Draw Your Weapons

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A single book might not change the world. But this utterly original meditation on art and war might transform the way you see the world—and that makes all the difference.

“How to live in the face of so much suffering? What difference can one person make in this beautiful, imperfect, and imperiled world?”

Through a dazzling combination of memoir, history, reporting, visual culture, literature, and theology, Sarah Sentilles offers an impassioned defense of life lived by peace and principle. It is a literary collage with an urgent hope at its core: that art might offer tools for remaking the world.

In Draw Your Weapons, Sentilles tells the true stories of Howard, a conscientious objector during World War II, and Miles, a former prison guard at Abu Ghraib, and in the process she challenges conventional thinking about how war is waged, witnessed, and resisted. The pacifist and the soldier both create art in response to war: Howard builds a violin; Miles paints portraits of detainees. With echoes of Susan Sontag and Maggie Nelson, Sentilles investigates images of violence from the era of slavery to the drone age. In doing so, she wrestles with some of our most profound questions: What does it take to inspire compassion? What impact can one person have? How should we respond to violence when it feels like it can’t be stopped?

Praise for Draw Your Weapons

“A collage of death, savagery, torture, and trauma across generations and continents, Sarah Sentilles’s Draw Your Weapons is painful to read, hard to put down, and impossible to forget.”O: The Oprah Magazine
“In her dynamic, impressionistic (and cleverly titled) book, Sentilles focuses on language and images–particularly photography–and considers what role they play in peace and war. Eschewing a traditional narrative, Sentilles focuses on two men–one a World War II conscience objector who makes violins, and the other an Abu Ghraib prison guard who paints detainee portraits. In brief, delicately layered pieces rather than a narrative, Sentilles has created a collage that explores art, violence, and what it means to live a principled life.”The National Book Review
“It’s the kind of book that, after reading just half, you have to stop and catch your breath, because reading it changes you, not just in terms of what you know–it changes the way you think and how you feel–so much so that, halfway in, I wanted to go back and start again because I felt I was already a different person to the person I was when I began.”Turnaround

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Draw Your Weapons




The Photograph in the Newspaper

The man in the photograph holds a violin, deep chestnut, almost red. He laughs, luminous, looks right at the camera, violin in one hand and bow in the other, a blue-­and-­gray plaid shirt, a gold wedding ring lit up by the flash. His hair, what’s left of it, white.

It was Howard Scott’s eighty-­seventh birthday, the newspaper story said. His family threw a party at the assisted-­care facility where he lived in Lacey, Washington. His children, grandchildren, and great-­grandchildren came to celebrate. They sang. He blew out candles. Everyone ate cake.

We have a surprise for you, his grandson said, and handed him an instrument case. Inside was the violin. Not just any violin, mind you, I read in the paper, but a violin 60 years in the making.


To make a violin, you need horses. You need elephants, cattle, tortoises, snakes, abalone, whales. You need lambs fed on dry mountainous pasture. You need mastodons dug from arctic ice. You need trees felled in winter when their trunks are free of sap, trees grown on a forest’s south side in stony soil with little water so they mature slowly, their trunks strong and branchless.

To make a violin, you need war. It is said Antonio Stradivari’s most beautiful instruments were built of maple sent from Turkey to Italy, intended for oars that would row Italian warships. Because they were often at war with the Italians, the Turks sent wood with uneven grain, wood they knew would crack and split under the weight of water, but when Stradivari saw the curved wood, he knew he could make it sing.


People used to believe photographs captured something material from the person standing in front of the camera. They thought it worked like this: sunlight bounced off the body and onto the photographic plate, and when that light traveled from body to plate, it carried a physical element with it, a trace, however small.

Photographs were like icons, they thought, like the story about the woman so moved by the sight of Jesus falling under the weight of the cross he was carrying to Golgotha that she pushed through the crowd, past Roman soldiers, to reach him. With her veil, she wiped Jesus’s face. Some call her Veronica, a name that comes from the Latin words vera (true) and icon (image), because in return for her tenderness, Jesus granted her a portrait: on that cloth, in blood and sweat, she found an imprint of his face.


I called information and asked for the telephone number of a man named Howard Scott in Lacey, Washington. Hold please, the operator said, and then a recorded voice told me his number. I dialed. The phone rang. A man answered.

I read about you in the paper, I said.

Don’t believe everything you read about me, he said.

I told him my name, explained why I was calling, asked if it might be okay for me to write about him.

Yes, he said. Are you one of my students?

No, I said.

I was also in Vietnam, he said.

Something wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

I’ll send you a letter, I said. I’ll give you time to think about it.

I hung up the phone and wrote him a letter. I put it in the mail.

I waited for weeks, months. No response. I worried Howard had died. I called the number again. The phone rang and rang.


The artist Ann Hamilton held a canister containing a strip of film inside her mouth and used her lips as an aperture to create each exposure—­a mouth-­held pinhole camera. To take a photograph of another person, she stood facing her subject, less than a foot away, her mouth open, both people looking at each other, nothing between them, just Hamilton’s open mouth. She said she wanted the part of her body where all song exists to also become her eye.


I had nearly forgotten about the picture of Howard and the violin, about the letter I sent, about wanting to write about him, but then I heard a message on my phone from Kayleen Pritchard, Howard’s daughter.

Kayleen told me she’d just found my letter on her father’s desk, buried in a stack of papers. She called right away.

Months ago, she’d been going through boxes of her parents’ files and letters. They’d saved everything. Ration stamps. Brochures. Newspaper articles. Letters to the editor. Her mother, Ruane, had died a few years back, and Kayleen wanted to put her parents’ things in order, tell their story before it was too late, but she felt overwhelmed. I said to the universe, I need someone to help me, she told me. I need someone to write a book about this.

That was on May 25, Kayleen said on the phone. The same day you wrote your letter. Come see us.


It is a mistake to associate photography with darkness, Roland Barthes wrote. It should be named not camera obscura but camera lucida, camera of light.


When Kayleen called, I was living in Idaho with my husband, Eric, surviving on a dissertation fellowship and student loans. Through the window above my desk I could see the Boulder Mountains and hillsides covered in sage. For one week in late winter, an elk slept on the front porch of our house, curled up like a cat.

I flew to Seattle, took a taxi to the ferry landing, boarded a ferry to Bainbridge Island.

I walked down the dock and Kayleen and I recognized each other from the descriptions we’d given over the phone. We hugged and laughed and loaded my suitcase into the trunk of her car. We drove to Indianola, where Kayleen lives with her husband, Paul.

They’d recently moved into a small house a block from the water. Their old house had felt too big, and they’d wanted to downsize—­right-­size, she called it. After the realtor showed her the house, she walked along the beach and collected sea glass. She found eight pieces of agate and counted it a good omen.

Kayleen turned the car into the driveway and parked. Their house looked so familiar I felt I’d seen it before, which was impossible, because I’d never been to Indianola in my life. But then I remembered a meditation a friend of mine had led me through years earlier. In the meditation, my thirty-­something self met my old-­woman self inside a cabin in the woods, its walls lined with books, a long desk in the middle of the room. Follow the writing, my old-­woman self said when I asked her what I needed to know. Her writing cabin in the meditation looked exactly like Kayleen and Paul’s house.

Kayleen led me inside. The front door opened into a room with built-­in benches and soft cushions, a kitchen with a stovetop and oven and counter and sink, a woodstove, a table for four, a reading chair, a ladder to the loft where Kayleen and Paul sleep. This is it, she said. Home. Now let me show you the studio.

Trees with trunks wrapped in white lights lined the path between the house and the studio. On the right side of the garage, a door, and inside, stairs. At the top of the stairs, a side table covered with family photographs, arranged like an altar, electric tea lights in front of the pictures so they glowed.

Make yourself at home, Kayleen said. Dinner’s at six, but come to the house whenever you’re ready. She walked down the stairs. I heard the door open and close, and then I was alone in Indianola, staying in the home of the daughter of a man whose photograph I saw in the newspaper, a stranger who didn’t feel like a stranger at all.


Faces in photographs endure, and they instruct, Alex Danchev wrote. They tell us about themselves, and they tell us about ourselves—­who we are, and who we may become; what we are, and what we are capable of.


Just talking with him, you might not know there’s anything wrong, Kayleen said as we drove to see Howard the next morning. Red-­tailed hawks floated over the tall trees lining the highway. If there had been no clouds, we would have been able to see Mount Rainier.

He’s delightful, lucid, entertaining, she said. He tells wonderful stories. About Ruane. About their decision to get married. About getting his doctorate in education. About teaching at the university. About protesting war. But if you stay with him long enough, he’ll tell you the same stories again, as if it’s the first time he’s told them.

He wants to know when he repeats himself, Kayleen said. The nurses don’t tell him, and it scares him to think people would believe his mind is so far gone he wouldn’t want to know, scares him to think you’d listen and pretend his words are new.

After her mother died, Kayleen drove the ninety miles between her home and Howard’s three times a week to be with her dad. Sometimes a barred owl crossed the highway in front of her car, its wings wide. She watched the changes in Mount Rainier—­light, clouds, snow—­and felt the mountain guide her. It’s where their ashes will go, she told me. They wanted to be together.

Kayleen didn’t like the place where Howard was living. Too institutional. Concrete-­block walls. Long hallways. They moved the dining room from the first floor to the basement and then blamed Howard for not being able to find his way to dinner. Howard didn’t feel comfortable there. He worried people were taking his things. Kayleen didn’t know if he was right to be worried or if he was paranoid.

When I told him you were coming, he was excited, she said. He feels like what he did made no difference, like he’s been forgotten.


The word lost comes from the Old Norse word los, meaning the disbanding of an army, Rebecca Solnit wrote. One thinks of soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world.


Some claimed an image of the musical bow, the violin’s earliest ancestor, was painted on a cave wall before 15,000 b.c.e. Others believed the original plucked note was sounded when someone accidentally struck the drying sinews stretched across a tortoise shell. Still others said the first music made with a string was the ping of a hunter’s bow, the sound so disturbing to the quiet he was trying to keep while tracking his prey, and so surprisingly sweet, that the hunter put down the bow, unable to use it to kill another living thing.


Kayleen and I walked down the hallway of identical doors and knocked on the one with a sign next to it that read, dr. howard scott. Howard opened the door. He was wearing gray pants, a light blue short-­sleeved shirt, and a brown golf cap.

It’s you, he said.

- About the author -

Sarah Sentilles is the author of Breaking Up with God, A Church of Her Own, and Taught by America. A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Divinity School, she lives in Idaho’s Wood River Valley.

More from Sarah Sentilles

Draw Your Weapons


Draw Your Weapons

— Published by Random House —