War in all its awful beauty

Times Staff Writer

War, we all know, is hell. But war is also beautiful. It is the savage lyricism of “The Iliad,” the epic sweep and microscopic precision of a Bruegel battle scene, the solemn symmetry of a photograph, published in Life magazine in September 1943, of three soldiers lying dead on a New Guinea beach, their dark bodies pressing into the light sand.

Look again at some of the imagery spewing from America’s war with Iraq. On our TV screens, chiaroscuro clouds of smoke and sand drift to engulf palm trees, minarets, people. In newspaper pages, shafts of light from exploding missiles pierce the desert night, recalling Walter de Maria’s wondrous outdoor sculpture “The Lightning Field.” A British soldier’s reflection in a pool of leaking oil shimmers and blurs.

In the split-second it takes for the eye to absorb them, momentarily removed from their grim context, these images are ravishing, exhilarating, uncanny. Beautiful.


“War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages,” wrote Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944).

The author of those feverish sentiments was an Italian poet, dramatist and intellectual snake-oil salesman who is credited with inventing the short-lived art movement known as Futurism. When Marinetti set down the principles of the movement in a 1920s manifesto, he exalted war as if it were a magnificent orchestral score composed for bullets, flames and blood, launching an aesthetic that later served the bellicose Italian dictator and Hitler henchman Benito Mussolini. But over the years, saner minds have echoed the idea that war can produce gorgeous images and striking effects that furnish the raw material for sublime works of art -- a subtle yet crucial difference from Marinetti’s rabid notion that war itself can be a form of art.

To anyone who has experienced war’s ravages firsthand, that idea may sound naive, grotesque, even absurd. Yet over centuries of human brutality, the aesthetic has seldom been at odds with the horrific. Leonardo da Vinci, painter of delicate saints and serene landscapes, stuffed his notebooks with sketches of furious men at arms and fiendishly clever fighting machines. In the 1860s, Mathew Brady shocked the New York public by exhibiting gruesome photographs of Civil War dead. “Here are the dreadful details!” an accompanying text declared. “Let them aid in preventing such another calamity from falling upon the nation.” Only later was it revealed that Brady and his collaborators had repositioned some slain soldiers for dramatic effect.

During the last months of World War II, Japanese warlords persuaded thousands of college-educated student-soldiers to “die like beautiful falling cherry petals” in service to the emperor. This exquisite metaphor, deeply engrained in Japanese culture, was exploited by the warlords in one of the most effective fusions of ancient aesthetics and modern propaganda technique ever devised -- a fatal act of performance art.

Even overtly antiwar artworks like Brady’s photographs, Goya’s chilling series of aquatint prints, “Los Desastres de la Guerra” (The Disasters of War), and the Vietnam-as-tragic-farce movies of Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola and Stanley Kubrick are as memorable for their dazzling imagery and high-art allusions, their stirring snatches of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyrie” and Barber’s Adagio for Strings, as they are for their pacifist sentiments.

In his just-published memoir “Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles,” Anthony Swofford observes that fighting men make no distinction between pro-war and antiwar movies once they get caught up in the intoxicating visuals. Another witness to the aftershocks of the 1991 Gulf War, German filmmaker Werner Herzog, captured the devastating destruction of Operation Desert Storm in his 1992 documentary, “Lessons of Darkness,” which featured hallucinatory shots of burning oil rigs, ruined buildings and corpses submerged in sand dunes, all set to the music of Verdi, Wagner and Mahler. While the movie added up to a scorching indictment of war’s waste, most reviewers raved about how beautiful it all looked.


Today, war is still reshaping our sense of the aesthetic, as for the past 1 1/2 years the world has been alternately repulsed and transfixed, saddened and mesmerized by the devastation unleashed on Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington and New York. For now, the immediacy of these images may make it impossible to view any of them as aesthetically charged objects. In time, however, it’s likely that some will be regarded not just as journalistic documents, but also as artworks, and that they will in turn supply inspiration for those seeking to make art.


In her newly published book “Regarding the Pain of Others,” writer and critic Susan Sontag, focusing on photography, asserts that “there is shame ... in looking at the close-up of a real horror. Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it.... The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.”

Because photography purports to capture real life, unadorned, its depictions of war are more problematic than those of other art forms. But as Sontag acknowledges, photographic images reflecting horrifying events can be beautiful on a purely formal and aesthetic level. Among the examples she cites are certain stunning images of the World Trade Center ruins. However, she writes, “the most people dared say was that the photographs were ‘surreal,’ a hectic euphemism behind which the disgraced notion of beauty cowered.”

As Sontag observes, most thinking people feel guilty for deriving sensory pleasure from anything directly connected to the suffering of others. How can we suspend our ethical and moral judgment, even momentarily, and allow ourselves to be dazzled by those psychedelic strobes over Baghdad, those cataracts of tanks and troops rolling across blasted desert-scapes, those majestic towers in Lower Manhattan cascading like steel-and-glass tsunamis? How can we shut our ears and eyes to the screams and mangled bodies behind those abstractions, just beyond the range of the camera lens?

And yet the impulse to aestheticize war is as old and possibly as instinctive as the urge toward war itself. Metaphorically, it’s no accident that Beauty, in the person of Helen of Troy, was the cause of the decade-long battle between the Trojans and Greeks, a cultural touchstone of Western civilization. Centuries later, Freud mused about the symbiotic relationship between Eros, the heavenly personification of sexual love, beauty and desire, and Thanatos, the dark embodiment of the death wish.

Like the gods Mars and Venus, who were clandestine lovers in Greco-Roman mythology, war and beauty are deeply, almost pre-cognitively embedded together in the human psyche. Though reason and ethics may insist that nothing that causes death and destruction ever can be truly beautiful, the senses argue otherwise.

“The tracer rounds made lines of incandescent beauty, lovely arcing curves and slow S’s and parabolas of light,” wrote reporter Michael Kelly, who died two weeks ago covering the second U.S.-Iraq war, upon witnessing the bombing of Baghdad during the first U.S.-Iraq war.

Though the sensory overload of war wouldn’t seem to call for any embellishment, it often tempts witnesses to go it one better. As Sontag notes in her book, Brady and his colleagues belong to a long list of photojournalists who doctored or staged some of the most famous battle images in history (including the raising of the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima). Two weeks ago, a photographer for The Times lost his job after using computer technology to combine parts of two digital images into one. “His explanation was that he wanted to improve the picture,” Times managing editor Dean Baquet told the Washington Post. “It’s heartbreaking. People believe that newspapers screw around with pictures for political reasons. In his case it was an aesthetic thing.”

The aesthetic rules for Hollywood, of course, are different from those for journalists. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski won deserved praise for the heart-racing realism he brought to the opening 25-minute D-day montage in Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” But in his quest to bring the audience “as close to the soldiers as possible through the camera,” Kaminski hit upon a form of “realism” that was, in fact, a brilliant act of stylization. “That’s where the idea of kind of a hyper-reality came from, the idea of employing different camera speeds, creating this kind of staccato movement,” he says.

Although Kaminski says it would be wrong to describe an actual scene of human carnage as beautiful, he thinks the word can be applied, for example, to the Kuwaiti oil fires of Operation Desert Storm. And he’s a connoisseur of the visually sensual in movies like “Apocalypse Now” and “The Thin Red Line.”

“Beautifully, beautifully done movie,” Kaminski say of the latter, “the sweeping camera through the grass revealing crawling soldiers, or hundreds and hundreds of Japanese soldiers burning alive and their uniforms smoldering. There’s some beauty in it, you know? It’s a totally different, poetic look at the events, philosophical and poetic.”

Max Ryynanen, an art critic and vice president of ROR Gallery in Helsinki, Finland, agrees with the great philosophers who argued that ethics could not be separated from aesthetics. “Still, sometimes the phenomena we encounter may just seduce us to stress the ethical or the aesthetical,” he said in an e-mail interview. “A Van Gogh strikes us aesthetically if we are into art. A beautiful sunrise strikes us aesthetically even if we are not into art -- you don’t need background for it. A picture of an African child suffering because of hunger strikes us ethically, whatever intentions we have. I’d say the World Trade Center [attacks] had both effects on us Europeans, watching it all safely from a distance.”

Even when terror and destruction strike close by, threatening our homes, our loved ones and our very lives, it may be hard to curb the impulse to grab a paintbrush, pick up a Leica, or wax rhapsodic in prose or verse. Like many artists and photographers in New York City when the hijacked planes hit the twin towers, Daniel Rothbart, an artist and writer, immediately grabbed his camera and began shooting the unfolding scene -- “which perhaps wasn’t the most humane thing to do,” he says. He saw careering police cars and firetrucks, long rows of identical TV news-truck satellite dishes arrayed along the West Side Highway, “almost like a forced perspective, looking backward,” and a massive pedestrian exodus ahead of the onrushing plumes of ash.

“It was like this extraordinary ballet, this choreography, that had been realized through this intense study of the terrorists,” says Rothbart, who lives with his wife (then his fiancee) in Manhattan’s TriBeCa neighborhood, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center site. “You felt guilt and discomfort in appreciating that inner beauty. There’s a conflict. There’s something extraordinary in witnessing that building, and at the same there’s guilt knowing people were trapped inside that building and were dying.”

Rothbart says he didn’t see himself “engaged in making art that day” but in “documenting history.” He still hasn’t done anything with the photos he took, and for a long time after the attacks he felt that he couldn’t write or make art. “It was really a powerful feeling of impotence in the face of what happened, or irrelevance.” He finally dealt with the subject months later in an essay for NY Arts magazine on the aesthetics of war, in which he cited Marinetti’s quote and likened the collapse of the twin towers to the immolation of Valhalla in Wagner’s opera “Gotterdammerung.”

“The burning buildings held a primordial fascination for those who experienced them,” he wrote. “However troubling it may be, this current of abstraction that allows us to see beauty in carnage exists within us all. Like a subterranean current in the human psyche it reveals itself in moments like the destruction of the World Trade Center, but is rarely acknowledged and almost never embraced.”


Karlheinz Stockhausen, the German avant-garde composer, was publicly chastised around the world for a kindred statement that he made about the Sept. 11 attacks. The terrorist strikes were, he said, “the greatest work of art imaginable.... Minds achieving something in an act that we couldn’t even dream of in music, people rehearsing like mad for 10 years, preparing fanatically for a concert and then dying, just imagine what happened there. You have people who are that focused on a performance and then 5,000 people are dispatched into the afterlife, in a single moment. I couldn’t do that. By comparison, we composers are nothing.” Stockhausen later amended his remarks, saying he meant that only a Lucifer could have orchestrated the attacks.

Even the composer’s most ardent fans might agree he was guilty, at a minimum, of gross insensitivity. But Raul Zamudio, a New York art historian, independent curator and author of a magazine essay titled “Art & Violence: Poetry After Auschwitz, Art After 9/11,” thinks Stockhausen’s point may have been that “the spectacle of violence was so great that you could only have seen it through an artistic or formal lens.” Perhaps Stockhausen had in mind Wagner’s hypothetical concept of a gesamptkunstwerk, or “total artwork” synthesizing all forms of aesthetic expression.

A far less grandiose musical response to Sept. 11 succeeded beautifully for many listeners in transforming tragedy into art. Two weeks ago, American composer John Adams received the Pulitzer Prize in music for his 25-minute work “On the Transmigration of Souls.” Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, the piece incorporated adult and children’s choruses as well as voice-over readings of victims’ names and taped street sounds. Adams has said he envisioned the piece as a “memory space” where “you can be alone with your thoughts and emotions.”

Which option then, for the artist, is more aesthetically and morally responsible when confronting a horrifying event such as war: to make the most thoughtful, deeply felt and expressive artwork one can, or to insist that no art should be made at all? Inadvertently, Stockhausen’s notorious quote echoed a famous epigram coined by German philosopher Theodore Adorno and cited in the title of Zamudio’s essay: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” And yet poetry was written, plays were staged, movies were made, paintings were painted, music was performed after Auschwitz. Some of these works were even about Auschwitz.

Surely something more than mere prurient interest lies behind our compulsion to look and record, to contemplate even as we recoil, to marvel even as we mourn. One person’s exploitation of tragedy, after all, can be another’s attempt to understand, to make peace, to make amends. And as critic and journalist Henry Allen wrote in a June 2000 article in the New Yorker, it’s an irony worthy of Oscar Wilde that “we can worry about people being exploited with photography after they’ve been bombed, starved, exiled, mutilated and hacked to pieces with machetes.”

Putting it another way, the mere act of staring or not staring at an image of war, of reading an elegy about a battle or listening to a piece of music inspired by thousands of lost lives, will do little one way or the other for the victims of those calamities. The preservation of their memory and the meaning of what they endured depends on what we do after we put down the poem about Auschwitz or Hiroshima, or the one about Baghdad or Basra yet to be written; after we exit the photo gallery and go home; after we emerge from the vicarious dreams of the movie house and step into the light of day.

“Let the atrocious images haunt us,” Sontag writes in her book. “Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing -- may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget.”

Or be prepared, in another time and place, for another terrible beauty to be born.