The United States has been at War for more than 12 years — longer than any other period of US history — and there is no end in sight. But few American artists bother to look at this war or depict its impact on their country.
Artist Sandow Birk is an exception.
Birk has a 20-year body of work that investigates American life, with a particular eye to U.S. militarism and its inseparable connection to domestic events.
His Depravities of War series stands out as one of the most thoughtful and visually striking statements of the entire “War on Terror” period. Fifteen large woodblock prints make up the series, showing the Iraq war from start to “finish.” [click on images to make large]
Many of the prints depicting the U.S./allied invasion hardly look like historical battle paintings. There are no wide angles of massive competing armies, no glorious explosions or dramatic combat. Instead, the Iraqi government’s forces are seen as almost nonexistent — an accurate representation of “enemy” forces at the time.
In Birk’s prints, the focus is not on the overwhelming military force of the invasion – the night vision spectacle of cruise missiles destroying a major urban center so beloved by TV news – but on the lengthy and violent period of occupation that followed. The print “Destruction” is followed by Desecration, Occupation, and Detention, in which truckloads of prisoners are taken away to an uncertain fate.
When leaked photos from Abu Ghraib first revealed the torturing of prisoners by American forces, the official response was to charge a few low-level soldiers as “bad apples,” while insisting torture was not policy. In Degradation and Humiliation, however, Birk shows the notorious and horrific scenes of torture as organized and normalized actions.
Towards the end of the series, Birk suggests an overarching process at work in the war – criminal occupation provokes opposition and, in turn, that opposition is met with depravity. In Insurrection, the chaos and social instability of Iraq is depicted with a weary inevitability. There is no sense that any kind of “peace” could possibly emerge from these operations. The final image from Iraq showing the execution of Saddam Hussein seems a continuation of the institutionalized violence, not an end.
The 4×8 foot size of these prints create a stunning effect when viewed in person, a harsh and epic look at grim events that have been persistently buried, distorted, or mythologized by the media and the state. Now that the war in Iraq is “over,” it has generally vanished as a subject of American interest or concern.
But it is not over. Repercussion is the final print in the series, reminding us that the effects of the war continue for millions of Iraqis, Americans and others. It also raises the question – what is the lasting impact of this conflict?
For the folly, brutality, and profit of war is nothing new. Birk’s inspiration for the series was Jacques Callot’s Miseries of War. Published in 1633, Callot’s 18 small etchings offer incredibly honest and direct depictions of actual war. The overall structure – war hysteria and battle, then urban conflict, torture, and depravity – parallels that seen in Birk’s work. In both visual narratives, civilians and soldiers bear the cost of the grand designs of generals, noblemen, and kings.