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Mural art tends toward bluntness. Its images are large, its imagery thick with meaning. The nature of the medium—walls!—lends itself best to simplicity, directness. The audience for walls is, after all, everyone passing by. Walls with murals ask us to stop and look and think. They tell stories about people we know, about our communities. Mural art is surely the best medium for “Windows and Mirrors: Reflections on the War in Afghanistan,” an exhibit assembled by the American Friends Service Committee and now touring the country. The exhibit brings together more than forty-five mural paintings in what the AFSC catalogue describes as “a traveling memorial to Afghan civilians who have died in the war.”
America’s longest war has also been its most invisible. After visiting the exhibit in Kansas City, my wife and I pondered a hypothetical question: What if the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had only been covered by the news media with Vietnam-era communications technology? In other words, what if there were no social media now, no internet, no 24/7 cable, no embedded cheerleaders in Kevlar vests and oversized helmets clamoring like underage groupies on a rock tour and posing as journalists; what if we only had the evening news, the local paper, and maybe the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, to cover these wars—what would we know about them?
After Walter Cronkite took his glasses off on camera and gave the lie to the notion that America was “winning” in Vietnam, and after Life Magazine published a large black-and-white photo of a terrified naked child running from the nightmare of napalm, America began to get it. That war was no longer about whose military casualty count was worse, but about the millions of innocent civilians suffering and dying as bombs fell and war crashed into their lives. And it was also about the tragic waste of sending young men to die for reasons that defied any moral explanation, and throwing billions of dollars at the effort.
Yet now, despite all the information we have at our fingertips and even in our pockets, a medium that traces its beginnings to some ancient and remote caves in France may offer the best way for those of us who will never visit Afghanistan to understand these wars and their consequences.
“Windows and Mirrors” is a tour through the civilian cost of the war in Afghanistan. It is a gallery of windows into an Afghanistan we rarely see, a place whose people we don’t tend to think of with empathy. In turn the exhibit becomes a gallery mirrors reflecting who we Americans are in the bitter reality of what we are doing there. An untitled panel by Jessica Munguia illustrates the evolution of ever-changing rationales for waging this war in a collage of texts in military-speak, images of weaponry and flowers, and the faces of a woman and child weeping in despair and grief.
The question of our purpose in Afghanistan pervades the exhibit, as does the issue of complicity. The invisibility of this war is the result of a willingness, even an eagerness, on the part of Americans to choose shopping as the prime strategy for fighting the so-called “war on terror”—the bizarre and weirdly ironic notion (brilliantly marketed by the Bush administration) that pretending there were no wars was how we’d win them: Rationing and Victory Gardens turned inside out. And it worked! Such patriotism was easily sold to a nationalistic public that confused the reality of war with video games like “Call of Duty” and patriotism with shedding tears as “God Bless America” rang out in every sports stadium in the country and bone-rattling flyovers filled us with wonder and awe. Meanwhile, actual war continues even now in places we choose not to see, or are prevented from seeing by a corporate media complex that fills the airwaves with pablum.
Michael Schwartz’s painting, “Eternal Scream,” goes straight to the theme of complicity. It depicts a grief-stricken man crying out as he clutches the body of his dead child. The unusual descriptive text that accompanies the painting takes the form of a letter from the artist to the anonymous taxi driver who inspired the work: “Dear Taxi Driver: Thank you for sharing your story. I asked. Nothing I can say to you will bring back your brother’s children, your cousins’ store, your sister. I can weep with you, get angry, try to organize, but nothing will bring back the people who you loved, killed by bombs, made with dollars that should have gone to teach kids about empathy, compassion, science, history, art, math, and yes, poetry….”
Children are the most vulnerable victims of this war and figure in many of the paintings. “Learning to Walk Again,” by John Pitman Weber, depicts the disturbing image of a child wearing a prosthetic leg and pushing a walker past a rack of prosthetic limbs. “Unknown Loss” by Christine Moss positions a madonna and child against the black-and-white backdrop of a refugee camp. Ann Northrup’s “Mountain Kites” portrays children flying kites in an open field. Her accompanying text describes the painting best: “I wanted to show the beautiful Afghanistan that still survives the violent incursions of war, and show ordinary Americans that here is life and value that must be respected and loved. I wanted an image that people could identify with, a child that they could fall in love with and that they would want to cherish and protect.”
Ashley Scribner’s untitled work points out that three children died every day in Afghanistan in 2009 as a result of war-related incidents. A set of textual panels catalogues the weddings bombed during the course of the war and cites reports from international press coverage of innocents killed: In one incident, five women, three children, and an elderly man were killed in their mud hut when a 2,000 pound bomb was dropped on their village. In another, a man who could neither hear nor speak did not know CIA paramilitaries were shouting at him to stop running, so they shot him. In yet another, a man was shot dead by occupation forces as he drove to the hospital to inquire about his ailing sister.
The texts give substance to the paintings. They remove the temptation to find subjectivity in the stark imagery and unsettling themes that surround viewers. They reinforce the vastness of these tragedies across time—this is our longest war—and place. This exhibit is both visceral and evocative, a submersion in human tragedy and the responsibility Americans share for creating it.
“Windows and Mirrors” closes this week in Kansas City and moves on to Pittsburgh. The full schedule and more information is available at http://windowsandmirrors.org/
BOB SOMMER’s novel, Where the Wind Blew, which tells the story how the past eventually caught up with one former member of a 60s radical group, was released in June 2008 by The Wessex Collective. He blogs at Uncommon Hours.