THE GRAFFITI OF WAR

By Susannah Breslin

 

From war, art. This is the basic premise of The Graffiti of War , a project from two combat veterans that features the unconventional military art that soldiers, seamen, marines, and airmen (and women) create during deployments. From tanks spray painted with "I love u baby" to memorials for the dead to enemy jets covered in graffiti, every art work tells a story. It's the alternative, unauthorized history of war from those who fought it. The idea was hatched by Army combat medic Jaeson "Doc" Parsons, when he was deployed to Ramadi, Iraq, where he met Jason Deckman, an Army combat engineer. The men plan to turn the images they are collecting into a book and donate the proceeds to organizations that help returning veterans. I spoke with Staff Sergeant Deckman, 37, a 16-year Army veteran whose deployments include Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, and Iraq. In 2007, Deckman transitioned to the Army Reserves. He lives in Killeen, Texas.

When did you enlist?

I joined the Army in 1994. I had just flunked out of college, and had five figures worth of student loan debt staring me in my face, and my parents looking there going, "OK, smart guy, now what you gonna do?" Within three years I was debt-free, realized the Army was a good choice for me, and stayed with it. I first joined, it was, I needed discipline, I needed to get out of the environment I was in, and I needed to pay the bills. The longer I was in, the more I realized that, you know, this is important, that it's bigger than me. It really sunk in on my first deployment, when I went to Bosnia, and we were doing demining. When we weren't actively pulling mines out of the ground with their army, it was going out on the ground patrols. We'd go out, and we would mark the known minefields in order to prevent people from stumbling in. Every mine that we took out of the ground, I was just thinking to myself, OK, that's one family that Dad's gonna come out tonight, or that's one little kid who won't be killed or maimed. To me, we're making a difference, this is important. It means something. I'd come home and see my friends, "Oh, I work at Walmart." "Oh, I'm going to school for whatever." There just didn't seem to be any sense of that it mattered.

Alex Pagel, Iraq, 2008

What's your job?

I am a combat engineer . Which is kind of a complex thing. Our mission breaks down in three ways: mobility, countermobility, and survivability. Mobility means we keep the battlefield open for our troops to move around in. Countermobility means we try and take away the enemy's ability to move around. And then survivability means that we build up fortifications and other structures in order to make our guys more comfortable. Currently, the big engineer fight is the IEDs. We're the ones that go out and go down the road all day and all night looking for these roadside bombs. Pulling them up, either detonating them in place or working with EOD disarming them, bringing them back so they can do some forensic analysis on them, figure out who the bomb-maker is.

Richard Kelly, Camp Anaconda, Balad, Iraq

Who came up with the project?

It was originally Doc Parsons' idea. Him and a couple other guys talked about it while they were [in Iraq]. It never really came to anything. A couple years later, he'd stayed in touch with different guys, and it just started to become, let's try this. We'd gotten together on Facebook last year, some time around '09, and got back in touch, and then March/April this year, he says, "Hey, you know, would you be willing to help me with this?" Told me what it was, what the goals were. I said, "Do you have a website?" He says, "No. Do you know anything about that?" I says, "I do." So I set that up for him, and he says, "OK, you are now my director of web technology."

Kenneth Sheely, Camp Echo, Iraq

What is The Graffiti of War?

The project is collecting images of what we're calling unconventional military art or the graffiti of war. Unconventional being that it's not on a traditional canvas that you would think of as art. It's not a drawing that someone made in their sketchbook. It's not a painting on canvas. It's spray paint and Sharpie markers on blast walls, inside of the Porta Potties, on the backs of vehicles, graffiti that are tagged everywhere, on enemy vehicles, memorials that people have put together to remember the guys that didn't come back. It's all that, kind of created in the heat of the moment - of pride, or anger, or sadness. All the emotions that you experienced while you're there. Some are elaborate, and some are pretty simple. But it was created by someone who had some strong emotion at that time. It's a way of, when they were there, saying, "Here I am. We were here. After we're gone, this will still be here." It's a side of combat that a lot of people back home never see, never hear about, so they don't understand it. That is part of the experience, too.

And war graffiti has a history.

Sure, the most famous one being Kilroy, the little face with the big nose hanging over the wall that everybody saw in World War II, and no one seemed to know whoever came up with it, but somehow suddenly everybody was writing "Kilroy was here" everywhere they went. It's just another way of saying, "The Americans are here. Here we are. If I die tomorrow, here's a record that I was able to write that."

Kiril Dimitrov, Kirkuk, Iraq

Is making this art within military regulations?

Probably not. Some of it is actively sponsored. The painting the unit logos on the blast walls. A lot of times the headquarters, they'll have these concrete barriers around them, and people will paint their logo in front of their office. It'll be a way of kind of memorializing and taking pride, with their badge, or their picture, or their motto on there. But some of it inside the Porta Potties? No. Probably not within regulation at all. I've been in 16 years, and I don't know how many times I've heard some major yelling or hollering about people writing on the inside or the back [of structures] - especially when it was a hard building, like a barracks. People will carve stuff into the walls. But for some reason it just keeps going.

Tattoos are part of the art of war, too.

One of the other unconventional canvases we're exploring is tattoos. I've got several tattoos. To me it was always, if everything else is taken away from me, I've still got that tattoo. It's something that is permanent. I can be taken prisoner and lose my dog tags, and lose my boots, and lose my cool little pocketknife, and the St. Christopher medal that my grandma gave me, but the tattoo stays with me. In the experience where you may be gone tomorrow, or everything that you hold precious may be gone tomorrow, you're trying to put some permanent record down of your existence or your experience.

What's the military's response to what you're doing?

So far, as far as the official military response, we haven't heard anything from the Pentagon. At lot of them, at first, really didn't want to touch this with a 10-foot pole. It was a lot of, "Well, hey, that sounds like a cool project. Good luck, but we can't endorse you, and we can't do anything for you." But the people that have been there, they just love it. We've got a few folks that have been just digging through their hard drives, digging through their photo albums, and just sending the most amazing pictures. Pretty much everyone says, "Hey, that's a cool idea. I can't believe no one has done this before." And a couple people have said that it'll be a document of history, because as we turn these bases over, and a lot of them are torn down or reconstructed, those paintings on the blast walls, it's gonna turn to dust. It's gonna go away. Anything that's left in the desert anyways is faded and wiped off in the sandstorms after a couple years, just from the sun, and the heat, and the dust. So even though the intent is to try and leave something behind, it's temporary. A lot of this stuff, if we don't get it now, it's gone forever.

Richard Kelly, Camp Anaconda, Balad, Iraq

What are you plans for the project?

Plan is to put it all into a book, and then sell that book, and then the proceeds from the sale of the book are gonna go to benefit veterans' organizations. We've looked at some of the organizations helping people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Doc's wife really wants to work with some organizations that are helping these guys with PTSD therapy, where they're using art as the method of therapy. We're not just doing this because we think it's a cool idea. We want to raise some money to help people that are helping veterans, that are helping guys that come back hurt, broken, disturbed, angry, whatever.

Which image sticks out in your mind the most?

There was a graffiti that someone stenciled probably with a Sharpie marker on the bridge in Fallujah where Blackwater contractors were killed and strung up. It said, "In memory, 31 March 2004, of four Blackwater contractors killed here. PS Fuck you." Expressing that anger for the insurgents who not only killed our brothers-in-arms but treated their bodies in the most disrespectful way possible. That one, it just floored me. There's kind of a stereotype of people in the Army, in the military, "Hey, they're a bunch of dumb grunts. They're a bunch of college dropouts." I'll tell you, some of the people that I've served with could've been college professors. These folks understand history. They understand why they're fighting. They understand who they're fighting, and the location. So whoever was there, they realized the importance of that bridge. It just wasn't another bridge to pull guard on while the patrol went by. This was the bridge where those contractors were hung from. They took the time to say, "I remember. I realize what happened here. And I'm not going to forget." Who knows how long that'll last before the sun and everything fades it away, but now we've got a record of it. The graffiti and the art itself will be gone in 50 years. But when I'm old and gray, and I can sit there with that book, and my grandkid on my lap, and say, "This is part of what it was like." If we can capture all these pictures and these images and put them in a book for posterity, that's a powerful thing. It's humbling.

This summer, Parsons, Ken Martin of USA Cheerleaders, and Andrea Sandoval will be traveling to Iraq and Kuwait to embed with U.S. troops and continue their project. As Parsons notes, "We are running out of time to capture these images created by the warfighters who deployed in support of OIF/OEF. With the impending withdraw of US forces in 2012, we have less than a year before all of this art is lost forever." To help fund their trip, make a donation here or on the Graffiti of War homepage . You can also friend them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter.

Susannah Breslin is a freelance journalist and blogger.

Background photo: Storm in Bagram, by DVIDSHUB, licensed under the Creative Commons..

 

20 Responses to “The Graffiti of War”

  1. Mister44 says:

    Oh and to be a nitpicking dick, Marine(s) is always capitalized.

  2. Ugly Canuck says:

    Oh, it’s the past fifty years only you’re discussing, eh?

    Then my definition yet holds….any empire must needs have a legally distinct ruling class – if not an Emperor.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Its unfortunate that the reason why they are over there fighting in war is not for freedom, but elite agendas and profits.

    Its honorable. but sad and deceiving.

  4. travtastic says:

    The 9/11 one is giving me a migraine.

  5. davidasposted says:

    There was a graffiti that someone stenciled probably with a Sharpie marker on the bridge in Fallujah where Blackwater contractors were killed and strung up. [...] I’ll tell you, some of the people that I’ve served with could’ve been college professors. These folks understand history. They understand why they’re fighting.

    Oh? Maybe they read Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. See in particular the final volume and the passages about Rome’s penchant for hiring mercenaries to do their work for them as the primary cause for its decline. Blackwater (aka Xe) does not fight for the same reason you do, Staff Sergeant.

    • Mister44 says:

      Yeah… maybe you want to re-read it. The act of hiring mercenaries alone wasn’t the reason for the down fall. The REASON for hiring mercenaries was.

      That said, Mercenaries have been in nearly every major conflict since war began. From Hannibal’s mercenaries, to Rhodesia, hired soldiers have filled in gaps and bolstered armies where the regulars are lacking. They have helped change history many times and helped build many an empire or kingdom.

      I always found war art to be fascinating, especially the amateur stuff. Nose cone art is probably one of the most well known type. I almost got to design the patch for a Helicopter unit :o/

      FUN FACT – Disney used to produce mascots and patch designs for ships, battalions, squadrons, etc. I have a screen print of Donald Duck rowing Pluto to Tokyo. It has a number on the side which is the same as the USS Aultman, a troop and supply transport ship my Grandpa was on during WWII.

      • davidasposted says:

        We can debate the meaning of the word ‘primary’ but my point stands. Why did Rome decline according to Gibbon? The mercenaries whom they hired to maintain their empire turned on them. Why did the mercenaries turn on their employers? Because they had no loyalty to the state. Why did Rome hire mercenaries in the first place? Because Roman citizens were exhausted with the constant expansion of the empire by their leaders, and refused to support it any longer. At a certain point, the mercenaries found it more lucrative to attack the Roman Empire rather than defend it, hence the fall.

        Blackwater has no allegiance to you or the American empire; only a temporary contract to help defend it.

        • Mister44 says:

          Rome hired mercenaries because they were better fighters and Romans had gotten soft and less willing to do the fighting themselves. Also – hey – why not let someone else die for Rome?

          Anyway – your original allusion was that Rome fell from use of mercenaries, and America could do the same, or at the least that using mercenaries was ‘bad’. But I find so many differences between the two, one can’t really compare them.

          First off, America isn’t expanding an empire (nor is it one). While our personnel are being pushed with longer serving times, we are far from being ‘exhausted’ to the point of collapse.

          Probably the two biggest differences, is that mercenaries make up a fraction of the forces out there, and that Rome used FOREIGN mercenaries, while most of the ones the US uses are former soldiers themselves. To say mercenaries have no allegiances at all isn’t true in most cases. One could call the French Foreign Legion a state run mercenary unit. Knowing more than one private contractor, you wouldn’t find them fighting for, say, Russia anytime soon, and no money in the world would have them fighting for insurgents or the Taliban or what have you.

          As I said earlier – mercenary use is ubiquitous with war and rarely does this cause a problem for the country hiring them.

          • davidasposted says:

            Two years after Staff Sergeant Deckman joined the reserves, mercenaries comprised 48 percent of the forces in Iraq and 57 percent in Afghanistan:

            http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/12/01/addicted_to_contractors

            Is the U.S. an empire? Ask the rest of the world, what do you think the majority would say?

          • Mister44 says:

            re: “Is the U.S. an empire? Ask the rest of the world, what do you think the majority would say?”

            Yeah – well – that is fucking rediculous. They either have their US hate on, or they don’t know what an empire is.

            Name one country we have taken over in the last 50 years, claimed all their resources, and then became the ruling body, subjecting the citizens to our law and will.

            You can’t.

            Are the Iraqi oil fields run by the US gov. and shipped free of charge to the US? NO. We also set up govs. for Iraq and Afghanistan, they govern themselves. We are training their police and military and supplying them with weapons for them to defend themselves.

            I can’t believe anyone who has ever read a book could confuse America with an empire. You may have had a point during the era of Manifest Destiny, but not today.

          • Ugly Canuck says:

            America is an “empire” precisely to the extent that it fails to practice according to the statement “all men are created equal”; that is to say, without quibbling as to Citizenship, religion, sexual orientation , or race.

            For the first rule of any Empire is that all men are most emphatically NOT created equal.

            As to your “definition”….

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican-American_War

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish-American_war

          • Mister44 says:

            As I said – you might have had a point during the era of Manifest Destiny, but not today.

            What you attribute to the definition of an empire I have never heard about. Maybe your history book or dictionary has a different definition that I have ever seen.

            In simplistic terms from the dictionary: “a major political unit having a territory of great extent or a number of territories or peoples under a single sovereign authority; especially : one having an emperor as chief of state”

            Mostly it’s just a grandiose term people sling around to paint America negatively.

          • davidasposted says:

            Name one country we have taken over in the last 50 years, claimed all their resources, and then became the ruling body, subjecting the citizens to our law and will.

            The U.S. continues to subject Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands to its unilateral control. Folks in these colonies are taxed by the U.S. government and subject to U.S. federal laws, but have no functional political representation in Congress. Recent events in Washington D.C. reveal a very similar condition: residents of D.C. pay federal taxes and are also subject to U.S. federal laws, but again have no functional political representation in Congress; indeed, their budget must be approved by Congress.

            As for imperial ambitions elsewhere in the world, see for example the following map of military bases. Care to guess how many are permanent?

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Iraq_US_bases_map.svg

  6. Anonymous says:

    This is really cool. But I have to say, as someone planning on enlisting next year, even I can’t be too mad at those Blackwater bastards getting killed. Those mercenaries are well-known in Iraq for killing civilians and acting like dicks. It’s a shame they died but all evidence points to their deaths being caused by Blackwater’s own actions and the Iraqi’s justifiable anger at them.

    • Mister44 says:

      Eh- maybe read up on that particular incident. The pics out there are pretty disturbing. This was before any issues with Blackwater (and in all honesty, this event probably made contractors more likely to lash out, lest they end up dead as well). IIRC they were protecting hired food services. They weren’t attacked as retribution for something Blackwater did, but rather because there was a war still going on. This incident is what sparked the first battle of Fallujah.

      Contractors are needed, especially for the non-military sector. If you are in Iraq for what ever, if you want security you do it yourself or higher someone to protect you. The military isn’t going to defend your operations. This goes from oil companies to humanitarian aid, to people working on the new gov. or infrastructure.

  7. davidasposted says:

    And for the record, I find it interesting that you insist on a pre-19th century definition of ‘empire’ but will only accept examples from the last 50 years.

    • Mister44 says:

      Yeah – I made the claim for the last 50 years – maybe the last 100. One thing I learned on BB, if you make a statement like “Male robins have red breasts.” some smart ass will post up an albino robin, as if pointing out one deviation somehow makes the statement/argument untrue.

      Sort of like pointing out some small islands we ‘own’ and control as an argument that we are indeed an Empire. Please.

      Find me another empire in history known for only having a few small islands. Better yet, look at some REAL empires, how far reaching they are, and how they excised control over those lands.

      AND I made a point to say in the past you would have a better argument, as we were expanding our boundaries.

      You think permanent bases on foreign land makes us an empire? No – it makes us a global power. Owning a base in Germany isn’t an empire. Owning Germany and placing a base and governing and taxing the population is an empire.

      And for the record – a lot of those bases are for protection of our allies as well. All of western Europe during the Cold War appreciated the extra power. Our presence in South Korea is one thing keeping the North on their side of the room.

      If you want to pull out a more modern definition of an empire – so be it. I don’t think the label fits in any way. Having global concerns or ambitions doesn’t mean we are an empire. It is a global world now – show me a 1st world nation with out global ambitions.

      But we aren’t out there taking over countries (and keeping them). We do not directly govern other countries. We do not make their laws. We do not collect taxes or start carting off their gold in wheel barrows.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Kilroy was here. m(”)m

  9. Anonymous says:

    ‘Kenneth Sheely, Camp Echo, *Iraq*’

    That one is both heartbreaking and infuriating. Never forget, indeed.

  10. Anonymous says:

    As a moot point, and aside from Susannah’s great piece —

    Mujahideen-Taleban-Al Qaeda were US proxies in the cold war against Russia who turned against their paymasters.

    Many of them honed their trade in Central Asia and Bosnia as paid participants.

    Gibbon pointed out that “Mahomet, with the sword in one hand and the Koran in the other, erected his throne on the ruins of Christianity and of Rome.”

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