The world is made. And can be unmade. Remade. My grandfather made birdhouses, train tracks, chairs, tables, dollhouses. Howard made a violin – back, belly, neck, ribs. Miles makes paintings. I make sentences.
Draw Your Weapons is a difficult book to describe or categorise, but it was one I was desperate to read as soon as I heard about it – so desperate that I read over 2/3 as a PDF on my phone before the hard copies arrived. You can see exactly at which point I switched to the book, because from then on I’ve underlined at least one sentence on every page.
It’s the kind of book that, after reading just half, you have to stop and catch your breath, because reading it changes you, not just in terms of what you know – it changes the way you think and how you feel – so much so that, halfway in, I wanted to go back and start again because I felt I was already a different person to the person I was when I began.
It is a book about war – war in general as well as specific wars: WWII and the Iraq war most prominently – about art, psychology, the psychology of art and war, and art in times of war. Sarah Sentilles quotes widely (and interweaves seemlessly) prominent theorists and writers such as Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, Eula Biss, Virginia Woolf, Elaine Scarry, John Berger, various US politicians, UN spokespeople, Lucretius, countless art practitioners and filmmakers.
I have studied art, I’ve studied history and psychology but never seen them knitted together in this way before. Sentilles, a former divinity scholar and now a teacher of art, writes fluidly and enthrallingly, mixing cultural and social history with art theory and first-person accounts of warfare and its consequences, and art and its impact.
Words can take away humanity, and words can give it back.
The two most prominent characters she introduces us to are Howard, a former conscientious objector, and Miles – a student of Sentilles’s who was a soldier and prison guard at Abu Ghraib. She also tells us about her grandfather’s own wartime experiences as a ship’s navigator. Whether talking about Howard, Miles, or her grandfather, her recounting of their stories is personal and evocative as well as illuminating and educational.
I knew quite a lot about WWII in Europe (from school) but not much at all about its effects in the US – especially Manzanar, the internment camp for Japanese-American citizens, and only a little more about Abu Ghraib.
The book begins and ends with Howard. Sentilles first discovered him when a local paper ran a story about his eighty-seventh birthday, at which his grandson presented Howard with the violin that Howard had built, from scratch, whilst in prison over sixty years previously. She meets and spends time with Howard and his family. It was the picture of Howard with his violin in the newspaper, along with the infamous picture from Abu Ghraib, which changed Sentilles’s life and caused her to write this book:
I began writing these pages after seeing two photographs. In one, an old man in a plaid shirt held a violin, his eyes shining; in the other, a prisoner stood on a box, a hood covering his face, wires attached to his body. I was a graduate student in divinity school at the time, preparing to be a priest, writing my dissertation about theological imagination, but those images made that life impossible. I left the church, wrote my dissertation about photography, and got a job teaching at an art school.
These changes wrought upon Sentilles’s life are not hard to comprehend – her personal accounts of time spent with Miles and her other students, with Howard and his family, and with her own family – give shape and colour to her extraordinarily wide ranging sources of art theory, philosophy, politics and history, making the reader feel just as changed by them.