Facing Intrusive Memories

March 22, 2011

Helen Redmond looks at an installation of artwork created by veterans that brings home the horrors of war--and the humanity of soldiers.

THE ART exhibition titled Intrusive Memories at the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago strips away all the glory, patriotism and machismo of war and faces up to the fact that the foundation of war is terror and trauma. All the pieces in the show are by veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and the global "war on terror."

Intrusive memories are a core symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They consist of involuntary and distressing thoughts and feelings, and can take the form of nightmares, flashbacks, hyper-vigilance and startle responses.

To be diagnosed with PTSD, as between 20 and 50 percent of all service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have been, is to be human. It's impossible for soldiers to kill, to inflict terror and violence against alleged enemies and civilians, and not be affected by it. The soldiers that just killed nine boys collecting firewood in Afghanistan will be traumatized and forever transformed by that murderous assault.

Multiple deployments dramatically increase the risk of PTSD, and tens of thousands of soldiers have completed two or more tours of duty. Veterans attempting and committing suicide has increased dramatically. In 2010, 950 veterans, on average, attempted suicide each month and 18 committed suicide each day.

From the "Intrusive Memories" exhibition
From the "Intrusive Memories" exhibition (Helen Redmond | SW)

MAKING ART has always been a way for survivors of war to heal the trauma of war. For men who have difficulty expressing intense emotions verbally, art is the perfect medium. The art represented in Intrusive Memories ranges from words on walls by members of the Warrior Writers Project, to photo collages, to drawings of autopsies by a "mortuary affairs specialist," to pieces from the Combat Paper Project.

One of the most compelling pieces is by Peter Sullivan, a former Army National Guardsman. "Rehumanization" consists only of a mirror with the words "I Love You" written over and over again on the glass. For the viewer to look into the mirror and see their face reflected back with "I Love You" written all over it raises the question: What does love have to do with war?

Turns out for Sullivan, everything. He explained the work, "I spent 12 years learning how to hate and kill people. I wanted to reclaim myself."

Digital photographs of Afghan children by Chris Vongsawat reveal how isolated soldiers are from the people whose hearts and minds they're supposed to be winning. Vongsawat is hermetically sealed in a Humvee, and the photos are shot at awkward angles through thick glass windows that vaguely distort the images. He describes the experience, "I conducted convoys...shut in a heavy metal box with bulletproof windows. I thought the armored walls would keep Afghanistan out: keep [me] separate from who I was becoming."

Ash Kyrie's dystopian collages deconstruct how the mainstream media filters the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through three main images: inert landscapes, explosions and the sacrifice of boots on the ground.

The exhibition also confronts the culture of rape and sexual assault in the U.S. military. In 2009, the Department of Defense reported there were 3,230 sexual assaults: a serious underestimation because 80 percent of servicewomen never report being assaulted, according to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU. When women do, they're not believed, are re-traumatized by being forced to continue serving with their rapist and are retaliated against by superior officers or fellow soldiers.

Sexual abuse is the primary cause of PTSD for women in the military. The cover-up of sexual assault starts in the highest echelons of the Pentagon and works down to the lowest platoon.

Jen Hogg is an Iraqi veteran and a Warrior Writer. Her jittery words scrawled in black ink cover one of the gallery walls and drag the reader into the world of military sexual violence with a frightening, cyclonic force. Her piece is titled, "The Sexual Politics of War, Part 1":

Leave the vehicle and look around closely
Make sure no one is ready to attack you
Turn the corner, look behind you and around the corner
Make sure no one is waiting to attack you
Approach the door and check if anyone is inside
Make sure no one is waiting to attack you
Close the door so no one will enter behind you
Ready to attack you
Enter the building, look all around
Make sure no one is waiting to attack you
Keep calm when someone appears should they be more than just walking by
Realize you are not breathing
Take a deep breath
Is it a place young men, targets in uniform, fight in a far off land
Or is it my walk home at night, womanhood my uniform and target

The Combat Paper Project catapults art to an entirely new level. Soldiers take the uniforms they wore in acombat and transform them into paper. Military battle dress uniforms, more commonly called camouflage fatigues, are a ubiquitous symbol of American superpower, swagger, violence and machismo. The fatigues are cut up and macerated into a slushy pulp by a special blender called a Holland Beater and then formed into sheets of paper.

What a wildly imaginative, creative and libratory process for a veteran to take their uniform--a fabric stained with the blood, sweat and tears of war--and render it into a paper object of quiet power and artistic beauty.

Jon Turner, a former U.S. Marine, has a piece of combat paper with chopped-up military insignia and patches embedded in it--in another, he's drawn a bearded man screaming, a prescription bottle labeled RX. In the foreground is a green gasoline pump and the word PILLS is painted across the bottom. Tanks, the dome of the U.S. Capitol building tilted over and propped up on wads of dollar bills are powerful images on another piece of Turner's combat paper.

Intrusive Memories is a visual, improvised explosive device. The art blows up the idea that soldiers are apolitical, unfeeling, unthinking and unrepentant killing machines.

The commander-in-chief and the Pentagon military brass who send young men and women off to fight and die in wars for profit and power don't want you to see the brutal and at times beautiful depiction of the psychological consequences of war that an exhibition like Intrusive Memories so proudly presents. Which is why you should defy them and go see this show.

Further Reading

From the archives