Traumas of War in Everyday America

Art series aims to expose the traumas of war in everyday America

One of the clarion calls of anti-war movement has been, "Bring the war home!" This month, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are responding to that call creatively with Chicago In War, a project of the National Veterans Art Museum. Chicago In War is "a series of events, art shows, and performances that explores the continued rupturing of the traumas of war in everyday America," according to its organizers. The serieshonors movement across the nation by artists, cultural workers, veterans, and activists seeking to bring the reality of war home through creative resistance.

Chicago In War, which spans the month of November, aims to engage veterans and civilians alike. The series features a spectrum of arts events and installations, ranging from Warrior Writers workshops, in which veterans write about the experience of war, to Intrusive Thoughts, an art exhibition by veterans from the Global War on Terror. Other events include a homeless veteran Stand Down, at which hundreds of homeless veterans will receive food, clothing, and other services, and a live concert of resistance songs. For a complete list of events, including those highlighted in this article, please visit this site.

It is now 2010: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to rage on, casualties from the War on Terror climb nightmarishly into the hundreds of thousands (more than 122,000 civilian deaths just in Iraq, according to Wikileaks), and within our military, escalating rates of suicide and PTSD are being ignored. Pundits and politicians of increasing number refuse to engage the topic, creating a society in which those veterans that return home face a fundamental social disconnect. A recent statement by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) represents the situation accurately:

As veterans, we know that the violence documented in the Wikileaks Iraq War Logs traumatizes the people living under occupation. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also have been marked by staggering rates of military trauma and suicide among the troops tasked with carrying out these orders. In 2009, 239 Army soldiers killed themselves and 1,713 soldiers survived suicide attempts; 146 soldiers died from high-risk activities, including 74 drug overdoses [Note that this only refers to problems within the Army Branch]. A third of returning troops report mental health problems, and 18.5 percent of all returning service members are battling either Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or depression, according to a study by the Rand Corporation.

Aaron Hughes, a veteran, artist, and Chicago-based IVAW organizer, concurs. "We're in the midst of an epidemic of suicide, homicide, depression, and homelessness among veterans. And this is just the beginning." But, he offers, "I want Chicago In War to change that."

To challenge the existing paradigm of suffering and disempowerment, Hughes curated Intrusive Thoughts, an art exhibition by veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Global War on Terror, premiering next weekend. He explains that veterans across the nation are using art as a social tool, a way of making the reality of war real to the rest of us. "The artists in Intrusive Thoughts have been working day in and day out, trying to find ways to not only the rupture the space of the everyday world and bring the war to the forefront of people's consciousnesses, but to do it in a complicated way," says Hughes. "These veterans want to acknowledge the complexities of experience, of trauma."

The exhibition seizes on the unique power of art as a story-telling medium capable of saying what cannot otherwise be said. Citing a political climate of silence surrounding veterans and the war, Hughes argues, "We know we're at war, but we can't talk about it. This show is about bringing those repressed traumas to the surface, about putting the disconnects of our society in context." To this end, he invited artist veterans to create work for the show, and sought the participation of Warrior Writers and the Combat Paper Project, two groups offering creative workshops to veterans.

Intrusive Thoughts, like the whole of the series,aims to engage civilians as well as veterans and GIs, as it highlights disconnects and uncovers what has been socially repressed. This can be a transformative process not only for veterans, but also for those who struggle to understand the experiences of American GIs. After an exhibition of his work in 2006, Hughes was approached by the mother of a National Guardsman deployed overseas. "Thank you," she told him. "Now I can finally understand what my son was never able to tell me in words."

"Art and writing contributes unique, creative, personal, and truly honest perspectives to discussions concerning war and trauma," writes Lovella Calica, founder of Warrior Writers, who is participating in the Intrusive Thoughts exhibition and conducting writing workshops for veterans during the series. "By opening ourselves to this artwork, we can get out of our brains a little and listen with our spiritual and emotional selves, which is horribly lacking in this society." Calica led her first writing workshop in New York in February 2007 with ten veterans who gathered to share their experiences in the military. The group that grew out of that first meeting-Warrior Writers-has steadily grown in capacity and impact since then. She explains, "Warrior Writers exists to put the veterans' experiences out there (via their own artwork) and to provide a healing and supportive community for veterans to grow and explore themselves, each others experiences and art."

Writing is both democratic and utilitarian: whether deployed overseas or at home, all you need is a pencil and paper. We have seen writing serve as a radical tool of re-humanization in hellish contexts. Whether poetry scribbled on a scrap of toilet paper, surreptitiously smuggled out by a lawyer, as in Poems From Guantanamo: Detainees Speak Out (2007), or the articulation of war-time traumas by Warrior Writers participants in Re-Making Sense (2008), the creative process becomes an indispensable part of making meaning.

Nicolas Lampert, an artist with the Justseeds Artists' Collective, believes firmly in the power of art to create new frameworks for understanding one's experiences. As part of the Chicago in War series, Justseeds has collaborated with IVAW to produce posters and stencils celebrating IVAW's new campaign, Operation Recovery: Stop the Deployment of Traumatized Troops and GI resistance.

Justseeds and IVAW have special plans for the exhibition of their pieces: they want to "penetrate the cultural consciousness of Chicago" by reclaiming public and commercial space: artists and veterans will be wheat-pasting and stenciling images and stencils across the city. "The most important terrain is the street," Lampert argues, "because you can reach different audiences. Ordinary people can walk by and see an image celebrating military refusers." These images have the power to shatter the narrow paradigm of discourse by raising the specters of resistance.

"This is a chance for us to work directly with a movement, and the movement can see what kinds of creative resistance can be used," Lampert explains. He says that Justseeds is excited about working with IVAW, a group responsible for "some of the most interesting political art created today." In addition to their street installations, the collaborative images created for Operation Recovery are going to be exhibited in different art spaces in Chicago during Chicago In War, and will eventually be nationally distributed; needless to say, they will be prominently displayed in GI resistance cafes.

The Chicago In War seriesis being staged as a cultural intervention, a way of shifting the discourse on the wars. The horrific toll of war on American GIs-suicide, homicide, mental health issues from PTSD to Military Sexual Trauma, drug and alcohol abuse and other high risk behavior-is beginning to be recognized as a significant social concern by both independent media and mainstream sources such as NPR and The New York Times. Frustrated by our recalcitrant representatives, and with this scourge in mind, organizers must invent creative solutions for veterans. The myriad projects of Chicago In War, including the Intrusive Thoughts exhibition, Warrior Writers workshops, and the Justseeds/IVAW collaboration, aim to disrupt our society's casual acceptance of this terrifying reality and create new conversations that meet the complex needs of the situation.

For more information on the Chicago In War series, contact Aaron Hughes at or click here.

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