The National Museum of the Marine Corps Traveling Exhibit showcases a collection of paintings by Marine combat artists. The exhibit is currently being displayed at Federal Hall as part of Fleet Week New York 2011. It will be available for free, public viewing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., May 24 through June 1 (excluding weekends and Mondays, when the museum is closed.)
The whole fleet of Marine Corps recruiting commercials in the late 80s and early 90s were the stuff of legends — strong men battling fantastical beasts on rickety bridges, traversing incredible obstacles throughout. In every television spot, our hero vanquished evil forces and was thereby transformed into an immaculately groomed Marine in dress blues. The message was clear: Marines slay dragons.
As I walked through the National Museum of the Marine Corps’ Traveling Exhibit at Federal Hall, I couldn’t help but remember those romantic interpretations of yore. That gloried perspective of the Marine Corps is no doubt daily evidenced in the enduring tide of courageous sacrifice in combat. But while we’re consistently shown what a Marine looks like, it’s too rare that we’re reminded who a Marine is. Moving works like those in the exhibit are artifacts from the declining body of Marines whose job it is to put in painting what words and photos can’t portray. Sgt. Kristopher Battles, a combat artist, painted many of the pieces on display in Federal Hall during Fleet Week and is one of only two combat artists currently employed by the Marine Corps to capture scenes of historic value through sculpture and canvas.
Somewhere between the loud voices of support or agitation, the men and women who defend our country are out there fighting wars, to be sure, and fighting them with honor, but they are also playing chess, reading magazines, passing time. Amid the chaos of political debate, we sometimes forget that wars are not fought by angels or demons, but by human beings. And doesn’t that make their sacrifices that much more impressive? This is the oft-overlooked dimension we’re reminded of in Battles’ Marines.
One of the most impacting of his paintings in the exhibit, The Chess Game, shows Marines huddled around a chessboard, together saved from the specter of boredom during the interim of war by the grace of each other’s company.
“That took place on Thanksgiving Day, actually, in 2006,” Battles explained of the piece. “The young Marines were a part of a combat engineer group, going on different patrols with them during the deployment. They’d just gotten back from an IED [improvised explosive device] route clearing and they were just hanging out, tired, reading books, chit-chatting. We were talking about what we were thankful for. It’s a reality for Marines that isn’t often recognized in the public sphere.”
In an age where misconceptions abound about just what goes on over there, Battles’ illustrations take on new importance, showing the reality of Marines at war in Iraq and Afghanistan: “they eat, they go to the bathroom, and they go to war.”