Chris Caisse & Jennifer Poston, AmeriCorps VISTA Members
American Legion Auxiliary
On September 12, we had the opportunity to join National President Nancy Brown-Park and National Secretary Mary “Dubbie” Buckler in touring the War Photography exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The exhibit, Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath, brought together images by more than 200 photographers from 28 nations and covered conflicts from the Mexican-American War through the present-day conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Photographs were not organized chronologically but rather around themes including “The Fight,” “Refugees,” and “Remembrance.” Images of the Civil War were found next to those of the Vietnam War, WWII beside Iraq. This way, the images underscored how much yet how little has changed over time. Though tactics and machinery have evolved, the experiences of servicemembers and civilians during war remain frozen in time.
The experience was enlightening and informative, but sobering above all. All of us who toured the exhibit with the American Legion Auxiliary have personal connections to the armed forces and military conflict, yet our relationships with servicemembers and veterans still could not have prepared us for the experience. A New York Times review of the exhibit perhaps captured our emotions best: “It is there, in each of the photographs. The beauty. And the sorrow.” Images of servicemembers lost in the “thousand-yard stare” showed tepid tranquility masking obvious inner struggles.
Speaking at a Memorial Day event last May, President Obama said, “Regardless of reason, this truth cannot be ignored that today most Americans are not directly touched by war. As a consequence, not all Americans may always see or fully grasp the depths of sacrifice, the profound costs that are made in our name, right now, as we speak, every day.” Fortunately, the Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath exhibit is traveling across the nation, connecting ordinary Americans to those they send to war. As servicemembers return home and address the challenges of adjusting to civilian life, we as a country need to share in their burden. Remarking on the widening disconnects between civilians and servicemembers, a returning soldier said, “The public assumes that you’re the same person, yet it’s a new brand of normal for the returning veteran. The public needs to understand and accept that things are different.”
After touring the exhibit, we entered a room wallpapered in notecards that detailed the personal experiences and reflections of fellow patrons. While distributing Auxiliary poppies to people throughout the room, we read reflections that ranged from shock and despair to hope and healing. Our reactions to armed conflict and its aftermath are as varied and as complicated as we are. Our responsibility to veterans, servicemembers and their families, however, is shared and the same for us all: Accept and share in their burden.
Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath exhibit is now on display at the Brooklyn Museum as part of its nationwide tour. Click here for more information on the exhibit.
"Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in."—Marjorie Moore, Belleville, Ill.