realism in the Corps…
On a glorious summer morning a few weeks ago two United States Marines — one an active-duty reservist, one recently retired — paced around a light-filled warehouse on the Marine Corps base here, talking shop. “Somebody who just knocks our socks off is Gerhard Richter,” said Michael D. Fay, a chief warrant officer before he left the corps last year. “We also love Basquiat.” Not your everyday exchange at Quantico perhaps. But one in keeping with the mission these men have dedicated themselves to for the last several years: the Marine Corps combat art program, for which both have worked as artists, recording the experiences of their fellow Marines.
The program is not the only one of its kind in the United States military, but many regard it as the one most deeply committed to its artistic mission. Like those in the other services, it began after the attack on Pearl Harbor and scaled back after Vietnam. Somewhat unusually, however, it has kept at least one artist in the reserves ready to deploy. And while most of the services have reactivated their art programs since the start of the Bush administration’s “global war on terror,” the Marine Corps’s has been the only one to cover most of the major conflicts.
Which helps explain why some of its supporters — most vocally Mr. Fay — are expressing concern about its future now that the program, which at its height in World War II had more than 70 artists, is down to just one full-time member, Sergeant Battles. “Now that I’m out, people have been asking me, ‘What’s the plan?’ ” said Mr. Fay, 56, a forceful personality who often calls the program “a red-headed stepchild,” partly because of the artists’ lack of formal status in the Marine hierarchy.
As a result, he argues, combat artists often have to lobby sympathetic commanders to be deployed and do their jobs. In the past the program came under the auspices of the Marine Corps Historical Center, reporting directly to the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, or “close to the flagpole,” as Mr. Fay put it. But in recent years the program, which currently has an annual budget of $20,000 to $25,000 for art supplies and travel, has been overseen largely by civilians at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va., several more steps away.
Mr. Fay worries that this setup, along with the program’s diminished size, could lead to its falling off the top brass’s radar, a development that could threaten what he and other supporters see as an important part of the Marine Corps identity. “The Marine Corps is more like a tribe than some corporate organization,” Mr. Fay said. “And the combat art program, we’re like the shamans. We’re the ones who take this experience and try to articulate it.”
One thing that sets the Marine Corps program apart from those of other services is its focus on human subjects and experiences. A bigger difference, though, may be the program’s requirement that members be both Marines and full-fledged artists, not one or the other. (In the Vietnam War, however, it used civilian artists too.) When deployed, they carry the same 75 to 100 pounds of combat gear — including food and water, body armor, a Kevlar helmet, an M-16, a 9-millimeter pistol and ammunition — as their fellows, as well as art supplies. Also, said Joan Thomas, the art curator at the Marine Corps museum, they must be vetted by her and by artists who preceded them in the program.
These requirements impress even the program’s competitors. “The Marines are doing it the way it should be done,” said Gale Munro, the head curator of the Navy’s art collection. “They have really good artists, they’re chosen from within the ranks, they’re in it for the long term, so they can get a long perspective.”
And being in combat, Sergeant Battles and Mr. Fay agreed, can be a fantastic way to develop as an artist. “You’re balancing a tactical eye as a Marine with your artist’s visual eye,” Sergeant Battles said. On the one hand, he said: “you’re thinking ‘Is that a sniper? Is that an I.E.D.?’ ” But, Mr. Fay added, “you’re also sort of looking strategically” as an artist. “Yeah,” Sergeant Battles said, “You’re still looking at, ‘Wow, look at the way that light is bouncing off the body armor.’ ”
Company commanders don’t need to worry about protecting the artists, as they need to do, for example, with embedded journalists, and this has won support for the program throughout the rank and file. “The biggest worry a unit leader has is: ‘Oh, my God, who is this guy? How am I going to take care of him?’ ”said Col. Richard D. Camp, retired, vice president of museum operations for the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. “But once they find out these guys are fully capable of taking care of themselves, all that is off the table.”
One skeptic turned supporter is Col. Robert Oltman, who met Mr. Fay in 2005 when the colonel was commanding Second Battalion, First Marine Regiment, part of an expeditionary unit that had been assigned to clear insurgents from Ubaydi in western Iraq. On the final day they were ambushed and lost six men, many of whom were “younger Marines, newly married, new fathers,” Colonel Oltman said. Some months later he visited the museum and was shocked to see Mr. Fay’s drawings of those same men on display.
Although he had first viewed the presence of a combat artist as an “administrative burden in trying to step off into combat,” he said, he began to realize its value. “We have somebody who was there who can tell the story,” he said, “so when their children grow up, there’s an archived history of what their father or loved one did.”
So why should the Marines have artists in addition to photographers? The Marines interviewed for this story mostly said that what counted was the added emotional resonance that artists can bring. And, of course, capturing a moment in a painting also serves one of art’s most ancient purposes. “It’s the pact we make with the warrior: You will live forever and we will remember you,” Ms. Blair said. “And to me the best way to do that is through art. We can’t give him his life, but we can give him that immortality.”
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