Wendy Kozol. Distant Wars Visible: The Ambivalence of Witnessing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. 271 pp. Hardcover $67.50. Paperback $22.50.
Reviewed by Joseph Darda
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has continually waged war on humanitarian grounds. Visuality has been fundamental to legitimizing these military violences as morally founded, especially as it relates to media representations of suffering in Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. This raises a challenge for visual culture scholars, who must struggle with how to witness the suffering of others without either turning away or authorizing the state’s humanitarian violences through a liberal sentimental gaze. In her carefully observed new book, Distant Wars Visible: The Ambivalence of Witnessing, Wendy Kozol addresses the risks of watching war by foregrounding how mainstream visual media function as contested sites at which dominant visual regimes are consolidated but also renegotiated and subverted. Focusing on visual representations of the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Kosovo and the twenty-first-century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, she introduces an analytic of ambivalent witnessing to argue that images of distant wars are necessarily tied to hegemonic visuality and yet, as relationally produced, are rarely contained by the discourse of humanitarian militarism. Taking on the challenge of how to view conflict photography in an era in which images of human suffering are used to rationalize further violences, Distant Wars Visible makes the case for witnessing as a way of actively reckoning with visual representations of warfare as productive of one’s own imperial subjectivity.
Kozol’s book is the latest in a series of works to tackle the War on Terror using the critical tools of visual culture studies, including those by such scholars as Ariella Azoulay, W. J. T. Mitchell, and Nicholas Mirzoeff. Indeed, confronting the militarization of visuality has been among the field’s foremost tasks for more than a decade. One fault of Distant Wars Visible is that Kozol cedes too much ground to these other critics, whom she cites generously, rather than stressing the contributions of the work at hand. Crucially, her book dismantles the distinction between ethical witnessing and spectatorial looking by arguing that ethical encounters with distant wars can only occur through an engagement with spectacles of violence. Like Azoulay, Kozol sees photography as a many-sided and fluid interaction between subject, photographer, viewer, and the institutions that archive and circulate visual media. In this way, spectacles of violence are constructed through and constructive of racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual markers of difference, but they also offer a venue for troubling these self/other distinctions on which war is founded. For Kozol, spectacle is a necessary part of engaging ethically with the suffering caused by military violence. “Without visuality, and without spectacle,” she asks, “how can representations acknowledge the ways in which trauma is not a universal experience but rather occurs in historically specific contexts that mobilize gender, race, sexual, religious, and other factors to produce differences foundational to such violences?” (p. 57). The answer, of course, is that they can’t.
Distant Wars Visible is especially concerned with how to visually represent the suffering of others without merely reproducing the imperialist narrative of benevolent rescue. The second chapter, for example, turns to Judith Butler’s theory of precarity––a condition of differential vulnerability structured by state violence––to consider visual representations of Afghan women from American news coverage of the war in Afghanistan. The veiled woman was figured in this coverage as the principle victim of human rights abuses and, subsequently, as the ideal beneficiary of humanitarian warfare. Laura Bush was among the first to legitimize the wars in the Middle East as being fought for the liberation of Muslim women from “premodern” social structures. This recruitment of women’s human rights to military ends has been heavily criticized by feminist scholars. And yet Kozol encourages an alternative, ambivalent reading that takes account of where these Afghan subjects trouble the visual framework of gender precarity and, in turn, the wars allegedly fought on their behalf. In other words, these photographs may advance their own internally directed critiques.
While ambivalence is an occasionally unfocused analytic device, Kozol delivers compellingly new ways of viewing many images that have already been through the critical mill. This is particularly the case with the book’s personally searching and provocative fourth chapter. To explore the affective complicity of the American viewer in looking at the Abu Ghraib torture archive, Kozol draws on her own intimate experience with a relative’s collection of World War II battlefield trophies. Discovered while cleaning out the relative’s house after his death, the personal archive includes photographs likely taken from a Japanese body in the Marshall Islands. Through an analysis of this family archive, Kozol investigates “the affective politics of recoil” to interrogate her own feelings of complicity in viewing these photographs and instinctive desire to look away (p. 132). This intimate encounter with military violence frames a dynamically original reading of the Abu Ghraib images in which she attends to acts of hailing––the smiles and thumbs-up given by the American guards––that situate the viewer as “in on it.” Questioning one’s desire to recoil from this national interpellation, she writes, “can lead to a more critical stance for witnesses who recognize not only the crimes committed by the torturers but, equally important, the political complexities of citizenship in relation to this abuse” (p. 156). Visual archives produce subjectivities relationally, and so the critic too, Kozol suggests, must contend with the first-person pronoun.
The concepts on which Distant Wars Visible is built––ambivalent witnessing and ethical spectatorship––are valuable additions to the critical repertoire of visual culture studies and feminist studies. Most importantly, Kozol introduces a way of approaching visual culture that does not merely distinguish hegemonic from counterhegemonic forms of visuality but rather emphasizes the contingency of viewing spectacles of violence. This is an indispensable insight when mainstream media provides many Americans with their only window into the traumas caused by the nation’s distant wars. To recognize visual witnessing as an intersubjective and unstable process is also to see that the alternative, not looking, is too risky.