November 25, 2017 | Posted in General
The Art of War.
Back in the last century, in the summer of 1974 I got my first paying job. Not sure how I ended up as a “porter” which is basically a toilet scrubber and mop up guy at Dunkin’ Donuts a couple miles from my home. As I recall when I started it was a $1.90 an hour and I racked up the hours whenever I could. I’d walk to the donut shop at 4:30am work for a couple hours, walk another mile or so to high school, walk back the donut shop work for a couple hours and then head home. Eventually I was promoted to “baker” and was responsible for baking an assortment of treats, right in front of a giant window so the customers could watch me, like some sort of circus act. I learned the art of cracking two eggs while holding them in one hand, a skill I have retained to this day.
Michelle Weiner was a waitress there, decked out in her DD outfit, big smile and infectious laugh, we became fast friends. I’d watch Shell slide around on the tile floor that was filled with flour, glaze drippings and other assorted food bits. The only rift between us is that she went to Lane Tech high school, I went to Schurz and anyone in the greater Chicagoland area knows that the two schools were (and are) sworn enemies.
But we got along pretty well anyway.
43 years has passed since that time and as with all things in life, people come and go for reasons…and seasons. FB has been a great lifeline to those who are part of my past and connecting with Shell again in the virtual landfill always made me smile, recalling a very different time, which seemed to be simple, but that is of course all a matter of perspective.
So, when I got an invite from her to attending a private gathering at an art museum, my first thought was…”why?” I am in no way shape or form a connoisseur of fine art. I don’t subscribe to “Artsy Mag” or wander endless hallways looking at abstract images tilting my head in thought and letting a quiet “hmmm” escape on my breath as to feign interest.
But I pushed past that stuff, accepted the invite and headed up to the Six Corners area in Chicago where the National Veterans Art Museum is located. At one time “Six Corners” was a major shopping hub in the city. You could go to Woolworth’s and eat at the lunch counter and then buy a parakeet on the way out. The Portage Movie Theater is still there, the place where I saw JAWS six times in a row but most everything else, except the massive Sears store is gone.
As fate would have it, the museum is within short walking distance of that Dunkin’ Donuts.
I didn’t know what to expect, and usually that’s the best course of action, but even so when I made my way up to the second floor and entered the hallway, I was stopped in my tracks, a blindfolded sculpture greeted me in such a way it sucked the breath from my chest.
I read the card next to the piece by John McManus. “During the 1968 Tet Offensive, one night in Song Be the Viet Cong dragged a guy off, he was on a listening post on one of those foggy nights when you couldn’t see the guy next to you. We heard his moaning over the radio and the rustling of the bushes. We were only a few hundred yards away and no one could help him.”
“We are blindfolded on this planet; we are unable to see what we do to each other. We are taught to see what we are told to see. When I found stone, I found life itself; when I sculpt, I learn to see.”
I suddenly knew I was on sacred ground, perched two floors up from the streets I once walked many years ago.
Making my way through the gallery I was stuck time and time again by the visceral and the violent. This from artist Marcus Eriksen regarding his sculpture “Angel In The Desert.”
“In Feb. 24, 1991 a truck filled with a dozen Marines in an endless convoy for Kuwait City stopped when I yelled, “Hey, look, a body!” The paralyzed figure of an Iraqi soldier lay 30 feet from the incinerated jeep he was blown from. His knees were bent, eyes and mouth open, and his intestines poured out from under his shirt. We were both covered with specks of oil from the fires nearby, and soaked by the rains that made me dirty and miserable, yet washed his face clean. Before he died, he waved his arms, like the way kids make snow angels. He made wings in the sand. My Angel in the Desert. I never forgot him, or the grimaced faces of the living ones missing arms and legs, or the piles of dead men at the Highway of Death. Years ago, I began welding a sculpture of him. I began with an old uniform, fiberglass resin, and plaster to make molds. I lined the molds with 70,000 steel ball bearings. In a desert war only sand, flesh and steel move together, in varied directions and velocities. It weighs roughly 300 lbs., but comes in two pieces, much like I found him.”
I learned that in 1981, a few Vietnam combat veterans put together an artistic and historical collection that would become a timeless, humanistic statement of war on behalf of all veterans for future generations. Since 2003, the museum has broadened its mission to include art by veterans of all wars. In 2010, the word Vietnam was dropped, and we became the National Veterans Art Museum (NVAM). Today, NVAM’s Permanent Collection features more than 255 veteran artists, and consists of more than 2,500 works of art, including paintings, photography, sculpture, poetry and music. The artwork showcased at NVAM provides a unique perspective on the controversial subject of war to all. It is a tenuous and reflective balance of beauty and horror, providing unique insight into the psyche of combat veterans and the consequential impact war leaves on its survivors.
I kept thinking that this place with its real images of war, created by those who fought in the jungles of Vietnam to the sand in Iraq lies in stark contrast to the video game versions of war that will be included as “stocking stuffers” this Christmas.
Michelle was a gracious host, so very good to see her after all this time and even though I was surrounded by Lane Tech alumni, the impact of her efforts in pulling together the event was very powerful. At one point we were all called together in the main room and listened to two combat vets share their story of healing through art. Two men that know what it’s like to kill another human being, and in doing so a part of their own humanity died. They talked about how efficient the military is in breaking them down as to build them up into a fighting unit, but how lost they became once their service ended.
Through a program at the famed Art Institute of Chicago, these veterans were able to channel their pain into images that brought a bit of sense to the senseless. Their pride in overcoming the challenges of adapting into civilian life was evident. They were no longer just a jarhead grunt, but rather an artist who has a portfolio and showing.
“The Art of War” is an ancient Chinese military treatise dating from the 5th century BC. The work, which is attributed to the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu (“Master Sun”, also spelled Sunzi), is composed of 13 chapters. Each one is devoted to a distinct aspect of warfare and how that applies to military strategy and tactics.
While it a very famous work on how to gain victory, none of the 13 chapters deals with what happens to the soldiers, their mind, body and spirit as they attempt to live out their lives after being witness to and participate in, the slaughter of other humans.
“The Art of War” I was witness to isn’t about victory over some foreign enemy, its about victory over the darkness that takes up residence in a foxhole, a rice paddy or blood and oil soaked sand.
As a non-combat veteran, I left wonder what could I do to help my combat-veteran brothers in their efforts to create a safe space for healing that can take decades for those who returned home, but left a piece of themselves behind.
This image I posted here, among all of them stands as a giant mural covering one whole wall. It’s titled “Class of 1967”
“In June 1968, we were on an operation in the hills between Khe Sanh and Laos. One night NVA sappers crawled up through the wet elephant grass and overran our position. In the ensuing firefight we took heavy casualties. The sky was lit up with parachute flares and on the ground the night swayed out through the trees and became a kind of surreal blue day. The armorer working with me had his leg blown off at the knee by a grenade; the corpsman who came to help him was shot through the shoulder. When daylight came the NVA had pulled back and mortared us for the next few hours. Being a short timer, with a flight date at the end of the month, I had dug a deep foxhole and during that morning I shared it with eight or ten different people: my wounded company commander, a wounded air liaison officer, a wounded jeep driver, a wounded artillery forward observer, a wounded mortar man, the communications officer, and some others.”
“When the bodies of the dead were laid out in the clearing and covered with ponchos, they all looked alike. They lay in short rows on their backs with their toes pointing up and outward. In death, they were all the same, except for the one who had only one foot—one boot. This scene occupied a little part of Class of ’67. June was graduation month; some of them had probably been finishing high school the year before.”
High school…same age as the target market for those video war games that cost $59.99 at Walmart.
Maybe that’s where I can start with soliciting donations…from the video companies that pull in millions and millions of dollars by selling war as nothing more than a game.
There has been a meme going around this Thanksgiving on Facebook.
“If you ate today thank a farmer. If you ate in peace thank a veteran.”
You can also thank them by making a donation to the museum- here is the link. The museum is a 501 (c) (3) and relies on fundraisers and private donations to operate.