ANNUNCIATION TRIPTYCH  oil on canvas  2002 – 2012

This image combines three paintings arranged in the form of an altarpiece. They are part of a series started in 2002 in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, and look in particular at the destruction of cities by air war.

In 1937, air war against cities first entered public consciousness in a series of sensational events: the destruction of Guernica on April 26, 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, and in August of that year the bombing of Shanghai, and then Nanking and other cities in China. By 1941, bombardment of civilian populations in cities had become an accepted method of war. Now the levels of attainable destruction are beyond description.

One of the difficulties of making imagery that reaches into this subject is that the event itself is to a large degree unseeable, or almost entirely unseen. Miles of collapsed concrete and rubble are evidence of something that was there before, like a scan after life has gone. Today the threat of future use is low-grade terror, invisible to our senses, again beyond our powers of giving it a shape. The weapons themselves are portrayed as beautiful and fetishized.

Historical memory about the recent past has been reticent. While detailed and accurate accounts of the area bombing campaigns of the German cities and the firebombing of cities in Japan are available, the subject remains politically contested and the central issue of ethics is, in the main, still a matter of silence. Even Guernica, in its tapestry version displayed outside the Security Council in New York, was covered over with a blue shroud in early February 2003.1 It was deemed an unacceptable and shame-making visual background for television interviews, in the last months before the attack on Iraq.

In September 2002, I bought a map of Baghdad. Descending in a diagonal though the city was the Tigris River, a series of loops and bends. On the map the ancient river was coloured bright blue. I have never been to Baghdad. But I have been in other old cities. We always begin with these map-images and then find ourselves on the ground, peering at the folded paper, filling in the empty spaces with our re-traced steps, astonished as we apprehend the scale and complexity of districts and lanes. Later I read a description of the city given by an English traveller in the 1930s. She wrote that the river is “lion-coloured, like the Tiber or Arno. Its broad flowing surface is dyed by the same earth of which the houses and minarets on its banks are built…”2

I began Annunciation in 2002, starting with the shape and colour of the river. I put in bridges across the Tigris wherever I thought they should be. I thought of them as bracelets on the arm of a beautiful human figure. I painted the city by inventing neighbourhoods and folding the densely inhabited spaces around each other, like the marks of calligraphy.

In imagining this city on the ground, I borrowed from other cities where I have been. Wooden gates lead into courtyards, doorways painted blue, green, or red. In the interior where gates were left open I could see curtains of glorious colours that separate the inner world from the street; a shaft of natural light in a garden; the trunk of an old tree, a pot of flowers.

Parts on the upper right side of Landscape with Fighter-Bomber are drawn from another place, a town south of the glaciers of the Tian Shan in Chinese Central Asia, in a market where a small bridge crossed a riverbed. The riverbed was almost dry, but down the side closest to me a shallow rivulet of water had gathered in a series of pools. A donkey pulling a cart had crossed the almost dry bed, and stopped to drink. Along the edge of the pools boys were playing in the mud, building dams and floating pieces of wood. A crowd of girls about the same age, about ten to twelve years old, were promenading in a circle around the boys, who ignored them. Women were washing clothing on the boulders. I rested by the bridge and began to draw. I took that river and put it in this painting down the right hand side. In the upper-right, across a small bridge, I painted some fruit trees. I put the fighter-bomber above on the left, and down below the shadow of it moving across the ground.

We know something of paradise gardens: the Garden of Eden, or the mythical gardens in the Metamorphoses where there is always a stream, a meadow, trees that give shade. In Dante’s Purgatorio, the garden of earthly paradise is located at the top of a mountain, high above the disturbances of weather. These gardens are in the background of 14th and 15th century paintings in Italy, and in Persian and Mughal miniatures – protected places, often enclosed by walls. Strangely for us, the Garden of Eden in Milton’s Paradise Lost is situated in Mesopotamia, where the Tigris River is described flowing southward.

An evocation of the earth as a protecting place is found in the Aeneid, when during their hazardous escape by sea after the destruction of Troy, Aeneas and his exhausted companions go ashore on a beach to rest: “At last we lay down by the waves of the sea in the lap of earth”.

But the garden sanctuary is not always inviolable.

The essay Hiroshima, first published in the New Yorker in 1946, records how the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima thousands of civilians sought refuge by the river in Asano Park among the pines, maples and laurel, to escape the fire. There was “an atavistic urge to hide under leaves”.3

W.G. Sebald in The Natural History of Destruction describes how trees and plants quickly grew up in the rubble of the German cities after the air raids, as if forests might completely cover the ruins. He refers specifically to Hamburg and Cologne.4

We are confronted with two currents, which are logically incompatible. One current is the irrefutable presence of annihilating destruction that hovers over the earth.

We have only fragments of information about annihilation, and whether it may be complete or partial, perhaps limited to one people, or a few cities at a time. There are eight nuclear armed states, which in addition hold conventional weapons with destructive force equivalent to tactical nuclear weapons. Their planning is covered by secrecy. In 1996, an influential article called “Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance” was published in the United States.5 It addressed the conundrum of modern weapons: notwithstanding their massive destructive power, their effectiveness as instruments of control is limited in coercing the great mass of an adversary’s population. Even after an adversary’s regular military formations are destroyed in successful “force on force” attacks, there can still be “societal resistance” – for example prolonged insurgencies of the kind that characterized the Vietnam war and, as it turned out, the war in Iraq after the invasion in 2003. According to the authors, effective military strategy must break the will of the civilians, not just eliminate military targets. The article declared that the objective of military action should be “collapsing the will to resist” of an entire society, either by “delivery of instant, nearly incomprehensible levels of destruction directing at influencing society writ large …” or by “a kind of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in slow motion and with conventional munitions”, or by more selective application of force. One option is “massive destruction against purely civilian targets such as the firebombing of Tokyo”. In a subsequent 2010 publication, the lead author of the original document expanded on the central idea of shock and awe, which is the name given to designate this strategy and the various methods aimed to break the will to resist of an entire society:

“In our usage, shock means the ability to intimidate, perhaps absolutely; to impose overwhelming fear, terror, vulnerability, and inevitability of destruction or rapid defeat; and to create in the mind of the adversary impotence, panic, hopelessness, paralysis, and the psychological incentives leading to capitulation”.

This hopelessness and terror does not just impact the targeted adversary. Like a current it infiltrates into the lives of everybody. It is calculated to make us turn away, to cut out our tongues, to retreat within ourselves.

But the other current, a much older current, gathers together those very beliefs and myths we have about gardens and our notions that the earth will protect us. That is our inheritance of several thousand years. We carry it with us.

Images fashioned from stories of the ideal landscape (the walled garden) should in principle carry no conviction, even as metaphor, in light of our new knowledge of destruction. And yet the old stories built around the topography of the earth still open our minds to experience wonder, or awe, at the complex structures of the natural world, its rivers, forests, and the lives inhabiting them. Martha Nussbaum explores the close association between our emotions of wonder, and of compassion, in Upheavels of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, where she develops the argument that emotions are part of our system of ethical reasoning.6 Wonder plays an important role “in marking the world for our concern, and thence in directing our attention to the sufferings of its members”.

The images of the paradise garden, even deprived of their protective magic, still illuminate the richness and fecundity of the earth, and take us outside our own skins. Painting is much dependent on surfaces, touch, and reaching across the boundaries between our bodies and the physical earth. It allows a world where we can envision that we are in the lap of the earth, where a bridge on an ancient river is a bracelet.


Two recent examinations of the history and ethics of area bombing and adoption of the policy of targeting civilian populations are John W. Dower, Cultures of War, Norton / The New Press, London and New York, 2010; and A.C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities, Walker, New York, 2006. The chapter “Protection of Civilians” in Michael Byers, War Law, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto, 2005, includes a discussion of international humanitarian law and the conduct of the Iraq war, including Fallujah in 2004. Air bombings before 1937 that indiscriminately targeted civilian populations are Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-1936 and Japan’s attack on Shanghai’s Chapei district in 1932. Aircraft were used in European colonial repressions in the inter-war years, including Britain in Iraq in the 1920s and France in Syria and Morocco.

A measure of the compartmentalization of this subject in Canada is that the only recent large-scale public airing of these issues was not in connection with any contemporary event, but arose out of the language of an 85-word text printed on a wall-panel at the Canadian War Museum as part of an exhibition inaugurated in 2005, which dealt with the 1941-1945 bomber offensive against Germany. A vehement public controversy about whether the text should be altered lasted until 2007. The June 2007 Interim Report of the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence described the controversy as “an unneeded public spectacle” and concluded that the Museum “will want to consider alternate ways” of presenting the history of the bombing. In the end the text was altered.

1 Picasso’s tapestry of Guernica shrouded in February 2003: Gils van Hensbergen. Guernica, The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon (London, Bloomsbury, 2004), p.1; New York Times, February 5, 2003; The Toronto Star, February 9, 2003. The painting itself was originally exhibited in the Spanish pavilion at the Paris International Exposition in July, 1937, less than three months after the attack on the Spanish city.

2 “lion coloured like the Tiber or Arno”: Freya Stark, Baghdad Sketches, 1938.

3 An “atavistic urge to hide under trees”: John Hersey, Hiroshima, first published in The New Yorker in 1946.

4 W.G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction, Knopf Canada, 2003, pages 39-40.

5 Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade and others, Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance, National Defence University, 1996. The authors were a group of former senior military officers and civilian defence officials. Donald Rumsfeld joined the group as an observer before he assumed the post of Secretary of Defence in the Administration that planned the invasion of Iraq. The subsequent article is Harlan K. Ullman, “Shock and Awe a Decade and a Half Later: Still Relevant and Misunderstood”, Prism 2, No 1 December, 2010, National Defence University.

6 Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 321-322.