Revisiting The Disasters of War

The nightmare of our time is vivid and in high definition. The miseries of the Iraqi, Ukrainian, and Gaza conflicts are hard to witness, but at the same time indistinct and apolitical. It is hard to know exactly what you are looking at, for the doors of perception are in this case masked by the difficulties of interstate warfare to the western mind unfamiliar with the particulars and the details. When you watch the news it seems that the hatred and the cruelty inherent in the world’s war zones are the result of dangerously unbalanced people sick on history that you never learned in school. Predatory warlords, religious maniacs, police states, and demagogues fill the rosters typifing the bad guys of any modern asymmetric conflict, hardly worse then the people they are fighting it seems. In between is the lump of sorrowing humanity, devoid of anything but suffering. They’re plight seems alien and yet universal. Kneeling figures about to be executed and wailing families carrying the bodies of children through rubble-strewn streets.

In some cases, particulars and specifics seems to no longer be held of any importance, the violence just seems to become ends to itself; “Their’s not to reason why” as Tennyson would suggest, but simply to do, and more properly die. It seems to typify some sort of downward spiral in human sensibility, a world in which Kagan’s prediction of the coming anarchy of tribal and ethnic hatred overcoming sensibility seems truer and truer. Without uniform except the universal camo, ski mask, and ubiquitous kalashnikov, it can seem as if certain violence is just inevitable and devoid of political meaning. Why is Israel invading Gaza? They’ve just been fighting forever over there. Atheists blame religion in toto, and the religious blame that religion they disagree the most with. Political aspirations are lost, and with that the history of peoples and land ownership, communities and their relations to each other. It is just the mindless violence inherent in warfare.

In this frame of mind, I revisited the artist Francisco Goya’s  Los Desastres de la Guerra, the Disasters of War, a series of prints the artist produced from 1810 to 1820. The 82 prints represent horrors witnessed by the artist during the French invasion of Spain after the fall of the Bonapartist-friendly Spanish government during the uprisings of 1808. The result was a long and bloody war between the French and the Spanish patriot movement, backed eventually by British and Portuguese troops in what the British know as the Peninsula War. It was in this war that the term guerrilla, literally ‘little war’, first came into use to describe the warfare between Spanish insurgents and occupying French troops. While Goya, a Spanish liberal, was opposed to the French occupation, he recorded graphic horrors that reflected no allegiances. Naked bodies are impaled on trees, the hung men have their teeth stolen by scavengers while piles of indistinct corpses surround lost children.

The Disasters show many sites which underscore the horrendous cruelty of these wars of nationalist fervor, in which men murder each other with knives, axes, and cudgels. Unlike the stark colors of his more famous paintings of the 1808 uprising, the Second and Third of May, the drawings are in a stark and emotionless black and white, the figures grotesque. While the May paintings represent the cycle of violence between martyred patriot insurgents and alien French occupiers, in the Disasters, the lines seem less stark. Both sides butcher each other, and the violence is in no way liberating or redeeming, and if it is it is in a bestial sense.

Plate Entitled: The Same

Plate Entitled: The Same, showing Patriots executing French cavalrymen

The Disasters are instantly recognizable to the modern news-watching public. They represent the visceral cruelties witnessed everyday, posted by the victims and the perpetrators for the world to witness. The execution of suspected rebels or captured government soldiers seem to come to us straight from our own times, forgiving the bayonets and tail coats:isis-execution-photos

Or rather:


What makes the Disasters recognizable, especially in the post Soviet world, is that they seem fairly ubiquitous. Only the guns and clothing seem to place it in another time. It could easily be the DRC, Iraq, or Sri Lanka.

One of the effects of the rise of television news, with increasing belief in info-tainment has been the exhibition of cruelties without any rationalization of the images; the whole world seems chaotic and violent, but it is very complicated to explain the local fighting let alone how wider trends from globalization to climate change have an impact. Devoid of political focus, good and bad is hard to assign, except for the pathos towards those that suffer, often irrationally it seems.The rise of neo-isolationism, even in the staunch ranks of the Republican party, seems to indicate a sense in America and in the West that no modern conflict in Africa or the Middle East has a clear side of good or bad, just victims of the actions of evil men. War weariness and fiscal reduction are certainly reasons to avoid getting involved, but another is the fact that these conflicts seem so alien to political reason (mostly ignored by the news in favor of historical tropes) that they are just cycles of horrible, but long simmering, ethnic violence. The belief in equal blame which stopped intervention in Bosnia for three years and made troops stand by to witness ethnic cleansing with the belief it was somehow inevitable.

In other words, they had it coming:

He Deserved It

Plate entitled: He Deserved It

The problem with oversimplification and viewing the tragedies as simple spurts of inevitable violence is that it denies that the people who partake in the violence and are swept up in it have agency to stop it. It denies that there was a political raison d’etre for the conflict in the first place, and it seemingly ignores the fact that mass violence requires mass organisation, which is achieved by political means. War’s nature may change very little, but the outward reasoning of political groups seeking authority to shape communal destinies does vary quite a bit.

Do historical tensions mean nothing? Of course they do. What is important to remember, however, is that fears that stoke ethnic and communal violence have a lot to do with relevant and contemporary power and its effects on liberty to practice daily life in one’s preferred way and preserve one’s livelihood. Historical trends inform, but they do not necessarily assure, war. Contemporary politics matter just as much, if not more so. Without guarantees that political order will protect the economic and social interests of communities, it is not unusual for trust to be placed in arms. The violent over-rationalization of this principle can lead to scenes of mass violence directed at rivals, not just external foes but communal enemies seeking accommodation with new circumstances. Goya’s un-uniformed rabble beat and attack those they see as their oppressors, both straggling soldiers and their turncoat neighbors. Such fears were also sighted by the Hutu in Rwanda when murdering their Tutsi, Twa, and ‘collaborationist’ Hutu neighbors for fear of their collusion with RPF rebels, who were presenting a future that Hutu leaders rejected and regular Hutus feared might lead to mass violence against them.

Plate entitled: Rabble

Plate entitled: Rabble

What it is important too to remember when viewing the Disasters is that it is not the original title. Goya’s original collection was marked Fatal consequences of Spain’s bloody war with Bonaparte. The 82 prints include many that focus on rapine, executions, and the allegorical horrors of famine, but tellingly conclude with a series of prints condemning the aftermath of the war: the reinstatement of the Bourbon King Ferdinand. Goya, a liberal patriot, was angry and horrified that the conservative power of the monarchy and inquisition was being reinstated (having brought the intervention of the French in the first place) and the 1812 constitution, which had unified the Spanish rebels, rejected by the monarchists. The bleeding ulcer of this clash between traditional monarchical authority, backed by the conservative Church, and the aspirations of the constitutional liberals would open Spain up to reoccurring war throughout the next century. Each short term crisis informed, but not assured, by history. The final and bloody climax would be the civil bloodshed of the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, in which Spain’s communities committed blood-chilling atrocities on each other in coalitions cleft closely to those of the wars over a century before, yet were renegotiated by contemporary political units and reflected the social and economic pressures of 1936, not 1808. The violence may have had old roots and been familiar in its cruelties, but Franco and his Generals took the agency to unleash it.

Callot's Miseries of War: The Partisan's Revenge

Callot’s Miseries of War: The Partisan’s Revenge

Goya’s work, as well as its predecessor’s Jacques Callot’s The Grand Miseries of War with equally apt images of indistinct armies committing atrocities (with similar partisan violence), should inform us that our situation’s contemporary struggles are not unique. These things are the result of the profound stresses of war and militarism on communities, economies, and individuals. At its simplest, as Goya’s own titles suggest, the individual simply shrugs: “What can be done?” As the French were famed for remarking to GI’s, “C’est Le Guerre”. Perhaps it really is timeless, a cycle of crimination and recrimination visible in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Yet, if there is to be peace, if there is to be hope, then agency must be taken to rise to what Lincoln called ‘the Better Angels of our Nature’, as Steven Pinker suggests we may already be doing.  It seems much more likely, however, that the images of mass murder Goya, Callot, and our cameras see is bound to go on, even more so if we close our eyes and believe it cannot be helped. Peace will not triumph in our time, but this does not mean we should not seek order and understanding of the difficulties of our time.

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