“War is hell,” said Civil War Gen. William T. Sherman, but its grim consequences are only a part of a traveling exhibition of combat photography called “The American Soldier.” This moving display of 116 prints more often celebrates the heroism and humanity of the men and women who served the nation.
Nearly every aspect of soldiering is portrayed, from tearful goodbyes to battlefield camaraderie, enemy capture to joyous homecomings.
Opened in time for the Memorial Day weekend, the exhibit is on view in the main gallery at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery.
Its chronologically arranged images start with the Civil War, continue through the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II, and then show Americans fighting in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq. Each section is accompanied by a short history of the pictured war to remind viewers of the reasons behind the conflict.
Curator Cyma Rubin, a New York theatrical producer who previously organized an exhibition of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, says she was inspired to create “The American Soldier” by her older brother’s experiences during World War II. Research for the exhibit, begun in 1995, led her to sift through the archives of news organizations, historical societies, museums and military branches.
The selected photos, culled from about 4,000 images, comprise a well-paced mix of portraiture, group shots and action scenes from the front. Purists will be disappointed that enlarged reproductions have been substituted for fragile originals, but the spontaneity and danger of war coverage still comes through the images.
Traced along with the nearly 150-year history of military conflicts is the development of photography. Civil War images testify to its birth in posed studio shots of both black and white soldiers.
Photographer Mathew Brady and his team were the first to travel to the battlefield, hauling darkroom wagons to develop their cumbersome collodion negatives. Among the most unsettling pictures in the show is a view of corpses lying in front of an Antietam, Md., church taken by Alexander Gardner, a Scottish-born photographer who worked for Brady.
By World War II, photographers had the advantage of 35mm single-lens reflex cameras to rapidly record the raw power of combat as it occurred. “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” said Robert Capa, one of several important photographers who defined how the war was seen.
Photojournalist David Douglas Duncan got so close to his subjects, as shown in a picture of Marines running past a dead enemy soldier in a Korean field, that the visitor is almost tempted to duck out of their way.
The war photograph soon became more candid and intimate, playing an important role in public opinion. It fueled the unpopularity of the Vietnam War with snapshots such as the one in the exhibit showing an anguished, weeping villager and an American soldier, his head in hand, after a battle with the Viet Cong.
Starting with the Gulf War, the images turn from black-and-white to color with dramatic scenes of desert patrols set against fiery clouds from burning oil wells. The section on the Iraq war, unfortunately tucked behind the rest of the exhibit, includes recent images of urban combat taken by soldiers as well as photojournalists.
One of the most poignant shows a sergeant savoring a letter from his wife. Photographer Cheryl Diaz Meyer, a Dallas Morning News photographer who won a 2004 Pulitzer Prize for the image, captures the soldier with his eyes shut while he sniffs the flowered stationery for a scent of home.
Other heartfelt moments between American soldiers and foreign civilians put a human face on war. A French woman greets a GI during World War II with outstretched arms. Vietnamese children gaze at a paratrooper holding a grenade launcher on a canal bank. A young Iraqi girl follows in the footsteps of a burly, camouflaged soldier patrolling her neighborhood.
These pictures add lighter notes to scenes of the wounded and dead, including a rare shot of flag-draped coffins of American soldiers killed in Afghanistan awaiting transport home.
The show doesn’t put a political spin on the images, but tries hard to counter military stereotypes with an image of diversity. Among the earliest photographs are Civil War-era portraits of former slaves who were among 180,000 blacks who fought for their freedom. A later World War II print shows the Navajo Indians who transmitted radio messages in their native language, a code the Japanese could not break.
Women also get their due. In the Civil War section, a surprising group photograph of a Union Army female volunteer unit notes how the rifle-toting soldiers came from different social backgrounds, “from debutante to prostitute.”
The last image in the exhibit records the homecoming of a female soldier who served 15 months in Iraq. She is shown bonding with her baby nephew, presumably for the first time. It’s a jubilant image that ends the exhibit on an uplifting note but masks the bitter truth of war.
WHAT: “The American Soldier: A Photographic Tribute to Soldiers and Marines From the Civil War to the War in Iraq”
WHERE: Women in Military Service for America Memorial, 1 Memorial Drive, Arlington
WHEN: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, through Sept. 7 ADMISSION: Free PHONE: 703/533-1155 WEB SITE: www.womensmemorial.org