Communicating the Human Experience of War—Through Art

This week, HowlRound is partnering with New England Foundation for the Arts in advance of our convening—Art in the Service of Understanding: Bridging Artists, Military, Veterans, and Civilian Communities March 10—12. This convening was inspired by artists who created five new performance works with their collaborators in the military, healthcare and presenter communities, funded by NEFA’s National Dance and Theater Projects. This series asks: How can artists most effectively build relationships of trust as they engage in this work? What do military service members and veterans need to know to encourage them to work with artists? What do artists need to know about trauma in working with military and veterans’ communities?

As we were planning for the convening, both Anne Hamburger, creator of Basetrack Live, and Joe Goode, choreographer for AXIS Dance Company’s to go again enthusiastically introduced us to Dr. Arthur DeGroat, pointing to his advocacy and support for artists working with service members and veterans at Kansas State University.Jane Preston, NEFA.

“We have shared the incommunicable experience of war, we have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top. In our youth our hearts were touched by fire.”—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Had Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a Civil War veteran and later Supreme Court Justice, experienced En Garde Arts’ Basetrack Live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Veterans Day, 2014, or perhaps Joe Goode Performance Group’s The Resilience Project at Kansas State University in 2013, he would have found that the experience of war is, in fact, communicable, when treated by the art world. As a war veteran myself of the Cold War, Desert Storm, and Global War on Terror, I have found that the human experiences of war that I lived through were not communicated well from the perspectives of journalists, historians, and political scientists. This is mostly because people in these mediums tell us what war is, while our art makers actually show us, free “from the paralyzing obligation to persuade,” as Terry Teachout wrote. Art creation and presentation continues to communicate the human experience of war in ways nothing else can. And in this post-9/11 era, we are in great need of understanding the human cost of war.

Two actors with a band onstage
En Garde Arts' Basetrack Live. Photo courtesy of Arthur S. DeGroat . 

The Lived Experience of Post-9/11 Era Veterans and their Families
I have spent nearly every day since my military retirement in 2006 grappling with the challenges of post-war transition and reintegration back into civil life. I deal with this life event from my own perspective, as a practitioner of higher education for veterans, and as a researcher. Today, we have over 4.1 million veterans who have served our nation in war since September 11, 2001—with nearly 230,000 veterans transitioning per month. These veterans—fine young women and men—struggle to navigate the enormous personal challenges of making meaning and adapting from a battlefield experience that, as former Marine Phil Klay writes in Redeployment, demanded that they “be tougher, and therefore crueler, than their circumstances.” Compounding these personal challenges is the realization that veterans must navigate this very difficult life event among a society that is sympathetic and appreciative of their service, but largely ignorant of their plight. This is to be expected when 99.6 percent of society lacks any direct contact with the experience of .4 percent of our veterans. This dynamic is made worse by the lack of effective communication about contemporary war experiences, the costs to those impacted, and society’s estranged distance from its warriors. However, pioneering works of art treating post-9/11 era war experiences have been witnessed to lift the fog of understanding war, thus making this human experience communicable to others.

A Call to Social Action
I have personally witnessed the intrinsic impacts of live performing arts, particularly performances about contemporary war and its human effects upon my own well-being and those of my veteran brothers and sisters. I have also witnessed the great challenges inherent in creating, producing, performing, and presenting this genre of art. Ironically, courage, moral fortitude, and sacrifice is being demanded by our art makers similar to these qualities being demanded of the veteran whose stories they are treating. As a result, I stand firmly in my commitment to serve the art world as it takes actions toward a deeper social understanding of the human experience of contemporary war. I truly believe that the art world can serve as the catalyst to social action needed to help the larger community begin to understand the essence of modern wars and their human consequences.

I have personally witnessed the intrinsic impacts of live performing arts, particularly performances about contemporary war and its human effects upon my own well-being and those of my veteran brothers and sister…As a result, I stand firmly in my commitment to serve the art world as it takes actions toward a deeper social understanding of the human experience of contemporary war.

Going Beyond Social Action Toward Healing
During a recent research-oriented visit to a veteran hospital in Los Angeles, I stepped into the restroom between my meetings with clinicians charged with caring for our veterans. Scratched into the dividing wall of the stall was an inscription: “PTSD—Paid Till Suicide or Death.” The obvious assertion being made by this statement is that behaviorally wounded veterans are being compensated for their disabilities rather than being healed. While my professional work with veterans is not medically-oriented, I do face these issues often. What I have found most compelling are the positive stories of veterans that have participated in arts-based well-being and therapeutic interventions, many after traditional forms of treatment left them feeling hopeless.

My inquiry into the therapeutic use of art finds that this work is growing at a rapid rate, yet remains understudied to fully prove its efficacy, and consequently, not covered by most medical insurance. Lack of insurance coverage greatly limits the delivery of arts-based therapies presently. However, some definitive findings have been made as to the “usefulness of art expression in the reconstruction of the trauma narrative and also in the management of stress, physical symptoms and psychological disorders,” according to Anita B. Rankin and Lindsey C. Taucher in “A task-oriented approach to art therapy in trauma treatment” in Art Therapy. Despite this situation, many art makers continue to engage the veteran community aimed to restoring hope, optimism, and resilience to our wounded warriors efforts to get well after their war experiences. This work must continue and expand through collaborations with clinicians and researchers to reach its fullest potential, and to compliment traditional treatment protocols of known value. I recognize that healing is a special calling for the arts creators, producers, and performers to engage in this type of activity. My personal conversations and collaborations with acclaimed art makers such as DIAVOLO’s Jacques Heim, EnGarde Arts' Anne Hamburger, and Aquila Theater’s Desiree Sanchez and Joe Goode leave me moved by the deep and stirring commitment that these artists have to go beyond communicating the human experience of war, toward making a personal impact upon the wars’ actual participants: our veterans. Again, I find great inspiration and admiration for the acts of courage, commitment, and sacrifices being made by these artists, and others, in service to a veterans’ personal healing.

Parting Comments
In closing, I am compelled by the power of the arts to convey aesthetic knowledge of the human experience of war needed to lift the fog of war within our communities and society. The arts are serving as a catalyst for social change by creating opportunities for producers, performers, presenters, and patrons to create arts engagements that enable audience members to transcend beyond sympathy for our veterans, and develop the empathy and understanding needed to help accept and facilitate their re-joining civilian life. Researchers Bartunek and Carboni, in “A time for hope: A response to Nancy Adler” in Academy of Management Learning and Education, remind us that arts-based approaches enable us to “cut through accumulated labels, and schemas, and stereotypes, and to move back toward original, natural, coherent wholes.” I cannot think of anything more needed or powerful than our artists accomplishing this.

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Thoughts from the curator

This series explores the intersection between art and military service.

Art in the Service of Understanding

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Back in 2013, I saw Gail Kriegel's award winning play "On the Home Front" about veterans of various wars in a class to help them integrate back into society. The very first production of the play was in Birmingham, Alabama. The head of the Theatre Department went crazy for it and kept it running for 3 months in the University Theatre.

"I stand firmly in my commitment to serve the art world as it takes actions toward a deeper social understanding of the human experience of contemporary war. I truly believe that the art world can serve as the catalyst to social action needed to help the larger community begin to understand the essence of modern wars and their human consequences."

I was so into this essay at this point. But I was rather aback by this sentence: "Today, we have over 4.1 million veterans who have served our nation in war since September 11, 2001."

For the greatest thing art can do is make people realize that those who are convinced or pressured (or forced) to go into war are almost always NOT serving our nation, but certain special interests (such as the Generals and other executives who get promoted much more readily in wars than in peace, and the weapons and equpiment manufactures who make tremendous profits off of wars).

And we should boycott works of "art" (usually movies) that lie about war... even if the creation of those movies involved beloved actors or writers. For instance, I refused to see "World Trade Center" (despite it featuring llocal hero Michael Shannon) because it reinforces the oft-repeated (by Bush) lie that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks, when it was actually mostly people from Saudi Arabia (including Bin Laden) who were trained in Afghanistan. Iraq had nothing to do with it... the reason that Bush declared war on Iraq was because supposedly (according to Bush and his fellow liars) Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which he didn't, making pointless and tragic all those Americans who were killed or disabled (including mentally) in the Iraq war. (Especially since things in Iraq and surrounding areas are actually worse now than they were when Hussein was in charge.)

(P.S. For those who don't know, the 9/11 attacks were motivated not by the reason the politicians and media always tell us ("they can't stand our freedoms!"), but in response to the US putting a military base on what Bin Laden (and many others) considered holy ground in Saudi Arabia. Alas, even after Bin Laden made it clear he was serious (that the US better close the base) via the first attack on the world trade center in the 90's (a ground-level truck-bomb that only did a minor amount of damage), Clinton (and then Bush) decided it was worth the risk to keep the base... resulting in all the misery of 9/11, and all the misery that has happened as a result since.)

The Beairng Public Sculpture Project in Washington State focuses also on the process of going through wars and its aftermaths. This is going to be a public sculpture for gathering for veterans, refugees and their families, and also to encourage dialogue on the issue in our community.http://thebearingproject.com