David Brzywczy stands at least a head taller than me. His military posture is losing to the slump of a tall man who will soon retire from his battle against gravity. He’s both paunchy and gangly with an easy smile on his creased face. His handshake crushes mine, but I’m sure he doesn’t mean it.
“You’re the guy wants to see the Mess Mural,” he states.
I am indeed. Idle curiosity, smelted into downright stubbornness, has led me to West Point Military Academy in Highland Falls, New York, on a sublime September day. It started when a passing reference in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Blood Rites caught my eye: a WPA-funded mural by one T. Loftin Johnson, at one time the largest single-panel painting in the United States, depicted centuries of military leaders utilizing centuries of military innovations, all concurrently engaged in one epic orgy of battle on the dining hall wall at the officers’ school. It sounded too absurd to be true.
At least a dozen phone calls and assurances that I meant no harm resulted in an apparent dead end. I wasn’t versed enough to charm the historians, nor did I have the credentials to convince the bureacrats. When they did return my calls, they were always terse and punctual at nine o’clock—their time—which was six am in Portland. The day before I left for New York, for an art opening showcasing my own large-scale painting, I received a wakeup call:
“Um, speaking,” I croaked.
“This is Deb DeGraw from public relations at West Point. I have received information from Mr. Beckwith (I fully expected to hear “Major Major”) that you wish to see the mural in Washington Hall. Access to the Cadet Zone is limited to West Point personnel, so Mr. Brzywczy will escort you. It’s pronounced ‘Breezy.’ It’s Polish.”
“Gee, thanks, that’s great news.”
“We have some printed information about the mural for you. Please don’t ask Mr. Brzywczy any questions. He doesn’t know anything about the painting.”
But Mr. Brzywczy knows, or is willing to divulge, more about the mural, the campus and cadet life than anyone else. He prints some information about the painting while I wait in the dismal Public Relations break room. The table is nearly bare except for a mannequin’s severed leg modeling a brown shoe with no sock. Mr. Brzywczy reappears and we stroll the grounds overlooking the Hudson. The day is unbridled splendor. The river appears placid and pure—not at all the same thing channeled past Manhattan—and the verdant lawns and timeworn stone of the campus are shaded by carefully groomed trees, just now considering a change to autumn’s palette.
Mr. Brzywczy tells me he has served in the army his whole life, though never in combat. He’d been a Visitor Liaison at West Point for almost two decades before he up and moved to Pennsylvania, to make a new start. He was back at West Point the next year. He asks again why I’m here. I hedge a bit: I’m a grad student, or a freelance arts writer. Somehow just being curious doesn’t cut it.
I had the war on my mind. Or rather, I had not having the war on my mind, on my mind.
In those first breathless days, when US jets swept over Baghdad to light the fires of a living hell in one of the world’s oldest, most-cherished cities, I could feel it. My friends and I were out in the streets, weren’t we? I remember New York blocks choked off by horse cops and barricades, and everyone trying to find the rally (as if the continuous sea of protesters was not rally enough). I recall marching in Portland, closing the bridges, bikes on Interstate 5, some cop pepper spraying a TV reporter. It was urgent.
And then, slowly, it wasn’t. What was outrageous became expected. The absurd became commonplace.
Random immigrants swept up by secret police and flown overnight to Egypt to be tortured? Wiretaps, blacklisting and The Joint Terrorism Taskforce? “War on Terrorism?” “Axis of Evil?” “Freedom Fries?” “Shock and Awe?” This was my country, now. The Vice-President shot someone in the face? Our kids will never believe us, I hope.
Every time I blinked, the apparition intensified. But soon the Times stopped printing the faces of the dead soldiers. And then, even as the IEDs, car-bombings, and checkpoint-shootings escalated, the stories fell into the nether pages of the daily news. The local daily, The Oregonian, ran a headline in gargantuan font that said “Me-ouch!” It was about some kids in the suburbs who shot a house cat with an arrow.
It ebbed in me, too, the urgency. It wasn’t the media’s fault. The liberal media, in fact, seemed tireless. The Harper’s headlines, The Nation, things I could read before— they grated on me. They scowled from their soapboxes by the grocery conveyer belt. They sounded suddenly like conspiracy theorists, like some wing-nut uncle whose tirades ruin a good meal, but who can’t get the bare essentials of his life in order. I was that uncle once, but I now kept my peace. Beneath my outward apathy I felt the gnawing of shame at my inaction.
How to wake from this slumber? Something was more not right in the standard not-rightness of the world. It was like a string tied to my finger, but trailing loose behind me, hardly noticeable as time passed. I was looking for something to tie it to.
Who was T. Loftin Johnson? Why did he spend two years researching, planning, and painting The Decisive Battles of the World? We know he was from Denver but spent his adult life in New York. We know he was a Yale man, a fine arts graduate in 1923, who went on to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The little else we know is largely through the thick filter of the West Point historians.
The mural is 70 feet wide and almost 40 high. It was painted with egg-tempera, a medium every bit as arduous as fresco, using 35-dozen fresh eggs mixed with oil pigments. It was a WPA project, begun in 1935, and T (for Tom) made a cool 30 bucks a week painting it. Not the worst gig in the tail end of the Depression. But Tom was in it for more than the money, it seems. Before he died, he asked to be cremated, and have his ashes placed under the mural with a brass plate indicating that “He gave his best to West Point.”
His request was not honored.
The place reeks of history. West Point’s legacy is braided with America’s from its days as a colonial fort to the so-called ‘long gray line’ of officers it has fed to our growing military empire. The list of graduates is a ‘who’s who’ of US military history: U.S. Grant, Sherman, Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, Jefferson Davis, Custer, Pershing, Patton, MacArthur, Westmoreland, Schwarzkopf.
Edgar Allen Poe was expelled. James McNeill Whistler flunked out. Eisenhower almost didn’t make it due to low grades and demerits. The campus is littered with bronze effigies of stern men, staring down the imagined enemy with unflinching eyes.
Mr. Brzywczy leads me across the campus, where a battery of ancient cannons overlooks the Hudson. A small group of cadets in clean fatigues listens as their teacher lectures on some tenet of military honor. I can’t believe how young they are. They fidget and mill while the officer goes on about “LDRSHIP.” The illiterate acronym stands for the seven core army values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. The army has had the most trouble, recently, with integrity, which it defines as “Do what’s right, both legally and morally.” Even the conservative news makes it clear that many troops are not doing what’s right, but what’s ordered, or implicitly permitted, or what they think they can get away with: torture, murder, rape. It’s too abstract, I think. Do these kids need a moral code like a manual?
Several links of an enormous chain sit near the cannons. In the Revolutionary War, as the British boats attempted to work their way up the river to divide New York from New England, this chain was strung across the width of the Hudson and anchored on Constitution Island. This shimmering day, amongst the fresh-cut grass and the elms and oaks swaying in late summer torpor, an invasion on the river seems as far away as any threat. As unlikely as the fact that across the world, in blistering desert heat, American soldiers not unlike these cadets are humping automatic weapons through the dust storms, killing and dying for the agendas of wizened old neo-cons and Christian fundamentalists.
In fourth grade I read the bible cover-to-cover and realized the enormity of death. I was shaken by the gravity of the text: the violent tests of faith in the Old Testament, the fantastical descriptions of Hell, and the words of a God that demanded to be feared. This was nothing like the hippy-hope church we went to every Sunday, a congregation given to celebrations of community and spirit, and to the certainty of redemption. On vacation with my best friend’s family in Southern Oregon I made it through The Book of Revelations. I couldn’t sleep.
It was the sheer terror in the language, so distant from the pleasure I saw in life, that first created doubt in my mind about those who strive to live by strict biblical interpretation. Two years later, during the first Persian Gulf War, something clicked: life, for all we know, is finite, and thus is infinitely precious. And yet here were tens of thousands of American troops, boys my brother’s age, killing people and risking their own deaths. For what? That was the start of the war dreams that continue to plague me in adulthood. Night after night I would lie in worry that somehow this distant monster would sweep me up in its violence.
Seventeen years and several wars later, the absurdity of dying for an abstraction of imperialist goals is no less mystifying. The elaborate framework of nationalism, the promise of heroism and the pressures of class seem inadequate when held up to the brutal light of war. But abstraction is powerful. The distance created, even in the age of the camera-phone, between the tax-paying masses and the reality of war—the smell of burnt hair, the sucking pressure of a bomb, the surprised stare of death in the eyes of a stranger—has allowed us to be complicit in the massacre.
A massacre was what Picasso had in mind when he painted Guernica. The previously apolitical artist, at the height of his powers, was so stricken by photographs from the Nazi bombing of a little Basque village that he chose this as his subject for the 1937 Paris Exposition. Picasso’s eschewing of realist techniques allowed the artist access to a visual convocation of atrocity that was out of the reach of the narrative painters of the time. The club-like hands and feet of the dying victims, the twisted horse with dagger tongue and broken leg, the disregard for the proportion and alignment we expect of the world plunges the viewer of Guernica into the nightmare.
Across the Atlantic, American artists were adopting a decidedly more didactic style from the Mexican muralists to their south. The Works Progress Administration was funding legions of artists to decorate train stations and post offices in the social realist manner. Many used this opportunity to champion worker’s rights, racial equality, or communism. Paul Cadmus’ Fleet’s In depicts a lurid shore-leave scene replete with garish prostitutes, drunken sailors, and homoerotic gestures. The painting was yanked from the Corcoran, but the controversy ignited Cadmus’ career. He would go on to paint Herrin Massacre, a brutally graphic rendering of union coalminers killing unarmed ‘scabs’ at an Illinois cemetery in 1922. Cadmus’ work takes the opposite route from that of Picasso, imbuing every creased scowl of his mob, every drop of blood, and the tines of an outthrust pitchfork with excruciating detail in egg tempera. The central attacker wears black and his victim has been stripped of all but his shoes and made both statuesque and vulnerable.
A year before Guernica, Tom Loftin Johnson was putting the finishing touches on a different sort of war painting. The Decisive Battles of the World took over a year to plan and another year for Johnson and one assistant to execute. Johnson lost funding halfway through the project and had to personally persuade General Douglas MacArthur, then Chief of Staff, to support the painting. In Johnson’s words:
“I well remember how dramatically he paced up and down the floor…and then turning suddenly, said, ‘West Point must have that mural.’”
At the new library, still under construction netting, Mr. Brzywczy and I are suddenly caught in some kind of passing period. A flood of cadets, gabbling in groups of three or four, gushes out of every building to fill the courtyard. Although we are the only ones not wearing uniforms, we are afforded scarcely a glance. There are more women than I expect, (women comprise about 15 % of the 4,300 cadets) and two linger for a moment at the edge of the library’s shadow, swapping items from identical backpacks. A boy clutches an important looking envelope, exchanging hi-fives with a friend as he rushes past. The giddy, pheromone-filled courtyard brings back memories of that time in my life: the new freedoms, the seeming weight of every choice. When the recruiters started calling in my junior year of high school, I learned not to try to negotiate. They would ask for me by name and I would say “Just a second,” and put the phone down against the stereo until they hung up.
We stroll up to The Plain, a sprawling parade ground adjoining the mess hall. A note of reverence enters Mr. Brzywczy’s tone as he describes the formation of students before mealtimes. “Imagine,” he prompts. “A few thousand cadets are somehow able to fall into the exact place at the exact time. The whole thing takes less than five minutes and then they’re eating.”
On this idyllic morning in one of the nerve centers of the American Empire we enter the cavernous mess hall. The six-story gothic building is bedecked with dozens of flags and stained glass panels, like some kind of battleship cathedral. It is still well before lunch, and staff members scurry between the rows of hundreds of tables. Each white tablecloth bears a sign in handwritten code. Mr. Brzywczy explains that the code determines the size of the serving for each of the tables. The offensive line of the football team, for example, sits at one table, and they are served triple portions to better bulk up against Navy linebackers.
The mess hall is the site of much of the hazing of freshman cadets, also called fourth-class cadets, or ‘plebes.’ The name comes from the commoners of Ancient Rome, set aside from the Patrician class. Plebes address upperclassmen within a code of respect and servitude: they do not eat until their superiors give them permission; they put down their forks when addressed by any student with seniority. In this way, the rigid hierarchy of the military permeates every corner of domestic life, establishing ranks within ranks, a chain of command for every mundane detail in a cadet’s world.
Much has been made of the current occupation of Iraq as a “War of Images.” The carefully staged photos of George W. Bush announcing victory from an aircraft carrier, or the toppling statue of Hussein have eroded in a steady stream of firsthand footage by civilians, aid workers, and un-embedded reporters. We saw the charred corpses of contractors (the new term for mercenaries) hung from a Falluja bridge, reduced to burnt clumps of meat. We saw photos, taken from every angle, of a white car that had been shot at an American checkpoint. A trail of bright blood was fanned down the driver’s door. We learned a new and sinister meaning for ‘human pyramid.’
As with any second-hand event, this flood of images, combined with rhetoric from all sides, is how we construct our impression of this war. Jean Baudrillard suggested during the first Gulf War that the constructions of media and political posturing might supplant the supposed event itself, creating not a classical war like we were made to believe, but some shadow play of international actors. While world powers carry out prescribed actions in the Theater of Operations, real people are killed in situations far removed from the televised ‘war’ on the network news.
What then is the role of the image-maker in this maelstrom? The field has changed since Tom Loftin Johnson’s time, most notably in that technical innovations have thrown photography into the company of painting, as a medium to be distrusted in the realm of fact. Johnson said “I would make my symbols from real men and real events (rather) than allegory or mythology.”
But history is the winner’s story, and is often as thick with myth as fiction itself.
The painting is colossal; it’s hard to get your eyes around. Mr. Brzywczy strikes up a conversation with a passing officer and I am left to negotiate the maze of tables as I take in the work.
The painting is also newly restored. The colors are vivid and the surface shows no evidence of food fights. West Point has, for reasons I cannot ascertain, renamed the mural The Panorama of Military History, and it is referred to as such in the restoration reports. The restorer notes that there were large cracks in the wall (caused by a leaky roof in the 1980s), some jutting out a quarter inch. She also mentions the “thick dust accumulation” on Napoleon’s head, cracking through his arms and legs, and bird droppings on his cape. History has not been kind to the little general.
Johnson’s original plan was to make two murals. His aim, in painting Decisive Battles of the World was to “select the outstanding men and events that would symbolize the significant turning points in human conquest.” Across the hall, on the north wall, he planned the Glory of American Arms, a work of the same scale “…showing our American History and our American leaders, all treated in a similar manner.” He also hung flags representing American war victories and envisioned a polychrome ceiling “with quotes from the famous generals,” and ornate flowers representing the different countries that colonized America.
The manner of treatment is one of overall frenetic activity. Johnson layered figures from 558 BC to 1914 AD, all grouped into the same scene, yet all preoccupied with their own battles and unconcerned with the time travelers amongst them.
Richard the Lionhearted is the central figure. Banners unfurl behind him and he lifts his great sword high as he rides his steed directly into the supine form of Joan of Arc who, surrounded by adoring disciples, gazes heavenward directly up the scanty loincloth of the runner at Marathon, on his way to bring news to Athens of Militiades’ victory over Persia in 490 BC. The action is tiered in three loose horizontal levels: ancient history at the top, then medieval and modern at the base and in the foreground. Thus, Mohammed II, dismounting after taking Constantinople in 1453, seems perhaps to be tripped up in the waving American flag held by Horatio Gates, who has just accepted the British surrender at Saratoga in 1777.
Johnson based his mural on the book The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo, by Sir Edward Creasy, published in 1852. Creasy’s battles make up twelve of the 22 dramas depicted, the most recent of which is French commander Joseph Joffre planning his attack at the First Battle of the Marne in WWI. That (lower right) corner is littered with new technologies: gas mask, field radio, trench, barbed wire, binoculars, heavy artillery; there is even the tip of an airplane wing jutting just into the frame.
But for all the action in Decisive Battles of the World, there is very little evidence of battle. The heroes are clean. They and their mounts are unwounded, though arrows fly from Arminius’ archers in 9 AD toward Cyrus’ army taking Babylon in 558 BC in the upper left corner. The only obvious casualty (aside from the reclining, but still breathing Joan of Arc) is a hapless, bloodless knight, still in a full suit of unblemished armor, facedown beneath King Richard. Richard is without a fixed date. His decisive battle is set from 1157-1199 AD, which encompasses his entire life. Richard I led the Third Crusade, started or suppressed several revolts, and permitted the widespread massacre of the Jewish inhabitants of London.
Johnson’s mural is grounded in a mythical representation of war. In this fabulous imaginary place, there is no blood on the battlefield. The bravery and grace of great leaders have replaced the details of their victories: the so-called collateral damages incurred in every fight. The one casualty in this epic battle-of-all-battles, the poor knight, looks to be the losing actor in some chivalrous charade, or maybe just a medieval plebe, waiting out the end of his hazing.
The myth of the nobility of war is what enables leaders to perpetuate it. Nations themselves are mythical entities, in the sense that they shore up psychic and geographical borders by imagining a people set apart from their neighbors. The ‘ethnic’ conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda were conjured by political criminals who found they could use fear to gain power. They exhumed old myths of racial superiority to inspire fear in their supporters and divide the people.
To think of all these future officers dining three times a day under this sanitized celebration of military innovation is disquieting. With the responsibility we place in these commanders’ hands comes the understanding that they can grasp the gravity of battle. I would guess that, once they witness battle, they certainly do. A common complaint in America’s military actions since WWII has been from the soldiers, protesting that they enlisted to serve their country and ended up fighting not for any of those core army values (LDRSHIP), but left the service feeling duped and betrayed by their commanders in Washington.
So perhaps it is the citizenry, the electorate, that needs to see the battlefield in gory detail. Novelist J.M. Coetzee, through the character Elizabeth Costello, debates the worth of representing violence and suffering in literature (which implicates all the arts). Costello is the author’s stand-in and alter ego, both the devil and angel on his shoulder, and she presents opinions offered publicly by Coetzee along with others that he seems to discredit. In the novel Elizabeth Costello, she confronts Paul West (an actual American author) at a literary conference, and publicly attacks him for describing, in horrific detail, the torture and execution of Hitler’s would-be assassins in 1944. Says Costello, “I do not believe Mr. West should go there; and, if he chooses to go nevertheless, I believe we should not follow.”
Artist George Gessert, in a recent essay titled An Orgy of Power (on the Bush Administration’s use of torture), takes issue with the fictional Ms. Costello, saying, “The art of reading involves intuiting when to read and when not.” I would go one step further. The art of living necessitates that we cultivate some degree of empathy. In our current age the challenge to the ‘haves’ is to learn the gory consequences our lifestyle incurs on those who have not. It is an ethical responsibility to “go there,” to read on when we want to stop.
Paul West, who some believed had been personally attacked by Coetzee in the novel, didn’t take offense. “I think he invented (Elizabeth Costello) to voice an opinion that he despised…If you don’t get into the nitty-gritty of this horrible stuff, then you are not sympathizing, empathizing…I think literature has an obligation to do that.”
The yellow ribbon bumper stickers that read, “Support the Troops,” represent the very attitudes that endanger them. Although the sentiment presumably cloaks a pro-war stance within an innocuous, vacuous phrase, the real threat is not the “support,” but “the troops.”
When we regard an army as no more than a collective force we are submitting to the mentality of war. Whether one thinks every soldier heroic, or wicked, or victims of their superiors, the frame of thought that makes a soldier anonymous then consigns him to the moral vacuum of the battlefield: now he is free to join the long gray line. Now he is reduced to being a pawn, a weapon, and statistic. An act of heroism or infamy might restore some individually, but the camouflage of being one in half of one million permits both good deeds and war crimes to go unnoticed.
Instead, in the aura of honor reflecting off the myth of war, soldiers are permitted to shed individual culpability. This homogeneity, this masking, is the first step in allowing the illogic of war into our lives. I am as guilty — if not guiltier — than most. I have known a handful of people serving in the military in the last several years and not once did I confront them. I never asked them what they were willing to kill for or if they considered their job a just one. It doesn’t matter if I could not have changed their minds — I didn’t even try. I shut up and consigned them, in my mind, to a nameless legion. My silence, my retreat was permissive, and there lies my complicity.
From the mess hall we drive to the cadet chapel, an exquisite gothic church perched on a hill over Washington Hall, with a view of the entire campus and (it seems) the entire Hudson River. The modest-sized chapel’s gigantic organ is, appropriately, the largest of any religious building in the world. The 20,000 or so pipes are hidden throughout the building: under pews, behind the alter, even sprouting outside over the front entrance. I was not permitted to play the organ.
Mr. Brzywczy brings me back near the Visitor Center, to drop me at the museum. A zealous attendant stops us at the parking lot. He is a classic retired drill sergeant — a short, ruddy pit bull — who launches into a tirade about DC-area traffic as he examines our IDs.
“Took me two fuckin’ hours just to get down the beltway. Some war protest at the Capital. Jane Fonda and all those faggots.”
Mr. Brzywczy nods and moves us along. Officer Parking Attendant’s opinions are not part of the official tour, but we both know it comes with the territory.
Where to fit Decisive Battles of the World in the canon of WPA-era social realism? West Point documents refer to Johnson as “well-known,” but, although he was twice mentioned in Time magazine, and produced several mural-scale works across the country, he seems to have been scarcely recognized within the art community. His legacy, outside academy grounds, is dubious. This is strange for an artist who was based in New York and who could accomplish a work of such grandiose scale, detail, and thematic ambition.
This anonymity may have more to do with his politics: the lasting importance of the New Deal painters is not that they put a landscape in every post office, but that the best of them crafted a uniquely American— and yet boldly subversive, even outright communistic— visual agenda. It was a forewarning of the hotpot of civil rights issues that were to boil over in the coming decades, but Johnson was trumpeting military grandeur and nationalist virtues in a way that seems suspect even in those pre-WWII, isolationist years.
Another strand of social realism was developing, across the pond, and its commonalities with Johnson’s panorama cannot be ignored. The art of the National Socialist Movement in Nazi Germany shares the glorification of warfare, the bloodless battleground, and the interest in a military hierarchy that Decisive Battles of the World depicts in bold strokes.
Werner Peiner’s epic war tapestries are even more crowded and convoluted than Johnson’s mural. The tiers of soldiers in Frederick the Great at Kunersdorf (1943) are strikingly similar, with opposing armies aiming diagonal spears, rearing horses, flapping flags, and wheeled canons in the same place. It is doubtful that Peiner would have ever been to West Point, but the spirit is shared.
Emil Scheibe’s Hitler at the Front, also from 1943, is another example. Scheibe painted his Fürher standing tall amidst a throng of brave soldiers, whose detailed faces are redolent of George Tooker’s caricatures. Ferdinand Spiegel’s Tank is an enormous mural utilizing Johnson’s brand of collapsed history in a clumsier way: a scene of Prussian cavalrymen felling their enemies is magically suspended over an advancing column of Nazi tanks. Distant bombs prop the illusion from beneath.
Franz Eichhorst painted murals that dwarf Johnson’s in scale (105 feet wide) but likewise celebrate soldiers and heroic generals, and likewise sanitize the battlefield. Nazi ideologue Robert Volz commended “The beauty and singularity of these frescoes is the almost total absence of blood and screams, the unbearably realistic has been avoided.”
Peter Adam, in his book Art of the Third Reich states “The war became the new inspiration for the artist, but not the horror of it…the soldier was shown as the glorious victor. Paintings of the great battles in German history glorified the country’s military tradition and justified the continuing struggle.”
Susan Sontag wrote that “Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death.” Mindlessness is certainly a paramount feature in Third Reich paintings, and surrender to a conception of racial purity and progress, although death seems to be pushed from the frame. Indeed, the Nazi artists seemed preoccupied with youthful vigor. Leni Riefenstahl celebrated the precise, toned bodies of German Olympians, mountaineers, and soldiers. The painters and sculptors of the time rejoiced in saccharine images of flaxen youth, features streamlined to resemble some offspring between a Nordic god and a Brancusi.
Tom Loftin Johnson, deprived of his mural’s American sequel, portrayed a largely European military tradition. Of the mural’s 22 battles, 19 are in Europe by European leaders (counting Mohammed II’s siege of Constantinople). Two American generals are honored, and one ancient Persian. There is no mention of Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun. Christopher Columbus is shown in Granada in 1492, witnessing the Moorish surrender of the city and making his appeal for a voyage to the New World. This is one of the ten ‘decisive battles’ Johnson added to Lord Creasy’s list, and perhaps the artist regarded European colonialism as a single military campaign. It was certainly decisive.
As Johnson worked, the cadets purportedly snuck some peeks behind his tented scaffolding, leaving notes with their suggestions: “Please darken the leggin's (sic) in front of Pheidippides' stomach. From a distance this gives him the appearance of potgut. Don't you think him a shade pink for a warrior? And what is that black face behind Miltiades?” West Point had been integrated since 1870, but apparently even Johnson’s Euro-centric world history was too inclusive for some students. I saw no black face behind Miltiades, although there is one soldier, a standard-bearer in Alexander the Great’s entourage, who is rendered as an African stereotype with bulging eyes and bright red lips.
In 1941 T. Loftin Johnson won first prize at the Carnegie Institute’s annual exhibition. His winning composition, for which he received one thousand dollars, was called American Pieta. It portrayed an African American family “bearing home the corpse of a lynched relative.”
If Decisive Battles of the World is at odds with the collective course of WPA-era painted narrative, then American Pieta is worlds apart from the mural at West Point. The Carnegie Institute’s juried exhibition featured “little-knowns and unknowns,” and Johnson, who had never before had a public exhibition, was surprised to win first prize.
What of the content, so divorced from the pseudo-fascist, jingoistic melee of the mural in Washington Hall? Was Johnson merely an illustrator, adjusting his subject to the whim of the client, or did he eventually adopt progressive thought and imagery? If so, did he do this to follow a changing wind in art or ethics, or to satisfy personal convictions? Were the themes of these two works not at odds in the artist’s mind?
Johnson was unemployed at the time he won the Carnegie Prize, but soon took a job as an instructor at West Point, where he taught ‘graphics’ until 1945. Sources say Johnson died in the Bronx in 1963 and was buried in his home state of Colorado.
I finish my morning at the Military Museum. The building feels like a giant closet, stuffed pell-mell with weaponry and historic knickknacks. A plaster mask of Sitting Bull is fixed under a map reading “Indian Wars.” The Vietnam vitrine holds tripwires and punji sticks. There’s a bizarre, terrible, impressionistic painting of an Army– Navy football game in 1946, painted by LeRoy Neiman who, according to his web site, is “probably the most popular living artist in the United States.” There’s a painting of Buzz Aldrin (a West Point graduate) standing on the moon without his helmet on (holding his breath?). A recent work depicts Kristen Baker, the first female First Captain to leave West Point. Painting is still the chosen media of commemoration here, at least until you earn a bronze likeness.
In the gift shop a large banner reads, “Army wins with Nike.” The jerseys and hats are no different from any college store; they just happen to bear the name of the oldest, largest branch of the armed forces. They hang in rows under banks of track lights.
The basement is crammed with dozens of cannons and anti-aircraft guns. Unlike the tracksuits, they’re hardly lit, parked behind railings in the low-ceilinged space. There’s also an immense bomb, big enough that it wouldn’t need to explode to devastate a house. As I move through the room, I’m always in the sights of at least some of the artillery, and this makes me nervous as I pore over the placards.
I emerge into the sunlight near a tank, the Thunderbolt VII, which is parked on a concrete pedestal in front of the visitors’ center. I wonder idly if it is operational. Some teenage girls, perhaps prospective cadets, emerge from the gift shop with new sweatshirts. They pay no mind to the enormous tank. The tank plinth is un-shaded, and as I close my eyes to feel sunlight on my eyelids I can let the traffic noise and the chattering of tourists dissolve around the bits of birdsong from nearby trees.
But soon my cab arrives, whisking me back to Peekskill, to my train to Manhattan, to the subway, another train and then through the checkpoints and corridors at JFK. I will try to read as my jet idles on the runway. My eyes will drift and slip from the page, uncomprehending, as I fight to ignore the barrage of announcements and warnings, the pact of powerlessness that comes with being a passenger. I will struggle to maintain some taste of the day against the recycled air, to bring back something lucid, something visceral to my rainy city life. But the impression is fleeting and Portland seems far away. If I was looking for a target I have found instead another layer of contradictions. Would I know evil if I saw it or would it be so masked in banality and good intentions as to be indistinct from any authority, or a friend, or myself? The thing that will stick with me, when I again browse my own disjointed notes is the feeling of calm, the unhurried peace that abounds within places of command.