The Art of War

For Memorial Day, some art by veterans of World War II and the Iraq War. These two wars have bookended my life: The first began a few years after I was born, and dominates my earliest memories. I hope to outlive the second.

The New York Times today includes drawings by one of the last living survivors of the Bataan Death March, Ben Steele. Here’s an excerpt from the accompanying  text, written by Steele and Michael Norman, who is working on a book about Bataan.

Private Steele…took part in the first major land battle for America in World War II, the battle for the peninsula of Bataan in the Philippine Islands — a 99-day fight that ended on April 9, 1942, in the surrender of more than 76,000 men under American command, the worst defeat in United States military history.

Afterward, the Japanese set their sick and starving American and Filipino captives on a 66-mile walk under a broiling sun to prison camp, an infamous trek now known as the Bataan Death March.

Early in his three years of captivity, Private Steele, crippled by malaria, jaundice, blood poisoning and beriberi, became an invalid in a prisoner-of-war hospital in Manila. One day during his slow recovery, he pulled a burned stick from a cooking fire and started making scratches on the concrete floor. With some tutoring from a fellow prisoner who was an engineer, those scratches turned into sketches, and soon cellmates were scrounging paper and stubs of pencil for him.

Drawings by Ben Steele. Click on them to see the larger version on the New York Times Web site.

Drawings by Ben Steele. Click to view these larger on the New York Times Web site.

 

And from more recent times, two pieces by Aaron Hughes, a member of the Illinois Army National Guard who was deployed as part of a transportation company supporting combat operations in Iraq. Hughes is now a multimedia artist and an activist against the war–and is clearly haunted by the ghosts of Iraq’s children. Here is a painting from a series of self-portraits called “Tourist Photographs from Iraq,” with accompanying text.

Painting by Aaron Huges. Click on the painting to see the rest of the series on Hughes's Web site.

Painting by Aaron Huges. Click to see the rest of the series on the artist's Web site.

This is how I wanted to see my self…
This is what I thought we would do in Iraq
That’s what I always thought we were about…
Barefoot, little kids… I remember that one
there… he couldn’t have been five years old
Just a damn little kid, you know?
Little, black, cracked, bare… Dust covered
feet.
Tiny little kid… Tough as hell. His brother
too.
The sand must’ve been 150 degrees, fuckin’
hotter than that! Everything was so damn
hot; the heat
Would come up through my boots like standing on a stove.
The kid had baby toes that were like coarse
callused black elephant leather. That kid
had the craziest rough ass skin
I gave the kid an M.R.E. and some other
food. A bunch of crap I was sick of eating…
Kids would stand on the roads every damn day asking for that crap.
There was nothing else… bleak dead dust
days, powdered sand-lands of nothing for
miles and miles.
There was nothing but an unattainable horizon
and a damn long ass road.
But the fucking little ass kids would come
out of nowhere…
Nothing around! Not a damn thing! But these
damn kids would just appear.
I thought we were going over to help these
damn kids that would come out of nothing and go back into it. Feed the hungry, help the
oppressed, give relief from day in day out
pain.
That is what I wanted to think I was there
for.
Barefoot, all day long
All they wanted was food from us…
Like damn kids on the 4th of July… we were a spectacle, a parade of crazy floats passing
out food.
But then we hit one you know… That was it!
It all changed
We were told not to stop… Don’t stop not in
the towns. Keep the truck moving and don’t
stop. Forget the kids!
Now, now I can’t forget the kids. Damn kid.
I’m not even there. Hundred thousand miles
away and its still in my fucking head.
Ah fuck ’em they were just a part of the damn landscape anyway.

 

Take a look, too, at this video by Hughes, which includes (eerily beautiful) photographs by Ahmed Jabar Shareef, an Iraqi boy blinded and maimed in a firefight outside his home. Click here to read the accompanying text.

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