One of the most amazing things about our Art of the American Soldier exhibit is the way that it has shaped a conversation about military service among our guests. It has been inspiring to see how art opens up a dialogue and allows those visiting the Center the opportunity to see the truth that lies within the frames of these remarkable works.
I have two examples of how this art, created by soldiers to show the many sides and emotions present throughout their service, has a powerful impact on those who see it.
1. Changing opinions
The first was with a woman who was visiting us along with some friends from out of town. This woman grabbed me on her way out of the exhibit to share her story.
She had come to “America’s Most Historic Square Mile” to see some of the typical sites and found her way into the National Constitution Center. Initially she was not very interested in seeing the Art of the American Soldier exhibit. She spoke to me about growing up in a very ardently pacifist family.
Her impression of the military going into the exhibit was of a monolith, necessary evil in her opinion. She believed that the men and women of the military and their mission were singularly focused, and that focus was war. She said she never felt the need to gain any type of understanding of the military since it seemed to be against her basic worldview and conscience.
What she saw surprised her. Instead of images of men shooting one another and raw carnage, she was greeted with a myriad of colors and shapes. The art reminded her of works created by Rockwell, Wood or Wyeth. So the sheer quality of the work opened her eyes. She saw depictions of real men and women in any number of situations that she might see on a day-to-day basis.
Our guest encountered soldiers comforting one another, grieving, playing cards, working with one another, as well as the occasional scene that she might have expected, such as soldiers in pain or the hospital. As she continued through the exhibit she encountered our “Soldier Talks,” where members of the Center staff interview soldiers about their lives in the military, and she saw our short theatre piece based on dialogue taken from real combat artists. As she left the exhibition, she was inspired to make use of a letter-writing station, where she wrote a letter to a soldier serving overseas. This final act, she told me, really cemented the experience together for her.
She no longer saw the U.S. Army as this unmovable institution bent on warfare and battle. She now believed that the military was an organization that is put in place primarily to engage in combat, but also had a mission with a heart. It and the men and women who serve were also put in place to protect innocent people, to help folks when natural disasters strike or their freedoms are at stake.
A paradigm had shifted.
Another experience I have shared with visitors to the exhibition is specific to families with experience of military service. On more than one occasion I happened upon a man, sometimes with tears in his eyes, always excitedly talking to his spouse or family about how one particular piece reminded him of a time long ago.
When speaking with the spouse more often than not I was told of how these former warriors never, ever discussed their time in the military. Almost invariably these men had served during times of hostility, some in Vietnam or even Iraq. For many of these heros their experiences were internalized over years and years and never shared. Even those closest to them never really knew how they felt or what they encountered while serving. The exhibit itself, through some incredible force, some fortunate luck or some random trigger allowed these brave souls the ability to finally share some of the pain they had held back for so many years.
The themes and experiences shared by our guests throughout the run of this exhibit have been more personal and more profound than I ever imagined when the exhibit was being planned and developed. They fulfilled the objective set out by the Army 100 years ago, when it created the combat-art program: to humanize and preserve the true experience of being a soldier.