How the glorification of war always comes at a human price

Editor’s note: The content below may be disturbing for some readers.

May fifth, 2021 marked the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, and when  French President Emmanuel Macron made a landmark speech claiming, “Napoleon is a part of us,” it sparked a national debate over Napoleon’s legacy.

Napolean is lionized by some as a national hero and a military genius while others regard him as an imperialist, a warmonger, and an enslaver who reversed the abolition of slavery in the French Caribbean in 1794. But really, one can’t be a military genius without being a warmonger.

Yet throughout history conquerors like Bonaparte, Alexander the Great, Oda Nobunaga, Vlad the Impaler,  and even the likes of confederate generals like General Stonewall Jackson have retained a measure of respect at least equal to the level of atrocities they committed. But when we venerate warlords and conquerors for their supposed accomplishments, we essentially glorify war itself.

But really, one can’t be a military genius without being a warmonger.

We see this glorification lingering in the present day with the media’s rather dishonest portrayal of war, which repeatedly ignores the slaughter of civilians, labeling them as mere casualties.  Part of what contributes to the valorization of war, in general, is society’s failure to properly remember the historical conflicts as they were, and appropriately commemorate them without celebrating them.

Wars represent key moments in history and are often accompanied by varying, sometimes contrasting, narratives. Ideally, these narratives should contribute to peacebuilding. This should be done by recognizing the horrors suffered during these wars and using those memories as grounds to vow never to allow such suffering to be repeated. But perhaps as a way to justify the sacrifices made, many wars have often instead been celebrated.

English poet Rupert Brooke’s poetry written at the beginning of World War I articulates this. After he enlisted in Britain’s Royal Navy, he composed a series of patriotic sonnets like “The Soldier,” with lines like “If I should die, think only this of me/ That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is for ever England.”

Canadian poet and doctor Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Field,” which talked about how the red poppies growing in bombed fields “mark our place, and in the sky,/The larks, still bravely singing, fly.”

Such faulty glorification has even leaked into education. For instance, in Pakistan, school textbooks came under fire for attempting to instill military sentiments in students.  The 1965 India-Pakistan war was touted to have instilled a spirit of unity and solidarity among the Pakistani peoples, but scholars typically agree that the content of textbooks shifted towards the glorification of war after the Pakistani military suffered defeat in East Pakistan in 1970. This further supports the idea that the way war is often celebrated is due to a desire to justify the sheer amount of death it brings and militarism often serves as propaganda.

We saw this in the west too with the role of the Allied forces who fought in World War II often sanitized to make it seem like this particular fight was a noble and just one. Everybody who fought against the Nazis has been portrayed as the unambiguous good guys, never mind the participation of the Allied forces in the mass murder of civilians via bombing and the Russian allies’ gang rape of millions of women.

But when we venerate warlords and conquerors for their supposed accomplishments, we essentially glorify war itself.

While the horrors of World War I are often credited with changing the general outlook on war as something terrible and brutal versus prior views of it as something honorable, World War II’s desperate propagandizing to recruit as many forces as possible inevitably lent itself towards glorifying the war effort. As such, something of a myth has been created around the idea of World War II being “the good war” in comparison to the admittedly ambiguous nature of the first World War.

Setting up the Allied forces as the clear-cut heroes of World War II has also contributed to a similar problem seen with Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and even Imperialist Britain. What is now understood as liberal interventionism is the idea that the west is of superior integrity and therefore justified in intervening in other nations’ affairs by way of invading. There’s an echo of self-aggrandizing entitlement to other countries’ resources or power that can be traced back to the arrogance of these warlords. They’re powerful, so they’re better, so they get to take what they want.

When we look at the history of any conquerors or military forces we should always remember what they did to earn their reputation. War is first and foremost about death. It does not matter what place in history these battles have earned these forces, conquest has only ever been achieved through violence and oppression. It needs to stop being viewed as an accomplishment, warlords need to stop being honored, and war needs to stop being celebrated.

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History Historical Badasses

Gertrude Stein, the queer feminist at the centre of the art movement

I first encountered Gertrude Stein through her avant-garde poetry in Tender Buttons, an evocative series of short poems that forced writing to its breaking point with sentences like: “Dirty is yellow. A sign of more is not mentioned.” I met her blindly, only through her words, yet I already fell for her eccentricity. I knew there was something wonderful behind the mind that put down on paper the bold tongue-in-cheek yet unbelievably serious statement, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”. I just had to explore her art further. So I began scouring old journals and artist profiles to learn more about her. 

Little did I know that the radical art Stein created could almost be rivaled by the art that she nurtured in the artists around her. I found multiple sources that called her the ‘mother’ of modernism, but after getting to know more about her, I am sure that she would scoff at such a title. After all, she left the United States in 1903 to flee the pressures of gender norms. She was also bored with medical school and seeking an outlet to express her eccentric point of view, she settled down in Paris, where she intended to pursue a life free from heteronormativity. She opened a salon in her home for the world’s creative mind, including some of the world-renowned names such as Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. She was the voice of this ‘Lost Generation, the group of American expatriates flocking to Paris– and even coined the term.

The way I see it, she brought together these esteemed artists and in many ways, elevated them through her no-nonsense critique of their work. I had always internalized that a woman inspiring other artists (typically male artists) was a muse. That term is loaded, as there were often sexualized or romanticized elements typically tied to a muse. Instead, what I admired about Stein was that she was a mentor to the ‘greats’. I see her as a woman that had an undeniable presence in her time, respected by those around her. 

Nothing about her was conventional and she embraced her own strangeness, something that drew me to her further. Stein deserves the title of a trailblazer of the modernist period and of queer identity at the time. Stein’s essay Miss Furr and Miss Skeene were among the first story to be published about homosexual revelation, containing the first noted use of the word “gay” in published works to refer to same-sex relationships. She also hosted one of the first avant-garde exhibitions in the United States, funding it with the money she collected from her art dealerships. I have no doubt that every piece of art in the period has her fingerprint.

And she didn’t hesitate to acknowledge her accomplishments either. Stein didn’t believe that women must be modest, proudly proclaiming “I have been the creative literary mind of the century.” She never sold herself short, a habit I found myself doing as I presented my own poetry or other writing. I was still working with my own feelings of inferiority, belittling my stories as ‘just’ relevant to female-identifying communities. While she wrote about women and her partner, she didn’t restrict herself to writing women’s stories. I found it so refreshing to see her unabashed pride, as it reminded me to take hold of my own achievements and to be confident. No matter how unconventionally and ‘weirdly’ I experimented with my creativity, I learned that I could (and should) still demand to be taken seriously. 

Regardless of all this, I don’t think she should be idolized. I often like to give powerful women in difficult situations the benefit of the doubt, as do most of the historians and writers that grapple with creating a retrospective of Stein’s life. I witnessed a trend in the way that they wrote about her, that she was ensuring her safety as a Jew in Nazi-occupied France by making these questionable alliances with Nazi figures. As much as I respect her as a feminist and as the backbone of the Lost Generation of artists, I cannot excuse her political affiliations and ironic, confusing pro-Nazi expressions. 

At the end of it all, Stein didn’t strive to be accepted or allow herself to be molded by the society around her. She carved her own place into history and I believe it is important to commemorate it, lest she is lost in the shadows of her male counterparts. As a woman in the art world, looking at Stein as an example liberates me and allows me to embrace subversive expressions of creativity. 

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History of Fashion Lookbook

How Bedhead, Blush and Stilettos rose to fame as “sex symbols”

It’s Friday night. You’re getting ready for a night out with the squad. You rouge your cheeks with your best, shimmery blush. You clip your hair back into a soft, messy bun and slip on your favorite pair of heels. You take one last look at yourself and think “cute, I guess.” Meanwhile at the club, men are lining up at your feet, offering you all sorts of drinks and sexual innuendos. Why the sudden interest, you think? That’s because the looks you’re rocking all have one thing in common; they make you look like you’re ‘ready for sex.’ Let’s take a closer look at how the patriarchy first assigned this ‘sex appeal’ to these items.

Blush: like a rush of blood to the face after sex

Blush dates back as far as ancient Egypt. On top of inventing winged eyeliner and pyramids, Egyptian men and women used to grind red ochre to add rosiness to their complexion. They’re not the only ancient society to have done this; the Greeks used crushed mulberries and flowers, whilst the Romans rubbed Vermillion on their cheeks. 

Once prostitutes started wearing blush for maximum allurement (and to cover bruises and tired eyes) there was a huge chunk of time where society frowned upon it. It was during this period where ‘higher class’ women would paint their faces white or use leeches to remove natural redness from their skin – like really? Y’all disgusted by sex work that much? 

Still, the reign of blush continued in many societies, albeit sparingly, and even though it was made with toxic chemicals. Only during the industrial revolution did blush become much safer to use and much more common. And just in time for WW1, when the patriarchy decided they wanted women back in the kitchen looking all pretty and ‘ready to go.’

While today, blush is just a staple makeup product to give us a rosy glow, its universal popularity came from what it represents: the rush of blood to the face after, er, getting it on. 

Bedhead: a hairdo tangled up by sex

Rocking bedhead may serve to liberate our morning routine, but Urban Dictionary defines it as “a hairdo that looks like you just finished having sex”. How did this happen? Well, similar to the rise of blush, messy hair was once only synonymous with “improper” women, whilst neatly styled locks was a symbol of decency.

In one recorded example of how scandalous messy hair could be, a man once came home to see his wife with a twig in her hair and assumed she had cheated on him with another man on the ground. So, he stabbed her in the chest, killing her. I want to make a joke about this man’s lack of communication skills here, instead I gulp down the injustice that is gender-based-violence and continue

The changeover of bedhead from “unfaithful whore” to “desirable woman” can largely be attributed to the rise of sex scenes in film, where women would be made to act as if dripping with sexual energy in the bedroom with their mussed up manes and smudged lipstick. Models like Kate Moss, and even male musicians like Robert Smith helped turn bedhead cool and effortless, too. I mean, I guess it’s only cool depending on who you are. Selena Gomez looks effortlessly sleek with a messy bun, whilst Donald Trump looks like he’s been pulled through a bush backwards. 

Stilettos: a physical sign that we’re ready for sex

The original high heels were invented for men to be able to secure their feet in stirrups, and later, for aristocrats to parade around towering over everybody. But they too eventually took on a hyper-sexualized meaning when they were later only meant for women. The story goes that the original chunky platform was deemed too dangerous for women, especially when pregnant. So for us fragile, ‘baby making machines’, voilà – we were gifted the stiletto.

While to women today, high heels represent glamour, ambition, and power; to men they once represented a woman ready for sex. This is ‘because’ heels cause an arched back which suggests openness to “mating advances”. I laughed out loud while typing that.

When asked what men find attractive about a woman in high heels, a French shoe designer once famously said that it was that “heels slowed the woman down, giving the man more time to look at her”. Clearly, no one wanted women to be able to get away either. Anyone else thinking rape culture?

Since then women and heels have become one. Like sharp weapons beneath us, we can run when we’re late to meetings, jump over hoops for our family, and dance the night away on our tippy toes. But at the end of the evening you’ll probably see us barefoot – cursed heels in hands – wiping away our contoured cheekbones when we’re home and brushing our hair before bed. And I can assure you, none of this means we’re not down for sex. But instead of judging that from the sate of a few accessories, educate yourself on consent, and ask us instead.

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Science Now + Beyond

The first global selfie happened yesterday, 70 years ago

Whether you’re a Star Trek nerd or a Star Wars fan, we can all agree that outer space is pretty cool.

What’s even cooler than outer space? Well, since many of us won’t have the opportunity to visit outer space: photos of outer space. For space enthusiasts, yesterday marked a special day in the history of photography: the 70th anniversary of the first photo of Earth taken from outer space.

On October 24, 1946, members of the United States military snapped the above photograph of the Earth using a combination of unlikely devices. During World War II, the U.S. military obtained a number of Nazi V-2 ballistic missiles and then transported them to the White Sand Missile Range in southern New Mexico for aerospace experiments. One October day, some of the scientists at White Sands decided to strap a 35-millimeter motion picture camera to a V-2 ballistic missile and launch it into outer space. That’s the kind of science we’ve always dreamed of.

The gerry-rigged camera/missile combination made it 65 miles into the air and crossed the Karman line, the border between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, and managed to snap several photographs before spiraling back down to Earth. When the missile slammed back into the surface of the Earth, the camera itself was completely destroyed. However, the White Sands scientists had the good sense to protect the camera’s film by building a specially reinforced case for it–and when they retrieved the film they were rewarded with the first photograph of the Earth from outer space.

What did we have before?

Before the White Sands photograph, the only photo ever taken of the Earth was snapped from the Explorer II balloon at 13.7 miles (not yet in outer space but just high enough to see the curvature of the Earth).

While the White Sands photo might not seem terribly impressive to us, it’s an awesome reminder of how far we’ve come. Remember, 1946 was a good decade before Russia launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, and twenty years before Apollo 11 put the first man on the moon.

What happened after?

The White Sands photo paved the way for future space exploration and photography. In 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission, astronaut William Anders snapped what is perhaps the most famous photograph of the Earth: Earthrise. On Christmas Eve in 1968, Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, entered lunar orbit and the on-board astronauts held a live broadcast where they showed off the photographs they had recently taken from Earth. Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell expressed a sentiment that many people echo when seeing Earthrise for the first time: “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”

In 1977, Voyager I snapped another iconic photo of outer space: Pale Blue Dot. The first “portrait” of the solar system, Pale Blue Dot is a fuzzy photo of what appear to be three rainbow lines, but actually shows the Earth from 4 billion miles away! In the photograph, the Earth takes up only 0.12 pixels and falls right in the middle of a scattered light ray from the sun.

Since then, hundreds–if not thousands–of photographs have been taken in outer space and of the Earth. The United States’s space program has launched missions to Mars and into the distant corners of the galaxy. And while the White Sands photo might seem insignificant in the midst of all this progress, it is likely that this single photograph inspired a generation of scientists to ask “What else is out there?” Thanks for the inspiration, White Sands, we can’t wait to see what else we discover beyond our planet.

Politics The World

A closer look at the 5 most iconic photos of all time

This weekend felt like a blast-to-the-past as famous World War II and Vietnam photographs made headlines once again. On Friday, the trending hashtag #napalmgirl almost broke Facebook after the company banned the iconic Vietnam War photograph “The Terror of War” because it included a naked child. Following internet arguments (and likely company policy discussions), Facebook decided to re-allow the photograph to be posted due to its cultural and historical significance. Just a day later, war photos took over the news once again when Greta Friedman of the iconic “The Kissing Sailor” VJ-Day photograph passed away.

As these two photographs reemerge decades after they first made headlines, they remind us of the never-ending power of memory. We decided to take a closer look at some of the most iconic war photos of all time.

1. The Kissing Sailor

Perhaps the most iconic war photograph in Western memory, “The Kissing Sailor” shows what appear to be two lovers locked in a celebratory kiss. What many viewers don’t know though is that the sailor and the woman he is kissing did not know each other at all. Greta Friedman, the woman in the photo, told CBS News in 2012 that, “I did not see him approaching, and before I know it I was in this vice grip.”

George Mendosa, the sailor, had been celebrating VJ-Day, victory in Japan, with his future wife in Times Square. Caught up in the excitement (or perhaps male entitlement to women’s bodies), he began kissing women in the street – including Friedman.

Photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt had been shooting photographs of couples celebrating in the square and noticed Mendosa. Since Mendosa was dressed in a dark-colored uniform, Eisenstaedt photographed any time he kissed a woman in a light-colored dress.

2. The Terror of War

“The Terror of War,” depicts children, including the nude Phan Thị Kim Phúc or “Napalm Girl,” running from a Napalm attack during the Vietnam War. Kim Phúc, who was nine years old at the time of the photograph (taken June 8, 1972), had been living in Trang Bang when South Vietnamese planes bombed her city to attack North Vietnamese forces. The South Vietnamese had bombed her city with Napalm to hit the North Vietnamese, but when one of their Air Force pilots saw Kim Phúc, civilians, and some other South Vietnamese soldiers fleeing to safe ground, he mistook them for enemy soldiers.

Those napalm bombs killed two of Kim Phúc’s cousins, and severely burned her. Photographer Nick Ut helped Kim Phúc to the Barsky Hospital all the way in Saigon for treatment. However, when they arrived doctors said that Kim Phúc’s burns were so bad she’d likely die. Fourteen months and 17 surgeries later though, she returned home.

3. Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima

“Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” may be the most famous photograph of World War II. Photographed by Joe Rosenthal on February 23, 1945 during the Battle of Iwo Jima, it became the the only photo to win a Pulitzer Prize the same year it was published.

The photograph shows six marines raising an American flag at the end of the battle. Three of those marines were killed in action during the next days, while the three others were recognized for their service just this past June.

4. Tank Man

“Tank Man,” sometimes called “Unknown Protester” or “Unknown Rebel” stood before three tanks the morning after the Chinese military stopped student protests in Tiananmen Square during 1989.

The Tiananmen Square protests were student-led demonstrations for democracy which ended when the Chinese government declared martial law. During the protests, Chinese troops killed several hundred students in what became known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

To this day, no one can confirm the fate of the man who stood in front of the tanks. But, he’ll forever be remembered for blocking the tanks that stormed Tiananmen Square.

5. The Falling Soldier

“The Falling Soldier,” or “Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936,” shows a young soldier at the moment he has been fatally shot. Robert Capa, the photographer, described the photo as the death of an Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth soldier, but the man was later identified as an anarchist militiaman.

Though this photograph was once known as perhaps the greatest photo ever taken, many have questioned its authenticity. After photographs that were taken in the same location were discovered to have been staged,  “The Falling Soldier” began to lose its renown.

“The Kissing Sailor” and “The Terror of War” are far from the only war photographs that have shaped world memory. “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” the “Tank Man” Tiananmen Square photo, and “The Falling Soldier” of the Spanish Civil War–among so many more–changed how the world perceived conflict. In a world that is overrun with graphic imagery, these snapshots from the past remind us of a time when a handful of images shaped our memory.