We see soldiers moving through airports or bus terminals—and we thank them for their service—and returning veterans have become celebratory figures we salute at ballgames. We rarely see anymore the soldiers on duty in the Middle East; the coffins of those who have died are not shown returning to the base at Dover, Delaware. The “faces” of conflict have largely receded in recent years in the distant background of our daily affairs, out of sight if not entirely out of mind.
A new exhibition, “The Face of Battle” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is a visual assessment on what it means to be a soldier in America’s recent wars as well as what that service meant in the wider community of family, friends and nation. Our curatorial team chose six artists for their particular vision of the life and death of the members of America’s armed forces.
We also wanted to paint a visual portrait with verse to honor the men and women who fight today’s wars, so we commissioned a poem from the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, who is also a veteran of the Vietnam War and a recipient of the Bronze Star.
Poetry provides us with a more formal way to use language to commemorate or recognize the importance of events in our daily lives. We use it on ceremonial occasions, such as weddings or funerals, of course, but we also turn to it in order to clarify and give meaning to ordinary things. Poetry gives us a more ordered way—in gravity and weight—to understand and convey our emotions.
Komunyakaa has written poems about Vietnam as well as its aftermath, including his haunting meditation on the Vietnam Memorial called “Facing It” (“My black face fades./hiding inside the black granite.”). And he has been a long-time contributor to the National Portrait Gallery and its many events, publications and experiences. Given his unique and powerful voice, we are pleased to be able to add his words to the visual experience of “Face of Battle.” As he writes, imperatively, “The battle begins here. . .” and is ongoing.
After the Burn Pits
The battle begins here as I slap my chest
with the palm of my hand, a talking drum
under the skin. It’s hard to believe men
once marched into fire blowing bagpipes
& fifes. Thunder & lightning can disarm us
like IEDs & RPGs. We say to ourselves,
Keep a cool head, & don’t forget the pass
& review. Salute the dead but don’t linger.
The rank & file are you & I. But mother of
courage knows the weight of ammo belts,
to zigzag across dunes & around acacias,
& to never forget the smell of a burn pit.
Draw down faces of battle on a sketchpad.
But the pigment of inkjets will never be
blood & skin worked into an anthem.
The drawings dare us to step closer, to look
into our eyes reflected in the glass, framed
by the camera’s automatic mind. To follow
songs of The Highwaymen is one way not
to fight oneself in a parade of mirrors.
To lie down in a desert & not think war,
white grains on the skin. To question
is to be human. To interrogate shadows
or go into terrain & unweave the map.
To lag over the small moments ferries us
across rivers. To stand naked before a mirror
& count the parts is to question the whole
season of sowing & reaping thorns.
Used with permission of the author