Seeing Our Way to Peace

“Gassed” by John Singer Sargent.

In 1918 the painter John Singer Sargent was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee to visit the fields of France to capture on canvas a scene depicting the World War then engulfing the continent. The artist was unsure he could find a single scene to perform such a formidable task. But at one point near the Western Front, he came upon a medical station where a line of soldiers blinded by mustard gas stood with one arm holding the shoulder of the man in front of him, each man blindly leading the other forward. Other soldiers lay on the ground before them, either blind or dead. A haze covered the scene as if the gas was still settling.

Could there be a more damning verdict on the insanity and foolishness of war than this painting of a line of young men blinded by gas holding onto the man in front of them, stepping forward in hopes of some kind of medical remedy? Interestingly, each blinded man in line is still carrying his rifle. What would he aim at? He cannot see to shoot. One of the men is making an unusually high step with his right leg, as if anticipating a set of stairs on this flat stretch of death. They are groping in the permanent dark.

Of course, what disturbs the viewer is the blinding. It has been so callously inflicted, a gas sprayed on so many. Whether you retained your eyesight depended on which way the wind blew. The result is the blind leading the blind for the rest of their lives. But somehow, it is their loss of sight that restores our own. Or at least it should. The common soldier on the ground loses their sight in the actual. The rest of us far from the lines, well, we may simply turn a blind eye to war. And as for those who constantly build for war, who declare and wage war, they have altogether lost their sight such that no moral compass remains visible.

And so, a century after this First World War, a drowsy citizenry continues the same blind march with one hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them, hoping in blindness, in darkness, that somehow we are magically heading in the right direction toward some kind of resolution, a world that will be righted through war. Just one more war.

Evil has been defined as the privation of a good which should otherwise be present. Evil does not exist in and of itself, but rather exists as an absence. A non-entity. A non-being. In war, good is still present. But there is the absence of love and compassion, of morality. Our humanity goes lacking in war.

After all, how do we explain over 200,000 deaths in one year of war in Ukraine? How do we explain $1 trillion a year spent in the United States on weapons of mass destruction? Or five million dead from the U.S. Wars on Terror? How do we explain the unimaginable expense and waste of intellectual resources that daily go to creating new and deadlier tools with which to kill?

It is Blindness. Jose Saramago wrote a book entitled Blindness, a metaphorical tale of our moral depravity and inability to see. Wilfred Owen penned a poem about being blinded by gas, about the stupidity of war, about the old lie of Dulce Et Decorum Est. Even Sherlock Holmes told us that while we may see, we don’t observe.  It is a failure of sight, a failure of observation that is killing us. A privation of vison. That’s what is missing. That is the absence. That is the evil.

Singer’s painting is 20 feet long and 7 feet high. It is called Gassed and has left people speechless for over one hundred years. As it should. Can we gather together all the NATO leaders, the leaders of Russia and China and India and Israel, all the leaders and scientists and corporate weapons executives and put them in a room to stare at this painting? Can we hold open their eyelids so they must see? So they must observe? Is this too cruel an act in a world of daily cruelty?

John Singer Sargent went to the front lines and saw, and he observed, and he rendered in pigment a moment of human history so damning we should never again have considered war. And yet it was but twenty years before the next war. And the next. Are we that forgetful? Or do we continually place in power people of extraordinarily limited sight?

What will it take? How far must we bend the arc of human life before it breaks? Can we replace our politicians with painters and poets, with people who both see and observe, people who care for strangers, for the scores of soldiers bloody and blinded slogging through mud? Whether it be Presidents Biden or Putin or Xi, their perspectives are warped, their vision so narrow they can only operate within the confines of geopolitical gamesmanship where one’s win is another’s loss. And to win means killing people. Lots of people.

It can be done, this changing of perspective. The blindfold can be removed such that what was unthinkable before is now possible. A citizenry demanding leaders who will share resources, respect nations and people, live within our means, leaders who will set down the sword and hold out a hand, this is possible. In fact, it is our duty to demand it.

We either commit toward creating the elusive yet attainable beloved community or we perish. Our leaders won’t do it without our demands, without our acting in plain sight, in full view. We should not be afraid to ask for it all, to demand peace and goodwill. Is that so outrageous? Half steps won’t do. Not now. We will not be misled. We will not be gassed. Our leaders are blind and we have to make them see.

Brad Wolf, a lawyer and former prosecutor, is director of Peace Action Network of Lancaster, PA and co-coordinates the Merchants of Death War Crimes Tribunal. His new book on the writings of Philip Berrigan is entitled “A Ministry of Risk” and was published April 2 by Fordham University Press.