In civilized cultures there has always been an ambivalent relationship between soldier and society. The anonymous British verse sums it up:
God and the soldier, we adore
In time of danger, not before.
The danger past and all things righted,
God’s forgotten, the soldier slighted.
I suppose that “slighted” understates the case for the Vietnam veteran. Our reception by the American society upon return from Southeast Asia was less than hospitable and often openly hostile. Suppression became the natural coping mechanism for us; we never spoke of the war, we only spoke around it, if at all. But the experiences beg for release in some form and the release will surface in one way or another. In my case sculptural images are sparked by the war experience; they arc across the minefield of memory like tracers. They hold me hostage, controlling my waking and sleeping hours, until I deal with them. Sometimes the art flows effortlessly like whistling. Usually not.
Some images never do coalesce. I work and rework them and still they remain ephemeral visions like those from my other life as a soldier…those moments when we assembled before the beginning of morning nautical twilight trying to find our way into the known. Now, years later, images form and reform out of the mist of what was reality, steeped in a quarter century of impure memory. They tease and nag. They ebb and flow. I never know where they will lead. When a sculpture ensues, I am as astonished as anyone; if nothing lasting develops, the journey through the minefield transforms me, nonetheless. Sometimes the story has to be told simply for the sake of the telling.
But these memories of Vietnam are showing signs of age. They are older now than I was when I served there. Mostly they remain hidden just beneath the surface of consciousness, like mines laid in a rice paddy, ready to explode and echo across the decades when the right pressure is applied. Just what it is that trips them remains a mystery; sometimes a sound, occasionally a word, usually a smell. And, like the mines, these memories are not always where I laid them; they shift and migrate in the bramble of my hippocampus as if the laws of physics and probability have been suspended. It is subtle movement, for the ground and the ground-rules changed when I wasn’t looking.