Memorial Day: Art And The Warrior

Ancient statues and pottery remind us how long artists have striven to embody the warrior, at least by reflection.  Hilton Head is home for hundreds of retired service members and a vacation spot for many who serve today.  So saying a special “thank you” seems fitting, even for an arts blog.

In an hour’s drive you can see the home that filmmakers used for The Great Santini, Pat Conroy’s reminiscence on the rigors of Marine Corps family life.  Coincidentally, it’s the same house around which The Big Chill gathered a gaggle of baby-boomers for a delayed coming-of-age story, in which only one bore the scars of Vietnam directly.  On the way, you’ll drive near the palmetto swamp that stood in for Vietnam in Forest Gump.

Sgt. John Basilone, Guadalcanal 1942

In that same hour’s drive you could visit Parris Island, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and ancestral home of enlisted Marines east of the Mississippi for nearly 100 years.  Families stay in Bluffton and Hilton Head when they attend their sons’ or daughters’ graduation from Boot Camp.  For those with leave, we are host to a few precious days together before they ship out to their first duty stations.

The museum at Parris Island is thorough on artifacts and light on art, but the Marines’ recognition of art’s importance goes back a long way.  In World War I, Marine Colonel John W. Thomason, Jr., produced a series of powerful battlefield sketches that remain influential.  In World II the Marine Corps Combat Art Program was begun, in part to keep the home front informed, and several veterans of the program became established 20th-Century American artists, including Tom Lovell, John Clymer and Harry Jackson.

Pioneering combat cameramen like Staff Sgt. Norman Hatch trained under Hollywood cinematographers before they deployed to the Pacific.  Hatch’s With The Marines At Tarawa won the 1945 Academy Award for best documentary short subject, and Hatch told me that the story-telling instincts he picked up from filmmakers who trained him changed the approach of combat camera from that day on.

Marines at Sick Call, Dong Ha 1967

Marines At Sick Call, Dong Ha 1967

In feature films, our generation has seen a much greater focus on authenticity in combat sequences; given the limits in which film can convey it.  The consensus go-to technical advisor for war films nowadays is Dale Dye, a retired Marine Captain, veteran of the battle of Hue and holder of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.  Experts on the equipment of each period, virtually month-by-month, like my buddy Harlan Glenn, sweat the little stuff.  And somehow getting the details right seems a little more like respect.

Picasso’s painting, Guernica, galvanized world opinion during the Spanish Civil War.  And the 1949 film, 12 O’clock High was used for decades at the service academies as a case study in command.  Yet with rare exceptions, artistic attempts to make more than a symbol or memorial of combat fall flat.  The effort to reach through the unknowable and connect with the veteran is nevertheless worthy of our support.  Their experience can seem isolating, and art is one way to lessen that.

Tragic Moment, HQ building after the blast, Beirut 1983

Tragic Moment, Beirut 1983

The practical value of art as a healing pastime is something else we can support.  The National Museum of the Marine Corps is collecting donations of unassembled models, paints and materials for the Wounded Warrior Regiment, a program that provides assistance to Marines, sailors and their families throughout the phases of their recovery.  To arrange your donation you can contact the Museum’s visitor services chief, Patrick Mooney, directly at 703-221-0137, or

[The images shown are a small sampling of the 7,000-plus works of art in the official USMC Art Collection. They are shown for informational purposes only and are not available as prints or reproductions.]