Tag Archives: war
Before 1914, flowers in everyday life spelt beauty, femininity and innocence; they were seen as part of women’s culture. But during the first world war, that changed. Men gathered posies of flowers on battlefields and dried them in honour of the dead, they turned to wild flowers as motifs for paintings and photographs, and they recognised in blue cornflowers and red poppies the fragility of life.
Historian Paul Fussell referred to the red poppy, Papaver rhoeas, as “an indispensable part of the symbolism” of WWI. When, on November 11, those who fought and died in WWI are commemorated, the sanguine colour of the red poppy, a flower that grew in profusion on Flanders Fields, is a vivid reminder to the living of the cost of sacrifice in war.
At the end of the conflict, artificial replicas of the Flanders poppy were sold in Allied countries to be worn in honour of the dead. Their resistance to decay became an embodiment of everlasting memory.
However, the red poppy was not always adopted without criticism. After 1933, in opposition to the symbolism of it, peace ceremonies appropriated the white poppy. Each flower expresses a different view on war: red embodies commemoration of sacrifice; white opposes political violence and remembers all war victims.
As living forms, as art, and as symbols, the wildflowers that soldiers encountered in WWI Europe help us negotiate the unimaginable enormity of war and deepen the solemnity of remembrance.
‘We are the dead’
Among the most affecting, but least talked about, Australian war paintings that officially commemorate and remember the fallen soldiers of the First World War, is George Lambert’s Gallipoli Wild Flowers (1919). Painted while Lambert served as Official War Artist, the work is unusual for the absence of soldiers’ bodies shown in action or in death. Yet it alludes to both by the inclusion of an empty slouch hat and a cluster of battlefield wildflowers. At the centre of the array of blossoms is the Flanders poppy.
The painting is a floral still-life. It exudes the melancholy of life stilled, and challenges popular conceptions that flowers are feminine, passive and beautiful. If the flowers in Lambert’s painting are beautiful, it is beauty tempered by the knowledge of human suffering. And they break with convention by relating to men, not women.
The dark centres of the poppies stare at us like the eyes of men who fought at Gallipoli. The message they communicate is the same one relayed by poppies in the lines of John McCrae’s mournful poem In Flanders Fields (1915): “we are the dead”.
Other Australian artists deployed by the Australian War Memorial tried to render the same power, and the same symbolisms, as George Lambert’s wildflower still-life, although with less intensity. Will Longstaff, for example, painted Menin Gate at midnight (1927), a monumental commemoration to men who were buried in unmarked graves on the Western Front in which the ghosts of the dead rise up among blood red poppies that grow in the same soil where their bodies decayed.
Flowers and the battlefield
On churned up war landscapes, masses of wildflowers covered derelict tanks and blanketed the ground where the dead lay, juxtaposing cold metal and the destructive power of men with the organic growth and regenerative power of nature.
Such contrasts presented Frank Hurley, Australia’s Official War Photographer working in Flanders and Palestine from August to November 1917, with many of the war’s most powerful images. Hurley could not ignore the cruel irony of all that fragile beauty growing free in the midst of industrialised warfare, mass killing, and the corpses of the dead.
Hurley’s Lighthorseman gathering poppies, Palestine (1918) is a rare colour photograph from the period. Hurley well understood the power of the poppy. He knew that for the image to become a national icon of comradeship, the flowers had to be coloured red because it is the poppy’s redness that made it the official symbol of sacrifice. Yet Hurley’s photo is pastoral, and in its vision of ideal life suggests the antithesis of war.
It may also be that flowers have a particular power over our perception. Elaine Scarry argues that the high colouration of a flower’s face is more perfect for imagining and storing images to memory than the faces of people. Official and unofficial WWI records lend support to Scarry’s theory.
When Cecil Malthus, a New Zealand soldier at Gallipoli in 1915, found himself under attack, it was not the faces of the soldiers around him that he remembered, but the faces of self-sown poppies and daisies on the ground.
When Americans think of being at war, they might think of images of their fellow citizens suffering.
We count the dead and wounded. We follow veterans on their difficult journey of recovery from physical injuries and post-traumatic stress. We watch families grieve and mourn their dead.
But it was not always this way.
In fact, newspapers during Vietnam and earlier wars gave little space to portraying individual American service members. Journalists almost never spoke with grieving relatives. I learned this by researching depictions of American war dead in newspapers and textbooks.
Today, as the U.S. again escalates its 16-year war in Afghanistan, it is important to understand how Vietnam set a pattern for finding honor in inconclusive or lost wars.
Anonymous Vietnam War dead
I found that from 1965 to 1975, The New York Times mentioned the names of only 726 of the 58,220 American military personnel killed in Vietnam. Reading through every New York Times article from those years with the word “Vietnam” in it, I found biographical information was included about only 16 dead service members, and photos of 14.
There are just five references to the reactions of the families of the dead, and only two articles mention the suffering of injured American service members. Two other articles discuss the funerals or burials of the dead. This restrained coverage is far different from that of The New York Times or any other media outlet during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
The U.S. military encouraged this change. As the Vietnam War dragged on there were mounting casualties, ever less prospect of victory and ever more reports of atrocities committed by American service members. In response, U.S. commanders searched for new ways to find honor in their troops’ struggles.
One way the military changed was the way it honored its members through medals. Medals have always been used by officers to reward and identify behaviors they want their troops to emulate. Before Vietnam, the Medal of Honor – the highest award given by the U.S. – usually went to those who lost or risked their lives by going on the offensive to kill enemy fighters. But during Vietnam, I found, the criteria for the Medal of Honor changed. More and more, those who served were recognized for defensive acts that saved the lives of fellow American troops, rather than for killing communist fighters.
Toward the end of the war and in all wars since, nearly all Medals of Honor were given for actions that got fellow American service members home alive, rather than helping win a war.
This shift echoed changes in the broader American culture of the 1960s and 1970s – a shift toward celebrating individual autonomy and self-expression. As a growing fraction of Americans achieved a level of wealth unprecedented in world history and unparalleled elsewhere in the world, claims that people deserved emotional fulfillment at school and work became increasingly salient.
Another way the military adjusted its approach was to loosen its grip on discipline. The military responded to insubordination within its ranks by allowing expressions of dissent. This aligned the military with the culture of individual expression in the civilian world from which its volunteers and draftees came. Civilians saw this new attitude in news photos of service members in Vietnam wearing buttons saying “Love” or “Ambushed at Credibility Gap.” This celebration of the individual, even in a disciplined military, made the life of each service member seem even more precious, and the effort to save such lives ever more praiseworthy.
Troops’ families also became a focus of attention in two ways.
First, the military replaced the practice of sending telegrams to dead service members’ survivors with visits from casualty assistance calls officers who delivered the news in person. This practice has continued in every war since.
Second, prisoners of war became objects of repeated attention from President Richard Nixon. Nixon used POWs as props to unfairly, in my view, attack the antiwar movement as insufficiently concerned with American troops. Journalists spoke with the prisoners’ wives and children, bringing attention for the first time to the emotional suffering of service members’ families.
The military’s focus on individual service members in the late years of Vietnam has created a permanent legacy. Since Vietnam, Americans’ tolerance for casualties has sharply declined. A majority of Americans turned against the Vietnam War only when the number of U.S. dead exceeded 20,000. In Iraq it took just 2,000 dead for a majority of Americans to oppose the war.
The U.S. now fights wars in ways designed to minimize casualties and avoid any troops being taken prisoner. Such casualty avoidance, through the use of high altitude bombing, drones and heavily armored vehicles, increases civilian casualties. It also limits interaction between civilian and American troops – making it more difficult to win over the support of locals in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Vietnam did not make Americans into pacifists, but it did make U.S. civilians far more concerned with the well being and lives of their country’s troops. At the same time, the end of the draft and shift to an all-volunteer force required the U.S. military to treat its recruits with greater respect. These factors ensure military service members will continue to be honored most highly for protecting each other’s lives, even when those actions occur during lost or inconclusive wars like Afghanistan and Iraq.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to reflect the correct number of troops who died in the Vietnam War – 58,220, not 58,267.
Richard Lachmann, Professor of Sociology, University at Albany, State University of New York