The Graffiti of War: Conflict Art and Bridging the Cultural Gap between Civilian and Warfighter
The cultural chasm separating the civilian and the warfighter has never been wider. Most of the conflicts in 20th Century American history have relied on conscription, better known as the draft, to fill the ranks of our armed forces. The Global War on Terror of the 21st Century has been and continues to be fought by an all-volunteer force and because of this, the gap continues to grow as more and more professional soldiers shoulder the weight of a decade of conflict.
The typical soldier joins the military right out of high school, most have never lived outside of the town they grew up in and even fewer have visited another country. These men and women are just out of childhood when they join the military and many of them have fired a weapon in combat multiple times before their first drink in a bar at age 21. The military culture is all they know of adult life and once they are separated from this family of sorts, the civilian world is as alien to them as the sands of Iraq were when their boots first hit the ground. After multiple years in combat, witnessing man’s inhumanity to man, they are forever changed and trying to relate to their generational civilian counterparts is almost mission impossible. This is the divide, the cultural gap that separates those who have witnessed the horrors of combat firsthand and those who have simply watched the events unfold on CNN. We, as a nation, must construct a bridge over this divide to bring together this fractured generation and not let yet another war separate so many of our military heroes from their civilian brothers and sisters. Art, in its many forms, can be that bridge we so desperately need and art is what inspired our project, the Graffiti of War, which aims to bridge the divide and join our nation together like never before.
The idea we began with was a simple one: to collect and document the art from across the conflict zones in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan and to showcase these vastly different works of art to the American public. What started as just an idea between friends during our deployment to Ar Ramadi, Iraq in 2006 had evolved into a multinational project with goals surpassing the original aim of creating a simple coffee table book. After the initial months of slowly collecting images from our growing base of veterans and military members, we realized we must travel to Iraq before the proposed withdraw of Coalition Forces in 2012. With the assistance of some experienced and world renowned journalists such as Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger (of Restrepo fame) and Zoriah Miller, we were able to secure just under a month in Kuwait and Iraq by the Department of Defense. We were able to capture thousands of images in several different areas including over 100 photos of murals by local Iraqis in Basra, the expedition was a huge success. After returning to the U.S., our team discovered a new avenue in which to raise awareness, one city at a time: art exhibits. Through the fall of 2011 to the spring of 2012, we showcased dozens of the images we captured since the inception of the project to hundreds of people, both civilian and military alike. It was through these exhibits that we truly began bringing the cultures together. Veterans would view the images with their friends and family and begin talking about their experiences as it related to that particular piece of art, it was incredibly inspiring.
As we prepare for another year of exhibits in 2013, including a fall show at West Point, we continue to strive towards building an ever widening bridge. Art is therapy, whether by creating it or viewing the creation, it transcends barriers and inspires unity. Each show that we do is more satisfying than the last as we connect the civilian with the military veteran and promote a greater understanding of the dedication and sacrifice that these brave men and women have endured on behalf of each citizen of this great nation. Art allows our military and veterans to express the inexpressible, to speak the unspeakable and provides a way for civilians to comprehend the incomprehensible. Arts therapy can change the world we live in and changes the lives of those who defended that world.
We stand at the precipice of a bold new direction in the care for our invisibly wounded warriors and now is the time for each one of us to work collectively and unite the countless organizations out there supporting our warriors and veterans. United we stand but divided we will fall. We must have the courage to join together as one to combat the struggles set before us as we strive towards a new avenue of treatment for those who have bravely sacrificed their lives so others may live peaceably and without fear of harm. This generation of heroes became the 1% so the remaining 99% could carry on with their lives, we owe it for their sacrifice. As George Washington said, “A Nation will be judged by the way it treats its veterans.” How will we be judged?