War Is Not Great: Sacco’s Great War

Artillery and its aftermath dominate Sacco's Great War
Artillery and its aftermath dominate Sacco's Great War

The word great is one of the casualties of the gradual erosion of the formal register in spoken and written English. Like awesome and, at the other end of the spectrum, terrible, it has merely become a comparative form of good. Joe Sacco's recently published The Great War, an "illustrated panorama" that is at once a modernized Bayeux Tapestry and a realist Guernica, attempts to bring back an older, terrible, and incomprehensible sense of great.

The "book" is two hardback boards with a twenty-four foot long sheet of paper accordion-folded between them. The drawing sprawls wordless over the whole length, unrelieved by gutters or even hard page breaks (since the reader may unfold as much of the drawing as he or she will). It is larded with "chicken fat" cartooning gone rancid—dense background details that overwhelm one's ability to process the scene as a whole. The only relief are the sections where clouds of pointillist smoke, Kirby-crackle lines of force, and negative space take over, marking with a sort of present absence where living young men stood a moment before. Even the author's annotations, provided in the accompanying booklet, do not arrest the sense of vertiginous, horrified awe that is the book's greatest aesthetic and rhetorical achievement.

I read this book on Remembrance Day. My wife and I are both pacifists. I wear a white poppy; she, a Mennonite button with the motto, "To remember is to work for peace." This day is always one of handwringing and debate in our household, as we try to grapple with the ambivalent, ambiguous nature of the commemoration.

In this discussion, World War I looms large. It was the War To End All Wars that gave us the holiday, and is the referent of "lest we forget." Yet, it seems as though the narrative of its sequel—a morally cleaner conflict—is insistently read back onto the original Great War, and both of them are subsequently used to frame Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and every other military intervention we care to make. It strikes me that it's only the war's narrativization (and of course the forgetting that inevitably happens over the decades) that makes this slippage from great to real good possible. But everything about the Great War should resist this tidying up. One only has to wander through Sacco's panorama or read the startling numbers that go with it to be drawn up short.

Sacco describes himself as haunted since childhood by stories of World War I, and suggests that the lack of words "made it impossible to provide context or add explanations":

I had no means of indicting the high command or lauding the sacrifice of the soldiers. It was a relief not to do these things. All I could do was show what happened between the general and the grave, and hope that even after a hundred years the bad taste had not been washed from our mouths.

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“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”