For decades, photography has been the primary means of recording war. The medium began its rise to prominence during the American Civil War, thanks to Mathew Brady, a pioneer of photography, and his mobile darkroom. By World War I, photography had completely taken over as the de facto means of documenting war. Today, some form of photography, either still or motion, is still used to capture the iconic moments of a conflict.
But believe it or not, painting has hung on.
During the Vietnam War, the United States Army’s Center for Military History ran a unique program, selecting soldiers for temporary duty in the Vietnam Combat Artists Program. One such soldier was James R. Pollock, who served on Combat Artist Team IV from August 15, 1967, to December 31, 1967.
According to a 2009 essay written by Pollock, these artists followed various units around in the field for anywhere from one to four days. Equipped with a sketchbook and an M1911, they would share the dangers that those troops faced — if they went on patrol, the combat artists went on patrol, too.
The combat artists followed Army troops everywhere, capturing humanitarian missions like this one.
(U.S. Army Combat Art Program painting by Samuel E. Alexander)
Pollock’s team had orders to spend 60 days in Vietnam assigned to the Command Historian, Headquarters, US Army, Vietnam, followed by another 75 in Hawaii with a Special Services Officer. In Vietnam, they were to make sketches, capturing powerful moments that would be turned into completed paintings while in Hawaii.
Photography took a prominent role among historians, but paintings can still vividly capture combat.
(U.S. Army Combat Art Program by Burdell Moody)
The combat artists weren’t very high-ranking: Pollock’s team had three Specialist 4s, one Specialist 5, and one sergeant, and was supervised by a lieutenant. The artists also had “open Category Z Air and Military Travel orders” — which basically gave them free reign to hitchhike anywhere.
James Pollock was one of the artists who was on a Combat Art Team during Vietnam, and later became a famous painter who has documented the Vietnam Combat Artists Program.
(U.S. Army Combat Art Program painting by James Pollock)
Today, combat artwork is still done as part of the United States Army Artist Program, but the Army isn’t alone – the Air Force has one of these programs, too!
Learn more about some of the Vietnam combat artists in the video below.