Yesterday, my friend posted a photo of himself taken while on active duty during our recent hot and violent wars. There is something TE Lawrence about it, even though it’s a horse and John’s in modern Marine garb.
That got me to thinking about war art and how much it has shifted in the last century. Obviously, the greatest change has been that the work is now done by photographers, not painters. That shift started in earnest during World War II, where photography became the medium of choice not only for documentation but for reconnaissance. However, there were still more than a hundred combat artists on active duty.
More subtly, there was a change in viewpoint in the late 20th century. The focus shifted from the soldier’s viewpoint to the civilian viewpoint. More and more, we were asked to consider the impact on the communities in which war raged. While that’s laudable, it also meant that we were further removed from the experience of soldiering itself.
Among my parents’ generation, there were almost no men who weren’t veterans. There were also many women who served. That changed radically with Vietnam. In my community, one was as likely to know someone who burned their draft card as someone who was on duty. And for a time there, the draft-dodgers were more popular than the soldiers.
Today, I know many veterans and active-duty servicemen. We understand their experiences to have been difficult, but we don’t really know the details. Our focus for the last fifty years has been on the places war rages and the victims of war, not on the soldiers themselves.
On that note, I must express my profound gratitude to every person who has served in our armed forces, or those of our allies. Our security rests with you, and with the long grey line that stretches before and after you. May God bless you on this Veterans Day.
ADDENDUM: I originally wrote but then deleted: “Perhaps we see so little of the soldier’s viewpoint in contemporary art because the Vietnam-protesting cohort is now senior in our corporations and institutions.”