They sent forth men to battle,
But no such men return;
And home, to claim their welcome,
Come ashes in an urn.

For war’s a banker, flesh his gold.
There by the furnace of Troy’s field,
Where thrust meets thrust, he sits to hold
His scale, and watch the spearpoint sway;
And back to waiting homes he sends
Slag from the ore, a little dust
To drain hot tears from hearts of friends;
Good measure, safely stored and sealed
In a convenient jar — the just
Price for the man they sent away.

— Aeschylus, Agamemnon

 

THESE LINES ABOUT WAR in classical Greece, with their elemental imagery, the thrusting of spears, the furnace, the ashes, the containing jar, the homes and hot tears, suggest a fundamental sadness as well as a perpetually disabling weakness in the human condition. The lines are so profoundly unsettling, spiritually exhausting really, because the associations with hearth and domesticity so pathetically evoke what we lose in war. Unlike a writer like Stephen Crane who only imagined the battlefield in The Red Badge of Courage without any actual risk of his limbs or life, Aeschylus knew the consequences of battle at Marathon and elsewhere. Like Sophocles, he spent a career in the military before his invention of tragedy in the fifth century BCE.

The connection between armed combat and the banking system in Philip Vellacott’s version of the fifth line in this passage, (The Oresteian Trilogy, Penguin, 1956) is sometimes translated as “War, the moneychanger of bodies,” a more gruesome suggestion indeed. The relationship between those who manage the money system at the cost of “the just price for the man they sent away” can seem too bloodthirsty even for the most suspicious and cynical among us.

Yet such a proposition seems implicit in David Shields’s anthology War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict. Shields’s argument is presented succinctly in a brief introduction. For decades, he writes, he has been enraptured, baffled, and repelled by the war photographs displayed on the front pages of The New York Times. Over time, he saw how these photographs “glorified war through an unrelenting parade of beautiful images.”

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From War Is Beautiful by David Shields, published by powerHouse Books.
Photo Credit: Damir Sagolj/Reuters

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From War Is Beautiful by David Shields, published by powerHouse Books.
Photo Credit: Joao Silva/The New York Times/Redux

When he reviewed these page-one photographs dating from the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, he suspected that the Times’ editors intended to “glamorize war and the sacrifices made in the service of war.” He began to understand that the Times functioned as a quasi-governmental entity, that by never straying far from a centrist, normative position, it became complicit with the sources of American power, which it reflected as a means of getting continuing access to those sources. “The Times and the U.S. government use each other to instantiate their own authority” he argues. The Times “knows precisely what truth the power wants told and then prints this truth as the first draft of history.”

In support of his contention, Shields reminds us of Times reporter Judith Miller’s shocking use of unreliable information to support intervention in Iraq. Although the dry, flat topography of Iraq did not form a suitable backdrop for dramatic photos, the page-one photographs consistently displayed a place of epic grandeur. “The program of the photos is the same as that of the Iliad: the preservation of power,” Shields maintains. His anthology presents us with his evidence.

Shields isn’t exactly the first American writer to smell conspiracy in what has been called “the endless war.” The concept was used by Ezra Pound in his response to Francis Biddle, then attorney general of the United States, when Pound was indicted for treason for speaking against American military intervention on Radio Rome during World War II: “I have not spoken with regard to this war, but in protest against a system which created one war after another, in series and in system.” Pound had done his bit in glorifying late medieval combat himself with a powerful early poem, “Sestina: Altaforte” — “there’s no sound like to swords swords opposing.” By the end of World War I, however, he wrote in parts four and five of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” the strongest condemnation of war written by any poet of his time — the Great War was fought, he wrote, for “an old bitch gone in the teeth/ for a botched civilization.” The devastation of that war affected Pound profoundly — to the extent that he stopped writing his own poems, only translating from the Japanese, and entirely changed his priority from the search for beauty to the politics of preventing a recurrence.

War is a subject of fascination for writers and usually becomes the most compelling story of the moment. Lost Generation writers were drawn to World War I. Pound’s friend Hemingway was wounded as an ambulance driver, and later worked as a war journalist. Faulkner was so eager to see the war at first hand that he volunteered for service in the Royal Canadian Air Force when he was told he was too short to serve in the United States Air Force: what he saw became the subject of his first novel, Pylon. John Dos Passos’s first novel, Three Soldiers, also grew out of his combat experience. F. Scott Fitzgerald did his best, as well, to see the action and trained to be an officer — under the command of a young captain named Dwight David Eisenhower — though the war ended, much to his regret, before he could be dispatched.

A later novelist like William Styron would announce in the late 1960s his perennial suspicion of “the loony fanaticism of the military mind,” and no fiction could be more opposed to military conflict than the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, published in 1939. By the end of World War II, novelists like Mailer, James Jones or Joseph Heller, concentrated more on the grime than the glory. Heller, by the way, when he was first trained as a B-25 bombardier, found the experience thrilling — he even used the word glorious, and he flew over Italy on 60 missions. Catch-22 provided a more seasoned view. Subsequent American writers, particularly after Vietnam, like Tim O’Brien or Denis Johnson offered an even less sanguine view of war’s possibilities.

While Shields might have more sympathy with a perspective like Johnson’s that explores the Conradian inferno of war, its absurd gestures and ultimate futility — like the detail of the ship firing blindly into the African continent in Heart of Darkness — his position attempts to convince us of a tacit silent conspiracy between press and government. That is a serious assertion.

In his letter responding to the indictment of Roosevelt’s attorney general, Pound maintained that freedom of the press in America was farcical: “as everyone knows that the press is controlled, if not by its titular owners at least by the advertisers.” This is an even more sinister idea: that modern media is an expression of a capitalist system that requires military expenditure to sustain itself. Since the end of World War II, Americans (French, Brits, and Russians, too) have been exporting the most sophisticated weapons systems the world has ever seen. Remember that for five long years FDR was unable to rectify the damages of the Great Depression, despite all the ingenuity of his New Deal, until he ordered rearmament in 1937. Since then, the belief has spread that perpetual rearmament prevents economic depression. If Pound is right, then Shields’s critique of the Times would apply to all media outlets.

Shields’s argument about the photographs is that they deliver their ideological point through their beauty. But does that mean the photographs Shields collects are a sort of bizarre fashion statement, a procession of roaring F-37s twinkling in the Fourth of July sunlight to dazzle us into hawkishness? It seems equally possible that they are a demonstration of Rilke’s observation that modern “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror that we are still just able to bear.” Of course, our understanding of what qualifies as “beauty” changed drastically after Duchamp and Dada, but even earlier we have the painting of the lowlands masters Bosch and Breughel, and the certain knowledge of how natural catastrophe — the flood, the earthquake, the erupting volcano — can lead to images of spectacular if spectral beauty.

Shields doesn’t cite Rilke, though each of his 10 sections is prefaced by textual citations from writers like Edmund Burke, Cormac McCarthy, the playwright and actor Wallace Shawn, and Gore Vidal, that master of the put-down quip whose comparison of The New York Times to Typhoid Mary is included here in support of Shields’s case. One of the citations, from an Israeli military historian named Martin van Creveld, speculates that men are by nature more aggressive than women as compensation for their inability to give birth. Now that women strap explosive vests under their brassieres and join men on the front lines, when babies are formed in laboratories, can such a Freudian notion seem at all valid?

The citations are evidence of Shields’s preferred method of composition. For him, appropriation (as it was for Pound, Eliot, and postmodernists like Burroughs) is a vital ingredient in the creation of any new text. Books should be compressed into “riffs and shards” and presented as collage. The writer, like the musician, works most successfully by “sampling,” and like the filmmaker presents a montage. In this manner, the artist hopes to perceive the emerging new.

The emerging new does not appear in War Is Beautiful. Except for “Nature,” the first section, and the seventh section, labeled “Movie,” there is little evidence of a search for beauty and much more of routine journalistic war photography — demolished homes, streets of rubble, bodies of children in the arms of weeping parents, soldiers brandishing weapons. Perhaps it is incorrect to join the word “routine” with war, and Robert Capa’s photographs of war, for example, can hardly be dismissed as routine. As a photojournalist, he was a gun for hire who would be glad to sell his work to Collier’s, Life, or any publication willing to pay him. Then he created Magnum, though it might be news to him that his intention was to glorify war. A land mine caused his death and the hazards of war journalism can never be underestimated.

Would W. Eugene Smith’s photographs of Marines in combat in the Pacific qualify as glamour shots? Was Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photograph of the sailor kissing the girl on Times Square on VJ day — taken in a lucky instant and capturing an expression of joyous abandon — part of a calculated campaign? Following the logic of Shields’s argument, should we assume that picture editors will choose to print what he calls glamour shots of the terrible catastrophes of war as a distraction from the human cost instead of looking for the most sensational and emotionally compelling shots?

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From War Is Beautiful by David Shields, published by powerHouse Books.
Photo Credit: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times/Redux

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From War Is Beautiful by David Shields, published by powerHouse Books.
Photo Credit: Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images

In the section called “God,” a Palestinian boy is photographed in his underwear, kneeling before uniformed men after they discovered an explosive vest. Though the picture might appear in an annual report by some mercenary defense firm like Blackwater, it is hard to determine what point it plays in Shields’s collection. The boy looks like he is praying and there is pathos in his expression (for failure to detonate, or for his awful future?) but it is hard to detect any sign of beauty. The photograph has some of the abject grimness you feel in Goya’s The Disasters of War series, but little of Goya’s masterful reach.

As Timothy Snyder so meticulously documented in Bloodlands, most of the cost of contemporary war can be measured in civilian casualties. Another photograph in Shields’s collection shows a man grieving over the body of a civilian in sneakers surrounded by the detritus left by bombs. The victim, his face spotted with dried blood, is partly hidden by a yellow blanket. Two soldiers, one clearly a medic, one with his weapon, stand looming and unconcerned above. I can detect no romance in such a photograph. Instead, like Terrence Mallick’s brilliantly bloody film adaptation of James Jones’s The Thin Red Line, the photo is more repellent than attractive. It may be that the fluidity of film — as in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now — is better able to realize and reconcile Rilke’s equation of the sensations of beauty and terror than the printed photo, but that’s another aesthetic discussion.

True, there are some vestiges of beauty, some situated in the kitsch of sunrise or sunset: tanks in the desert dimness, an American army officer obscured and emerging from a dense field of pink opium poppies (Afghanistan’s major export), two other soldiers climbing an ornate curved staircase in what seemed to be a bombed palace with a damaged grand piano and brick rubble looming in the foreground, a woman enveloped in a black chador crossing a street in Baghdad during a terrible dust storm. But are these photographs and the others in the book examples of propaganda, part of a subliminal attempt to inure an audience to the horror by aesthetic means as Shields argues? I’m not buying it.

If some of these pictures have the power to cause some young people to volunteer for service in a Middle Eastern minefield, others surely will dissuade them, causing them to run for cover or convert to pacificism. I wonder whether the political correctness that inspires this book is more facile than truthful. I also wonder what Aeschylus would say, although I doubt that he would share Shields’s shallow notion that the unknown author of the Iliad set the poem down as part of a program to preserve power. That great poem, it seems to me, is more about reckless arrogance, the overreach of power and its abuse, and in that sense, perhaps, more relevant to Americans right now than Shields’s book.

¤

John Tytell has taught in the English Department of Queens College (C.U.N.Y.) since 1963.