Amherst Magazine

The Pain of War

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Ronald L. Haeberle, Peter Brandt and the Art Workers’ Coalition, Q. And Babies? A. And Babies. (1970)

Bodies of children strewn in road. Q. And Babies? A. And Babies., 1970, poster, offset lithograph, printed in color, by Ronald L. Haeberle and Peter Brandt, Art Workers' Coalition. Mead Art Museum, gift of Geoffrey Hendricks '53.

The photo shocks and sickens. The 1970 photo of the innocent victims of war, babies and children strewn on the road, a pile of human refuse, a scene of death frozen. The composers of this terrible moment superimpose the question and the answer. “And babies? And babies.” Implicit is the question, how can human beings do such things? Can any goal, military or political, justify such killing? The naked bodies of dead children, utterly vulnerable, seem to answer “No.”

For a scholar of ancient Israelite culture, this photo evokes images of the biblical “ban.” In a recurring theme of biblical war accounts, Israel is commanded by God, no less, to kill all their enemies, everything that breathes, men, women, children and suckling infants. Those of us who study this material ask how it made sense to Israelites who also emphasize love of neighbor, love of God, salvation and the perpetuation of life. Those who find their faith in the context of biblically based traditions must worry not only about beliefs of the past but about the ways in which the ban has been used to justify later warring like Cotton Mather’s imprecations against Native Americans.

We must place this troubling war ideology in its historical context. The ban is mentioned in the non-Israelite ancient Near East as well, for example, in the ninth-century-B.C.E. Moabite Stone, a victory stele from one of Israel’s neighboring peoples. In the Bible, as in the inscription, the ban is part of a sacrificial ideology whereby people imagine offering to the deity what is most valuable—human life itself. Paradoxically, the ban tradition may admit of human guilt in killing. It is what God demands and not a human decision to kill. Of course, such a view leads to theological challenges. What sort of deity is imagined to make such demands? Another layer or voice in the Hebrew Bible that presents the “ban” suggests that the enemy is a cancerous other that must be eliminated. This view of the enemy is part of a dangerous “pathology of violence” that we see in modern warring as well.

We do not know if the ban was ever enacted in an actual war in ancient Israel and must emphasize that there are many other biblical ideologies of war that allow for or insist upon limiting the violence, and alternate passages that emphasize and long for the passage to peace. Ancient Israelites grappled with the violence of war, tried to justify the killing and longed for peace. But in their world also, this disturbing photo and the questions it evokes would have been all too familiar.

—Susan Niditch, Samuel Green Professor of Religion

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