Kozol, Wendy. Dis­tant Wars Vis­i­ble: The Ambiva­lence of Wit­ness­ing. Min­neapo­lis: U of Min­neso­ta P, 2014. 280 pp. Paper $22.50. ISBN: 978-0-8166-8130-3

Book review by Tatiana Prorokova

The relat­ed issues of mil­i­tarism, the ethics of war, con­se­quences of war actions on civil­ian and mil­i­tary pop­u­la­tions, and how dis­tant spec­ta­tors engage with these prob­lems, are weighty top­ics. They have become more exceed­ing­ly press­ing in recent times, when war jour­nal­ists can enable view­ers from around the world to observe war events in real time, pro­vid­ing high-qual­i­ty videos and pho­tographs to reveal mil­i­tary attacks, sol­diers’ actions on both sides, and life of civil­ians and GIs in the night­mare of war. Such war films, pho­tographs, and oth­er evi­dences that unveil war tragedy, con­sti­tute the visu­al cul­ture of war. In Dis­tant Wars Vis­i­ble: The Ambiva­lence of Wit­ness­ing, Wendy Kozol gives spe­cial atten­tion to pho­to­graph­ic images of per­son­al and/or col­lec­tive trau­ma, tack­ling the issue of wit­ness­ing. The author’s con­tention is that wit­ness­ing is equiv­o­cal as it may trig­ger two chief reac­tions: on the one hand, the war events depict­ed in the arti­facts of visu­al cul­ture turn into a spec­ta­cle mak­ing view­ers con­tem­plate them; on the oth­er hand, the images of tragedy con­sid­ered evi­dences of vio­lence and bru­tal­i­ty may evoke sym­pa­thy and empathy.

In the course of an intro­duc­tion, five chap­ters, and a con­clu­sion, the author scrupu­lous­ly inves­ti­gates com­plex rela­tions between pho­tos from war zones as pure phe­nom­e­na of pub­lic dis­play and empa­thy that (can) pro­voke in dis­tant observers. Kozol’s study encom­pass­es some key wars of the 20th and 21st cen­turies. The first two chap­ters offer a crit­i­cal his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al exam­i­na­tion of wars the USA has recent­ly par­tic­i­pat­ed in, name­ly the Balkan War and the Afghanistan War. In her analy­sis of the war in for­mer Yugoslavia, Kozol looks over the cov­er­age of news made by Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report that reveal the pho­to evi­dence of the NATO inter­fer­ence in the war-torn regions and offers her read­ers an exten­sive visu­al analy­sis of select­ed images. Along­side with a care­ful scruti­ny of a num­ber of pho­to exam­ples (e.g. a flee­ing Alban­ian Koso­var moth­er with a baby; flee­ing Alban­ian Koso­var refugees at a train sta­tion; Alban­ian Koso­var refugees’ attempt to cross the bor­der into Mace­do­nia), Kozol also con­sid­ers Melanie Friend’s project Home and Gar­dens that tells a sto­ry of Alban­ian Koso­vars oppressed by the Ser­bian gov­ern­ment in the 1990s. In the next chap­ter, the author turns to the images of the War in Afghanistan spread by such a sig­nif­i­cant wire ser­vice as AP. She pro­vides a metic­u­lous analy­sis of pho­tographs by Rodri­go Abd, Kam­ran Jebreili, Bul­lit Mar­quez, John McConni­co, Faraidoon Poya, Amir Shah, as well as a series tak­en by Sil­via Izquier­do. Kozol states that pho­tographs pro­vid­ed by sig­nif­i­cant US news resources “all rou­tine­ly depict con­di­tions for women caught up in mil­i­tary con­flict” (73), which gives her ground to inves­ti­gate the pic­tures from the per­spec­tives of gen­der and race. The author claims that the issue of “women’s/human/rights” that these pic­tures com­mu­ni­cate first rein­forces val­ues of the west­ern coun­tries, par­tic­u­lar­ly, the USA as “free­dom and democ­ra­cy” and, sec­ond, makes obvi­ous “gen­dered vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties” encum­bered with the state of being part of “a com­mu­ni­ty at war” (94).

Addi­tion­al­ly, Kozol dis­cuss­es the role of the USA in her exam­i­na­tions of the Balkan War and the Afghanistan War, explain­ing the US par­tic­i­pa­tion in rela­tion to its impe­ri­al­is­tic desires. She also under­lines the role of the USA as a glob­al leader, which, to some extent, jus­ti­fies Amer­i­can inter­ven­tions. The argu­ment is fur­ther devel­oped in the third chap­ter where Kozol deals with the videos and pho­tos that appear on the US mis­sile defense web­sites that, in turn, fore­see “U.S. ter­ri­to­r­i­al expan­sion in Space as an exten­sion of nation­al bor­ders” (98). Besides a detailed analy­sis of var­i­ous mis­sile defense web­sites (Mis​silethreat​.com, High Fron­tier, Glob­al Secu­ri­ty, and MDAA) that she com­pares to Trevor Paglen’s project The Oth­er Night Sky, the author also exam­ines the doc­u­men­tary 33 Min­utes: Pro­tect­ing Amer­i­ca in the New Mis­sile Age.

The unique­ness of Kozol’s approach, i.e., to con­trast rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent wars and com­pare the evi­dence of bar­barism from the Sec­ond Gulf War and the Sec­ond World War, is to the great­est degree illus­trat­ed in the fourth chap­ter. Here she con­tin­ues elab­o­rat­ing on the issue of “eth­i­cal wit­ness­ing” (127) unex­pect­ed­ly con­trast­ing a pho­to archive from Abu Ghraib with the one from World War II (Wendy Kozol’s fam­i­ly archive), ask­ing whether or not the first one “hails the view­er as a com­plic­it part­ner in the tor­ture” (127). Indi­cat­ing a sharp dif­fer­ence between “bat­tle­field sou­venirs” that some Amer­i­can sol­diers took from bat­tle­fields in the Pacif­ic and tor­ture pho­tographs of Iraqi pris­on­ers, the author pin­points that both “share an archival impulse that ini­ti­ates the dura­tional event of wartime vio­lence” (131). The end of the chap­ter pro­vides an elab­o­rate analy­sis of Adam Broomberg and Oliv­er Chanarin’s project Red House – the pho­tographs of Kur­dish prisoner’s draw­ings on cell walls in one of Sad­dam Hussein’s tor­ture prisons.

The final chap­ter offers a brief but insight­ful exam­i­na­tion of pho­tos tak­en by Rebec­ca Baron, Binh Danh, Jon Had­dock, Vik Muniz, and Joe Sac­co that illus­trate a con­flict in Gaza in the 1950s, the Viet­nam War, and the geno­cide in Cam­bo­dia in the 1970s. She does so to “reex­am­ine the pres­ence of doc­u­men­tary evi­dence in his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ries of mil­i­tary atroc­i­ties” (166) and to answer the ques­tion “what these works can tell us about oblig­a­tions of remem­brance” (167).

Over­all, Wendy Kozol’s Dis­tant Wars Vis­i­ble: Ambiva­lence of Wit­ness­ing is a com­pelling study that under­takes the task of show­cas­ing “how visu­al cul­tures enable or con­strain strate­gies of wit­ness­ing” (205). Pos­ing ques­tions rel­e­vant to the raised issue in every chap­ter and then pro­found­ly inves­ti­gat­ing visu­al stud­ies mate­r­i­al to give sol­id answers, Kozol empow­ers her read­ers to under­stand the visu­al cul­ture of war and see how the prob­lem of ethics is woven into it. This extra­or­di­nary book is a rec­om­mend­able read­ing to those con­cerned with visu­al analy­sis, war pho­tog­ra­phy, and US mil­i­tary his­to­ry of the 20th and espe­cial­ly 21st centuries.

Author Biog­ra­phy:
I am a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Amer­i­can Stud­ies at Philipps-Uni­ver­si­ty of Mar­burg, Ger­many. I am work­ing on my Ph.D. project that ana­lyzes the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of U.S. inter­ven­tion­ism from 1990 onward and Amer­i­can cul­ture of impe­ri­al­ism in film and fic­tion; I com­bine U.S. For­eign Pol­i­cy with Lit­er­ary and Media Stud­ies. My three pub­li­ca­tions – in Peace Review: A Jour­nal of Social Jus­tice, Pop­u­lar Cul­ture Review, and The Jour­nal Of Pop­u­lar Cul­ture – are forth­com­ing in 2015. I received my M.A. in Eng­lish and Amer­i­can Stud­ies from Otto-Friedrich-Uni­ver­si­ty of Bam­berg, Ger­many, and a Teach­ing Degree in Eng­lish and Ger­man from Ryazan State Uni­ver­si­ty, Russia.