Today is Veterans Day, a holiday to honor the men and women who have fought in combat while serving in the armed forces. Woodrow Wilson officially declared it a holiday to “be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service,” and was originally designated Armistice Day, the first anniversary of the end of World War I (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month).
Armistice Day was changed by law to Veterans Day in the 1950s after the Korean War once we realized that “the war to end all wars” failed to do just that. But why lump all veterans under one holiday? The new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway), WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath, offers insight.
A mix of iconic and little-known daguerreotypes, original prints, and reproductions from the 1850s to the present day, the exhibit arranges a collection of 400 photographs by professional and amateur photographers into categories such as “training,” “battle,” and “homecoming.” Without a strict chronology, we wind up with Crimean War photographs next to Iraq War AP photos and Spanish Civil War snapshots.
These photographs do not glorify war; far from it. The stark realism and organization of the exhibit makes it impossible to ignore the fact that all wars are repeating iterations of the same theme. Soldiers were torn apart by cannon 150 years ago just as violently as they are today — only now we can kill more at once and keep more of them alive.
A large source of photographs is the First World War, the progenitor of Veterans Day and the first major war where photography was widely available. In just over four years, nearly 65 million men ran at each other until over half of them were either killed or maimed. It was devastation on a scale that was and is hard to imagine even with abundant photographic evidence.
Still these numbers are hard to conceptualize today. But directly across the street from the Brooklyn Museum, running from Grand Army Plaza off east into the distance, is a long walkway lined by new-growth trees. Most of these trees are marked by small plaques. It is easy to disregard these four by nine inch bronze markers laid in the ground — most are corroded or obscured by leaves and dirt. A closer look reveals these aren’t sponsored donor plaques — they are 230-odd memorials for Brooklynites lost in “The World War.”
These markers were placed by family members shortly after the end of the war in 1918. Eventually “The World War” became the “The First World War” as a new set of horrors was visited upon humanity. Slowly The Great War receded into the past as those who lived through it died off, and as conflicts in Spain, Korea, Indochina, Vietnam, the Congo, the Falklands, Argentina, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many more filled the public consciousness. The iterations renewed as the wheel of war spun on.
Over the years, many of the plaques were stolen or damaged. The rest were simply covered by the dust and detritus of everyday life. As leaves fell and composted, the grass grew higher, and the plaques seem to sink deeper into the earth. But, really, they stayed in the same place — it was we who grew up around them and forgot.
Holidays like Veterans Day are meant to remind us. Like all material things these plaques seem permanent, but they will ultimately disappear. The trees they accompany will die and may never be replaced. It is only human consciousness that remains. But we must remain vigilant. Wars are easy to forget and even easier to repeat. We must remember the men and women, both alive and dead, who fought in all wars — however noble or ignoble those battles may seem to us.
The silly new video game that romanticizes war with the tag line “There’s a soldier in all of us,” has it backwards. Looking at the photos in this exhibit, you can’t help but see how much these soldiers, spanning decades, have in common with each other, with us. There isn’t a soldier in all of us; we are in each of these soldiers. Remember that today and whenever you stroll Eastern Parkway to the Brooklyn Museum.
WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY runs through February 2, 2014 at the Brooklyn Museum (closed Mondays and Tuesdays).