At the Green Valley Book Fair this past weekend with my parents, a book in the “politics” section caught my eye. It was a small book with a black cover; the title, author, and the outline of an Abu Ghraib prisoner, shrouded, hooded, standing on a box with wires attached to each hand were displayed in solid white. The book is David Griffith’s “AGood War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America” and I have been trying to figure out what to make of it. It was a welcome break from comps reading, but, once I started reading I didn’t stop (save for a 6-ish hour sleep break). It was certainly well-written (Griffith is a local professor of creative writing) but I struggled to figure out exactly what I was reading – the work consists of eight essays addressing the theme of violence; the book sings the praises of Flannery O’Connor and frequently detours into international politics, cultural theory, and Christian theology - a wide range of topics united by the personal experience/s of the author. It came off disjointed at times, I would have liked some theories to have been more finely tuned and fleshed out, there were some theological points made explicitly while others were merely implied (always wary of these) but, as I said, I read the book straight through and think I’ve figured out why it was so compelling.
The book is an extended reflection on the process of dealing with moments that, in Griffith's words, “have the power to obliterate all other circumstances of the day, and those leading up to it” – especially when these moments are recorded and publicly circulated. While this idea can likely be applied to all kinds of moments thought of as milestones, Griffith is dealing with violence and a seemingly widespread propensity towards isolating violent acts from their social contexts and conceiving of them as an unfortunate aberrance to an otherwise well-functioning society. That is to say if violence is the product of some bad moments or some bad people or happens somewhere else, then the buck stops there – there is no sense of collective responsibility or complicity when it comes to a few bad apples or some distant, “backwards, unenlightened” society.
Griffith offers example after example of violence being separated from everyday experience – from watching violent movies in a dark basement to internet offers to view torture scenes from the comfort of one’s own laptop; the juxtaposition of a high-school-aged Griffith’s notion that televised violence “over there in Iraq” was "humane and just" with his feelings of disgust and regret while watching/seeing various depictions of violence: footage of bombs, bombers, and destruction while his marching band plays Daniel Bukvich’s Symphony No.1 (In Memoriam, Dresden, 1945); a photograph of butchered pigs’ heads on stakes on Christmas day; and scenes from A Clockwork Orange, Pulp Fiction, and Deliverance and various audience responses – just to name a few. Griffith, however, kept returning to his continued disgust at the Abu Ghraib photos set against governmental lament that the photos saw the light of day as well as various ways of avoiding thinking of this as an American event in order to view it as out-of-the ordinary or as somehow justified. This was, ultimately, in an effort to make sense of events that occurred at a costume party where Griffith runs into an old friend who is dressed as army specialist Charles Graner (one of the soldiers pictured in the Abu Ghraib photos).
His friend offers to snap a picture of the two of them standing in front of a third party mimicking the hooded prisoner whose outline adorns the book’s cover. The author obliges. Griffith states “I want to be upset, but I can’t make myself see that kid dressed as Graner as the sick, disrespectful one. What’s wrong with me?...no one at the party batted an eye, no one else seemed to notice him. He was ignored. Was I the only person who recognized him? Then it got scarier. I thought, wait, there’s another wrinkle. Not only was he acting it out, and calling me to act, but he documented it, gave me a memento that proves I was there: and not only did I do nothing to stop it, I participated in it.”
Griffith’s stubborn and continued refusal to allow moments to be separated from society in order to assuage his own guilt drives the book and kept me from putting it down. It’s an excellently-written reflection of the circumstances leading to the simultaneous condemnation and consumption of violence alongside some theorizing about the assumptions and social mood that makes these acts and their recording possible – perhaps inevitable. Griffith is able to capture the dilemma of being disgusted by certain things in society while realizing that one is both a product and producer of the social phenomena being observed – and there is little he can do about it.
Thanks for reading.