshar Massacre from the Afghan Civil War.

Following in this long tradition, niche publishing house Comma Press has issued a collection of short stories by author Zoe Lambert. Entitled “The War Tour,” the stories take us on a journey around the world, and back through the 20th century, visiting some of the war black-spots.

Quoting Leon Trotsky, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you,” these observant and thought-provoking stories focus not on the international politics, the key state leaders, military commanders and famous heroes. Instead they tell the stories of war from the point of view of ordinary men and women caught up in them.

But not all focus on the plight of civilians. In one of the three stories relating to Turkey, the Middle East and Central Asia, the main character is a young British squadie home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Every one of the moving tales in “The War Tour” challenges our thinking, and makes us just a little bit uncomfortable as the reader, feeling that we are in some way joint conspirators in the plot to keep war in the world. In “From Kandahar,” the story of Phil makes us realize that most of those in combat uniform we see on our television news screens are just ordinary young men. When they go to war, they are no different from us. But what they witness and what they have to do make them come back changed forever.

Lambert manages to get inside the mind and understand the thought process of those who have experienced war first hand. In doing so she shines the spotlight back on us, and our own thought processes. We cannot understand at first why Phil feels strangled and smothered by the family party thrown to welcome him back. It is only when he reveals later to a complete stranger that he was involved in cleaning up the aftermath of an American special forces raid on a suspected militant, that had caught an extended family in the throes of just such a party, that we understand why. In this simple juxtaposition of British and Afghan life we are struck by the similarity of the hopes and aspirations of the majority of the world’s population.

As with all artists, Lambert has issues of perspective to struggle with. She freely admits that the main accusation often raised against activists was a trap she needed to avoid; that any attempt to speak for a disempowered group risk perpetuating the imperialism and colonialism that prevented the oppressed groups from speaking for themselves and from being heard in the first place.

Jolie has faced similar criticisms over her film. She responds that if she can use her celebrity to bring an issue to the forefront, and then step into the background as she allows the voice of people themselves to be heard, then she has contributed positively to the debate.

Similarly Lambert argues, “This ‘speaking for’ can be an ethical rather than an appropriative act. … Fiction can bear witness to what has been silenced in history and reveal the power structures that produced this silencing. I have come to believe that … fiction can reveal our own implication in such acts of silencing, either in our present position or via our cultural and national histories. That is what I have tried to reveal with my stories.”

None embodies this aim more than “33 Bullets,” the tale of a Kurdish literature professor who, having fled violence and persecution in Iran, is to be deported from the UK. His story told with dignity to a cellmate is cleverly interspersed by the ruling from the high court judge who fails to believe any evidence that the man is a professor and has faced violence and will be in mortal danger if he is returned to Iran.

I doubt this book will end war. But it may make each of us more sensitive to the part we silently play in compliance with it. Maybe the victims of war are not out there somewhere, but closer than we think: people we meet in our daily lives. As in the title of the first story, “These Words are No More Than a Story About a Woman on a Bus.”

“The War Zone” by Zoe Lambert Published by Comma Press 2012 7.99 GBP in paperback ISBN: 978-190558328-7

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