PHILADELPHIA -- In 1942 the War Department tapped George Biddle to head its new Art Advisory Committee. A generation earlier eight artists had been commissioned as captains in the Army Corps of Engineers and sent off to document the Great War for posterity. Charged with expanding upon that initiative, this is what the Philadelphia lawyer-cum-artist Biddle told the forty military and civilian artists recruited for the sequel:
You have been selected as outstanding American artists, who will record the war in all its phases and its impact on you as artists and as human beings. Any subject is in order if as artists you feel it is part of the war; battle scenes and the front line; battle landscapes; the wounded, the dying and the dead; the nobility, courage, cowardice, cruelty, and boredom of war; all this should form part of a well-rounded picture.
To roam Art of the American Soldier -- an exhibit culled from the rarely displayed collections of the United States Army Center of Military History and the National Museum of the United States Army by the always inventive and clever curators of the National Constitution Center -- is to see Biddle's vision borne out in affecting, frequently harrowing pencil sketches, charcoal rubs, watercolors, acrylics, and oils on canvas encompassing every modern conflict from World War I through Iraq.
There are a few familiar pieces, notably Tom Lea's "Marines Call it That 2,000 Yard Stare" and several satirical "dogface" drawings by Bill Mauldin ("I can't be funny about the war," the heralded soldier cartoonist once said, "but I can try to make something out of the humorous situations which always accompany misery"), as well as a smattering of iconic scenes: MacArthur reviewing a decimated Philippine landscape in 1944; the liberation of Buchenwald in cold, sorrowful darker hues; Eliza Golden's 2005 painting "Martyrdom Denied" rendering through desert haze the demolition of a Mosul safe house U.S. Special Forces ensured would not live up to its billing for Uday and Qusay Hussein.
Mostly, though, the exhibit vista is idiosyncratic to the ground-level micro reality as the soldier sees it, usually overlooked and, thus, wholly engrossing: Medics struggling to maneuver a wounded man down a mountainside under the cover of darkness ("Night Shift"); bloody sheets outside a hospital tent ("Normandy Wash"); red, kinetic blur of chaos in Vietnam ("Hot Village").
"I can tell you put your soul into this portrait," a man tells Master Sgt. Martin Cervantez, one of the Army's current frontline artists on hand for the exhibit opening, "it touched my heart."
The painting in question is of a masked Afghani translator working with American officers in Khost, and risking his life to do so. Cervantez is a self-taught artist who joined the military with no inkling he'd eventually paint scenes for the Army to warehouse as part of the nation's historical record. In off-duty hours he pursues abstract art. On deployment Cervantez enters the heat of battle with all the usual concerns -- the welfare of the soldier next to him, security, the mission -- plus one more: Discovering, capturing, and relating the essential truth of what churns around him.
"God bless you," another admirer whispers shyly as she slips by.
The medium partially explains the atypical accolades. We are inundated with digital images. In the purest, most sophisticated form these no doubt still chill blood and swell hearts. (See, for example, the film Restrepo and the book Infidel.) But Art of the American Soldier takes war far enough out of our typical consumption pattern to slow. us. down. Today's media is an automatic transmission, too sleek and smooth at times. This exhibit is a standard. We are forced to shift, to think a bit, to focus, and the images consequently speak to us in new ways.
Then there is the matter of the creators themselves.
It is important, of course, to have noncombatants document wars -- vital, indeed, for a democracy, which requires transparency and civic oversight.
Yet no matter how deeply or bravely embedded, a journalist can never comprehend in toto the lives and sacrifices of the men and women who fight on our behalf. I covered combat in Iraq. It was not exactly an Orwell Homage to Catalonia experience. When the shooting starts the soldier's job is to deal with it. The embedded journalist's job is to go duck where the soldier tells him to go duck.
I've met fantastically brave reporters, correspondents with innate courage that humbles as much as it baffles, who go far outside the confines of the embed so that the rest of us might have some idea what the hell is happening out there in this cruel world. And proximity and direct experience are extraordinarily valuable.
Nevertheless, divergent perspectives are inevitable. Soldiers are less likely to see themselves as archetypes or symbols of a larger policy. The motif is less important to them than the individual, the immediate community he depends on for survival and sanity, and the amenities or lack thereof as the days of the tour tick down.
Both voices are worth hearing; one seldom is.
"My goal is, 'That's where I've been, that's what I've done, that's what it looked like,'" Cervantez explains. "It's the greatest thing in the world for me to have the opportunity to tell these stories, but if a fellow soldier can't look at these paintings and say that, I haven't done my job."
I recall a unit commander winding up his tour in Samarra describing war to me as a one-way door -- a soldier passes through it and cannot go back. Art of the American Soldier allows a fleeting glimpse of that other side. It is well worth your time and trouble to seek it out.
Art of the American Soldier runs through January 10, 2011.