- You, Me, and the Violence by Catherine Taylor
Long essays sometimes masquerade as small books—ideas made of enough words to necessitate spine and binding. Catherine Taylor's You, Me, and the Violence is one of these books, an essay to be sure, but one rich in complexity and contradiction, even if the entire volume can be read in a single sitting.
Taylor considers the ethics of warfare through the dialogue of drone pilots and traditions of political puppetry. In this book, theory speaks to poetry, and puppets speak to soldiers. Sister speaks to brother, and writer speaks to reader. These connections are essential. "In the object of the puppet, we glimpse the subject of the human," Taylor writes. "In the object of the drone, we glimpse the subject of society."
You, Me, and the Violence is chunked into short sections that never span more than half a page. These fragments work together to form a larger picture, placing seemingly dissimilar subjects next to each other to illuminate startling overlaps. The trajectory of Taylor's essay is further interrupted by two ongoing narratives: photographs of a reptilian puppet in motion and the conversation of drone pilots on a remote mission.
I wish a book review could convey the emotional impact of odd puppet photographs or show the transcript of these pilots as Taylor has arranged it, like poetry on the page. Through each visual and metaphorical image, her essay actively seeks "forms to which feeling can attach itself." The experience of reading these images alongside Taylor's prose resists an expected structure. Often, I felt caught off guard when a turned page revealed not blocky paragraphs of text, but significant white space or a puppet, grinning or prostrate. Truly, You, Me, and the Violence moves in every sort of unconventional direction.
In addition to observing the work of pilots and puppeteers, Taylor finds opportunities to engage in direct conversation with American military personnel. As part of the research process, she interviews her own brother, a drone pilot with considerable military experience and informed opinions of war. The interview between siblings represents Taylor's [End Page 58] own uncomfortable closeness to her subject. Exploding the binary of "right" or "wrong," "good" or "bad," Taylor's conversation with her brother challenges the reader's ethical assumptions, complicating any easy moral position.
While this interview is certainly uncomfortable for the writer, the most uncomfortable series of events for the reader occurs in the pilots' dialogue. "I removed some sections and some words but I did not add or invent any language," Taylor writes, inviting the reader to consider the dialogue even more strange. At first, the pilots express uncertainty in the images their equipment has made available. Drone cameras, by design, obscure detail, making it hard to separate threat from bystander. Through a process of interpretation and debate, the pilots reach consensus and take action; the narrative of that action haunts the pages that follow.
The drone cameras identify moving bodies. Early in the conversation, the pilots consider these to be the bodies of teenagers, potentially dangerous teenagers with guns slung across their chests. After drone intervention, however, the bodies are revealed as something else. Chaos and confusion intensify the action. The justification of drone warfare is questioned, if silently, by its very practitioners. Of the transcripts, Taylor remains close to the original sequence and central elements. "And then," she says, "I looked for something on the other side." This ability to analyze her subject from all angles, to pick up the heavy rock and spin it like a globe, is the most striking quality of Taylor's work. She is a writer unsatisfied by easy answers.
Despite collective discomfort with violence, is it realistic to believe war will ever reach its end? Taylor's answer to this question changes because it has to. "At first, this book ended in despair," she writes in its most crucial turn. "But I made myself rewrite it." A hopeful tone infuses the final pages, and the scaffolding of puppet, drone, and human being is carefully stripped away. Taylor advocates for action...