The Arts of War . . . and Peace
The Tyndall Air Force Base (Florida) audience enjoying a Pensacola Opera performance as part of NEA’s Great American Voices initiative. Photo courtesy of Tyndall Air Force Base
This past April, in my capacity as a board member of Americans for the Arts, I testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies in support of the NEA’s budget. It might seem odd that a retired U.S. Army Brigadier General would testify on behalf of an arts agency, but throughout my 32-year career, I have seen numerous instances in which the arts have benefitted both our national security needs and our active and transitioning military personnel. I firmly believe that our arts community is a national asset and treasure with tremendous potential to contribute to the United States government’s ability to deal with the national security challenges it faces.
Our armed forces are adjusting to an enemy that practices asymmetrical warfare. This threat demands creative and innovative responses: understanding local culture and protection of valuable and sensitive cultural treasures, such as those looted in the Baghdad Museum, can go a long way in helping our forces win the hearts and minds and maintain support among the citizenry; investments in cultural diplomacy can enable the arts community to partner with other U.S. government departments and agencies to prevent or prepare for post-conflict situations, and support stabilization; and support for our veterans in their healing and post-service via creative outlets can help support their path and transition to a civilian life.
Former Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Gregory S. Cleghorne and his son at the book launch for the NEA anthology, Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families. Photo by Kevin Allen
Here are just a few ways that I believe that the arts community and government agencies might work together to support these goals: arts leaders can participate in reconstruction and stabilization planning by the State Department, regional combatant commands, and country teams to identify areas in which arts and cultural initiatives can support security cooperation plans, such as the recent South American tour of the Urban Bush Women; arts organizations can partner with service component commands on support service activities, e.g. resource an arts center in a school built by military engineers; and collaborate on initiatives and events that encourage and support increased arts participation by active military and veterans, such as the NEA’s Operation Homecoming or the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, which collects, preserves, and exhibits art inspired by combat and created by veterans.
Another way that the arts community can support our security efforts is by providing support for military families through programs such as the Blue Star Museums initiative, a collaboration that was announced by NEA Chair Rocco Landesman and Blue Star Families Chair Kathy Roth-Duquet earlier today. More than 650 museums across the U.S. are taking part in this program, which will provide free access for active duty military families to participating museums. I think a project like this does triple-duty: it helps military families to stretch their budgets for family activities; it helps educate younger generations on the amazing breadth and depth of our nation’s cultural heritage; and, most important, it tells these families that we appreciate and value the everyday sacrifices they make for our country.
In my Congressional testimony I quoted from a Salon article on looting in Iraq that described cultural artifacts as “the deep memory of an entire culture.” This is a statement that is true for all nations, including ours. I believe that keeping that “deep memory” safe is a job not only for our military but for our artists and arts organizations as well. And I am grateful that we have an agency like the NEA to lead the way in working with our military and with all of our federal agencies in creatively and innovatively doing that job.