By Sarah Sentilles. Random House, 2017. 320 pages. $28/hardcover; $13.99/eBook.
Assembled like a collage or impressionist painting, Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles gives the reader a poetic way to look at photos of both soldiers and pacifists with the same lens. Through her eyes, we get to bear witness to great atrocities and spirited devotion. The book is centered around two photographs: one taken from a newspaper of an old man holding a violin, the other the infamous image of a hooded man from Abu Ghraib. There are no reproductions of these images in the book. Instead, without using a single image, Sentilles uses her words to show us art that can change hearts and minds and affect the personal and the political. Written in a style that resembles layers of paint on canvas, the author uses very small paragraphs that piece together fragments of a story unfolding to form a different kind of narrative. I appreciated this style as it gave me time to rest, letting the information really sink in. The story is then revealed to us one layer at a time, with great care and deliberation.
Of particular note to Quakers is Sentilles’s focus on the man with the violin, who turns out to be Howard Scott, known by many throughout the Pacific Northwest. During WWII in the military, Howard walked out of a workcamp and was arrested. He was released, but then drafted back into military service, where he declared himself a conscientious objector and was put back into prison. While in prison this time, he used wood he had collected during his time at workcamp to make a violin. He didn’t have permission to do this, so his wife, Ruane, sent him violin building instructions in short letters. He never did complete the violin in prison, but years later his grandson found the half-completed violin in Howard’s house and finished the job, giving it to him on his eighty-seventh birthday. From the story Sentilles read in the newspaper, she contacted the family and reconstructed parts of Howard’s life into a narrative fused with imagery of peace and war, stories from Howard’s life and her own and that of one of her students, Miles, who had been a soldier at Abu Ghraib.
Another interesting parallel is Howard’s relationship to noted conscientious objector and Quaker Gordon Hirabayashi, who was Howard’s college roommate. Hirabayashi, a Japanese American, refused the curfew and internment order during WWII. His court case, challenging a major constitutional issue of freedom, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Though he lost at the time, his conviction was overturned 44 years later. Several honors in his name continue to tell his story. Woven together in a parallel arc, these stories explore the people and themes most important to Quakers: war and peace.
What’s most important about this book is its transformative power, through art, to examine the issues of war and peace, good and evil, love and violence. Using a great deal of research and compassion, Sentilles weaves a narrative to make meaning out of the atrocities of war. By using art, or such verbal descriptions of art, humanity can change how it feels about war. Sentilles shows us that, through images such as slaves being inhumanely treated or images of children being burned in Vietnam, art can be used to truly change the world. Be warned that there are numerous disturbing descriptions of war imagery throughout the book. These images are not used gratuitously, but as a means of closer examination. Sentilles talks to an artist who makes dioramas, and says, “She thought re-creating the scenes would force her to notice details that might have been overlooked.” In other words, “careful observation could help to bring about justice.” What this means to me is that sometimes we have to open our eyes to something we don’t want to see; otherwise we will close ourselves off from bringing about change. As Quakers who believe in continuing revelation, we must be ready to embrace whatever arises, even if it scares us. To outwardly attest to our inward experience, Sentilles says, “The act of watching affects what is being watched.” We must be witnesses then, to keep watch, to keep looking and seeing, to be able to point out that which needs changing. This book, then, is not only a cautionary tale for Quakers, but it provides us with a role model for seeing. Howard the conscience objector and Miles the war veteran both had experiences we can look at to help change our own lives.