The U.S. Marine Corps’ last “combat artist” is the subject of an article in The New York Times. Sgt Kristopher J. Battles and his recently retired colleague, chief warrant officer Michael D. Fay, are admirers of “visually authentic” artists from Richter to Basquiat, reports Carol Kino. The things they carried to Iraq, Afghanistan and now Haiti include pistols, M-16s, and sketchpads, and they are fully trained to use all their gear. But do they belong in the battlefield?
Col. Robert Oltman was skeptical about the role of the combat artist until he came across portrayals of men he knew who had lost their lives in Iraq. He’d thought of the artists as an “administrative burden,” but now he acknowledges their value. “We have somebody who was there who can tell the story,” he said, “so when their children grow up, there’s an archived history of what their father or loved one did.”
Kino reports that there are combat-artist programs in various branches of the arrmed services — they emerged in WWII, dwindled after Viet Nam and reemerged in recent years — but Anita Blair, a former acting assistant secretary of the Navy (2008-09), explains that the Marines program is different. “When you go over to the Air Force the art is all airplanes. In the Navy it’s all ships. Army art tends to be more about the battle, and the Army loves trucks. They’re fixated on vehicles. But the Marine Corps is fixated on Marines.” In other words, the work tends to describe the daily experience of the soldiers themselves.
Why not send a photographer? Lt. Gen. Ron Christmas, president and chief executive of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, told Kino, “When a photograph is taken of a battle or any type of scene in combat, you see the image. But what the artist does is he takes that image and interprets it.”
“It’s the pact we make with the warrior: You will live forever and we will remember you,” says Blair. “And to me the best way to do that is through art. We can’t give him his life, but we can give him that immortality.”
Commemoration and honor are expressed through the countless war memorials around the world. The Viet Nam Veterans Memorial in Washington is one successful example. And occasionally works of art transport the viewer to the battlefield. Goya and Dix documented the brutality of war in gruesome detail. Myriad filmmakers have strived to expand on the vividness of their example. The opening scene of Saving Private Ryan comes to mind, recreating a landing on a Normandy beach on D Day with gripping tension and realism, qualities generally absent from director Steven Spielberg’s sanitized mass-market fare. For a more prosaic and psychologically crushing sense of the texture and injustice of war, few films surpass Russian director Elem Klimov’s Come and See, 1985, about WWII in Byelorussia. A number of scenes – such as this one – are on YouTube, but watch the entire movie to understand its power.
A discussion of war and art could go on and on – Winslow Homer as Civil War correspondent, August Saint-Gaudens’ superb Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment memorial in Boston (the plaster is in the National Gallery of Art), British WWI poet Wilfred Owen, Tim O’Brien’s renowned Viet Nam novel, et. al. — but let me mention one other artwork that comes to mind. I’ve learned a lot about war from John Singer Sargent’s amazing Gassed, 1918, which shows injured WWI British soldiers trudging to hospital through a body-strewn field while their compatriates play an improvised game of soccer in the background. Sargent may have embedded anti-war sentiment by subtly evoking Breughel’s rendition of the parable of the Blind Leading the Blind, 1568, in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. Sargent’s 20-foot-long painting, contemporary with Owen’s superb poetry – sets a high bar for soldier artists of any era. It reminds us that the one thing that can be said about the greatest war art is that it does not celebrate war.
The mural is in London’s Imperial War Museum, whose excellent didactic displays cover conflicts since WWI. There is no equivalent institution in the U.S., but even as the role of the soldier artist fades, the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virgina – whose civilian staff oversees the artist program – plans to expand to show more of its collection tracing the history of the corps.