The military in art

Topic: SocietyWar
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Last updated: March 4, 2019

Timothy O’Sullivan’s ”Harvest of Death,” Felix de Weldon’s Marine Corps War Memorial, and Eddie Adams’ photo of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a suspected Viet Cong guerrilla display different aspects of war.  O’Sullivan shows the presence of death in a good cause, while de Weldon’s sculpture unquestioningly shows triumph and Adams photo shows the ugliness and murkiness of modern warfare.

Though all three works share the general theme of war, they approach their topics very differently.  O’Sullivan’s photo, taken at Gettysburg in 1863 while the photographer was working for Mathew Brady, shows death as the reality of warfare but does not openly comment on whether they needed to die, or on whether the war was worthwhile.  It shows bodies strewn across a field, looking as though they lay where they were killed.  The Marine Corps memorial, completed in 1954 and influenced by Joe Rosenthal’s famous photo of Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, is clearly triumphant and evokes themes of victory and bravery.  Adams’ 1968 photo of Nguyen executing a suspected Viet Cong leader, on the other hand, does not convey simply the presence of death or triumph in a noble cause; instead, it shows the war’s ugliness and ambiguity, with a civilian being shot on a Saigon street.O’Sullivan and de Weldon are, if not overtly pro-war, then certainly not opposed to it, since their works show sacrifice and bravery.  The dead in O’Sullivan’s photo are likely Union soldiers killed for a good cause (which Lincoln defined and made virtually sacred with the Gettysburg Address), thus making them “good guys.

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”  In de Weldon’s sculpture, the Marines are not merely victors but heroes, and their image has become extremely familiar to Americans over the past six decades.In Adams’ photo, on the other hand, Nguyen and the suspect occupy different roles according to how one feels about the Vietnam War.  Those supporting the United States and South Vietnam would see Nguyen (a military officer and chief of South Vietnam’s national police) as a hero and the condemned man as a “bad guy” who meets a fitting end, while those who see the war as one of liberation and unification would have the opposite view of each man.  Indeed, the photo made both impressions on the deeply-divided American public.  Adams later apologized to Nguyen for the photo, which damaged his reputation and made him appear a ruthless murderer rather than a soldier doing his duty during the Tet offensive (Wikipedia, “Nguyen Ngoc Loan”).As for whether the figures shown represent good or bad causes, Adams’ work is again the least clear-cut.

  The soldiers O’Sullivan and de Weldon show clearly fought for good causes, since the Civil War and World War II were won by the forces of abolition and democracy, respectively.  In the Vietnam War, “good” and “bad” are highly relative, given the nature of the conflict, though one could say that Nguyen was the villain, given the fact that the execution (photographed by both Adams and an NBC cameraman) helped turn public opinion against the war (Wikipedia, “Nguyen Ngoc Loan”).Taken together, the three works show the complexity of war and the military.  O’Sullivan’s traditional view emphasizes the sacrifice and the reality of death in war, with which many Americans of the time were not yet familiar.  De Weldon’s piece attests to the valor and ultimate victory of American forces (as well as to the glory of the battle, perhaps because no corpses are visible), while Adams’ photo shows war’s ugliness and ambiguity in ways that O’Sullivan’s picture does not begin to approach.SOURCESAnonymous.

  “Nguyen Ngoc Loan.”  Wikipedia.  9 September 2005.  <

co.uk/USAPosullivan.htm”>http://en.

wikipedia.org/wiki/USMC_War_Memorial>. Hoffman, Nancy Lee White.  “Leatherneck: Marine Corps War Memorial Turns 50.

”  Military.com.  9 September 2005.  <http://military.com/NewContent/0,13190,Leatherneck_Birthday_110104,00.html>.

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