Seymour Chwast’s new book, At War With War, runs with the subtitle “5,000 years of conquests, invasions, and terrorist attacks, an illustrated timeline,” which pretty accurately sums it up. The designer has long used his graphics as a tool to promote peace and challenge the “necessity” of war, and this is perhaps his most comprehensive distillation of that yet.
It was 60 years ago that the designer first set out his ideas around war, in A Book of Battles, a 24-page book of hand-colored linocut illustrations depicting historical battles. Only 80 copies total were printed, but this limited-run tome was a prescient one. The depressing thing is how many pages are needed in Chwast’s new book to delineate the wars, battles, and acts of terrorism that have occurred in the six decades since that first publication. In 1957, the world had yet to witness the Vietnam war (the mind boggles, and reels, at the stats presented in At War with War—“58,000 Americans die; estimates of Vietnamese killed: 800,000 to 3.1 million”); then the Iraq-Iran war of 1980; The Falklands war; the Gulf War… and that only takes us to 1991.
The sketchy, fluid, monochrome linework of Chwast’s illustrations feels fitting to the subject matter—it straddles reverence and the terrifying reality of the transience of lives lost to war. The minimal text of the timeline feels similarly fitting: its neutrality presents the facts of man’s apparent propensity for war and terror as a series of stark, depressing numbers, while quietly condemning and mourning such realities.
For a rather wee volume, a hell of a lot is packed in. Alongside Chwast’s gorgeously emotive woodcut-like illustrations and the chronological timeline, At War With War presents written passages discussing war (and peace), including the 5th century BC Chinese military treatise The Art of War by Sun Tzu; 1521’s The Complaint of Peace by Desiderius Erasmus; and The State, an essay on the link between state and war, by Randolph Bourne.
“The power of cartoons and caricatures shouldn’t be underestimated,” states writer Victor Navasky in his no-nonsense introduction to At War With War. It seems a supremely fitting statement for this little yellow tome, which uses the power of stripped-back visual narration to demonstrate the abhorrence of large-scale organized killing. If, as the cliché goes, madness is repeating the same thing again and again and expecting different results, war is surely one of the most terrifying definitions of such madness.
The book was initially launched as a Kickstarter last year, which proved the appetite for a considered visual exploration of war and terror (and, of course, for work by Seymour Chwast) when it raised well over its target— a whopping $112,754.
“Seymour’s desire was to present his reaction to war in its purest form…” writes Steven Heller, who edited the book. “To set aside his interest in color and mixed media and use what would allow him to focus on the idea alone: marker on paper; just black and white. His technique serves the content and the intention – to viscerally connect with the audience and bring front and center the horror and waste that is war.”
In smallish, unassuming paperback form, the volume is a refreshing riposte to weighty, academic, frequently daunting tomes on war. Chwast presents atrocities in poignant, visual, bitesize chunks, but makes them no more easily digestible. As At War With War points out, there is “no happy ending to this book.”