Tuesday, May 19, 2009 • 12:00 AM Comments ()

100 Faces of War Experience: Portraits & Words

posted by Bob Meagher

A selection of portraits from Matt Mitchell’s 100 Faces of War project is on display now through June 13 at the Springfield Armory Museum National Historic Site. Bob Meagher, who teaches comparative religion and other humanities courses at Hampshire College, provided this exhibit essay and an accompanying list of recommended readings and films.

* * * *

Governments declare wars. Nations wage them. American wars are no exception. “We the People” go to war, but always one step, one life, one pair of boots at a time. Wars are fought by men and women—fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands, wives, and lovers—each of whom possesses only one life to live and to give. The panicked pace, the mounting costs, the numbing daily tedium, the unwelcome atrocities, the rhetoric and the recoil of violence off the leash, all conspire to remove us from the individual gaze of war, the face of war, enfleshed, ensouled, and all around us—on our street, in our office, classroom, gym or pew, at our table, in our bed, in the mirror. It is all too easy to look away, never notice, try to forget, deny, reject or glorify, always to our shared great loss, whether we notice or not.

“There is no Vietnam War. There is no Iraq War. There is no Great War,” writes Iraq War veteran, Tyler Boudreau. “For veterans, there is only war. One front.” What’s more, adds Vietnam veteran Rev. William Mahedy, “war is the same for veterans of both sides of every war.” Equally true, as they know well, is that the faces and stories of war are myriad—as numberless and diverse as those who have known war first hand, second hand, third hand, or as many hands removed as the long, invasive, altering arm of war reaches into the lives of individuals, families, communities, and societies until maybe no one is left wholly untouched, intact, or innocent. Put simply, the faces of war are countless. They are us.

Governments end wars the way they begin them, on a given day, at a stated hour, with a pen. Then the historians begin their work. For the men and women who fight their nations’ wars, however, as well as for those whom they leave behind and to whom they return or don’t, things are deeply different. Each person’s war begins and ends on days only they mark and remember. Or maybe their wars never fully end. “Only the dead,” Plato reminds us, “have seen the end of war.” The same is true of their stories, and ours. They are many as we are many, countless stories that need to be told and need to be heard. For veterans, storytelling is survival. “All sorrows can be borne,” writes Isak Dinesen, “if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” Stories, for combat veterans, can be a matter of life and death. “That’s the real obsession,” Tim O’Brien tells us in The Things They Carried. “All those Stories. Not bloody stories necessarily. Happy stories, too, and even a few peace stories.… That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”

The many faces and voices of war—they are what Matt Mitchell has labored to honor and preserve here, reminding the rest of us that distant wars never remain so. Wars—inevitably private and personal—come home to us, wanting to be seen and heard or just accompanied. “In a portrait,” writes Henri Cartier-Bresson, “I’m looking for the silence in somebody.” If we pause and meet the veteran’s gaze, as Matt Mitchell has, we will learn to honor silence as much as anything said. Lastly, for those who will not return, their face and their words remain, side by side with their fellows, who understand.

“I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you.” {Frida Kahlo}

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