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Here’s something we don’t talk about often enough when we talk about combat: trial and error. Prosecuting a war often means setting aside carefully laid plans in the face of the enemy who actually appears. This post is about starting over, trying whatever off-the-cuff fix one can conjure. When we put them in harm’s way, we ask our troops to dedicate the most creative and sensitive parts of themselves to this deadly serious trial and error, which takes place both in the heat of emergency and during the days between bouts of violence.

This story comes from our recently retired Marine Major, Nick Hurndon, who spent dozens of hours hanging upside-down on gymnastics rings while sculptor Christopher Wagner and I worked on his portrait. Nick served two tours in Iraq as a junior officer, the first tour described in a previous post, and the second focused on one of the most troubling tactical problems of the war.

In my generation, as with previous generations, a particular war’s most disruptive and most feared weapons caused plans to crumble because they had just the right combination of destructive power and logistical elegance in their design. By “elegance” here I mean an easy-to-handle reliability, and ubiquity. Something not too difficult to deploy, and something easy for a military to replicate. Often the simple weapon works best, though that’s not always the case. One could argue the United States’ most disruptive, signature weapon today is the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The screaming dive bombers of the Nazi blitzkrieg also come to mind; but if you talk to an American Vietnam vet, the relatively unsophisticated rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) often gets top billing. Author Philip K. Beidler, a former armored cavalry platoon leader, recalls the RPG this way: “Sturdy, simple, easy to carry, assemble and operate, it is reasonably accurate and incredibly destructive. … It is absolutely the worst; and a six-year-old can operate it.”

In Iraq that weapon turned out to be the IED, the improvised explosive device: an old artillery round (or a pack of something else explosive) wired for detonation, often to a receiver ready to take a call from the cell phone of a bystander hiding around the corner or looking innocuously at a newspaper, phone in hand, ready to hit send at just the moment an American humvee rolled by.

Nick said he was part of a number of ad-hoc ways the Marine Corps tried to counter this new threat. Here are the ones I found most noteworthy:

1) The Vietnam-era “thump gun,” or the M-79, is a sort of shotgun/blunderbuss looking thing used in the 1960s to fling a grenade downrange. During Nick’s second tour to Iraq, as the insurgency dug in its heels, boxes of thump guns were shipped to Marines in Iraq to try to blow up any IEDs from a safe distance. However, Nick said Marines had not been trained on how to use them in more than 30 years, and there were no gun ranges or areas to practice using them. So they did it on the fly. They waited for opportunities, live, in the midst of civilian buildings and animals, to blow up suspected IEDs with big unfamiliar grenade launchers. After a few trials and explosive errors they went with other attempts to find a solution.

2) For a while, Nick said, the Marines equipped their vehicles with high-tech jammers meant to keep anyone with a cell phone from using it while the Humvee or other vehicle was near. This experiment worked, but by jamming the frequencies cell phones use, the Americans ended up jamming their ability to use their own radios to communicate with each other. In gaining safety from cell phones, they lost ability to call in air strikes during firefights and coordinate with other ground units, a bad trade.

3) Snipers. It’s hard to get more stealthy and on the insurgent level than snipers. The Marine Corps used their trained marksmen for a time to shoot suspected IEDs. The thought was that by hitting the bomb with a high-velocity bullet, they could possibly disable it. Snipers proved somewhat more effective than the two methods above, especially when the Marine Corps started setting up sniper crews at locations where they thought IEDs would be planted in the future, staking out the scene at night. If a sniper saw someone show up to an intersection with a shovel and a package and start digging, he had authority to “index the target”—that is, use his index finger to pull his rifle’s trigger and kill the shovel-wielding fellow. Of course there are plenty of problems with this strategy. For one, holding a shovel while walking down a road in the predawn hours does not make one an insurgent terrorist. It may instead indicate premeditated ditch digging or underground pipe repair. If you kill the plumber, his family may take it personally.

4) Then came Pedro. If you’ve seen the opening of the movie The Hurt Locker, you have some idea how valuable robots became in the struggle to find and defuse IEDs. Here the Americans hit on their best method, a remote-controled robot with a mechanical arm and a camera to help them dissect at a distance any suspect piles of garbage or new holes in the road. Affectionately nicknamed “Pedro” by Nick and his crew, the bot became invaluable to their work defusing roadside munitions… until the bot blew up. Then a new Pedro would take its place, fresh from the box. As Nick put it, “Pedro died many times.”

Between Here and There is a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher Wagner will be brushing and carving into until we show the series in November at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The series is funded through a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.

This summer sculptor Chris Wagner and I had a great time working with Bill Keys, a World War II veteran who turned 90 while we were doing his portrait. We loved the change of scenery, packing up our gear and heading out of the studio to meet Bill at his apartment. We loved sharing the birthday cake with him and enjoyed the ebb and flow of conversation while we painted and sculpted, not least because Bill told great stories about growing up in rural Clatskanie, Oregon, during the 1920s and 30s and about living in a beautiful Portland retirement community for the past ten years. In celebration of the stories you don’t expect to hear when doing portraits of combat veterans, I’ll relate a quick three.

The Mystery of the Squaw’s Black Hair

Bill told us all about an old woman he knew around town, a Native American named Ellen Mitchell (a rather un-squaw sounding name to my ears) who had lived longer than anyone around and still had jet black hair. “She was full-blooded Indian,” said Bill, “and there were rumors everywhere about how she kept her hair that way.” The town hairdresser denied helping her, claiming she never set foot in their establishment. And Ellen kept to herself, had nary a friend. So what was her secret, we asked. Witchcraft?

After Ellen died, the neighbor who settled her estate discovered her trick while sorting through her effects: hand prints in the chimney behind Ellen’s wood stove. She had been “dying” her hair with soot.

The Long Lost Throw

Bill had been working since age six, running alongside a milk delivery truck picking up and dropping off bottles. But his ambitions revolved around baseball, and as a teenager he happily found a way to combine that with a paycheck, letting the government subsidize his habit. In the late 1930s, he lied about his age to join the Army, lured not by the thrill of guns, guts, and glory, but by the promise from the local regiment that he would play catcher on their ball team.

Apparently Bill was a heck of a catcher. As we worked on his portrait, he told us in detail how he honed his ability throw fast and accurately over the pitcher’s mound to nail would-be base stealers at second base. He practiced all the time to refine his technique before the US entry into World War II put a stop to his focus on baseball. And he still laments the loss of that big throw thanks to a sniper who fired a bullet from the Leaning Tower of Pisa through his upper right arm during the 1945 Allied invasion of Italy. (See our previous post for more on that.)

The Dinner Harem

To hear Bill tell it, life in a retirement community sounds like the college dorm life he never had… female friends sneaking down the hall after hours to avoid spreading rumors about who’s sharing late-night wine with whom, along with the occasional intimate conversation, what Bill calls “playing house.”

Living with a lot of people their own age, and usually free of spouses, it seems Bill and his neighbors navigate the same social questions college students do, chief among them, “Who should I sit with in the dining room?”

Bill said he hangs out with five ladies who all live on the same floor as he does. He jokingly refers to them as “my harem.” After his wife died, Bill actually married one of those ladies from down the hall. He told us she was the most beautiful 80-year-old woman a person can imagine, and he treasured her offer to play house with him for a while. “We shared three good years before she died,” he said.

Chris and I met the ladies from the dinner harem during our evenings working with Bill. We usually started at 5:30pm, and worked on his portrait for three hours until the summer light left us, which kept Bill from his dinner routine. The ladies would come by to check up on us, curious about our progress on the portrait and ready to set Bill’s stories straight with their own points of view.

Between Here and There is a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher Wagner will be brushing and carving into until we show the series in November at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The series is funded through a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.

From left, painter Paul X. Rutz and sculptor Christopher Wagner work on a portrait of Bill Keys at Keys’ Portland, Oregon residence. A former Army scout, Keys was twice wounded and earned the Silver Star in Italy during World War II.

 

This article gets its title from a film. In Uncommon Valor, a Marine goes back to Vietnam and Laos to rescue his son ten years after he went missing. The story celebrates a small, fictional group of courageous combatants doing the right thing even after everyone has long ago abandoned the larger mission (keeping the Vietnam domino from falling to Communism). Released in 1983, the movie helped popularize the POW/MIA issue, one of many loose ends hanging off the hem of that war.

This portrait project sometimes feels all about loose ends. Working since January with veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, my partner in portraiture, Christopher Wagner, and I have become used to talking through the complicated echoes of those wars, the PTSD and marriage troubles and annoying exchanges with doctors at VA hospitals.

So a couple months ago it came as a mild shock to run across someone whose story of heavy combat is the opposite of complicated, a man who doesn’t talk about his combat experience as a series of negotiations about how to do the right thing in a swirl of competing tactical, political or cultural necessities.

Ninety-year-old Bill Keys is a proud member of Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation, a man who lied about his age to get into the Army as a teen, and who helped liberate Italy from the grip of Fascism, earning a handful of medals along the way.

This man was shot by a sniper firing from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. No joke. Shot through the upper right arm. I measured the exit wound and painted an image of it. I measured the scars on his belly, too, from the incident that followed a few weeks later, in 1945.

Bill recovered from the Leaning Tower wound in time to rejoin his platoon in northern Italy and resume his duties as a scout, going around at all hours searching out German pill boxes and fox holes to give intelligence to his platoon on how best to defeat them. He snuck behind enemy lines with a partner, Herman, who spoke fluent German and somehow talked several Germans into surrendering.

On one of those excursions, a German machine gun nest got the better of Bill and Herman. Several rounds tore through Bill’s midsection, taking out his lower ribs, splitting open his belly, and dumping his intestines onto the ground. Herman hit the dirt and played possum while Bill rolled onto his back and used a handkerchief to wipe off his intestines, threading them back into his belly. As the German machine gunner lifted his weapon over the sand bags to change position, Bill (holding his belly closed with his left hand) used the toe of his right boot to steady his rifle muzzle. He shot the machine gunner between the shoulder blades and, when two other German soldiers poked their heads up to see where the shot came from, he killed each of them, too. One handed. Gut-shot and bleeding. Fifteen more Germans surrendered on the spot. Bill’s platoon came forward with stretchers, carrying him and Herman to safety. As soon as they made it to the triage area, Herman jumped off the stretcher with thanks to everyone for keeping him unscathed, while Bill underwent the first of many surgeries and the start of a two-year convalescence. He never saw Herman again.

I believe the story. I’ve read the citation that goes with Bill’s Silver Star, framed with other medals on the wall, and I’ve talked with a number of people who agree this act deserves another, bigger award. One reporter for the Oregonian is helping make Bill’s case for the Medal of Honor. All the right words are there: “ignoring his own wounds” and “singlehandedly” and “Nazis” and “liberated.”

The word “hero” never came up in our time working with Bill on his portrait. I’m sure he would have ducked the term, the way any honorable public servant would. Yet his story is so heroic, so good-versus-evil and so Rambo, were it part of a movie it would stretch even Hollywood’s cartoon limits of credibility. We’d have to cast a young John Wayne or Clint Eastwood and get Frank Capra to direct. We’d have to employ an orchestra with a big string section and audition an array of square-jawed men with short hair cuts to read solemn speeches about sacrifice for the country.

By contrast, when we work on the portraits of our Vietnam vets, to call their stories “complicated” is to barely scratch the surface. And so far, our conversations with Iraq and Afghan vets sound much more like our Vietnam era vets than like our representative of the World War II generation.

It’s easy to go too far and make sweeping generalizations from these encounters. We must remember the people who fought in World War II who came back with serious shell shock or who did things they’d rather forget, some never living down the crippling fear that caused them to freeze instead of firing their weapons, even to save their comrades. And of course Bill himself has simplified his story, long ago packing away any misgivings he had about his time in Italy.

Our cultural memory of World War II has allowed him to do so. In that war, men stormed beaches and hunted Nazis in the night. There were battle lines that moved in favor of the good guys, and it’s obvious who was the good guys. World War II was a sweet spot of maneuver warfare set between the entrenched attrition of the Great War and the hopelessly complicated anti-insurgencies that followed. Bill is the aging embodiment of that sweet spot, and that’s how we portrayed him.

Between Here and There is a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher Wagner will be brushing and carving into until we show the series in November at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The series is funded through a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.

 

From left, painter Paul X. Rutz works on a portrait of Vietnam veteran Ron Baker, along with sculptor Christopher Wagner. The series, titled Between Here and There, will go on display in November, 2014, at Good Gallery in Portland, Ore.

 

By Christopher B. Wagner

I would like to recount our first meeting with our second Vietnam veteran, Ron. Before we first meet with any model we talk with them on the phone, getting an idea of their interests and planning what angle of who they are to try to portray. Paul did the interview with Ron on the phone. From that we knew Ron had an interest in Buddhism and squash so the portrait would probably take that sort of angle. Your mind begins conceiving a picture with whatever information, however limited, it has on hand. So I was picturing a bald man in orange ropes playing squash.

When Ron arrived at the studio he was wearing simple sweats and flip-flops that someone might lounge about in. He turned out to be a soft-spoken friendly guy who brought with him two different squash rackets and an assortment of workout clothes, which he laid out on the studio table as potential props. Paul and I looked these items over, assessing which racket had the best color scheme, but I didn’t have any impression that anything on display was knock-out subject matter. I don’t know if Ron sensed this or not, but he soon gave us another option for a focus. While we were playing with rackets Ron causally mentioned that he is a sort of work of art as well and proceeded to unabashedly slip out of his sweats. Paul and I were pretty much speechless as this Vietnam veteran stripped down in front of us to reveal a large assortment of tattoos, dominated by two dragons: each starting on his chest, then one wrapping around his right arm and the other flowing over his back, down to his left leg. These dragons where joined by numerous Hindu, Buddhist, and astronomy themed images, along with an enlarged image of Ron’s infantry badge on his lower back.

Up to this point in our portrait project we had worked with contemporary veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts and one Vietnam veteran. All of the contemporary vets had posed nude, and our Vietnam vet had been clothed. We had worried that would be a trend and that clothing would be an unintentional separator between our younger and older veterans but instead Ron blew that worry out of the water. He casually stood naked in the middle of the studio with Paul and I standing around literally speechless. Ron said something along the lines of, “So there’s that” and started putting his clothes back on. Paul and I both immediately broke our silence with, “Oh no you don’t!” We had found the main point of interest for the portrait and a Vietnam era model that apparently had no concerns about posing naked.

From left, retired Marine Major Nicolas Hurndon holds himself upside-down on gymnastics rings, while painter Paul X. Rutz and sculptor Christopher Wagner work on his portrait. This series, titled Between Here and There, will open at Good Gallery in Portland this November.

 

Thomas Ricks, the Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post, called Second Fallujah “an extraordinary, difficult and violent battle… the most intense combat U.S. forces had seen certainly since the Vietnam War” (Full transcript here). To get a sense of what he’s talking about, see this refresher on Fallujah, and this one.

“Marine Corps” and “Fallujah.” If you put those terms together in the right company, you’ll conjure serious discussions on the level of “Khe Sanh” and “Iwo Jima,” iconic battles that have motivated earlier generations to make movies and songs in efforts to convey their complicated feelings around them.

Fallujah doesn’t have its movie or hit song yet, but thanks to a beautiful musical accident, a retired Marine and two portraitists got to substitute one of each—albeit in a mode more related to Catch-22 or M*A*S*H than the sober war tales I’ve linked to in the paragraph above.

Christopher Wagner and I have spent most days together sculpting and painting on portraits of combat veterans since January, and in that time we’ve shared a lot of music. Each session gets its musical flavors, from Tom Waits to Bright Eyes to Dvorak to country gospel hits of the 80’s, depending on who are depicting that day and what we’re sick of listening to. Sometimes, thanks to a couple of my friends with nefarious music tastes, we go deep into the cultural barrel. (Perhaps you’ve heard of Teddy and Darrel.)

The song “Convoy,” released in 1975, helped spawn the CB radio craze of the mid-70’s and gave birth to the movie of the same title. (Listen here for a sample.) The film, directed by Sam Peckinpah, opened in 1978 and earned a surprising amount of money. We knew none of this when the song played on my iPod in the middle of a painting session with Nicolas Hurndon, a newly retired Marine who recently left a stint at the Pentagon to start his own Crossfit gym here in Portland.

Imagine Nick rolling upside-down on gymnastics rings hanging from my studio’s ceiling, then unrolling to rest, chalk his hands, and continue the following story as the music plays. He punctuates each scene with, “Convoyyyy…” then pulls himself up on the rings again.

As a junior officer with the Military Police, Nick arrived in Kuwait after the initial invasion of spring 2003, about the time President Bush flew aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and gave his “Mission Accomplished” speech. Crews were busy loading massive amounts of supplies onto ships for return to the States or for delivery to Afghanistan now that the Iraq invasion had finished. Within days, however, the brass realized the Iraqi insurgency had become more than an inconvenience, and the mission shifted. Those crews began re-offloading the ships, and Nick found himself in charge of a platoon guarding convoys shuttling weapons and supplies back north into Iraq’s cities. “Convoyyyyy…”

In spring 2004, four security contractors for a company called “Blackwater” were killed near the city of Fallujah. Government officials got hit hard in the press. They sent in more than 2000 Marines to pacify what had become a center for protest and violence against the Americans. Nick continued in his role, now shuttling supplies between Camp Fallujah, the staging ground for the Marines, and the city itself. “Convoyyy…”

Nick said sometimes the convoys of supply trucks, supported by Humvees and other military vehicles, encountered insurgents taking “just pot shots” at them. Other times they ran the gauntlet through coordinated attacks involving waves of rocket propelled grenades, roadside bombs, machine guns, burning vehicles, and other roadblocks. “Convoyyy…”

Navy planes and Marine ground forces pounded the city for the entire month of April without successfully pushing the insurgents out. The Americans withdrew at the beginning of May 2004, and returned to do it all again that November, finally pushing their way into the city in terrible house-to-house fighting. “Convoyyy…”

Somehow talking about this stuff—the wounded and dying friends, the hearing loss from firing a rifle so much, the political contortions that led to all those convoys—it’s easier with a funny refrain. With its mock-serious drum cadence and mock-realistic radio chatter, “Convoy” helped set a tone in the studio that felt just right for everyone. We laughed. We asked follow-up questions. We learned instead of staring heavy hearted into the enormity of it. Writing about it now, it feels like I’m describing the difference between a faucet and a fire hose. We could feel the temperature of Nick’s memories, sample the water, without feeling blasted in the face by what I imagine is a high-pressure wall of emotion still inside him.

Between Here and There is a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher Wagner will be brushing and carving into until we show the series in November at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The series is funded through a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.

This photo doesn’t come close to capturing the many-walled fun at Riversea Gallery in Astoria, nor does it capture much of my 18-painting contribution there, but be assured. That gallery is a many-flavored, beautiful sight. My show runs until mid-July, but I’ll be taking my place with the rest of the group for the foreseeable. Check it out when you’re on the coast!

We had been talking about a smattering of topics related to the 2003 Iraq invasion, but I must admit I wasn’t paying my best attention to the conversation between the soldier posing for his portrait and the sculptor next to me. I was mixing a color, or hunting for a new brush, when I heard the soldier say, “That was my company! Idiots.”

“What was your company?” I asked him.

“You know, the lion. Or was it a tiger?”

“Oh yeah,” said my partner in portraiture, sculptor Christopher Wagner, “Someone did a graphic novel about it. Something about rescuing the animals, or the animals escaping and going all over the city.”

The soldier had worked as part of a psychological operations unit in Baghdad shortly after the invasion. He was the people who design and publish materials for handing out or broadcasting to civilians and the enemy, telling the story from the American point of view, or warning them to lay down their arms or face serious consequences.

I wondered what poster or radio bit they’d do to spin the story he sketched for us. The details were foggy, but more or less it went like this: A bunch of drunk soldiers go into the Baghdad zoo soon after the invasion and start taunting a big cat—either a lion or a tiger. The cat attacks one guy who’s dumb enough to go into the cage, ripping off his arm. His companions shoot it, then they—the government or somebody—get another cat from the United States to replace the Baghdad Zoo cat they shot.

I had to look this up.

Sure enough, a quick internet search brings up articles from an array of publications, including the Los Angeles TimesAssociated Press, the Russian newspaper Pravda, and Agence France-Presse. Great Britain’s Globe and Mail apparently picked up the AP wire with this headline from Sept. 20, 2003: “‘Drunk’ US Soldier Shoots Rare Tiger in Baghdad Zoo.”

Here’s the lead: “A U.S. soldier shot and killed an endangered tiger at the Baghdad zoo after it bit another soldier who had drunkenly reached through the bars of its cage to feed it, a security guard said Saturday.” The story goes on to say that other sources have him going into the cage and that the tiger mauled the soldier’s arm and tore off one of his fingers. The tiger, which had been born at the zoo and had lived there 14 years, wasn’t the only animal that got into trouble with people during and after the 2003 invasion. The story says a bear “mauled and partially ate three civilians,” and it mentions three lions “shot to death when they tried to pounce on a contingent of invading American soldiers.” Hence the motivation for the graphic novel about the zoo animals running amok?

Then I found USA Today reported in 2008 that two Bengal tiger cubs were donated by a North Carolina animal sanctuary to the Baghdad Zoo in some kind of connection to that 2003 drunk soldier incident.

And there’s more to the story. First off, a clue on why the confusion between lion and tiger. A little more research brings up a South African named Lawrence Anthony, who wrote the book Babylon’s Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo. His 2007 interview on NPR’s now cancelled show Talk of the Nation references a lion named “Marjan” that became famous in Kabul, Afghanistan, especially after the American invasion there. “He was blinded. He had a hand grenade thrown at him. He was left starving in his cage.” Anthony says that story was part of his reason for trying to rescue animals in the Baghdad zoo. (Incidentally, he’s known as the first non-journalist civilian to travel from Kuwait into Baghdad after the fall of Saddam. The statue had been pulled down by a tank recovery vehicle; Iraqis were shown on a video loop hitting it with shoes. We all remember that scene.)

Anthony says he found a disaster in Baghdad. “Absolutely horrific.” On his arrival to the zoo, he was told that shooting the animals was the only way to humanely deal with this, the largest zoo in the Middle East. Looters had taken food, water, and animals to be sold or consumed. “The city was starving at the time. So they were eating the animals.” Every day, he would visit all the rest of the animals, those with claws and jaws big enough to defend themselves from the looters. He tried to keep them from becoming too stressed out. He cleaned their cages, haggled to get generators to power the zoo (while the whole city begged for electricity), and bought donkeys in the area, slaughtering them to feed the big cats and bears.

In the interview, he references the graphic novel. Alas lions running around Baghdad isn’t true, says Anthony. Three lions did escape briefly and all were promptly shot.

“I don’t personally believe in the concept of zoos,” Anthony says at the end of the interview. He prefers to preserve habitat. He went to Baghdad for the animals, he says. And good things came from that for people, too. Since Anthony did his work there, there has not been any bomb or shooting inside the zoo.

“In a way it seems that it was easier to rally around the cause of these animals than it was to rally around anything else,” observes host Neil Conan. I love that line for the way it’s both obvious and deeply insightful.

All this got me wondering about the difference between the reaction to the death of a noble, prized cat and the deaths of people. With an estimated 140,000 civilian dead due to the invasion and subsequent violence in Iraq (see Iraq Body Count https://www.iraqbodycount.org), does America owe in a similar way? Should we take the county of Alamance, North Carolina, where the tiger cubs were born (Population: 153,000), and transfer everyone to Iraq to replace those dead? That’s politically impossible, even if you don’t see how unjust it would be to North Carolinians—but what’s the difference when it comes to animals? What is it about a big cat that sparks the complicated set of motivations in a guy like Lawrence Anthony? He felt moved to rescue cats, not people. He did this harrowing thing to keep these animals alive by revitalizing a zoo, yet he despises the concept of zoos.

Listening to Anthony’s interview, I thought of Jean Baudrillard’s essay “The Animals.” He writes, “our sentimentality toward animals is a sure sign of the disdain in which we hold them. … It is in proportion to being relegated to irresponsibility, to the inhuman, that the animal becomes worthy of the human ritual of affection and protection, just as the child does in direct proportion to being relegated to the status of innocence and childishness” (Simulacra and Simulation, p. 134). Baudrillard’s job as a literary critic was to provoke (and sound smart by writing complicated sentences). He’s saying that as our species has grown and learned to make our environment more comfortable for us, we’ve lost our respect for animals as dangerous, mysterious equals. It’s that old Great Chain of Being story. God the Creator made us in His image and gave us dominion over the animals and the earth. It’s ours to manage, so we can either profit from animals or show animals sentimental affection. The choice is “cat as possession” or “cat as dependent.” Neither grants cats power on the level of autonomous adults.

As a painter I’m still trying to pin down what this zoo incident and the reactions to it mean for our daily studio practice, making these portraits with veterans who were there, doing their best at the zoo. Something about the consequences of combat being wider and stranger than we expect, and being available to the emotional education we can find if we look deeper into the stories we tell.

“Between Here and There” is a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher Wagner will be brushing and carving into until we show the series in November at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The series is funded through a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.

This week I’ll deliver my first batch of paintings to Riversea Gallery. The show, titled Idle Hands, will open June 14, coinciding with the Astoria Music Festival, which also opens mid-June.

Whit, Elcy and I will enjoy an opening reception at Riversea from 5pm to 8pm, June 14, and we’ll take in plenty of other coastal musical goodness that weekend.

Also don’t miss watercolorist Ruth Armitage in the Riversea alcove, opening along with my show, June 14.

Riversea Gallery 1160 Commercial Street, Astoria, Oregon

It has to do with the bracelet one of our Iraq veterans wears on his right wrist. You’ve probably seen one like it—a stainless steel cuff with name, rank, and date of death—if not in person, then perhaps in a televised presidential debate. And it has to do with an ill-advised tattoo, the kind of thing a guy might wish he could get removed except for what that removal would do to the memory of a dead friend.

I recently finished a piece with my partner in portraiture, sculptor Christopher Wagner, portraying a senior enlisted soldier who posed for us while playing his guitar. It’s one of ten two-media portraits of combat vets we aim to finish by the end of the year. Each portrait takes dozens of hours, and inevitably we get to talking about the vets’ experiences in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq, in this case.

Two months and a number of beers into the process, we asked our guitar-playing Sergeant Major how his friend died. “Vehicular IED,” he replied.

I was adding the final touches to my painting of his shoulder, which sports a little tattoo, a green/black inky insect shape. “This is the kind of thing you do when you’re young, drunk, and enlisted in the Pacific,” he said as he watched me measure the tattoo for copying onto my canvas. “I just picked it out. I thought it was badass. At the time it looked like a scorpion.” After the inking, when he found out his tattoo was designed as the zodiac sign for Cancer, he decided he didn’t like it. He has no connection to Cancer and doesn’t have any wish to remember that particular drunk night on deployment. He’s not sure he knows anyone who was born a Cancer. (Chris and I weren’t able to offer a case for the value of zodiac tattoos. We couldn’t even remember which part of the year Cancer occupies.) Our guitarist said he would remove it in a heartbeat, but the thing is, the guy whose name and date of death is on his right wrist got the same tattoo that night.

As we put the finishing touches on our portraits, and our Sergeant Major looked at my rendering of his bad tattoo, he told us the story of his friend’s death. Years after getting the tattoos in the Pacific, our guitarist’s friend was driving a truck in Iraq with one other crew member, a fifty-year-old woman manning the truck’s gun who our Sergeant Major says shouldn’t have been there. She had been discharged from the service, ready to live the rest of her life as a civilian but was recalled to active duty from the IRR, the Individual Ready Reserve, a force of ex-soldiers who are normally supposed to do nothing with the Army except keep their information current in case they need to be mobilized for World War III. Our Sergeant Major said a small white car rammed their vehicle, tried and failed to set off the bomb inside, then before the IRR reservist could kill the car’s driver, he repeated the effort and succeeded in blowing both vehicles away.

Chris has etched both the bracelet and the tattoo into his sculpture with the eye for documentary detail we have practiced throughout these studio sessions. I can’t see the bracelet from where I chose to paint my half of our Sergeant Major’s portrait. But the tattoo is prominent. I kind of prefer it that way. To me it’s a portrait of the accidental symbolism of that tattoo, a reminder that under the right circumstances what we otherwise might regret can turn into our most precious mark.

“Between Here and There” is a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher Wagner will be brushing and carving into until we show the series in November at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The series is funded through a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.

As I Remember It, 2014

Cast Polyurethane, 16” x 14” x 8”

 

By Christopher B. Wagner

There is a lifetime of experience separating the Vietnam vets we see from who they were when they went to war. The events that piled themselves onto young men, younger than I am now, shaped the much older men who are sitting in front of me. I am only now coming to understand how young those men were who went to war. I am only now about to turn thirty and I look at who I am now versus who I was at eighteen, two completely different people. I can’t help but think back at that age and see myself as a kid. So as I listen to the stories our two Vietnam vets tell I can’t help but try to put the mental image of who I was as an eighteen year old in the situations that they themselves where put in. To empathize with someone is all well and good but sometimes there can be such a gulf of experience that you can’t help hitting a wall.

They talk about decisions that they are proud of and those they regret. The entire time I can’t help but think how the men in front of me could be the same people who did the things they describe. Their narratives will swing from building a work bench to capturing a village or playing squash to almost triggering a trip line to a booby trap. It is easy to keep the distance between us, to say, “I cannot put myself in their younger shoes so how can I remotely understand what they went through?”

Undoubtedly that is true, but it doesn’t mean you don’t try, that you don’t listen. I can respect who these wonderful men are now and see how events experienced a lifetime before helped shape them, whether they are who they are now because of what the experienced or in spite what they experienced.

Our veteran portrait project, Between Here and There, is made possible by a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.