Magazine article WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts

Watching War

Magazine article WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts

Watching War

Article excerpt

Watching War. Jan Mieszkowski. Stanford: Stanford University Press, ion. $24.95, paper, 246 pp.

Jan Mieszkowski's Watching War is an impressive product of interdisciplinary research methodologies: by drawing from a variety of theorists, writers, journalists, and photographers, Mieszkowski provides a comprehensive discussion of the spectacle of war and the evolution of the onlooker-participant dynamic. Starting from the Napoleonic era, which primarily relied on narrative-based testimonies of war, and moving to our current state of war-saturated media coverage, Mieszkowski attempts to answer the following questions: in what ways have people attempted to make sense of the chaos of war, and are we any closer to fully understanding the experience of battle? While it becomes clear over the course of the text that there is no single answer to these questions, Watching War provides a fascinating journey through the theoretical, artistic, and social explanations for why people attempt to order the inherent chaos of military conflict.

The text is divided into four chapters that reflect different modes used to document and discuss war: 1. "How to Tell a War Story," 2. "The Witness Under Fire," 3. "Looking at the Dead," and 4. "Visions of Total War." Additionally, these chapters are book-ended with an efficient introduction and conclusion. The introduction is a workhorse, providing the historical and theoretical questions that necessitate the text's production. Mieszkowski believes that the Napoleonic construction of war, which he refers to as the Napoleonic War Imaginary, sets the precedent for all future discussions of battle by those outside of the war machine itself. This schema is one of a fantastical "total gaze" (9): the concept that war can be contained and seen from a holistic viewpoint, allowing the bystander to have a well-rounded understanding of the strategy behind each party's movements that lead to a rational conclusion. This troubled many of Napoleon's contemporaries, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, who believed that the bystanders-as-consumers and war-as-product duality was a dangerous one, as it made mass violence commonplace, desensitizing those who viewed it and those who participated in it. One can make the indisputable claim that those concerns remain in the twenty-first century.

The first chapter delves head first into the Napoleonic ideology of war: an epic mythos that claims the battlefield is one where history is definitively won or lost, where war comes to its logical ends of victory and defeat. Of course, this is an incredibly illusory paradigm, yet is one that has been difficult for humankind to leave behind: over and over again, writers, painters, journalists, photographers, and filmmakers attempt to experience the truth and clarity of participating in war, only to discover that it is difficult to even see anything due to the dense smoke of artillery fire and the unpredictable weather conditions. Drawing on influential war theories like Hobbes's bifurcation of actants and events and Rousseau's view that war is inherently misrepresentational, Mieszkowski discusses the foundational tension that "war demands to be explained but wreaks havoc with any teleological model of history; war demands to be viewed but is distinguished from random violence by the difference between what it is and what it offers to be seen" (39). From this, the text presents a variety of well-known military participants and bystanders who attempted to overcome this tension and make sense of war. Particularly engaging is the author's discussion of Victor Hugo's depiction of the battle of Waterloo in Les Misérables. Working from the inherent unknowability of war established by the author in the introduction, the discussion meets its conclusion that "Hugo's Les Misérables narrates the Battle of Waterloo only by exposing the limitations of traditional third-person battle narratives, confirming Rousseau's fears about the futility of studying individual clashes of troops" (55). …

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