John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the May 19, 2011 Providence Journal.
To understand the utter absurdity of America’s intervention in the Libyan civil war, I recommend a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to see its new exhibition of German Expressionism. It will be much more instructive than reading the media commentary about the president’s opening of yet another Mideast war.
I’m not merely referring to the surrealism (in the work of the artists Ernst Kirchner, Emil Nolde and Max Beckmann) of Nicolas Sarkozy’s “leading” a coalition of the righteous against the evil Moammar Gadhafi, who not so long ago was the French president’s honored guest in Paris. Nor am I alluding to the stupidity of entering a sectarian battle (the German Expressionists were deeply affected by the overthrow of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the factional fighting that followed in 1918-19) in which the goals and personalities of the opposition leaders are largely unknown; or even to the hypocrisy (the Expressionists were big on pointing out moral hypocrisy) of Barack Obama, once considered the anti-Bush, who now wages his very own “war of choice” without bothering to ask Congress for permission.
No. I’m talking about the growing divide between American illusion and the reality of war. Because we have been largely cut off from images of corpses and carnage since the invasion of Grenada — whether by official censorship or self-censorship by the timid U.S. media — Americans no longer have the capacity to connect military action with the casualties of war. Evidently, they think very little about the consequences of firing millions of bombs, bullets and missiles at distant targets occupied by unknown foreigners. Nowadays, with only 0.5 percent of Americans in the military (compared with 8.6 percent during World War II), we have relatively few witnesses to the butchery of soldiers and civilians who can come home to tell their stories.
I don’t know war up close. Thankfully, I’ve only gotten to hear the accounts of others who suffered through World War II and Vietnam. Even so, the MOMA exhibition grabbed me by the throat, since the German Expressionists, in particular Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, understood war quite well, having endured trench warfare during World War I.
The work of these artists before the war already wasn’t easy on the eye — their graphic style and printing techniques were disorienting, subversive and sometimes hideous — but the movement had sufficient idealism, says the MOMA show’s curator, Starr Figura, to believe “in art’s ability to transform society.” After the war, “Expressionism withered,” writes the historian Peter Jelavich. “As an art and a lifestyle, it was too dependent on an optimistic vitality that could not withstand the combined shocks of wartime and post-revolutionary trauma.”
The MOMA exhibition devotes an entire wall to 50 prints by Dix titled “Der Krieg” (“The War”). These terrifying pictures — the hideously wounded, a skull invaded by worms, monstrously disfigured faces, the dead and the living dead — confront the viewer with the fact that war’s impact stretches far beyond physical damage to buildings and flesh. Dix’s genius is in depicting the destruction of the human spirit that results from decisions made by politicians who never experience the direct effects of war. I applaud Rolling Stone magazine for publishing photos of Afghan civilians murdered by leering American soldiers (also Paris Match for its photo of two Libyan soldiers torn to pieces by NATO bombs), but Dix’s prints surpass photojournalism in their emotional reach.
Nowadays, with wars often waged from on high or from very far away by pilots, sailors and computer programmers who never encounter their victims, it’s easy to be blind. Phony talk about “targeted” and “precision” bombing, “no-fly zones,” “protecting civilians” with air strikes and “limited” war designed to prevent “massacres” (as opposed to the actuality of overthrowing the West’s favorite “reformed” Arab dictator to stabilize Libyan oil exports and boost Sarkozy’s low poll numbers) is intended to hide the horror of war. There’s no such thing as a wholly “just” war and certainly not a “clean” war.
Nevertheless, there is a paradox in Dix’s work and life that might help indifferent Americans empathize with the victims of war. Although Dix (a machine-gunner in the Kaiser’s army) was celebrated as an “anti-war” artist, he remained ambivalent about the organized killing that such statesmen as Obama and George W. Bush prefer to euphemize in slogans like “the war on terror.” In 1961, nearly four decades after “Der Krieg” appeared, Dix said that “the war was a horrible thing, but still something powerful. . . . Under no circumstances could I miss it!” Elsewhere, he said he had wanted to “experience everything very precisely. . . . Hence I am no pacifist. Or perhaps I was a curious person. I had to see everything myself.”
In justifying the attack on Gadhafi’s forces, our president piously declared that “some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.”
Perhaps without knowing it, Obama has presented a wonderful opportunity to educate the citizenry, and with a patriotic justification to boot. From now on, all Americans should proudly open their eyes to atrocities committed by their armed forces abroad. For a little recent history, they could begin by traveling to Hanoi, Panama, Baghdad, Kabul and Benghazi. They would surely be edified by what they found, and maybe a little wiser.