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When War Becomes a Part of Life

This photo could be from a comedy skit, if the war in Syria were not so deadly.  The image is an odd one in any case, so let’s consider why.

It’s definitely a war photograph–without a war you are not likely to find an unexploded missile on your property–but it is not a conventional war photograph.  Instead of action, only stasis.  Instead of destructiveness, an inert object.  Instead of displacement, a strange addition to the landscape.  Instead of strategy and tactics in real time, a banal chore that might not get done for awhile.  It doesn’t even seem to be a good photograph: Instead of the decisive moment, only an indeterminate aftermath while time moves at a crawl.  We might ask what that guy is thinking, but it’s not clear the missile is even his problem, and the answer doesn’t seem to matter much for us.

Which may be why it has some resonance as a joke.  “Well , here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into,” or something like that.  Were it to blow up, we might think of Wilie E. Coyote having ordered it from Acme.  Or, “I survived the Syrian war for six years, and all I got was this lousy missile.”  Of course, I don’t want to make light of the terrible suffering that has been the norm in Syria for all that time.  The photo isn’t doing that either, but it is getting close to something uncanny, and that is why a comic undertone seems just out of hearing.

The image troubles because of how such terrible destructiveness has become so banal.  Without it’s nosecone, the missile looks like a non-military object, but one having no exact purpose and perhaps still a bit sinister for that–as if something seen by Kafka’s K.   It also looks like it could have been made in the 14th century, and so channels a distortion in historical time.  Which war are we in, or has it been one continuous war?  And instead of another marvel of modern technology, this failed weapon suggests war’s ancient brutality.

Except, perhaps, that it is an interlude.  He is safe for the moment.  The trees in the background have not been harmed.  The photograph is showing us war from the inside, but in a way that opens to other possible worlds.  Which is why the colors are so important and so ambivalent.

What strikes me perhaps most of all is how missile, man, and landscape share nearly identical shades of green and brown.  Only his jeans provide a single, mute sense of a wider range.  It’s as if land, people, and weaponry had been artfully coordinated–“that rug really tied the room together” (another bad joke, I know.)  Of course, it’s not quite an accident: culture reflects geography, local materials and camouflage are to be expected in a civil war, etc.  And war is not fashion and suffering is not funny.  But the image is both familiar and odd enough to seem uncanny, if you think about it, and that’s where the photograph makes a statement.

Is that strange object a bizarre addition to the rural landscape, or part of it?   Is war really the exception, or are we already too accustomed to it to avoid it?  Are war and peace already so interwoven that we can’t imagine much beyond the same two alternating colors?

During a week of poison gas attacks on civilians and of cruise missiles arcing through the sky to destroy enemy materiel, there were many photographs documenting both war’s terrible destructiveness and the continued allure of projecting power.   By contrast, a photograph that lacks action, trauma, and much else in the conventional iconography of war may have hit closest to the truth.  War is woven into modern culture, which then is sure to perpetuate barbarism.

Or perhaps not.  That odd duck of a failed missile is in the foreground, not the background, because war is not assumed (yet) to be normal.  By getting past propaganda and terror, we can see war for what it is: ridiculous.  Everything we make can be artfully coordinated because we make it–and so we can unmake it.  A photograph of an inert, discarded weapon might be refusing the inevitability of violence.

So, instead of action, questions.  As war is part of everyday life–there and here, wherever you are–it still is not easy to see or to understand.  Like the man in the picture, we may need to ponder the strange objects it has placed before us, photographs not least among them.  With help, and perhaps a joke or two, we might even do something to reduce war’s presence before it kills us.

Photograph by by Mohamad Abazeed/AFP.  (There is another shot at Getty Images by the same photographer taken from a different angle that shows buildings, other people, etc.–and other colors.  The image, not the place or event, is the most important source of the artistic statement.)

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

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Aleppo/Hiroshima

We might want to think of Aleppo as the Hiroshima of the 21st century.

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This photograph brought the analogy to mind, and yet it would seem to argue against the comparison.  The Hiroshima mushroom cloud was not as large, symmetrical, and awe-inspiring as the Nagasaki explosion or many of the atomic test explosions to come, but it was bigger than this blast plume over Aleppo.  This smaller image is closer to those from the tactical nuclear weapon tests, and even so, the nukes would still be worse, so what’s the point?

The point is that a hazy, moody photograph of the aftermath of an explosion might make someone stop and think.  To consider, for example, just how many people have died in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria.  (Here’s a clue: more than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)  To consider how much conventional warfare is excused because it is assumed to be less destructive than nuclear weapons.  To realize that for those burnt, maimed, shocked, sickened, starved, orphaned, and killed by the unrelenting violence, the mechanism doesn’t really matter.  To ponder just how much is lost when a city is allowed to die.

One consolation of the analogy is that Aleppo, like Hiroshima, could be rebuilt to become a vibrant modern city again.  But don’t get your hopes up.  The analogy is imperfect from the start, and that may be part of the message.  The destruction now is not the product of a single bomb but instead of thousands upon thousands of bombs over days, weeks, months, and years of warfare.  Likewise, the damage may be evident for generations, a continuing witness to the politics of revenge and abandonment.  The first salvos of atomic warfare were effectively the last, whereas the violence unleashed on Aleppo is part of something that may be spreading across the globe: a dark age where localized violence occurs persistently enough to terrorize millions while tearing down civilization itself.

The photograph is not news, but something else.  An elegy, perhaps.  The damage has been done, and for many it is too late even to mourn.  By turning the fog of war into an atmosphere of remembrance, the photograph suggests that history changes only the names and the weapons, but not the slaughter.  It also asks: If the world wants to prevent another Hiroshima, why not stop the bombing of Aleppo?

Photograph by Omar Sanadiki/Reuters.

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

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Seeing, Maybe, Another Bombing in Baghdad

We’ve seen it before.

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I’ve even posted on it before. Not exactly the same photograph, of course, but one very much like it.  Suicide bombings are on the rise in Iraq again, and so the news returns to the same crime scenes, the same wreckage, the same helplessness.  The news that, like much else that was needed to prevent the bombing, arrives too late.

Maybe that guy in the cameo is an official of some type, and maybe the state has something to do–a bit of forensic work, perhaps, and some record keeping.  To me, he looks more like the guy with the tow truck, and the only decision to be made is how he’s gonna get that metal carcass up on the flatbed.  As for the rest of those present, well, what can they do beyond what they are doing?  They mill about aimlessly, look for the odd remnant, look around to see who else is there, try to take in the scene as a whole (but what is that?), and generally rely on their presence and the passing of time to somehow bring the world that was there before back into focus.  What else would you expect?  After all, they are spectators.

Spectators like us.  Another bombing, another photo of its aftermath, another moment where you arrive too late to be reminded that there is little you can do anyway.  And what did you expect?  The photo does not make an emergency claim–there are no ambulances, no heroic first responders, no valiant citizens resolved to fight on.  Instead, we see trauma reduced to curiosity as a society, for want of any other option, returns to something like normalcy.

Nor does the photo make a call on our compassion or any other strong emotion.  Instead the scene is emotionally diffuse, even deadening.   Any dramatic actions or reactions are off stage.  In their place is stasis, inaction, banality.  The photo shows us how few options ordinary people have when living amid  violence.  The question remains, are the options any better for the person viewing the photo?

By this point, many writers would have laid the blame for any inability to do much else on the medium of photography.  We’ve been told far too often that it makes us into voyeurs or tourists and exhausts or perverts our moral sense.  That could be true, although frankly I think you are safe.  Let’s consider instead how the photo from Baghdad is doing something else.

It’s not a great photo; it may even be unusually flawed, unless you can tell me what that inchoate white column is in the middle of the main vehicle.  But that doesn’t matter.  Whatever its “quality,” the photograph is a worthwhile realist statement: first, because of how is it one of many like it, all of them keeping the war visible–and I mean the war, not the abstractions that fuel it.  Second,  it shows how large-scale forces are experienced by ordinary people: experienced, that is, as disasters and as ongoing disruptions and as events that will never make sense even as everyone becomes more or less accustomed to coping.  Third, it reminds us that spectatorship alone is an insufficient basis for an effective response to what is shown.

And I’m not just talking about the spectators in the photograph.  If photography is to confront violence, speak truth to power, or meet any other noble aspiration of the public media, it has to be linked to audiences and organizations who can act where it counts.  That may be in the legislature or the refugee camps or a thousand other places, but we have to be able to imagine doing something and then work with others to the same end.  Photographic realism works through spectatorship, but the objective is something more organized.

As far as Baghdad goes, I don’t know if any good options are available within the city or elsewhere in that country.  It may be that the photograph is disturbingly realistic, in the sense that it implies that there is no basis for those in the picture to organize themselves against the next bombing.  They seem to have nothing but the inadvertent associations of a crowd at the scene of an accident.  There are political and military organizations offstage, of course, but they are the problem, not the solution.  In a photo of the aftermath of a bombing, there may be even less to see than we had thought.

As far as the US or other countries that are or could be involved, well, we each need to look in the mirror.  The problem is not what is or is not being shown, but whether there exist any political organizations capable of doing what is needed to move from war to peace.

That said, one symptom of a lack of solidarity or political efficacy is that people acquire a habitual blindness on some topics.  Topics like war, for example.   When you’ve seen it before, and since there is nothing you can do, it’s easy not to see it again.  And then the destruction and despair are sure to continue.

Photograph byKhalid Al-Mousily/Reuters.

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Is It War or Is it Art?

You tell me.

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Could be a play, right?  An opera.  Street theatre.  A scene from an avant-garde movie.  In any case, the hints of commedia dell’arte are there to be seen.  And why else would a bloodied woman be smiling, if she’s not play acting?  You tell me.

In fact, she is a woman injured in an airstrike in Aleppo.  But is that news?  Lots of women have been injured by airstrikes in Aleppo, and there appears to be nothing politically or militarily distinctive about this strike and this woman.  Except perhaps that she got off much better than many, but that doesn’t seem to be the emphasis, either.  It may explain the apparent smile, but that could be an illusion as well: she could simply have been caught in a tiny sliver of time on the way to another, more serious expression.  So why show the photograph at all?

The answer to that question seems obvious: the image is aesthetically distinctive.  The resonances with other arts are precisely to that point: there is a strongly artistic quality to the photograph, which is at once painterly, cinematic, and theatrical.  The photo seems especially theatrical to me, but that may be beside the point.  What is important is that we see it as a work of art.  Only then can we consider what might be the artistic statement–or perhaps the artistic enigma–that is being presented to the spectator.

She is both a woman and a character, an individual person and a distinctive image, another data point in the statistics of violence and a compelling assertion of the vitality, beauty, wonder, and sheer good luck that is a human life.

Not everyone is so lucky.  At the end of the day, difference between art and war is not between aesthetics and something else: it is between a celebration of life and another, all too human propensity to kill indiscriminately.  Sometimes a photograph can remind us of what is at stake by showing us both at once, and how the difference between them can lie in a tiny sliver of time.  The time, for example, between surviving the attack or not; the time between life and death; the time of photography.

Photograph by Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters.

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Memorialization or Branding after the Paris Attacks?

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The drawing by by French graphic designer Jean Jullien has become one of the more widely shared artworks about the carnage in Paris.  Like many of them, and like some of the photographs being shared, it includes the Eiffel Tower.  Which is why the cynic might want to say that for all of the emergency claims being made, it’s still business as usual in the West.

To push the point, one might ask whether public opinion can ever get beyond tourism.  (Susan Sontag argued that photography turned everyone into tourists, who were content to have only minimal knowledge and inauthentic relationships.)  The outpouring of emotion far exceeded that spent on the ISIS bombing in Lebanon a day earlier or the ISIS destruction of a Russian airliner before that.  I guess Beirut needs a tower, and the Russians need to paint Red Square on the side of their planes.  The differences in coverage and response will depend primarily on powerful ethnocentric biases in the political and media systems, as well as the differences in the scale of the attacks, but one can’t help but think that the a lot still depends on the available symbolism.

That said, I think the critique is another example of how the cynic knows the price but not the value of things.  The attacks were an assault on the city itself–and on its image as a beacon for living well in a modern civil society.  Whatever the analysts might say about the political maneuvering of France in the Middle East, it was not the government buildings that were targeted.  The city of light and love was attacked for what it was.  What better way than the Eiffel Tower to communicate globally and instantaneously that we know and value what is at stake.

I think Jullien’s design is superb for other reasons as well.  The Vietnam War era peace symbol has deep resonance for many of us, and it evokes two very important ideas: That once again a truly vile war is being waged, and that international solidarity is required to stop it.

Times have changed, of course: unlike North Vietnam, ISIS hasn’t a shred of legitimacy.  But some things also stay the same: a string of unintended consequences has lead to disaster, and before this war is over many lives will be ruined for many years to come.  More tellingly, the movement to stop ISIS can’t be only a peace movement, and those defending the West will have to also beware how war will transform their own societies.  The effort to stop a ruthless tyranny also can lead to a national security state where the Paris of today is only a memory.  The brand would continue, of course, but that really would be mere tokenism, like one of those miniature Towers that you can buy on the street.

And so the cynic might have a point after all, although not about branding.  To defend Paris is to defend civil society as it is, with all its mashups of art, technology, commerce, politics, and everything else (including religion) that crazed ascetics would ban or segregate.  But what about mashing up war and peace?  The beauty of Jullian’s simple illustration is that it is a call for peace, and perhaps a claim that peace will triumph.  It has arrived, however, just as France and other nations (including You Know Who across the pond) are gearing up for war.

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

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Viewing Conflict at Home and From a Distance

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This photograph could have been taken in any number of places throughout the world where violent protest and opposition to authoritarian political regimes seem to dominate the news. And to be sure, we have seen it before on many occasions. Indeed, it is something of a visual trope that tells us little or nothing about the particular conflict, but nevertheless signals a world in which the rule of law has utterly failed if it ever had a place to begin with: the desperate, anonymous individual wielding their body and something less than the most advanced technological weaponry–a brick or rock, a sling, a primitive homemade bomb–against an equally anonymous, heavily armored modern militia.

What makes this image unique is that it does not portray a scene from Barundi or Istanbul or Sana or Tel Aviv or any of the other likely hot spots throughout the world, but rather Baltimore, Maryland. Rather than to be viewing violent protest and opposition at a distance, here we see so-called “unrest” at home. Rather than to be confronted with rebels or revolutionaries and political regimes that are often hard to identify with in any particular way, here we see fellow citizens fighting against the guardians of our civic institutions. And therein lies a tale worth considering, for there is no escaping the implication that what we are seeing here at home is fundamentally no different than what we see regularly abroad, and the clear warning that such “unrest” is not just an aberration but the harbinger—perhaps even a prophecy—of the utter breakdown of civil society.

Given the increasing regularity of such “unrest” animated by a growing distrust of America’s police forces it is a warning we should heed with some care.

Credit: Reuters

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The Costs of Gun Violence

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Since 9/11 there have been over 400,000 gun deaths in the USA from privately owned guns. That’s approximately 33,000 deaths per year – murders and suicides combined – and it doesn’t take account of the approximately 80,000 injuries each year. To put it all in context, the Congressional Research Service estimates that from the Battle of Lexington and Concord to the war on Afghanistan, 1,171,177 US citizens lost their lives in American wars; according to the FBI, since 1968 1,387,171 American have lost their lives to firearms. Most recently it was reported that the direct and indirect costs of gun violence amount to $229 billion dollars per year – that’s more than the estimated cost of obesity ($224 Billion) and nearly as much as the cost of Medicaid ($228 Billion). Or to make it personal, the per capita cost ranges from $234 per person (in Hawaii) to $1,397 per person (in Wyoming). The average national per capita cost is $750.

Now I know that attitudes about the 2nd Amendment are polarized across the nation, but whatever your ideological position is it is pretty hard to deny that we have a serious problem here. And the photograph above points to at least a small part of the trouble. That’s a Barrett .50 caliber rifle—often referred to as a “sniper rifle”—on display at the annual NRA meeting in Nashville, TN. It shoots ten rounds per second is a semi-automatic weapon that holds a ten round magazine, projects an effective range of 2,500 meters, and has been known to cleanly sluice through the engine block of a truck. The man wielding the gun is intense and focused. He seems to be having a good time. And therein likes the rub.

I realize that some will take exception to this claim, but I truly cannot imagine how a private citizen could possibly need quite that much firepower, whether for hunting or self-defense or … for what? The International Association of Chiefs first recommended banning the private ownership of such weapons in 2004 as a protection for law officers, a recommendation endorsed by strict regulations passed in the State of California and the District of Columbia. And yet, as the photograph above suggests, the rifles are still not only being manufactured, but promoted at national events … a phenomenon no doubt encouraged by the popularity of this past year’s biographical movie American Sniper. One cannot only see such weapons, but one can play as if they were actually shooting one. And to what end? To imagine assassinating a foreign leader? Or stopping an invading tank?

The question is, can we have a sensible endorsement of the 2nd Amendment without going to the extent of encouraging the purchase of or identification with weapons that clearly have no other purpose than to kill and maim at great distances. After all, weapons such as this are not used for target practice or sport and the thought that a rifle of this size and caliber might serve as self-defense is laughable. Perhaps its only virtue is that it is so large that it can never serve as a concealed weapon. The point, I guess, is that the debate over gun control has extended to such absurd limits that we have failed to produce any kind of sensible regulations on gun control at all. The Constitution grants the right to bear arms, just as it grants the right to “free speech.” But as we know in the later case, such rights are neither absolute nor without obligations. They have to balanced against the costs. And when the costs get too high the rights must, reluctantly, be restricted and restrained.

Rather than to endorse playing with guns, the bigger the bang the better, the NRA would serve itself and the nation more productively if it worked to think about how the 2nd Amendment might be sensibly adapted to a growing (and tragic) cost that seems to exceed its benefits.

Credit: Harrison McClary/Reuters

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Waiting for Peace at the Syrian Bus Stop

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This scene is so astonishing that I don’t know where to begin, so we might as well start with the caption: “Civilians walk near upright buses barricading a street, which serve as protection from snipers loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, in Aleppo’s rebel-controlled Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood, on March 21, 2015.”  The description helps, although it, too, is disorienting: What civilians?  Oh, yes, those Lilliputian figures to the left and right.  They are well off center for a reason, for this photograph is not about them but rather what looms over them: the towering construction blocking the view like a bizarre work of street art.

Three buses–or their mechanical carcasses–have been placed on end.  How did they do that?  “With a crane, probably,” says the practical reader, and I’ll bet you’re right.  But however it was done, it is a monument to human resourcefulness.  The buses may have been ruined by warfare already, or too vulnerable to rocket attack to be used anymore, or they may have been stripped down for their new role because those in the neighborhood have learned the hard way that staying alive is more important than getting to work on time.  Whatever the back story, the moral is the same: warfare demands exceptional resilience and inventiveness to survive, and people respond in kind.

Which is why the scene is heartbreaking.  The buses are a monument to resourcefulness, and to waste.  The waste of material, of time, of productivity, of human creativity.  These things are still there in Aleppo, but now they all have been taken hostage by the war.  What could have been an ordinary day on an unexceptional street as people went about the business of getting on with their lives, is instead a study in interdiction, blockage, obstruction, and stasis.

By not getting too close to the action, the photograph creates a space in which we can see inaction, inertness, lost lives and lost years.  Buses that should move along their designated routes now prevent traffic.  A street free of gunfire should be something that one can take for granted; in Aleppo, it requires a Herculean effort, and with the added cost of not being able to use the street.  Instead of the unexceptional habits that can be the bedrock for a good life, this war-torn society is subject to chaos.  And it seems to be a strange, gradual, grinding chaos that persists by turning the city against itself and making disorientation normal.  It looks like life is merging with art, but only to hold off the viciousness and futility characterizing civil war in our time.

Susan Sontag claimed that photography was surreal.  What she failed to appreciate was that reality is surreal, and that photography’s supposed limitations as a medium allow it to capture how that is so.  This photograph of vertical buses in Aleppo suggests a ready-made sculpture in the spirit of Duchamp.  By shearing the scene of purpose which then has to be supplied by the caption, we are sure to be startled, perhaps astonished, but not too quick to rationalize what we see.  The buses will block sniper fire, but still–it’s just crazy that they are the means to that end.  Of course, the more sensible political, diplomatic, economic, social, or cultural means to stop the killing are not working, or not even being tried, so here we are.

Waiting for peace to arrive at the Syrian bus stop.  It could be a long wait.

Photograph by Ammar Abdullah/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

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When War Is a Memory That Won’t Go Away

Those who romanticize war tell us that it is eternal.  The long, grey line; the camp fires glowing on the plain; the roar of battle, the loneliness of command–these and other verities are found in every era and clime.  The weapons change, but war offers the same terrors, the same fraternity no others can understand, and the same hard truths about the human condition.  There always has been war, there always will be war, and only fools think otherwise.  Thus, the full honor due to those in battle today can be paid only by placing their memorial within the unbroken continuity and epic scale of myth.

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This photograph from the Ukraine might seem to be a step in that direction.  Taken only weeks ago, the cold, desolate steppe, abandoned, ruined weaponry, and grey scale tonality suggest that we are in World War II.  The distant line of trees could have been there then, the metal tower looks like it could have been on a Soviet era propaganda poster, and few of us know enough about tank designs to see much difference there.  This war, that war, any war. . . . The photo’s allusion to the past amplifies what is otherwise but a private catastrophe already lost to history.  By setting this war within that war, now a ghostly presence like the fog in the background, the specific wreckage becomes part of a much larger tragedy.

What the photograph does not do, however, is romanticize war.  It does not suggest that this war was inevitable or that character will be forged and tested or that valor will triumph.  Instead of being a lesson in the need for constant vigilance, the photo cuts through the fog of romanticism to suggest that the result in any case is the same: more waste, loss, and oblivion that will lead only to another cycle of violence.  War seems less like mythic ground, and more like a bad memory that just won’t go away.

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Or for those still living in the war zone, a nightmare that persists after you wake up.  This very different scene is another repetition of the same.  Now the civic infrastructure supplies the wreckage, while the donkey carts take us back to another time long before tanks and airstrikes.  This neighborhood in Gaza City is in ruins, and feels more empty for that than the open field in the first photo.  This is another scene from Rubble World, which is the home front of our time.

Once again, the photograph places one war within prior wars: here we can see the line go through the bombed cities of WW II all that way back to the Roman occupation of Palestine.  This war, that war, any war.  The armies wreak their havoc, and those still alive struggle to live among the ruins, and perhaps history will be kind enough to rebuild again before another onslaught.  Whatever the outcome, it remains very clear that there is no glory here, and never was, and never will be unless enough people can discover the heroism of peacemaking.

Two photos, two wars, and something more.  Each image has respected the dignity of its subject, without allowing that respect to be hijacked–as it so often is–by the romance of war.

The problem with war is not that it is eternal, but that it is persistent.  Like a traumatic memory, it haunts us, often to pull entire societies backwards into a time of darkness and agony.  At least now perhaps we can begin to see that memory for what it is: the door though which war enters the future, where it will be waiting for our arrival.

Photographs by Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images and Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

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