I am wearing my blood red poppy today in remembrance of the all those who have fought for liberty, in whatever guise that comes.
Yesterday saw me at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston – it is a favourite haunt and I was eager to view the latest exhibition, which as a member I could do before the Disney lines, and timed viewing, start for the general public. Called “War Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and it’s Aftermath”, it is a powerful visual reminder of man’s inhumanity. A fitting tribute for Remembrance Day.
There are some distressingly bloody images, somehow made more evocative in black and white, exhibited in smaller galleries with warnings at the entrance that photographs might not be suitable for all viewers. Some images are definitely not appropriate for the very young. However for once I don’t think older children should be protected – the images reflect real wars, real conflicts, real deaths, real wounds, not fantasy horror flickering across the television or computer screen in a film or game.
Strangely it was not the images of the dead and wounded that provoked a visceral emotion. Rather it was the faces of uncertainty, of grief of the soldiers and militiamen themselves as they witnessed a comrade’s death, more even than the faces of loved ones back home being presented with a flag or box of personal belongings. The fullstop of a life; the end of hope for a safe return.
Neither did the images of victory, of General MacArthur striding ashore in the Philippines for example illicit more than a cursory glance. Again it was the faces flying to war, rows and rows of men five abreast with more lining the fuselage sides hugging kitbags wearing full uniform, helmets on with their rifles leaning awkwardly against jammed knees, that moved me. Taken by Damon Winter in 2010 and called Flying Military Class, it showed the gamut of emotions of men going to war. Even with eyes shut faces were strained; some stared directly at the photographer, others proffered a slight smile, others still looked deep into the distance, or maybe the past. It was achingly poignant. What were they thinking?
I come from a long and proud line of military men (see http://my.telegraph.co.uk/applegidley/expatapple/77/remembrance-day-africa-style/) and so was brought up on diet of patriotism, a kind of do or die attitude, with Kipling’s If as my guide. It was though impossible to view a photograph made in 1968 by Frenchman, Henri Huet, entitled Soldier Walking Across the Mekong Delta, without my stomach clenching at the obedience shown and, I imagine, the fear swallowed, when given the order to plunge into a deep river. ‘Soldier Walking Under the Mekong Delta’ would be a more apt title; the only thing visible of the man are his two hands, inches above the water, holding aloft his rifle. The image gives new meaning to “nil desperandum, and keep your powder dry” as well as the rigid obedience of most soldiers.
Photographs of unutterable poignancy showed the rush, rush, wait, wait timetable of war. Mark A Grimshaw’s First Cut, made in Iraq in July 2004 shows an American soldier painstakingly clipping with scissors an oblong of grave-size grass, surrounded by worn bricks outside a tent in the midst of the desert. Another, taken in Korea in 1952 by Martin J Riley portrays a filthy looking soldier sitting against a crumbling wall with his helmet propped on his knee. He is feeding a minute tortoisehell kitten with an eyedropper.
As I wandered the exhibition I found tears seeping as I viewed the utter waste of war. Are there ever true victors? Surely only relief that it is over and you or loved ones have survived.
I came to the section showing how faith plays a part in many soldier’s lives and I wondered again. How do people retain their faith in such terrible situations and surroundings? Does faith, whatever faith it is, fuel their anger, help justify their actions? Is that what makes them able to continue? And yet in a way I can understand faith when faced with the prospect of death. It is human to hope and if that hope encompasses a belief of something better after death then who is anyone to take that hope away?
And then I came to the area depicting children in war. Children for whom tragedies are replayed all their lives, through scrolled memories of a killed parent, or an entire family, atrocities seen. Memories of real horrors that we can only hope finally end through a realization that conflict is never the answer.
My stomach revolted again on seeing the image made by Todd Heisler in 2005. Two young boys, standing tall next to their father’s flag-draped coffin. They wore miniature versions of his uniform. Children being inculcated, readied for battle, despite their loss.
I wear my poppy today, lest we forget.