Soldiers created these hauntingly beautiful paintings during the Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was the first American war broadcast on TV, something that profoundly changed the way we see expeditionary warfare. For the first time ever, Americans at home saw young men crawling through dense jungles thousands of miles away. And it wasn’t like the newsreel footage of the ‘40s, scrubbed clean and careful to show the good guys fighting the good fight. The news coverage in Vietnam showed young American men out on patrol in a strange, foreign land in what was a bitterly controversial war back at home. But less well-known are the paintings created by dedicated teams of army painters tasked with depicting the war in Vietnam as they saw it, with unlimited creative license and no travel restrictions.
The Vietnam Combat Art Program was created in 1966 as a way to create a record of the war as seen through soldiers’ eyes (a similar program existed in WWII). Applications were solicited from soldiers through the U.S. Army Arts and Crafts Program, a separate program originally set up to boost morale in the mobilization leading up to WWII. But unlike the Arts and Crafts Program, which decorated barracks, hosted art classes and sought to fill the long periods of downtime of a life at war, this new Combat Art Program dedicated artist teams to observe and depict the war in Vietnam.
In a departure from the army’s caginess towards news media coverage of the war, the program sought out artists looking to depict scenes in Vietnam that were both honest and compelling. In the U.S. Army’s announcement of the program, it called for “competent artist-illustrators who have a sound foundation in life drawing, composition and color. They must be able to record military events and experiences pictorially and with strong emotional impact.” The teams were to spend 60 days traveling through Vietnam, following units on patrol while making sketches and doing preliminary research. The teams would later finish their work during a 75-day stay in Hawaii.
The army assembled nine Combat Artist Teams (CATs) from 1966-1970. Each team consisted of about 5 artists who were given the freedom to travel wherever they wished in Vietnam. “We had open Category Z Air and Military Travel orders, which meant we could hitch a ride anywhere in Vietnam. It was a letter-sized sheet of paper with written and signed orders,” explained James Pollack, who was a member of CAT IV, which operated in late 1967. “We usually just walked up to a pilot or someone in charge and flashed the orders. We guarded these papers closely – if we lost them it would have been difficult trying to explain why we were hitchhiking around Vietnam.” Pollack described his experiences in the Vietnam Combat Art Program in an essay published in 2009 in War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities.
“Were we propaganda machines for the army? Absolutely not,” Pollack told The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2011. “I was drafted and didn’t even want to be in the army.”