Last week’s 1,000th American casualty in Afghanistan came as a grim prelude to Memorial Day, but behind these sobering statistics is the everyday reality of soldiers living in a battle zone. And no one captures the mundane details, horrific encounters and emotional inner life of soldiers like war artists.
Some war artists are simply soldiers with an artistic bent, while others are professionals commissioned by the military to paint or sketch scenes from the frontlines. They’ve chronicled American wars for as long as the country has existed – from Revolutionary War painters and Winslow Homer’s Civil War sketches, to artists working today, like Steve Mumford and Heather Englehart.
During the Vietnam War, Jim Pollock was sent as a soldier-artist on the U.S. Army Vietnam Combat Art Team IV. He wrote an essay for “War Literature & The Arts” that provides an intimate portrait of artists in a war zone. An excerpt:
The idea of rotating teams of young soldier-artists from a variety of backgrounds and experiences through Vietnam was innovative. What was even more remarkable is that these soldier-artists were encouraged to freely express and interpret their individual experience in their own distinct styles. The artists responded enthusiastically to their artistic free reign, and the resulting products were wide-ranging and comprehensive.
Styles and media used were as diverse as the artists themselves, some chose detailed literal images while others preferred expressive almost abstract explosions striving to replicate the horrors of war. Certainly, a lasting legacy of the army’s soldier art program is that it helped bring military art into the modern era. For subject matter, my heart was with the ordinary soldier, and I tried to interpret honestly day-to-day experiences of the soldier as I saw and experienced them. I was logistically limited to sketching media such as pen and ink, pencil, and watercolor while in the field. Pen and ink and watercolor were already my favorites, so this worked out rather well.
It rained a lot in Vietnam and I wrapped my sketchbook in plastic to protect it from moisture. When working in the studio I expanded my media to gouache, acrylic, and oil.
Some themes, however, must be universal. One of the pieces I did was a 1st Infantry Division soldier receiving a field haircut. At the time I thought it unusual for a soldier to be getting a haircut in the middle of the jungle, so I sketched the scene and later made a watercolor and ink painting it. Recently an Englishman, in contact with North Vietnamese soldier-artists, sent me a copy of a drawing. This drawing, by a Viet Cong soldier-artist, portrays a North Vietnamese soldier getting a field haircut.