The War Artist
It felt like a contribution to my country. A way of saying, yes, I too am embedded in this fight, here is my support. I would wear army green and sweat beneath a hard hat, barricading myself behind a protective vest that left me top heavy, the solid inlay compressing my lungs with each breath. I would stand tall above my children, as I said goodbye to my wife Sarah and watched her jade eyes fill with wet fear as we shared a final embrace. And my new boots would steer me towards a brotherhood, under contract to die on my behalf, if necessary.
But I would not carry a pistol in my belt, or hang a rifle over my shoulder. And I would not carry maps and meet with Sergeants to discuss tactics that we were to encounter in the dry Afghan heat. My choice of weapons: a belt of brushes, not ammunition, a bottle of Indian ink and 300g stock Italian paper, a gut full of anguish and a head full of ideas. One thing my wife convinced me not to pack, were my expectations. I left them behind at her request, replacing them with bravery and steel grey caution.
I felt pride to be chosen, the heavy burden at first masked by my inflated ego. Humbled by a country that acknowledged the responsibility to document a conflict for those at home and for generations to come. Proud of the support that my country offered. I wish I still felt this way.
Arriving was a battle in itself, logistics were scrutinised and the seriousness of what lay ahead swam through the ranks down to me. I began to question if my comrades were playing games for the sake of this battle virgin man with such clean boots. It was not long before my naivety was realised and I felt the harsh reality of their honesty. None of this was light torment one would expect from his brothers.
In the days that followed, I learnt to sleep through the deep belly sounds of distant bombings that broke through the earth. My vest began to feel lighter as the stringy muscles in my back strengthened. Once suffocated by the weight of hot air, each breath now filled my lungs whole. I no longer referred to name badges to identify men, and I began to feel like ’one of them’, as the brotherhood relaxed and dropped their guard and my boots collected dust.
Then we lost Captain Stevens. I was still collecting dust at the barracks, deemed ‘not ready’ to venture from camp when they bought in his charred body. Silence fell over the base that night, and my brothers retracted again.
In the weeks that followed, I settled for quick sketches of these men. Slowly as I became more familiar to them, they began to talk. I asked them questions, prompting information. At times they walked away, too scarred to answer. I soon found that talking under the curtain of night was best. Perhaps they felt safest there. I drew Sergeant Manner. As he spoke, I worked quickly, limited by his unease. When we parted, he shook my hand and called me Brother.
My first day on the field came 3 weeks after my arrival. I was prepped like a soldier and then put back in my place. Adrenalin flooded me before I left the gates and time felt slower that the reality of day. I recognised the town that welcomed my arrival before they shut me behind watchtowers and fencing 3 weeks earlier. ACDC played from the SUV at a strangely low volume, ears still listening on alert. I watched the men beside me approach checkpoints hesitantly, faces hardened with suspicion. Radio talk of code and war slang replaced ACDC at each approach. We picked up supplies of wool blankets and dry biscuits from local men with steel eyes, which seldom smiled. When we returned at dusk, I felt strangely unsatisfied with the lack of events. We ate, they talked, and I drew.
The days that followed were all patterned in habitual undertakings. But nightfall offered me stories of bravery, loss, victory and despair. As I became more acquainted with the checkpoints and creamy hills, my brothers’ stories took shape and formed colours in my mind, and I began to construct the painterly descriptions in my sketchbook. They no longer felt fiction. I continued to draw only the men as they spoke. I drew them as their words fell and their faces softened with the relief of sharing. Each man carried an epic saga, kept internally safeguarded behind a wall of masculine pride and courage.
I never saw fresh blood in my two months at Kandahar, or suffered from the temporary deafness that came with close conflict. Although the opportunity was there, my brothers kept me sheltered, not wanting me to suffer any long-term effects, like they all had. But I did.
When I returned home to my wife and children I arrived deflated. I felt a failure. With my vest removed, my chest felt empty. When my children laughed, I scorned them for no reason under my breath. And when Sarah could not understand, I blamed her for being ignorant. I was a changed man, and without my brothers and their stories, and with a blank canvas in front of me, I felt pathetically lost. I was a war artist, with nothing to show but a pad full of Indian ink sketches of broken men. I could have absorbed many things in Afghanistan. Days spent joining forces against an evil whose veins spread throughout a baron land. But I absorbed the men and took home with me their shattered lives.
Finally, after 2 months had past I began to paint. As my pallet knife smeared oil paint of flesh and splintered dreams, I recognised the creamy Afghan hills in the primed linen beneath. It spurred me on. At night I dreamt their tales and sent myself mad with the loss of men I had never met, and limbs I still had intact. But my body of work would lack in action and landscape. I would paint the men, as the effects of war had shaped them. Proud, but broken.
6 months later my returned brothers attended my opening exhibition at the Australian War Memorial. I felt fear when they arrived. I had opened wounds and painted them in overwhelming size. Men forced to leave their battle scars on the field were now living larger than life, surrounded by the excitement of television cameras, which did not fit. I watched them walk the circumference of the room and lift their heads in forced pride. Sergeant Manner approached me and I warily offered him my hand. He shook it firmly as he congratulated me on painting the truth. I had no words to offer him in return, dropped what little facade I had still clung on to, and openly wept.
I was asked to paint a body of work that expressed a war-torn land and celebrated the men and woman who kept us safe. However, I was unable to celebrate. Painting these men was my therapy, but I will always be tormented by their stories. Perhaps they are able to find therapy in the reflections I have painted?
When we send away brave men to safeguard us, they leave with pride and they take with them our praise. When they return broken, we turn away, unable to empathise with the unknown. My paintings are there on the walls of the Australian War Memorial. They are there so that we can no longer say, “we did not know”. They are there so we can share the damage that is done to our men, through the actions of war.