New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 1 January 3 to 9, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino


Photo-Essay #1
Barbara Confino, “Guatamala 1975”

There they are, so many lives, on the steps of a church in Guatemala. The soldier who is a full-blooded Mayan wears the uniform of those who will perpetuate the coming genocide. Which he himself will participate in – all the others most likely dead because of it.

Amazing how all you need to switch sides is the right clothing and a haircut.The symbol is the key that throws the switch, allowing us to perform previously unthinkable acts. Armies all over the world perform the same magic trick.

What is it in the human brain that permits us to compartmentalize actions? And what happens, as it seems to be with increasing frequency in Iraq, when those compartments break down and the images of war and peace overlap—as they are also doing in Iraq–where it can be lethal just to walk down the street?

If all war is a struggle for territory, to get it or keep it, then it is critical to know who is us and who is them. Chimps, who go on war parties, leave their own group to invade another’s. Apparently warlike behavior thrives on clear cut divisions. Because it is inconceivable that natural selection would operate in favor of self-destruction, to turn on one’s own group is suicidal. And when that is done, as it is in civil war, divisions must be reestablished symbolically, via uniforms, flags, and songs. One must turn the self into the Other.

In Guatemala it is long been possible to turn your back on a despised social status simply by changing clothes. The young Mayan soldier on the steps of the church, participating in the mournful Mayan ritual of remorse performed annually in ChiChiCastenango, has been assumed into a larger identity. From the moment he put on the uniform he became the Other.

For the young men and women returning from Iraq, it is taking off the uniform that is the problem. Having become the Other, how does one return to the Self?

Photo-Essay #1 by Barbara Confino

Barbara Confino is an artist and writer whose work is housed in such collections as The Bibliotheque Nationale de France and the British Museum. Her graphic history, The Genetic Wars, can be viewed at www.thegeneticwars.com. Her writings on art and culture have been published in ArtsCanada and The Village Voice among other publications. She is currently associate editor for The New York Photo Review.
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