Posted tagged ‘War art’

Graphic Novel: Maximilian Uriarte’s The White Donkey

June 27, 2016

White Donkey 1I’ve haven’t read a bad word yet about Maximilian Uriarte’s graphic novel The White Donkey, and you won’t find one here, either. It would be hard to top Charlie Sherpa’s review of The White Donkey on Red Bull Rising, so I’ll keep things short. The story of a young Marine, morose and purposeless to begin with, disillusioned by the military in general and traumatized specifically by combat in Iraq, The White Donkey plot recoups many scenes and characters now commonplace in contemporary war writing. The protagonist, Lance Corporal Abe Belatzeko, is a listless and adrift young man who had hoped that the Marines might provide the purpose and motivation he couldn’t muster as a civilian. That doesn’t happen, however, as Abe finds life in the Marines mostly dull and senseless, frequently miserable, and rarely inspiring or rewarding. His lack of gung-ho spirit is quickly perceived by his peers and sergeants, who either are “all in” or better able to “fake it until they make it.” As The Valley author John Renehen (an Army veteran) described the Semper Fi Do or Die ethos to me in an email, “I remember realizing in Ramadi that the typical Marine is not some jarhead muscle man but a clean-scrubbed eager-beaver kid who looks like he’s 15 and just wants you to tell him to do something, anything, so he can do it 110% and have you tell him he did a good job.”

Abe can’t muster that level of commitment, and foolishly he thinks that his constant complaining and emotional distance constitutes a worthy critique of USMC dysfunction. When his best friend Garcia rips him a new one for his slacker attitude, however, Abe realizes how off-putting his belly-aching and ass-dragging have become. He resolves to get his act together, but unfortunately, things completely unravel when his truck hits an IED while on mission and Garcia is killed. The IED strike occurs as the men are singing along to The Killers’ “All These Things That I Have Done”—“I got soul, but I’m not a soldier”—the chant, known by all who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, getting very near to the heart of contemporary civ-mil split identity: willing to wear the uniform, willing to go to war, but refusing to accept total indoctrination into the warrior way asked for by service, and in fact commenting ironically on the incongruity of hapless boy-men, raised on Call of Duty and South Park, now armed to the teeth and on behalf of their nation heading into battle with ruthless Islamic radicals. The disaster that befalls Abe precipitates further decline and provides proof positive of Stacey Peebles’ articulation of the defining story line of Iraq and Afghan War memoirs and narratives: a young man who trusts that his upbringing and his branch-of-service will protect him from the worst of war, only to learn the hard way how badly he has miscalculated.

Uriarte’s majestically simple narrative and drawings distill stock war story elements and artistically re-invigorate them. Above all, he makes Abe worthy of sympathy, in contrast to some other portraits of alienated veterans who come off as unlikeable louts. Frankly, many similar narratives, of which there are by now dozens, seem crude and tedious in comparison, though they try much harder, while The White Donkey storyline effortlessly pulls readers forward, even as they may be tempted to linger on each page to marvel at Uriarte’s ability to portray story, scene, and character through image. Perhaps the graphic novel–unable to render complex adult interiority and extended authorial commentary–is a form ideally suited to portray a young man’s experience of war and redeployment. But that notion shortchanges Uriarte’s achievement, to say nothing of the interior life of young men. A veteran of tours in Iraq as both an infantryman and a combat artist, Uriarte also possesses a degree from the California College of Arts, a potent blend of experience and education. For years Uriarte has authored the cartoon strip Terminal Lance, which features sardonic looks at military life from the viewpoint of fictional junior enlisted Marines, including Abe and Garcia. Terminal Lance is excellent, but only hints at the imaginative enhancements Uriarte has wrought on the cartoon’s characters, subjects, themes, and sensibility in The White Donkey, as if its larger canvas sought to expose the limits of junior enlisted sarcastic wise-assery. What The White Donkey forgoes in terms of the Terminal Lance cartoon’s humor, it more than makes up for on the strength of its strong storyline, poignant perspective, and evocative artwork.


White Donkey Heads

The White Donkey 3


White Donkey Form

Maximilian Uriarte, The White Donkey/Terminal Lance. Little, Brown, and Company, 2016.

Video Game Day: Maxwell Neely-Cohen’s “War Without Tears”

July 24, 2015


Has anyone ever noticed that Time Now has never featured a post about video games and video game culture? Probably not, but the omission has long bothered me. “Video games” as a category may fit uneasily within this blog’s self-defined rubric of “art, film, and literature.” In my mind, though, the fantastically stylized, heavily aestheticized representational world of video games, especially first-person shooters (FPSs) and military role-playing games (RPGs), have much in common with the imaginary depictions of combat featured in traditional artistic-entertainment forms such as books, pictures, and movies about war. Both as an influence on real soldiers and as a commentary on modern warfaring, their importance is unquestionable. That I haven’t been able to articulate the linkage between video game popularity and a nation-at-war has seemed to me a huge shortcoming of Time Now. If there is anything that has made the blog stodgy and culturally out-of-touch, it is that.

This teeth-gnashing is linked to life, naturally, for I’ve never played so much as a second of a military-themed video game, even as my two sons have played many hours of Call of Duty under my own roof and many soldiers with whom I deployed played FPSs and RPGs whenever they could.

Given my near-neurotic diffidence to actually playing video games, I’ve done what I’ve always done in such cases: I turned to books for understanding of a phenomenon I was too hung up about to enjoy for myself. And yet, the pickings here so far have been slim. Until recently, the most substantial investigation of video games and modern war has been a great chapter in scholar Dora Appel’s War Culture and the Contest of Images that explores the popularity of America’s Army, a first-person shooter developed at West Point—get this—in the same building where I worked for ten years. I had never paid much attention to America’s Army before reading Appel and subsequently was driven to apoplectic wonder to learn that it was not just an effective recruiting tool (its intended use), but actually garnered respect from the hardcore gaming community. Fuck! What else has the Army done so well (and I have missed) in the last 15 years?

I say all the above to say this:

Last week, a New York City-based writer named Maxwell Neely-Cohen published on Boing Boing  and the Armchair Empire an essay on video games and contemporary militarism called “War Without Tears: The Relationship Between Video Games and Violence Is Healthier Than We Think.”  I knew the project was in the works, because I’ve met and chatted with Neely-Cohen at various war-lit events and surmised that if anyone could write a great essay on the connection between video game and martial culture, he could. Having worked as an intelligence analyst and the author of a cool coming-of-age novel called Echo of the Boom, Neely-Cohen combines writing chops with an ultra-alert mind thoroughly in tune with our generational moment. Himself a veteran gamer, he brings to the subject an insider’s savvy devoid of snoopy-pants suspicious judgmentalism many other writers, such as me, probably couldn’t avoid.

Neely-Cohen’s essay combines reportage, first-person experience, and the kind of speculative cultural commentary—pro-technology and progressively anti-authoritarian—you would expect from a website sponsored by anarcho-futurist-technophile author Cory Doctorow. Below are some snippets that set-up Neely-Cohen’s larger argument. I won’t explain or explore the full dimensions of his claims now—let’s just say they are bold and provocative, and I hope he’s right that video-game playing is “healthy”—but you can bet I’ll be thinking about them in the weeks to come.

Even with the success of movies like American Sniper and books like Phil Klay’s Redeployment, the most consumed artistic images of the past 14 years of American conflict lie in video games.

More people are pretending to fight wars than actually fighting them. What does this mean?

But in addition to these larger constructs, in some small cultural way, video games must have played at least some role in pushing the actual experience of warfighting further from the public mind.

At the same time, video games present a stark example of a civilian population increasingly disengaged from war and the military, a distraction from the violence which they portray.

Young people, particularly young men, can now fulfill that cultural and psychological obligation towards the experience of organized violence—without actually joining the military.


I didn’t make it to this exhibit from a year or so ago, but I’m glad to know someone was thinking along the same lines as me.

Graffiti of War: FOB Art, from the Heart

April 10, 2014


All vets of the contemporary wars have seen unit esprit-de-corps murals painted by service members on the large concrete “T-wall” blast barriers that protect barracks, offices, and sensitive equipment on Iraq and Afghanistan FOBs.  Just about the only splash of color in the waterless surroundings, the murals could be huge—up to 12 feet high and maybe 30 feet wide.  Their messages were never subversive, though as public artworks they straddled the line between unofficial and official.  Representing talent and inspiration bubbling up from artists-in-the-ranks, they were permitted by the chain-of-command only if they glorified unit prowess and pride or honored fallen comrades.  Within that stricture and a fairly limited iconographic range—think flags, screaming eagles, and thunderbolts—the murals demonstrated a remarkable competence, color palette, and imaginative variety.

US Army veteran Jaeson “Doc” Parsons’ idea of a good idea was to take pictures of the murals he saw overseas and mount them on oversize foamboard panels for exhibition to curious American viewers.  Called Graffiti of War, Doc’s project aims to showcase the artistry inherent in soldiering while publicizing concerns about “the invisible wounds of war” and helping connect civilian audiences with the military experience.  GoW features soldier and veteran personal art in addition to the unit murals I write of here, but, for me, it’s the murals that are most eye-catching.  I recently had a chance to view a GoW exhibit and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I asked Doc if I could write about him and GoW and thankfully he agreed, so here I salute his honoring of the artistic impulse as it flickered in the maelstrom of war.






Graffiti of War features artwork from Coalition partners, too, such as this French Foreign Legion mural:


The two stretched canvasses below show unit murals as they appeared on the ground in Iraq.  Note the rebar hoops protruding from the top of the concrete barriers–they allow cranes to lift and emplace the giant T-walls. The things are enormous; the figures in the actual two murals below are darn-near life size.


Doc kept an eye out for striking murals painted by Iraqis, too. The first one below shows murals painted on the outside of a US airbase blast wall. The second is a close-up of one of the murals.



The picture below features Doc flanked by his two assistants, Jeremy Mull (ex-USMC) and Rob Craven (US Army, ex-active duty, now in the National Guard).  Thank you, gentlemen, for what you are doing and good luck in all future endeavors!


The Graffiti of War exhibition I saw appeared at West Point, where I serve, courtesy of its Creative Arts Project, which is dedicated to showcasing art inspired by the contemporary wars created by service members, veterans, and civilian artists.  A West Point Pointer View online article about Graffiti of War and this year’s “CAP” is here.

“Every Day is Veterans Day”: Time Now in the News

November 16, 2013

Kevin E. Foley of has written a thoughtful piece about Veterans Day that features Time Now and some of my own reflections on how the nation remembers its veterans.  Thanks, Kevin, and let me know what you think, everybody.

“Every Day is Veterans Day” 

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America formation in the 2011 New York City Veterans Day Parade

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America formation in the 2011 New York City Veterans Day Parade

War Art: Michael Figueroa

July 17, 2013
"No Slack"

“No Slack”

Michael Figueroa is a great example of a contemporary war artist who follows the aesthetic impulse to “make it new.” A US Army vet now living in the greater Chicago area, Figueroa never deployed while in the service, but nonetheless his paint-and-image collages have an of-the-moment quality about war and soldiering I find very appealing.  In fact, his ability to turn the material matter of military life into vision-inspired art is quite incredible. Traditional and typical war art seems interested in realistic representation of combat scenes and emphasizes either heroism or war’s horror.  Often the values and politics are pretty obvious. Figueroa takes familiar military images and iconography and spins them and mixes them and makes them bleed and sweat.  Neither heroic nor horrific, neither ironic nor naive, his artworks exude an in-between spirit that is half-troubling, half-exhilarating.  I love them.

Figueroa studied at the American Academy of Art in Chicago.  His website can be found here and his art can be purchased here.  He has sometimes exhibited in conjunction with Graffiti of War, an organization dedicated to showcasing soldier art for the benefit of veterans.  Below are more samples of Figueroa’s work.

"The First Team"

“The First Team”

If I had ever served in the 1st  Cavalry Division, I definitely would purchase this print.

"MERIT for heart"

“MERIT for heart”

Figueroa’s inspiration for this picture is the inscription on the backside of the Purple Heart:   “For Military Merit.”

"Son of Sam"

“Son of Sam”

The title refers to famous pictures of Uncle Sam, but also brings to mind the 1970s mass-murderer David Berkowitz, who, as it happens, was in my Army unit in South Korea a decade or so before I arrived.

"Duty Honor Country"

“Duty Honor Country”

The inspiration here was a visit to West Point.

All photos used with permission of the artist.

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