War is the worst evil that people have inflicted upon one another, at costs to themselves, since some hominid discovered the lethal efficacy of rocks. It is waged continually somewhere or other in every generation, furiously now, in Ukraine, and fitfully in the Middle East and Africa. The recurring horror has paused on a global scale—holding its breath, you may feel—only because, post-Hiroshima, nuclear weaponry bodes suicide for the next power to use it. Or so we have thought, and perhaps still think, but with shaken complacency. What never ends is the primordial emotional tug toward organized mayhem, which is playing out, yet again, in Eastern Europe in the face of widespread revulsion. Putin: Monster! But a madman? Diagnosing him as such assumes that sanity is the normative state of people with power.
By an unforeseen coincidence, the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, has opened a show, “As They Saw It: Artists Witnessing War,” that consists of archival prints, drawings, and photographs that historicize war’s sick seductiveness. The images are displayed chronologically, focussed by turns on the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the American Civil War, the Siege of Paris in 1870-71, and the First World War. The ensemble is a small, smattery affair that nonetheless concentrates the mind on past, present, and, ineluctably, future calamity. At its core is a slide show of Francisco Goya’s eighty intaglio prints, “The Disasters of War” (1810-20). For fear of censorship, the works were first published in 1863, as an album, thirty-five years after the artist’s death. The Clark owns a copy.
The “Disasters” are philosophically dire like nothing else in art history. Derived partly from Goya’s personal observation of battlefields, they begin soon after the onset of the Peninsular War, launched by Napoleon in 1808 with a misbegotten invasion of Spain, and proceed to gruesome renderings of war-induced famine and subsequent collisions of Royalist and liberal Spanish factions. They include instances of torture that make death seem merciful. Each of the plates zooms in on what the artist deemed an innate human capacity for savagery that never expires, persisting at a simmer in peacetime. What is it like to suffer atrocity and, alternatively, to perpetrate it? Goya generally plays no favorites among the parties to his nightmarish scenarios.
Jumping out at me is the twelfth plate, captioned “This is what you were born for,” in which a man vomits at the sight of heaped corpses. Though ugly, the man’s reaction is a rare hint, in the series, of compassionate feeling. He could be anyone civilized (that is, with inborn instincts inhibited) who comes upon carnage. By comparison, most of the other items in the show, with the exception of a sobering print by Édouard Manet, are banally or viciously propagandistic, demonizing enemies, or else remaining professionally detached—in either case, rhetorically akin to genres of spectator sport. Photographs can’t help spectacularizing violence, given that a disinterested object, the camera, is interposed between the viewer and the viewed. While perhaps stirring emotion, they are chiefly informational.
The same goes, in the show, for the rote thrills and martial sentiments of gaudy late-Baroque battle scenes; fetishized military garb and accoutrements that were popular magazine fare in the nineteenth century; and laconic reportage by the likes of Winslow Homer and Mathew Brady. All set us at a distance. Coping intimately with the truths of war requires either firsthand experience or, if one has blessedly been spared it, introspection, which Goya exercised in abyssal depth and which the news of our day might kindle in us.
In 1966, when my draft number came up, I presented myself at the Army Induction Center on Whitehall Street in Manhattan. I did so in a condition that was curatorially drug-addled, sleepless, and unwashed. Already underweight, more weak than strong, and chronically nerve-racked—I was not someone whose comradeship you’d want in your foxhole—I probably could have done without the frills, but fright drove me to load the odds in my salvific disfavor. Briskly rejected, I was giddy with relief.
Then shame set in. Another guy would have to go in what might, after all, have been my place. In addition, there was the betrayal of my youthful conviction that of course I would serve someday, as the firstborn son of a father who had won a medal during the Second World War, in the Battle of the Bulge. Only much later did I understand that he had probably incurred lifelong psychic hurt from the ordeal, which may have explained his jumpy elusiveness as a dad. Even now, at the Clark, I can summon tingles of the vicarious bloody glamour that, as a boy, I felt when I imagined my father’s war.
Wisdom came later, albeit incompletely. I am a frequent reader of military histories. I swear, especially, by the work of the late John Keegan, who is at once humane in his focus on the fates of common soldiers—in his breakthrough book, “The Face of Battle” (1976), he details the specific vicissitudes of those who fought at Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme—and unillusioned about the justifications, however compelling, that sent men into harm’s way and kept them there, whether from incentives of patriotism or, failing that, remorseless coercion.
Keegan, like Goya, leaves you with the belief that he sees war-making as hardwired in humanity. In “A History of Warfare” (1993), he noted that when the natives of Easter Island, after more than a millennium in isolation, fell to fighting over dwindling resources, they spontaneously hit upon two of the three classic means of defensive strategy: reinforced refuges and a huge ditch. (The island was too tiny to warrant the third expedient: regional fortresses.) Nor did the combatants need to consult the Iliad, say, to grasp what they were about. Havoc with obsidian spearheads developed naturally.
Do wars start with reasons? Always, and they accumulate supplementary imperatives from the first shot onward. You know that life is hell, someone once remarked, when you reflect that everyone has reasons, albeit often delusory. Keegan recalled that the deciders on all sides of the First World War, having been schooled in the Clausewitzian dogma that war is the continuation of politics by other means, directed a catastrophe that made practically no political sense whatsoever. Cause or no cause, war is something that people do because they can: it “reaches into the most secret places of the human heart,” Keegan wrote. Set aside for a moment the fact that the conduct of a war can ennoble even when the outcome is likely doomed, as is generally believed of the Ukrainians, led by the astonishing Volodymyr Zelensky.
Inevitably, one takes sides. I keep replaying the video of a Russian helicopter gunship being shot down with, I assume, a Western-gifted Stinger missile. I don’t like to think of the men who perished in that ball of fire. Instead, I contemplate the event as something cartoonishly abstract: the copter “Russia,” the missile “Ukraine.” It counts for something that the crew died while on a death-dealing mission, but they were fellow human beings. Simply, there’s no getting around the moral repercussions of a rooting interest once a conflict has been internalized.
Manet updated Goya in a modernizing, strangely urbane manner. He made his lithograph “The Barricade” in 1871, the same year as the deadly suppression of the Paris Commune, which he had witnessed. Soldiers let loose a volley at defenders of a street obstacle. We see only one victim distinctly, in a sophisticated composition that is largely obscured and formally flattened by a cloud of smoke, which effectively eliminates a middle ground between the shooters and the shot.
Had the scene’s passionate Communards been properly armed, they might have reversed their encounter with the dutiful soldiery, piling up uniformed bodies. They weren’t, and therefore couldn’t. Manet, for all his temperamental sympathy with the rebels, doesn’t dramatize the slaughter. He fatalistically records it. Whatever uncertainty attends a war’s commencement, each conflict ends with facts. Artists have no say in the matter, but, if they are honest about a phenomenon that makes a treason of honesty, they can at least disabuse us of naïve projections.
Goya’s penultimate “Disaster” depicts a glowing female figure supine, and apparently lifeless, amid a mob of standing monsters. The caption reads, “Truth has died.” The following, final image, “Will she rise again?,” repeats the same composition. The woman’s posture and hopeless situation are unchanged. Only, in this one, she has opened her eyes. ♦