Bodies in Conflict: From Gettysburg to Iraq

Bodies in Conflict: From Gettysburg to Iraq


With photographs, prints, and posters from the American Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, and the War in Iraq, this exhibition examines eleven representations of the body in conflict. All of these works reflect American influence, whether they were made by Americans, depict American bodies, or were created in opposition to American influence. This exhibition, however, is by no means encyclopedic in nature, nor is this essay a detailed account of the history of each war.(1) Although propagandistic posters and objects with clear political allegiances are on display, the exhibition, taken as a whole, is not nationalistic in its intent, nor does it propose that the United States has been “correct” or “incorrect” in its participation, or lack of participation, in these conflicts. Instead, I aim to provide the viewer with an adequate understanding of how the human form is depicted as the body endures the far-reaching and detrimental effects of warfare. Specifically, this exhibition addresses the fraught relationship between the notions of “art” and “document,” the effectiveness of representations of the body for the purpose of social change, and the ethical considerations imbued in the making, selling, and distributing of these images. The works on display represent a broad historical and geographic range in order to remind the viewer of modern warfare’s reliance on representational imagery and that visual language is conveyed and understood differently from textual documentation.(2) Furthermore, these materials illustrate how the body is used to persuade, to elicit sympathy, to commemorate, and to report. When taken together, the objects pose important questions about the intents of the various artists, photographers, and illustrators, whether these objectives are motivated by a government, an antiwar protest group, a journalist, or a sympathetic photographer, and their effects on the audience.

Each of the objects in the exhibition encourages the viewer to question the multifaceted and ethically dubious task of creating representations of the body in conflict. In examining the works, one must identify biases and how they affect the construction of an image, the propensity toward sensationalism, and finally, how the medium alters the effectiveness of the materials. Furthermore, every work employs a carefully constructed visual vocabulary that prompts the viewer to make unconscious connections, creating a more powerful image. This vocabulary often evokes visual relationships between the body and the surrounding environment to engender an empathetic, embodied connection between the viewer and the depicted subject. American writer and activist Susan Sontag explains, “A cityscape is not made of flesh. Still, sheared off buildings are almost as eloquent as bodies in the street.”(3) For example, one of the works in the exhibition, a lithograph titled Gallant Attack, encourages the viewer to make connections between the bare and arched trees and the contorted bodies of the soldiers as they fall valiantly to their deaths during the American Civil War. Similarly, there is no physical body in Wafaa Bilal’s photograph , yet the large chair and the real human ash scattered about the scale room evoke a narrative about the hostility of warfare.(4, 5)

Given the shared subject of historical conflict, the works in the exhibition expose the tumultuous relationship between how “art” and “document” are defined. While some of the works can be defined unambiguously as works of art and others as reportage or as documentary, all of the objects challenge the viewer’s assumptions about the veracity of visual media and the politics of the intended audience. It is imperative to remember that each print, photograph, and poster has been carefully arranged and edited. For example, the scrapbook of Lt. Francis M. Tompkins’s experiences in World War I was composed, as he shot each photograph and decided where it should be placed within the pages. Again, Sontag states, “Even the most transparent of documentary images is framed, and framed for a purpose, carrying that purpose within its frame and implementing it through the frame.”(6) Today it is well known that accomplished Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner moved the bodies of soldiers on the battlefields of Gettysburg to create more visually compelling photographs, proving that manipulation can occur at any stage of the documentation process.(7) Gardner, dispatched by photographer Mathew Brady, captured some of the most well-known and pivotal events of the war, including battles in Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and Antietam, and the siege of Petersburg.(8) These photographs began to shape the public’s understanding of the war, and have become instrumental in the development of the discipline of war photography. This manipulation suggests that the stereoscopes from the Battle of Gettysburg on display must be subject to similar scrutiny, despite photography’s seemingly inherent association with capturing the truth or the “real” scene.(9)

Photography must be understood as both art and document, with as many entitled artistic liberties as any other form of artistic expression. For example, Stephen Warner’s photograph of a young soldier holding his weapon in the dense Vietnamese jungle reflects an ostensibly true moment, yet also reveals Warner’s artistic interest in framing the soldier amidst his detailed and leafy surroundings. Warner’s editing process is made apparent in one photograph inscribed in red with the word “Help!” The photograph at once reveals his instructions and plea for help in editing the final photographic print, but the viewer cannot help but understand this word to convey Warner’s personal perspective in the midst of a horrifying and ultimately tragic war. Documentary photographs are often viewed as unbiased or objective, particularly when they purport to be journalistic. Personal politics and biases nonetheless permeate much of the war photography seen in this exhibition, particularly as Warner’s antiwar sentiments affected his photographs in Vietnam. Ultimately, photography powerfully captures moments of death and provides alarming evidence of military actions.(10)

Artists are also witnesses and contributors and can be either direct or indirect victims of war. Artist and curator Susanne Slavick explains, “Artists face a gauntlet of critical and ethical expectations, conditions and prohibitions in reacting to and representing pain, disaster, and tragedy.”(11) Often a viewer expects to understand a conflict through an artistic representation, forcing the artist to be responsible for recording, remembering, reflecting, re-purposing, and restoring the rubble of war.(12) This expectation leads to an ethical quandary regarding the outcomes of art. Slavick states, “Beautifully representing suffering or destruction, turning it into something that can be perceived as art, threatens to make it palatable, perhaps even seductive and pleasurable. If violence becomes appealing, it is unwittingly redeemed and ultimately erased.”(13) Artists like Wafaa Bilal represent suffering and conflict artistically, while retaining a sense of the confusion and bewilderment that are experienced in war. If a viewer is able to identify with a representation of other people suffering, it is possible to “cheapen” the suffering, making the image less successful.(14) However, it can also be beneficial to encourage identification with suffering, as it can be more effective in producing action. Therefore it is vital to acknowledge the aesthetic and theoretical risks of depicting suffering and the need to provide testimony and to be political in one’s art. Sontag believes when viewing images of the body in conflict it is consequential to monitor the use of pronouns, as an “us” versus “them” mentality may hinder the intended purpose of its publication. Sontag reiterates this message; “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.”(15) One of the posters on exhibit, Vietnam Summer 1967, challenges the viewer’s identification with the figures represented; the artist creates an image powerful enough to inhibit the majority of Americans from identifying with the plight of the woman.

The goal of many propagandistic images is to encourage the viewer to identify with the bodies depicted. Illustrations such as Feed the Fighter effectively bring the viewer into the trenches with the soldiers. Because of the apparent anonymity of the soldiers represented in the poster, each viewer is made to feel a familial or personal connection to every soldier; such an affinity was a central goal of World War I propaganda.(16) This poster, along with other illustrations created by war artists in the United States, used the bodies of soldiers and women to implore, involve, and solicit help from the home front during the war.(17) This goal of accessibility was also a main concern of Stephen Warner, who created photographic portraits of many soldiers posing with a small Christmas tree during the holiday season in Vietnam. Again, this exhibition suggests that no one medium is more or less effective than another in creating an intentionally accessible or non-accessible subject. Rather, image efficacy and viewer sympathy frequently depend on subject, composition, and more elusive messages of immediacy, intimacy, and emotion.

The artist’s choice of medium also directly relates to the kind of explicit content that the image contains, a controversial subject that evolves with each war.(18) As Sontag describes, “For a long time some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war.”(19) Over the course of World War II, government censorship over journalistic images became less strict, allowing select photographs that had been dubbed “too graphic” and sent to the “Chamber of Horrors” to be printed and published for the public.(20) Elmer Davis, the head of the government’s primary wartime propaganda agency, the Office of War Information, stated, “The love of peace has no meaning or stamina unless it is based on a knowledge of war’s terror ... dead men have indeed died in vain if live men refuse to look at them.”(21) With this idea in mind, one must consider the difference between recognition and mobilization and how images have the power to beget social change.

Previously held ideas about these issues were directly challenged during the Vietnam War, due to the extraordinary freedom the media had to report without direct government control.(22) As a result of this freedom, horrific photographs of burned and mutilated bodies, decimated villages, and orphaned children appeared in the daily news, fueling antiwar protests across the county.(23) Many antiwar propaganda materials, such as the poster titled Vietnam Summer 1967 seen here, were created and shown on college campuses as the movement to leave Vietnam drew support among young Americans. Coupled with the graphic journalistic photographs that flooded the media in the 1960s, these antiwar posters were effective in the mobilization of political activism. Although this poster’s political aims are different from the propaganda dispersed during World Wars I and II, it shows similarities in its subject of women and children. World War I propaganda relied on images of women and children as a motivator for men to enlist, most often by showing them in peril or being threatened by the “German Hun.”(24) In World War II, women were often depicted in propaganda posters to encourage them to work for the war effort both inside and outside the home.(25) In contrast to these earlier representations, the purpose of the woman and two children in this protest poster is to bring attention to the widespread and devastating effects of war. This poster emphasizes the imperilment of the women and children of Vietnam, and when accompanied with many photographs of killed civilians, sends a powerful message regarding the horrors of war.

Representations of bodies in conflict demand particular considerations of ethics and mores, including what the body represents, how much of the body is shown, and the exploitation and sexualization of the images. The body is a powerful tool, and it can be used in myriad ways to communicate devastation, to effect change, to sway political and public opinion, and to document or cover up what “really happened” in a conflict. Gender theorist Judith Butler states, “The body is a social phenomenon: it is exposed to others, vulnerable by definition. It is not, however, a mere surface upon which social meanings are inscribed, but that which suffers, enjoys and responds to the exteriority of the world.”(26) This begs the question: what are “ethical” and “non ethical” uses of the body for propagandistic purposes, if there are any? Does this ethicality change based on the identities or the bareness of the exposed bodies? Sontag suggests that the answer to this question is dependent on how “close” or “far” the group portrayed in an image is to the audience. In other words, the more remote or exotic the place, the more likely the audience is to have fully exposed and uncensored views of the dead and dying, while the closer to home the more discrete they become.(27) This tendency toward displaying the dead of other cultures is intrinsically linked with the association between photography and exploitation. A photograph has the ability to turn any event or person into something that can be owned and possessed, an action that can be predatory and demeaning if not given permission.(28)

While representations of the body in conflict are presented in a variety of ways with a myriad of intentions, the viewer must constantly ask the vital question, “Whose cruelties, and whose deaths are not being shown?”(29) The images in this exhibition are inherently political and transcend their time period, country of origin, and conflict to highlight the unchanging outcome of war: the death and suffering of humans. So many depictions of war appear startlingly similar for this reason, though it is important to recognize how each work fosters an adherence to or repudiation of national identity. Images of the body enduring conflict can give cultural significance to a certain place. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the location of this exhibition, exemplifies this idea, as it is a site marked by carnage; at the end of the three-day battle, the number of casualties totaled 51,000. The death and suffering of so many people will be forever linked to this site, as it is revered nationwide as the location of the turning point in the Civil War. Arguably one of the Civil War’s most important battles, Gettysburg is a town dedicated to remembrance and to education. Through its monuments and historical markers, visitors continually are asked to imagine the spectacle and suffering of this war. This exhibition, in a place that has been shaped by the bodies that have suffered on Gettysburg’s battle- field, then challenges its viewer to make connections among many wars and to consider the body in conflict.


1. On the subject of war in contemporary art, see Susanne Slavick, Out of Rubble (New York City: Charta Books Ltd., 2011). Regarding ethical considerations about the body in conflict, see Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (Maple Vail: Verso, 2009); Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York, New York: Picador, 2003).

2. Susanne Slavick states, “Pain actually destroys language, leaving the suffering subject in absolute isolation.” Susanne Slavick, Out of Rubble (New York City: Charta Books Ltd., 2011), 16.

3.  Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York, New York: Picador, 2003), 8.

4. See Maura Lyons, “An Embodied Landscape: Wounded Trees at Gettysburg,” American Art 26, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 44-65.

5. In his book Shoot an Iraqi, artist Wafaa Bilal explains, “I’m here to shed light on the destruction and violence of warfare in a language that I hope people who have never experienced conflict can understand.” Wafaa Bilal and Kari Lydersen, Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun (San Francisco CA: City Lights Books, 2008), 5

6. Ibid., 70.

7.  “Lens of War: Exploring Iconic Photographs of the Civil War,” Friends Fund, UnCivil Wars, 2015, 7.

8.  “Alexander Gardner PHOTOGRAPHER,” The Civil War Trust, n.d. cation/history/biographies/alexander-gardner.html?referrer=

9.  Two of the three stereoscopes have published information written on the back of the cards, providing an interesting look into how they were presented to the public twenty-five years after they were taken. The back of The Horrors of War states: “A Union soldier killed by a shell at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863. His arm was torn off, and can be seen on the ground near his musket, and entirely separated from his body. The shell also completely disemboweled the poor fellow, and killed him so quick that he never knew what struck him. Think of a battlefield covering nearly twenty-five square miles, and covered with thousands of dead, many of them mangled even worse than this one and you can have a faint idea of Gettysburg in the early days of July, 1863.”

10. Sontag, 59.

11. Ibid., 15.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., 17.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid., 7.

16. Celia Malone Kingsbury, For Home and Country: World War I Propaganda on the Home Front (Uni- versity of Nebraska Press, 2010), 26.

17. Ibid., 30.

18. George Roeder writes, “Propagandists, like generals, are guided by lessons learned in past wars when fighting a new one.” George Roeder, The Censored War: American Visual Experience Dur- ing World War II (Yale University Press, 1993), 7.

19. Sontag, 14.

20. Debra Ramsay, American Media and the Memory of World War II (New York, New York: Routledge, 2015).

21. Roeder, 11.

22.  Daniel Hallin, The “Uncensored War”: Media in Vietnam (London, England: University of California Press, 1986), 2.

23.  Kingsbury, 28.

24. Debra Ramsay, American Media and the Memory of World War II (New York, New York: Routledge, 2015).

25. Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (Maple Vail: Verso, 2009), 34. 26 Sontag, 64.

27.  Ibid., 81.

28.  Judith Butler elaborates on this subject: “Specific lives cannot be apprehended as injured or lost
if they are not first apprehended as living. If certain lives do not qualify as lives or are, from the start, not conceivable as lives within certain epistemological frames, then these lies are never lived nor lost in the full sense.” Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (Maple Vail: Verso, 2009),14.

29.  Sontag, 80. 


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