About 180,000 people enlist in the United States military each year, many of whom will come home with physical injuries or psychological damage. Recruits are trained to kill, taught to de-humanize others, to participate in torture, but are expected to forget upon returning to civilian life.
That 22 veterans commit suicide per day is a grim reminder not only of the harsh demands of military life but that the Pentagon effectively throws away its veterans after using them. The U.S. government is quick to start wars, but although political leaders endlessly make speeches extolling the sacrifices of veterans, it doesn’t necessarily follow up those sentiments, packaged for public consumption, with required assistance.
Veterans themselves are using art to begin the process of working their way through their psychological injuries in a program known as “Combat Paper.” In an interesting twist on the idea of beating swords into plowshares, the Combat Paper program converts veterans’ uniforms into paper, which is then used as a canvas for art works focusing on their military experiences. Deconstructed fibers of uniforms are beaten into pulp using paper-making equipment; sheets of paper are pulled from the pulp and dried to create the paper.
Drew Cameron, one of the initiators of Combat Paper Project, writes of the concept:
“The story of the fiber, the blood, sweat and tears, the months of hardship and brutal violence are held within those old uniforms. The uniforms often become inhabitants of closets or boxes in the attic. Reshaping that association of subordination, of warfare and service, into something collective and beautiful is our inspiration.”
The results are dramatic, as I found while viewing an exhibit at the Art 101 gallery in New York City’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Take, for example, Jesse Violante’s silkscreen, “No One Can Change The Animal I’ve Become.” The title sentence is written in bloody red letters above a scene of soldiers in an exposed forward position, lying prone with weapons ready. The image is stark, depicting only the most immediate surroundings, representing the lack of vision on the part of officials who see war as a first option and the fog of uncertainty as experienced by the solider in the field reduced to a scramble for survival.
Wounds that can be seen and those not seen
There are those whose injuries are obvious, such as Tomas Young, whose struggles were shown in full intensity in the documentary Body of War. In the letter he wrote to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney when his death was impending, he put into words his agony:
“Your cowardice and selfishness were established decades ago. You were not willing to risk yourselves for our nation but you sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to be sacrificed in a senseless war with no more thought than it takes to put out the garbage. I have, like many other disabled veterans, come to realize that our mental and physical [disabilities and] wounds are of no interest to you, perhaps of no interest to any politician. We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned.”
And there are those whose injuries are not so immediately obvious. Let’s hear from a couple of them. Kelly Dougherty, who helped to found Iraq Veterans Against the War after serving as a medic and as military police, said she appreciates having a space to “talk about my feelings of shame for participating in a violent occupation.” She writes:
“When I returned from Iraq ten years ago, some of my most vivid memories were of pointing my rifle at men and boys while my fellow soldiers burned semi trucks of food and fuel, and of watching the raw grief of a family finding that their young son had been run over and killed by a military convoy.
I remember being frustrated with military commanders that seemed more concerned with decorations and awards than with the safety of their troops, and of finding out that there never were any weapons of mass destruction. I was angry and frustrated and couldn’t relate to my fellow veterans who voiced with pride their feelings that they were defending freedom and democracy. I also couldn’t relate to civilians who would label me a hero, but didn’t seem interested in actually listening to my story.”
Garett Reppenhagen, also a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, wrote on the group’s Web site about how the resistance he received at Veterans Administration meetings when he tried to speak of his experiences, the illegality of the Iraq occupation and the lies of the Bush II/Cheney administration that started the war. “The ‘you know you aren’t allowed to go there’ look,” as he puts it:
“I can’t bring up the child that exploded because she unknowingly carried a bomb in her school bag and how her foot landed next to me on the other side of the Humvee. I can’t talk about how we murdered off duty Iraqi Army guys working on the side as deputy governor body guards because they looked like insurgents. I can’t talk about blowing the head off an old man changing his tire because he might have been planting a roadside bomb. I can’t talk about those things without talking about why we did it.”
Fairy tales become nightmares
Why was it done? United States military spending amounts to a trillion dollars a year, more than every other country combined. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was intended to create a tabula rasa in Iraq, with its economy cracked wide open for U.S.-based multinational corporations to exploit at will, a neoliberal fantasy that extended well beyond the more obvious attempt at controlling Iraq’s oil. Overthrowing governments through destabilization campaigns, outright invasions and financial dictations through institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have long been the response of the U.S. to any country that dares to use its resources to benefit its own population rather than further corporate profits.
And the fairy tales of emancipating women from Muslim fundamentalists? We need only ask, then, why the U.S. funded and armed the Afghan militants who overthrew their Soviet-aligned government for the crime of educating girls. Or why the U.S. government stands by Saudi Arabia and other ultra-repressive governments. Those Afghan militants became the Taliban and al-Qaida, and spawned the Islamic State. More interference in other countries begets more resistance, more extreme groups feeding on destruction and anger.
What does it say about our humanity when ever more men and women are asked to bear such burdens, pay such high prices for an empire that enriches the 1 percent and impoverishes working people, including the communities from which these soldiers come from. What does it say about our humanity when the countries that are invaded are reduced to rubble and suffer casualties in the millions, and this is cheered on like a video game?
All the more thought-provoking are the art works of the Combat Paper Project. Another work, “Cry For Help” by Eli Wright, is of a man screaming and a phone held by a skeletal hand and arm. Barbed wire is stretched over the top. How well would we hold on to our humanity had we been on patrol? If we were at risk of being killed at any time by such a patrol?
A second exhibit by Mr. Wright is “These Colors Run Everywhere,” a more minimalist work that shows reds, whites and blues dripping down the canvas, a rain falling upon an urban landscape reduced to a shadowy background that could be interpreted as symbolic of the lack of knowledge of the places that the U.S. invades and of the societies that invasions destroy. It is also a wry twisting of a common slogan used as a defensive mantra into a doctrine of offense and invasion, the actual practice of that slogan.
I assuredly do not speak for, could not speak for, these artists. Perhaps you would have different, maybe very different, interpretations. The movie American Sniper, glorifying a racist murderer and thus symbolizing the dehumanizing tendencies of those who beat their breasts while screaming “We’re number one!” when the death toll climbs higher, has taken in tens of millions of dollars. Vastly less money will change hands as a result of the Combat Paper artworks. But what price should be paid for our humanity?
Combat Paper is on display at Art 101 until April 5.