The art of becoming human

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.

“No One Can Change The Animal I’ve Become,” silkscreen, by Jesse Violante

“No One Can Change The Animal I’ve Become,” silkscreen, by Jesse Violante

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?

"These Colors Run Everywhere," spray paint, by Eli Wright

“These Colors Run Everywhere,” spray paint, by Eli Wright

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.

26 comments on “The art of becoming human

  1. I am posting this on Facebook so that the right wing, blowhard, “My Country Right or Wrong” douche bags that I have on my “friends” list (some friends!! sheeesh) might actually read it and understand that there is nothing noble about the continued arrogant thrust of the Military/Industrial Complex to keep us ever in war after war after war so that the bottom line of GE, Dow Chemical, Northrup/Grumman and all the other makers of war toys, will show increased profits for next year.

    • That has been the case for a long time. As General Smedley Butler wrote in War Is A Racket:

      “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”

      • This has been one of the hardest lessons of my life to learn. Even up until 10 years ago, I was a happily brainwashed little “Rah-Rah” boy for the US of A. We could do no wrong. Everyone else was out to kill us. We are right and we are trying to give the rest of the world our rightness and they are unappreciative of what a great gift we are trying to give them — therefore, they are the “enemy” and must be eliminated.

        It’s really hard to set aside that brainwashing and consider that perhaps the rest of the world might view us differently — as bullies who throw their muscle around with smaller nations so that they can get what they want.

        Good article, sir!

  2. The immense price the world has paid for the US military aggression in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and Syria has yet to be tallied. Besides the horrific effect on US vets and local communities, it has created tens of millions of refugees – who are so desperately seeking admission to Europe, Australia and the US.

  3. Christopher Hunt says:

    I was gonna share this, but that comment about Kyle being a racist murderer, not to hip on that part…

    • Christopher, if the shoe fits, it fits. From Lindy West in The Guardian:

      “Chris Kyle, a US navy Seal from Texas, was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and claimed to have killed more than 255 people during his six-year military career. In his memoir, Kyle reportedly described killing as ‘fun.’ something he ‘loved’; he was unwavering in his belief that everyone he shot was a ‘bad guy.’ ‘I hate the damn savages,’ he wrote. ‘I couldn’t give a flying f*** about the Iraqis.’ He bragged about murdering looters during Hurricane Katrina, though that was never substantiated.”

      From Laura Miller in Salon:

      “In ‘American Sniper,’ Kyle describes killing as ‘fun’ and something he ‘loved’ to do. This pleasure was no doubt facilitated by his utter conviction that every person he shot was a ‘bad guy.’ … Later in his service, Kyle had a blood-red ‘crusader cross’ tattooed on his arm.”

      And lest we have doubts about the institutionalized brutality of the military, here is another passage from the Salon article:

      “ ‘American Sniper’ lovingly recounts both the rigors of the special-operations force’s training program and the extravagant hazing to which new members are subjected. (Kyle was handcuffed to a chair, loaded up with Jack Daniel’s, stripped and covered with spray paint and obscene marking-pen tattoos by his buddies on the night before his wedding. Presumably his bride got the message about whom he really belonged to.)”

      If that’s how they treat their own side …

      From Dennis Jett in The New Republic:

      “Bradley Cooper, who plays Kyle, seems beset by uncertainty and moral anxiety in the above scene. But anyone who has read Kyle’s autobiography of the same title knows that his bravado left no room for doubt. For him, the enemy are savages and despicably evil. His only regret is that he didn’t kill more. He laments that there were rules of engagement, or ROE, which he describes as being drafted by lawyers to protect generals from politicians. He argues instead for letting warriors loose to fight wars without their hands tied behind their backs. At another point, he boasts that the unofficial ROE were pretty simple: “If you see anyone from about sixteen to sixty-five and they’re male, shoot ’em. Kill every male you see.’ ”

      It is better for us to face the truth.

  4. Alcuin says:

    “I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers … it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”

    — William Tecumseh Sherman, May, 1865

    Humanity never learns. Never. A few in every generation learn the truth, eventually. By then, it’s too late.

  5. Norman Pilon says:

    It is difficult to wrap one’s head around the extent of the wreckage and suffering, the actual reality of it all. And it all happens for what reason? Because the periphery must be subjugated and incorporated regardless of the lives that must be crushed to achieve that end. Yes, there are times when I seriously would like to get off this planet, to leave it all behind. Unfortunately, there is no getting off or leaving, and sadly very little that I or anyone can do to mitigate much of any of it. And even if I or any one could somehow stop it from ever happening again, once and for all time, the cataclysm has nevertheless already happened to countless innocents. Those crimes and murders cannot be undone. And for the vets, no amount of therapy of any kind will ever erase the memory of what they had to witness or commit. Would that it could, though.

    A good piece. A tough read. Hopefully prospective recruits will read your article and think a bit more deeply about what they might be committing to.

  6. Jeff Nguyen says:

    In my new job, I’m working as a social worker at a transitional center for homeless men and veterans. The center also provides substance abuse treatment. It is amazing how the military chews up these men and women for breakfast and spits them out for dinner. I’ve met young men in their twenties with PTSD and lifelong disabilities as a result of their time in the military.

    In May 2012, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan tossed their war medals into the street during the NATO summit in Chicago:

    • I wish there more good folks like you providing such treatment. But the budget for new toys for generals and admirals, and new bases around the world, crowds out the money needed for a rehabilitation. Or for something like a new Works Progress Administration that would give people needed jobs.

  7. Joel Meyers says:

    The latest war salesmanship concerns ISIS. I know several strong antiwar and anti-imperialist activists who have told me that though they had opposed many a war in the past, that ISIS is committing such horrors and atrocities that they have to be stopped, and that military measures are necessary to do so, and some are even critical of the Obomber administration for not putting “boots on the ground”, complaining that air attacks alone cannot stop ISIS.

    I can understand that sentiment, and I feel a part of myself tugging in that direction. So the persuasiveness of that position is very dangerous indeed. Now, it may even be, as some suggest, including Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, that the U.S., contrary to propaganda and a show of bombing and strafing, does not really want to stop ISIS, and that’s why it is strenuously limiting its use of force. Nor can it be denied that ISIS is openly funded by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, The United Arab Emirates, and certain other gas stations which can hardly go to the bathroom without U.S. approval. The main U.S. ally in the Middle East, the Israeli state, minimizes any threat of ISIS, and even focused on lecturing Congress not to be distracted from the “main enemy”, Iran.

    Probably, in some weird political way, ISIS figures in the rivalries reflected in the U.S. government as over trying to reintegrate Iran into the U.S. Empire in competition with Russian influence, offending the Saudis who worry about potential Iranian-inspired Shiia secessions from Saudi Arabia, given the demographic concentration of Shiia in the most oil rich areas, and the Shiia-Sunni feud that has simmered and sometimes boiled over the centuries.

    Historically, it was supposedly the “good war”, World War 2, about which the patriotism still rings and sings, with horrible enemies such as the Nazis, which enabled a total mobilization to was it 12,000,000 in uniform, and propelled the U.S. into its permanent warfare state and decades of imperialist hegemony, through every fascist regime in the world. I think the lesson is, that the worst enemy is at home, and in the U.S., that means the Washington-Wall Street alliance, that our primary duty is to fight imperialism, primarily the imperialism of the U.S.

    The U.S. was born in genocide of the Native population to steal every one of its square inches, and the peculiar institution of racial slavery, then extended around the world as finance-driven imperialism. To allow ourselves to support U.S. war on ISIS is only one more repetition of the same acts but expecting different results. Continue in the tradition of Lenin at Zimmerwald in the fact of World War I, to turn imperialist war into revolutionary war, or at least resistance.

  8. Dogtowner says:

    We will continue brutalizing our young people and the world’s people until American civilians move beyond their own viciousness. The depravity of ordinary people is shocking if you are not fortunate enough to live in a milieu in which people have some understanding of American aggression and hostility. My latest experience? A massage therapist of all things who told me during a session that the Russians were bombing Ukraine. I finally told her that what she had said made me feel sick inside and she then attacked me, as though her attack obliterated the filthy fascist propaganda that she had repeated. We have created a nation in our own image: paranoid, narcissistic, addicted to everything under the sun including self-righteousness.

    And I do look forward to leaving what we have created; death shall come to me as a blessing. And when our species is gone, the Earth shall begin to heal.

    • Unfortunately, your therapist was repeating what she hears continually repeated all over the corporate media, and in that she has much company. But as effective as the propaganda system is, there is no question about your larger point, that “We have created a nation in our own image.” Cause and effect are fluid; the corporate media also is fond of telling people what they want to hear, even if what they want to hear is a product of that same system.

      • Dogtowner says:

        I asked her where she had gotten this “information” and it would appear it was the PBS Newshour (my asking was a distraction from her trying to blame her stupidity on me so she wasn’t very clear). What really galls me about that show is that the people who watch it feel so bloody superior to the people who watch Fox News.

        I understand what you mean about the fluidity. People don’t have a specific appetite for anti-Russian propaganda, but as aggressors Americans have an unending appetite for being told [fill in the blank] is out to get us, rather like men who kill their wives and girlfriends and then say their wives and girlfriends were beating them up. In this specific case, however, I suspect there was a predisposition for believing garbage as the person in question was raised Mennonite and was fed a steady diet as a child of “The Russians are coming to get us” propaganda. I grew up in the 1960s and never heard this in any public school I attended; she grew up in the 1980s and got it constantly. And being religiously abused as a child does not tend to help one’s brain development.

        That said, I have heard similar ugly talk about Iraqis, Afghanis, Muslims, African-Americans, indigenous people (also known as illegals, a foul term), on and on ad nauseam.

  9. Alcuin says:

    I wanted to add two characteristics of the human animal that I neglected to mention in my previous comment: humans are, by nature, territorial and hierarchical. Leftists have a very hard time acknowledging this – they are bogged down in rosy visions of egalitarian hunter-gatherer fantasies. Culture can ameliorate hierarchy and territoriality by dictating who is eligible to rule and who is or is not “the enemy”, but they will never be eliminated. The “art of becoming human” lies in culture – the very same culture that capitalism so effectively destroys.

  10. Jesse Violante says:

    I never saw this article until just now. Who wrote it!? I really appreciate you using my picture. I took it myself in the lull of a firefight on May 16, 2010 outside of a village in Paktika province Afghanistan, and your interpretation of it is accurate to my message. It came from 2 pictures that I accidentally took and Elk was able to find a rock in the dirt that was the same and was able to put them together to make exactly what I saw.

    • Greetings, Jesse, and thank you for allowing me to share your work. A friend who exhibits at the Art 101 gallery told me about the show and recommended highly I go. The work made a very strong impression on me, in particularly your “No one can change the animal I’ve become.” Whether or not the pictures that led to it were an “accident,” you possess the ability to observe, rather than simply see, without which strong visual or written work is not possible. A little bit about me is on this blog’s About page at this link.

      I hope you and others in the project will find many more venues to share your work.

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