The Courage to Question

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Anti-war veterans group, About Face, calls Witte Museum to account over George W. Bush exhibit

Marisol Cortez

I was living in Northern California when the Bush administration invaded Iraq in spring 2003, and I remember what relief I felt, through my horror and helplessness, that the organized opposition in that part of the country was immediate and deafening.

After revelations of prisoner torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib surfaced in 2004, I moved deeper into these communities of opposition, first connecting with the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC) and later the (now sadly disbanded) Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO), which ran the GI Rights hotline out of their Oakland office. Each week, I’d take the train from Sacramento to the Bay Area for a two-hour hotline counseling shift, fielding calls from soldiers who had just gone AWOL, soldiers who were being harassed and wanted to know what their options were, soldiers who were suicidal. It was intense work, but I felt fortunate to be part of such a large and active anti-war community. 

When I moved back home to South Texas in 2009, I found a very different political landscape. San Antonio is of course known as “Military City USA,” a name bestowed by its five military bases and, indeed, its founding in the 18th century with Spanish missions established as a series of military forts. There is a small and fierce anti-war community here, but for those trying to do sustained anti-militarism work—counter recruitment in the schools, support for conscientious objectors, GI Rightsit’s lonely going in this neck of the woods.

As the Bush years fade from memory and we find ourselves in the shadow of the Trump administration’s virulent white nationalism, it’s easy to feel almost nostalgic for a Republican like George W. Bush—dumb, rich, and led by the nose by nefarious neocons into murderous foreign policy, to be sure, but at least not an explicit Nazi sympathizer or unrepentant pussy-grabber. 

This sympathetic revisioning of the Bush years has only deepened as he’s made post-presidential forays into the fine arts, first unveiled in 2014 at his “Art of Leadership” exhibit, which displayed 24 dubious-quality portraits of fellow world leaders. Aww, look, we marvel, as Trump retweets white supremacists and sends immigrant children to internment camps: Bush even paints—and he’s not too terrible either! 

“Portraits of Courage” is the latest GWB exhibit to tour, making a stop at San Antonio’s Witte Museum from July 20 through September 30one of just four exhibition locations in the country this year. A series of 66 color portraits of U.S. soldiers and veterans injured in combat since 9/11, the series is based on Bush’s relationships with individual service members through his Military Service Institute non-profit. Alongside the paintings, his subjects’ personal stories of injury and recovery were featured in a coffee table book published last year, which bears the same name as the exhibit.

Local media coverage of “Portraits” has been on the whole celebratory or apolitical, ignoring the larger questions that seem obvious to Army veteran Jovanni Reyes, an organizer with About Face: Veterans Against War (formerly Iraq Veterans Against the War): “Why are these veterans injured? What brought them to where they’re at now? … And why are we still there [in Iraq]?” Or, as Guardian art critic Joshua David Stein notes in a 2017 review of the “Portraits” monograph:

As commander-in-chief, George W Bush sent thousands of American troops into a war. Many died. Many were injured. And all were in harm’s way. This bloody war, now almost 15 years old, was broadly and widely condemned as unjust and unwise. Upon becoming a civilian again, Bush became a painter and his subjects were the very men torn to shreds, quite literally, by his own policy.

While acknowledging this irony, Stein and other critics have also commented that this very contradiction paradoxically opens up at least the possibility that Bush’s portraits could prompt a fuller discussion of their context, causes, and consequences. “[B]earing unflinching witness to the horrific consequences of historic folly should always be welcome,” Jonathan Alter writes in a 2017 New York Times review of the “Portraits” book. “Atonement is not accountability, much less redemption, but it’s a start.”

It’s precisely this lack of critical discussion surrounding the exhibit that the San Antonio chapter of About Face—most of them Army veterans serving during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—wants to challenge. In a letter addressed to Witte Chief Curator Amy Fulkerson and hand-delivered to Witte President and CEO Marise McDermott and Kayte Brought, Director of Communications, group members offered their concerns with the exhibit but also issued a “modest request” as corrective. As they wrote:

About Face: Veterans Against the War is an organization that is in deep and profound solidarity with our fellow brothers, sisters and gender-fluid servicemembers we serve(d) with and alongside, particularly those who came to harm mentally, physically or otherwise. But we are also an organization which has great empathy for the victims of our imperialism, exceptionalism, racism, and war crimes. President George W. Bush was the tip of this spear, so to speak, of these latter indecencies: indecencies he, [as] Commander in Chief, charged us soldiers to carry out. … While we certainly do not deny the courage of any of the soldiers profiled in President Bush’s works, we see nothing but cowardice from a president who is, once again, using soldiers as (this time) metaphorical human shields to bolster his image and avoid accountability. …

We believe it would be a courageous and dutiful act for the Witte Museum to cancel their exhibition for the reasons stated in this letter but make no such request or demand. We do ask, however, that the Witte Museum allow a few of our members, along with a few allies to “table” alongside the exhibition opening on Saturday, July 21 in order to provide the necessary counter-narrative to the one on featured display at your museum. Furthermore, we encourage that the Witte consider displaying artworks from combat veterans, veterans who use art as a means to heal their wounds, some offering a counter-narrative to what is mostly perceived to be true of these wars and their aftermath by the public.

According to About Face, Witte administration listened to the group’s concerns, accepted the letter, and agreed that an exhibit of artwork from a different perspective would be valuable. However, an official response to the group’s request has not materialized, despite attempts to follow up—other than asking members flyering museum-goers on opening day to move off museum property to public space. (Museum security also eventually asked us to leave, hence the change of scenery in the last video below). About Face also submitted an op-ed to the San Antonio Express-News, which has yet to see publication. 

This last weekend, Deceleration was able to interview several About Face members and supporters about their response to the “Portraits of Courage” exhibit. All of them expressed the need to challenge the flat and one-sided narrative it presents, allowing for more complicated, first-person, and historically contextualized representations of veteran experience. Their small numbers reminded me how hard and lonely it can be to work against militarism and war in Military City, USA. But at the same time, their conviction and determination reminded me of something else that stuck with me from those Dubya years up in Northern California—something a union organizer named Matt told me once, which is that you don’t always need large numbers or a mass movement to be effective. Sometimes, just a few people speaking up when no one else is can shift consciousness in a profound way. 

Click below for interviews with About Face members and supporters on what it would mean to shift the exhibit’s narrative, defining courage in the context of movements against militarism and war–and toward peace and justice.



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