A Personal Response to chapter 8 of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others

War and peace are psychological states. One can not exist without the other, just as we would not know happiness in the absence of sadness. In the words of George Orwell “war is peace.” Humans like to compartmentalize things and for that sake, with the use of definement by historical timeline, in the last century the world has seen only 11 years of peace among all humans. And at its longest stretch that world wide peace lasted only four short years. At twenty-three years of age my country has been at war for fifteen of them, making the War in Afghanistan the longest war in United States history.

Chapter eight of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others offers no solution to ending war. She does, however, order the reader to educate themselves via the existing ‘vast repository’ of photographic documentation of the atrocities of war. As conscious adults it is no longer our right “to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia” (p. 114) regarding the cruelties of which humans are capable.

It would be impossible to bear the emotional carnage of every war ever fought. “To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited” (p. 115). War Photography can then be used in a way to help the memory by inviting the viewer to pay attention and reflect, asking questions. But in a world strewn with sedatives and innumerable media outlets, it is easy to distance oneself from suffering, interacting with it only as a censored viewer.

I disagree with two of Sontag’s points in this chapter. The first, that “to make peace is to forget” (p.115). I believe that to make peace is to forgive. Forgiveness does not entail forgetting but believes in progress and change, a cultivation of self-awareness. Secondly, I deeply disagreed with Sontag’s asking of questions like ‘who is responsible?’. It has come to be a personal moral understanding that engagement, especially in a conflict, comes with fault for both parties.

Sontag’s last line of the chapter, “Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time” (p. 118) changed my direction of thought. If you’ve ever been in a fist fight you will know that it is a primal exchange, in my own experience, causing an adrenaline induced black out. This experience relate directly to war on a large scale. The question is not one of responsibility, but of objective reality. No human sees reality objectively unless they are without emotion. In the same sense no war can be seen objectively while on one side or the other.

Questions to consider:

Why is it then we only learn about ‘our’ wars (and in-depth only US victories)?

How does a war become particularly unpopular (worthy of the history books)?

Without media would humans have heightened empathy and compassion skills?

How would you explain war, pain, or suffering to a child?

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