Veterans are finding creative ways to heal their emotional wounds
It’s dusk on Chicago’s North Side, nine years to the day since U.S. troops invaded Iraq, when Aaron Hughes—veteran, artist, activist—unfurls a prayer rug, fires up a Bunsen burner, and begins to make tea. In front of him, two dozen people squat on the sidewalk. Behind him, a sixties-era ice cream truck, revamped and renamed Enemy Kitchen, serves food prepared by an Iraqi chef with the assistance of American veterans. Part food truck, part art installation, it’s a fitting backdrop for Hughes and his Tea Project, which is part ritual, part performance, and full homage to gestures of shared humanity that endure in the middle of war.
While the tea brews, Hughes tells stories. How he enlisted in the Illinois National Guard after high school for reasons both practical and idealistic, and how he was pulled out of college in January 2003 and sent to Kuwait. How he drove supply convoys around Iraq for one year, three months, and seven days, and how “at first it seemed like liberation, then occupation.” How every evening the “third-country nationals”—foreign workers the U.S. military imported to Iraq to do menial tasks—invited him to tea, and how every evening he refused because he had been taught to mistrust anyone not American. That still bothers him, that disconnect.
When Hughes returned to Iraq years later for an international labor conference, he learned the fine points of Iraqi tea-making, which he recreates now. He spoons sugar into Styrofoam cups where he has etched arabesques, rhythmically interlacing designs common in Islamic art—which leads to another story, this one from his friend and fellow veteran Chris Arendt. At Guantanamo, where Arendt was stationed, the prisoners, lacking any other way to express themselves, carved decorative patterns with their fingernails into the Styrofoam cups distributed with their meals. Arendt came to cherish those cups, but his job was to collect them and deliver them to military intelligence officers. He still can’t fathom what threat they could have posed.
Hughes passes his cups around, pours cardamom-scented tea into each, and invites his audience to tell what they remember about Iraq. Then the ritual ends, the street lights come on, the tea drinkers wander off, clutching their cups—as souvenir, sculpture, detritus? Hughes connects the question of what they’ll do with them to the question of what the government will do with the detainees at Guantanamo. “Hopefully, all these cups will be liberated,” he adds with a grin.
Hughes and I first met through Iraq Veterans Against the War. Since early 2003, when the invasion of Iraq seemed preordained, I had been talking with older veterans, service people about to be mobilized, and military families caught in conflicting loyalties. When IVAW emerged a few years later, I realized that this new crop of anti-warriors was at the heart of the story I wanted—needed—to tell. I have been spared any firsthand experience of war, but I’ve long been intrigued by what pushes individual complaint into action, what makes people risk much for something that goes against their own interest.
“We come home and everyone shakes our hand and calls us heroes, but no one wants to listen to our stories.”
Hughes captured my imagination because he was, and still is, a key player in the growing group of veterans-turned-artists who are using their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan to explore the interrelation of war, politics, and art. Their work is confessional, provisional, profane, and YouTube-anointed in the style of the day, but one thing sets it apart: its direct challenge to the national myths, political pieties, and adulation of the military that time and again lead our country into misbegotten fights. The art these veterans make aims to convey what it’s like to inhabit the skin of people who fought in wars that stopped making sense to them about ten minutes in and left them feeling betrayed, bewildered, and abandoned. It is dissident art, meant to shake things up.
Often, what passes for understanding these days is sympathy, as if the only way we can connect with veterans is to feel sorry for them. We allow them to be either heroes or victims: the former we thank for their service, the latter we send to therapy. The reality is much more complex. Among the many things these veterans have taught me is that nobody gets out of war unmarked—particularly when your war is a shadowy, capricious occupation that requires you to do things you regret. And though their art can be therapeutic, it’s not in the usual sense of curing a disease. They may have war-related ailments, including the “signature wounds”—post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, or the less recognized military sexual trauma— but they suffer equally over what they did, witnessed, took part in, allowed. Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who has worked with veterans for decades, described this moral injury as “a scar on their soul.”
Rather than therapy, Hughes and his fellow veteran-artists prefer to talk about healing. Their wars may be winding or wound down, but their tasks are just beginning: to ease the ache within themselves, make amends to the people whose lives and countries they turned upside down, and bridge the gap between soldiers and civilians in whose name they are sent to fight. If there is a cure, it’s probably a lifetime’s work.
Hughes, thirty-one, is tall and rangy. His face is a map of sincerity, his walk a purposeful lope, and his voice a steady hum, though it can tighten with frustration. His story echoes a refrain I hear often, one of a life derailed by war. “I went to college set to be a designer,” he told me. “I wanted to design the coolest stuff and make lots of money. Then I got deployed and I lived with my sleeping bag and rucksack and a couple of books.”
He hated that he had no control over what he was doing, that he couldn’t help the people he thought he was sent to help. The best alternative to wallowing in cynicism seemed to be making art. He is interested in nothing less than transforming the whole culture. “We’re disconnected,” he said the first time we talked. “Not only from the war—we’re disconnected from each other. We’ve built up all these cultural barriers and somehow we’ve got to poke through them. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
The art these veterans make aims to convey what it’s like to inhabit the skin of people who fought in wars that stopped making sense to them about ten minutes in and left them feeling betrayed, bewildered, and abandoned.
It is dissident art, meant to shake things up.
Hughes is fond of phrases like “questioning the cultural narrative,” as befits someone with an advanced degree in art theory and practice, but the images and experiences he creates stick with you. His method is to pose questions, and his media are drawing, painting, and events he stages in public places, which he labels “spectacle.” “I qualify everything in the States as a spectacle and everything in Iraq as real,” he announced ruefully a few years after his return from the war there. The word, as he has defined it for me, embraces events ranging from pageantry and ritual to a solo show or one-off oddity. Spectacle can be a wonderfully protean boost to the imagination, and entails people making a spectacle of themselves—for a purpose.
Hughes’ spectacles are not easily described or digested—or, for that matter, found. It’s a secret-handshake, stumbled-upon kind of art. Random encounters seem to suit him best, because they surprise passers-by out of their routines and create a mental or emotional itch that can be scratched only by digging deeper. “That’s exactly what I’d like people to do,” he said. “Simply stop—for a moment of thought, of reflection.” He does not eschew large-scale public displays, however. In the past year, he has curated an exhibit at the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago, staged his Tea Project at galleries and colleges and on street corners, and assembled a portfolio of forty-three posters on the theme War is Trauma. He also organized a protest at which more than forty veterans of recent wars tore their medals from their chests and hurled them toward the building in Chicago where NATO members were meeting—and ignoring the war in Afghanistan.
Recently, though, he has been reassessing the long-term efficacy of spectacle, asking the larger, probably unanswerable question that so many of the veterans I’ve met are grappling with: “How do we create meaning in a world where meaning has been shattered, where your own identity has been shattered to the core?”
That question is the elephant in the room where a handful of veterans cut, slice, and rip up a set of army fatigues. They remove the buttons—someone will use them later—and trim around the name tapes: “U.S. Army” becomes one patch, the soldier’s name a second patch. “Small pieces,” the workshop’s leader, Drew Cameron, a former army sergeant, reminds them. “They have to be the size of a postage stamp.”
Cameron dumps the scraps into a Hollander beater, a machine that will turn them into a soggy pulp. A marine veteran dips his hand in the slurry. “That’s North Carolina, that’s Germany, that’s Iraq,” he says in the grim-jokey way veterans talk about war.
This scene could be taking place in Louisville, Kentucky; Washington, D.C.; Mineral Point, Wisconsin; or the San Francisco County Jail. Or any of the many other places veterans have gathered in the past year to make what they call Combat Paper.
Transforming old battle uniforms into pristine sheets of art-quality paper is almost too perfect a metaphor, but the process is also delightfully tactile, invoking all the sensual pleasure of playing in the mud. Veterans from World War II to the present have dug in, some bringing uniforms that had been packed away for decades. As they work, they chat—about the traffic, a movie, where they’ll go for pizza later—but not much about war. That’s the beauty of hanging out with other veterans: you don’t have to explain much. And it’s the beauty of Combat Paper workshops, since, as one veteran remarks, creating is different from explaining. Still, a lot comes out in the wash, because, if pressed, most of these veterans will admit to being haunted by what they did or saw in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, or wherever they were deployed.
Combat Paper is the brainchild of Cameron and a civilian artist, Drew Mattot. Cameron was studying forestry at the University of Vermont when, on a whim, he signed up for a papermaking workshop with Mattot. Since returning from a tour in Iraq a couple of years earlier, he had grown increasingly disillusioned with the military. When I first got in touch with him a few years ago, he told me, “I thought if my country sent me to war, I would walk in the steps of others. I thought I’d be doing charity, but it wasn’t that at all. I never thought we would leave people by the side of the road. It was sort of the antithesis of charity.”
Cameron had learned Japanese papermaking from his father when he was a teenager in Iowa. Now, as his feelings about the military soured, his love for the art of papermaking soared. Then one day, also on a whim, he donned his full uniform for the first time since he left the army and began to lop it off in pieces, his heart beating faster and faster. “It felt both wrong and liberating,” he reported. “The purpose was to make a complete transformation.” A friend took photos, which Cameron and Mattot used for a print they titled Breaking Rank.
Later, it occurred to them that a torn-up uniform could be made into paper. So on Veterans Day 2007, Cameron gathered seven other disaffected veterans at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, where they turned a uniform that had been worn in Iraq into the first batch of Combat Paper. Some of the sheets were creamy, some speckled, some swirled with the muddy colors of desert camouflage. Some were used for printmaking, some for journals or books, while others were put aside to create sculptures. All were meant to honor the men and women fighting a war these veterans could no longer support.
Now thirty, Cameron is slender and boyish, with an elongated, almost elfin face, a beard that has gone through various stages of fullness in the time I’ve known him, and a receding hairline. When we spoke by phone recently as he drove between gigs in Kentucky and Ohio, he described Combat Paper as “a dynamic, sort of fuzzy project.” That is, he goes where he’s invited and hopes to make everyone love papermaking as much as he does. In the intimate, emotional workshops he conducts, participants reflect on their relationship to the images and myths that swirl around militarism, patriotism, and duty.
Tara Tappert, the civilian curator of Combat Paper exhibits and archives, points out that the military itself showed an interest in the therapeutic potential of arts and crafts as early as World War I, when military hospitals used them for rehabilitation and vocational training. After World War II, the emphasis shifted slightly to art as a means of promoting well-being, which is when the Red Cross and major museums got into the act. The Smithsonian exhibited veterans’ art, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art housed a War Veterans Art Center, which offered “recreational and prevocational classes.”
“None of that is happening today,” Tappert told me, so recent veterans are creating a grassroots movement of what she calls “witness art.” She suggests that this generation of veterans has seen how difficult it was for Vietnam vets to move beyond their war experiences and has resolved not to get mired in the same swamp. “They don’t want that crap to be stuck in their heads,” she said. “They want to write it out. They want to dance it out. They want to make paper.” Yet Cameron balks at terms like therapeutic. “Combat Paper can be healing, cathartic”—empowering is another word he uses—“but it’s also a craft and a fine art,” he insisted.
The art that has emerged is frequently fine and brutal. Eli Wright, an army medic who regularly drove from Fort Drum to Burlington, Vermont, to make paper when he was still on active duty, took his childhood teddy bear to a firing range, shot it with an assault rifle, cut it open, and filled it with Combat Paper, bullet casings, and buttons from uniforms. Then he sewed it back up with surgical sutures and strung a noose around its neck to create a sculpture.
Wright, now out of the army, runs a Combat Paper mill at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey. Affiliated workshops, sometimes open to civilians as well as veterans, operate in Ithaca, New York; Reno, Nevada; and San Francisco, where Cameron has relocated. Combat Paper art has been acquired by the Library of Congress, the Boston Athenaeum, and numerous university libraries, and last year was exhibited in fifteen spaces—venues as disparate as the Seminole Nation Museum in Oklahoma, St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, and the Holland Paper Biennial in the Netherlands. Combat Paper Press, a recent initiative, has published limited editions of four books of poetry and a portfolio of prints (available through combatpaper.org/cppress.html). Meanwhile, Mattot has spun off Peace Paper, a sister organization based in Madison, Wisconsin.
In the forward to combat paper press’s first book, Cameron wrote, “When someone says, ‘I cannot know what it was like over there,’ we want them to... to know war... is not an individual act, nor one of courage. It is rather a very fair and necessary thing.” So when the sheets of Combat Paper have been hung to dry, the veterans sit down and write.
For veterans who feel robbed of their voices, protective of their unwanted knowledge, or unable to communicate with anyone who hasn’t been to war, Warrior Writers helps them find the words.
This part of the workshops sometimes piggybacks on Warrior Writers, a project conceived by Lovella Calica, a civilian writer, when she was on the staff of Iraq Veterans Against the War. She and several IVAW members had been sharing their poetry among themselves, when, she said, “It hit me that these poems have to be heard by other people. I can’t be the only one.” With Cameron and Hughes, she launched Warrior Writers in 2006, intending it to be a community where recent veterans could document and transcend their war experiences. They held their first workshops the following year, and what emerged was such a richness of writing, drawing, and photography that it felt as if someone had pulled a stopper and memories and metaphors poured out.
Since then, Warrior Writers has held workshops and retreats for about a thousand veterans, staged readings and spoken-word performances, created a mural in West Philadelphia, encouraged at least a dozen veterans in their careers as artists and art teachers, and published three anthologies, all available at warriorwriters.org: Move, Shoot and Communicate; Re-Making Sense; and After Action Review (I was a guest editor for the last of these).
Some veterans come to the workshops as experienced writers. When Garett Reppenhagen was a cavalry scout and sniper, he co-created the first soldier’s antiwar blog from Iraq and contributed lyrics for the song “Letter from Iraq,” by the punk band Bouncing Souls. Most, though, haven’t written much, and for veterans who feel robbed of their voices, protective of their unwanted knowledge, or unable to communicate with anyone who hasn’t been to war, Warrior Writers helps them find the words.
“We come home and everyone shakes our hand and calls us heroes, but no one wants to listen to our stories,” Kelly Dougherty told me in exasperation. Dougherty trained as a medic with the Colorado National Guard but spent nearly a year in Iraq “escorting U.S. corporate convoys.” She helped found Iraq Veterans Against the War on her return. To tell her story, she worked from her journal, where she noted that everything in Iraq “looks half-dead, hot, and starved,” including the camels plodding across the desert “knock-kneed with dreadlocks of fur” and the kids with “too-big heads” who know just enough English to beg for food.
Writing about World War I in The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell observes that the horror of war is so commonplace that it is the small, ironic details that stick in the soldier’s memory. This observation is no less true in recent wars, where the grunts figured out well before the generals that no one ever wins a military occupation. Amy Herrera, an air force weather journeyman, recalls in her poem “Another Day at the Office” that she turned down the sound on CNN at her post in Illinois to transmit coordinates to a pilot on a bombing raid “somewhere over Baghdad.” As she gets in her car to go home, she wonders, “How many did we kill today?” And Cameron requires only a terse caption for a photo of himself grasping two weapons: “Rifles taken from young men strapped with ammunition and given to more young men strapped with ammunition.”
As the veterans struggle to make their jumble of feelings and ideas intelligible—first to themselves and then to others—they recognize that the story they have to tell is not your typical war story. There’s little swashbuckling in their writing, and even less war porn, though their work is often marked by a sharp anger—usually aimed at themselves. And then there’s the quest to know what you’re for, not just what you’re against. Maggie Martin was a sergeant in the Army Signal Corps with two Iraq tours under her belt. After invoking “words, oaths, and codes we are dying to believe,” she comes, uneasily, to this end:
I, in this traveling band of actors,
brothers and sisters, strangers, imposters.
Channeling Joan of Arc and Forrest Gump.
Generation who cares?
I was looking for something more than reality TV.
A chance at redemption.
Warrior Writers gatherings are meant to be occasions for bonding, contemplation, nourishment, so revisiting moments of guilt and remorse can come to seem almost a moral imperative. Yet there is also the odd moment of release—of delight, even.
In “The Boot and the Ball,” Nathan Lewis describes his daily ritual of playing hacky sack in Iraq—something he did mostly so he could say he had. And he recounts how, on their flight home, his band of hackers gathered near the emergency exit:
Gutherie drops the ball and gracefully kicks it
across our tight circle
From boot to boot
it goes around 3 times until an officer gets wise
A Captain yells and wakes up half of the plane
We return to our seats grinning
Feeling alive and wonderful
So add renewal to the long list of “re-” words—reconnection, reclamation, redemption, release—that these veteran-artists invoke. Their healing isn’t about forgetting what happens in war; veterans, soldiers, civilians, whole countries need to remember that. Instead, they’re using what they remember as veterans and, as artists, transforming it to make something new.
Nan Levinson teaches journalism and fiction writing at Tufts. She is the author of a book about free speech, Outspoken (2006). Her forthcoming book, War Is Not a Game, tells the story of the recent veterans’ antiwar movement.