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FROM THE MOYERS FILES: Bill Moyers talks with Susan Sontag on NOW with Bill Moyers, April 4, 2003

BILL MOYERS: Susan Sontag has seen war close up in her long career as a writer and activist. And her new book could not have been more timely, even though she started it long before the invasion of Iraq. REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS is about war and how the images of war affect our perception of reality.

Susan Sontag is not a photographer, yet her famous book ON PHOTOGRAPHY is required reading in almost every serious photography course in the world. Her novels and nonfiction books including ILLNESS AS A METAPHOR have been translated into a score of languages. She also writes and directs films and plays. And she is an honorary citizen of Sarajevo for her work there during that city's horrific siege in the mid nineties. So, Susan Sontag knows the sights and sounds of war, and as we began our conversation this week I asked her to take a look with me at images of the first few hours of the attack on Baghdad two weeks ago...

SUSAN SONTAG: I've been in three wars, and I've been where the sky is like that. I find it difficult to look at this footage, because it reminds me of the reality. It doesn't-- interest me as a game. It doesn't interest me as a spectacle. It reminds me of the painful reality. I've been too close to the reality, I think, to watch the image.

BILL MOYERS: So, an image like this shows you nothing new. Nothing you didn't already know about war.

SUSAN SONTAG: No, it makes me-- it makes me ill. It makes me fearful. I begin to actually-- to tremble a little, in-- inwardly, because I remember the fear. That you feel on the ground when the sky is like that.

War is, first of all, noise. Incredible noise. In Sarajevo, it was like that-- all the time. That sound-- except-- well, between three and five in the morning. Sometimes it-- it would be silent.

BILL MOYERS: What would--

SUSAN SONTAG: Relatively silent. And when I first came back after those three years of being mostly in Sarajevo, '93, '94, '95, I found it-- the hard on 4th of July, or Chinese New Year, just to hear those sounds. They scared me. They scared me not in my head. They scared me in my stomach.


SUSAN SONTAG: Because you develop--

BILL MOYERS: In a physical reaction.

SUSAN SONTAG: --yeah. The physical reaction of--


SUSAN SONTAG: --fear. And you know, we talk aboutcivilians-- being killed. We talk about-- I think we should talk about-- I'm certainly thinking about the civilians being killed now in Iraq

And let's say, of course, the majority of them will survive. But the terror that you feel even if-- assuming you survive, imagine what children feel who are sheltering in basements, with that sound, and who are scurrying for their lives. It's very, very painful.

And it's a noise that's 1,000 times more the noise that you're-- that you're hearing on television. So, I find it hard to watch war movies. I find it very hard to watch war on television. It's too real to me, to watch as a spectacle.

War-- scares the hell out of me. And I've-- the fact that I've volunteered to go to wars because that was a volunteer activity, of course.

BILL MOYERS: As a journalist.

SUSAN SONTAG: I don't go to wars in order to write it. I'm not a journalist. And I guess I go to war because I think it's my duty to be in as much contact with reality as I can be. And war is a tremendous reality in our world.

BILL MOYERS: What did you do?

SUSAN SONTAG: --respond--

BILL MOYERS: You didn't go to be a spectator either. What did you do?

SUSAN SONTAG: No-no. I worked in the city. I worked in the city. I mean when I first went to my great surprise they asked me to work in the theater. They were asking me to-- to--

BILL MOYERS: And you--

SUSAN SONTAG: To direct a play. Which I was-- A lot of people think that I went to Sarajevo to direct a play. I would've been crazy to do that and I-- it wouldn't have occurred to me in a million years. But once I was there and they said well, you know, I said, "I wanna stay. I wanna work here." "Well what can you do?" I said, "Well I can type. I can teach children English. I can do elementary paramedical-- tasks in the hospital. I can direct-- movies and plays. "Oh! Direct a play!" I said, "No. You-- I don't want--" I didn't wanna do it.

BILL MOYERS: In the midst of war?

SUSAN SONTAG: Yeah. And then I said, "What do you want a play for?" And-- And I said, "We're not animals. We're not just people sheltering in our basements and standing on bread lines and water lines getting killed. You know people-- when I came back people said, "Well who went to the theater?" I said, "The same people that went to the theater before the war."

BILL MOYERS: You were afraid?

SUSAN SONTAG: Oh, all the time. I would be crazy if I weren't afraid. And I was very lucky a couple of times when I really should've been killed and I saw people killed within a few feet of me on a number of occasions. And that, you know, the bullet or the shell or the or the shrapnel could've hit me rather than them.

When somebody asked me about a year ago, "What are you working on?" I said, "I'm working on a little book about war." Now, that was a book, of course, which I-- thought because everything I write comes out of first hand experience, was somehow taking my experience in Bosnia and Sarajevo of the mid-90's and finally doing something with it.

I thought, "Well, I know something. I think I can say something that's of interest about war, and how we think about war." And then, the book comes out now--

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, the timing couldn't have been better.

SUSAN SONTAG: And has this-- obscenely topical character, because now the United States government has elected-- to start a war.

BILL MOYERS: Let me ask you to-- what did you want us, the reader, to take away from this book?

SUSAN SONTAG: What I want people to think about is how serious war is. How it is elective. It's not an inevitable state of affairs. War is not the weather. I want people to think about what war is. And at the same time, I know it's very hard. I end the book by saying, in a way the world is divided into people who know-- have had direct experience of war, and people who haven't.

And if you've had a direct experience of war, and I think every single soldier, or journalist who's been-- in-- you know, in the trenches and the front line or an observer-- or human rights worker, or anybody who has actually had a direct experience, prolonged direct experience with war, knows that when you go home, and people say, "How was it?" Or "What was it like?" You really can't explain. You can't-- you-- you-- you feel as if you can never tell them what it was really like.

That it is both more horrible than any kind of pictures could convey, and maybe one of the most horrible parts of it is that it becomes a normality. It becomes a world that you can live in. There is a culture of war.

BILL MOYERS: Let's talk about the images in REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS. Why don't images that you write about and that we see, why don't they stop war?

SUSAN SONTAG: I don't think images can stop war, because I don't think images just come all wrapped up with their meanings-- very apparent to us. I think the images, as I say, they'll disgust you with war in general, but they won't tell you which of the wars, let's say, that might be worth fighting, like World War II, and the ones that you should bring to an end as quickly as possible or pull out of. That-- for that you have to have a politics or you have to have an ethics, or you have to have some knowledge. And that's why you need words to go with the images.

It's not the pictures that are going to tell us that specific message. The pictures are going to tell us how terrible war is. But they're not going to help us-- understand why this war is wrong.

Because you know, the other people will just say, "Well, hey, war is hell." I mean, don't you know that? But grow up. You know, did you think war was-- pretty activity in which nobody gets killed? Of course! War is hell." So the pictures are not going to tell us to stop a particular war, a particular war. And for that we need debate, and we need a two party system, which we no longer have in this country.

So this is a book that really wants to talk about how horrible war is. Precisely in the way that images both convey it and can't convey it.

BILL MOYERS: Well, what do you mean? They convey it-- they convey a slice of it, but not the totality?

SUSAN SONTAG: Well, they can-- of course they can't convey the totality. That goes without saying. No image can. But it's also the-- when you watch things through an image, it's precisely affirming that you're safe. Because you are watching it. You're here and not there. And in a way you're also-- you're-- you're innocent. You're not doing it. You're neither being killed nor are you-- are you firing the gun.

You become a spectator. It confirms you in a kind of feeling of-- invulnerability. On one level it's people looking at war as spectacle. But they don't just look at it as spectacle. They just look at it as, well, that's a terrible thing. Really terrible. And they turn the channel.

You know, I opened-- I'm a very faithful reader of the NEW YORK TIMES-- every morning. And when I see that section, The Nation At War, and I look at those incredible color photographs of the Iraqi mother with her children cowering and-- you know, and some bombardment or dead bodies or American soldiers or debris or destroyed houses, day after day after day, I think, "This is extraordinary that we can be here and we're so safe. And they're there." And that's a situation we're just going to get used to.

BILL MOYERS: You once wrote that a picture becomes apathetic unless it leads you to action, or something like that. What should we do when we see images like this?

SUSAN SONTAG: Well, how do we get politics back into our lives? I mean, that-- we have-- we have a-- a form of politics now in which we're told that our duty as citizens is to assent, to be supportive. United we stand. That's a very sinister slogan, as far as I'm concerned.

BILL MOYERS: Well, there's a big tendency in America to make patriotism into consensus.

SUSAN SONTAG: Exactly. So if you're a patriot, then you have to agree with the government. Well, I think I'm the patriot, or at least as patriotic as anybody who supports this war. Because I do have the interests of this country in mind when I oppose this war

BILL MOYERS: You write in here, "Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action or it withers. Otherwise, you say, one starts to get bored, apathetic, cynical." What do you do with your comp-- what do you with your compassion?

SUSAN SONTAG: Well-- I'm an evangelist. I talk a lot. And-- I try to set information.

I speak, I write. I guess I believe in ethical action.

I am an activist in that. I feel a need to put my life where my mouth is or my life where my keyboard is. I feel a need to act on what I believe or what I say I believe. It's if I don't act on it then I don't think it's worth anything.

BILL MOYERS: I mean images play such a vivid part in our memories. What are the most-- What's the most vivid picture in your mind that you ever gazed upon?

SUSAN SONTAG: The most important pictures of my life are the pictures taken in-- Dachau and Bergen Belsen when the concentration camps were liberated in 1945. I was 12 years old when I saw those pictures. And I think I could say that my whole life is divided into before I saw those pictures and after.

I had a kind of-- revelation that's-- a-- something that just cut me in half. I thought when I saw those pictures and everybody has seen those pictures, that I suddenly thought, "Oh my God. This is what human beings can do to other human beings." And I think the wound is that of coming from a very-- from a childhood in which I've never seen any violence at all.

Of course I'd followed the war as-- as a small child in the-- in the newspapers but it wasn't real to me and then just to see those photographs, I think it's turning point of my life. It's l--

BILL MOYERS: --they turn you to? What did they turn you to? O-- Obviously you rep-- they repelled you with horror as they did all of us. I'm just one year younger than you and I remember seeing those photographs--


BILL MOYERS: --for the first time. But they did something to you they didn't do to everybody.

SUSAN SONTAG: Well it's more than being repelled. I-- of course I just thought it was a revelation. I just thought, "Oh, well this was w-- this is reality." Reality is that human beings are capable of the most extraordinary wickedness. And that I guess I thought one must never forget this.

BILL MOYERS: Perhaps the power of the image then is to remind us that there are terrible things happening in the world. And to bring to those others who are privileged and protected an awareness that we would never experience otherwise.

SUSAN SONTAG: I think that's true. But I think you have to factor in the complacency and the fearfulness of fortress America. That it's-- there are large parts of the world, there are large parts of the world in which we couldn't be having this discussion. Which we wouldn't have to say, "You know, pictures can tell us that terrible things happen in the world." Because your life is telling you that terrible things happen.


SUSAN SONTAG: How would it-- what would you feel like if you were an Iraqi civilian who hated Saddam Hussein. Let's take that for granted of course as I'm sure many of-- of-- of the citizens of Iraq do. Because he's such a horrible dictator. Still what might you feel? I don't think most people-- it's hard to make that effort to think how the other person feels. But that's really what a moral life is, and ethical life is.

Is trying to take in some of the reality of what other people feel or how they see things from their point of view. Which doesn't mean that that-- that everybody has their own opinion. I'm not a relativist either. And I don't think every belief is worthy of respect. But still you have to start by thinking where people are coming from. And you have to start by thinking what-- what sense of injury they have. Lots of people have tremendous sense of injury and that is motivating them and that's creating feeling.

BILL MOYERS: Now I understand why you go to see for yourself.

SUSAN SONTAG: I think you have to see for yourself. Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: I want to close just asking you to read the last few lines of your book because they bring me very close to understanding what you're saying about the difference between the images we see on television and in the papers and what really happens to people in war.

SUSAN SONTAG: Sure. "These dead are supremely uninterested in the living, in those who took their lives and witnesses and in us. Why should they seek our gaze? What would they have to say to us? We, this we is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through. We don't understand. We don't get it. We truly can't imagine what it was like."

"We can't imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is and how normal it becomes. Can't understand. Can't imagine. That's what every soldier, every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby stubbornly feels. And they are right."

BILL MOYERS: The book is REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS, Susan Sontag, thank you very much.

SUSAN SONTAG: Thank you so much.

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