Vietnam Combat Artists Program

Combat art has a long, distinguished, and often underappreciated place in our historical record and in the history of American art itself.

George Washington and the Continental Army depended not only on winning battles (or avoiding defeats) but also on public opinion and the support of the American people to continue in existence. Consequently, artists drew and painting Washington as a quintessential icon of the character and ideas for which he and his comrades were fighting. Artists such as John Trumbull and Charles Willson Peale, who were eyewitnesses to several engagements, produced battle scenes of important victories that were reproduced and widely distributed.

Likewise, during the Civil War, combat artists took to the fields to record battle scenes, leaders, camp life, and a wide variety of activities and people involved in the nation’s internal conflict. Many of the artists were “Specials,” the special correspondents commissioned by the nation’s leading publications to give readers an idea of what was happening on a daily or weekly basis. People such as Alfred Waud and Edwin Forbes recorded for us the only images we have of Civil War battles because photography at that time could not stop action.

When the United States became engaged in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, the U.S. Army and the other services continued this tradition. Even though still photography and video were available, Army officials wisely believed that these tools would not leave us with a full visual record of the emotions and impact of that war.

Consequently, the Army created the Vietnam Combat Artists Program.

This program, begun in 1966, allowed soldiers stationed anywhere in the world to apply. Those selected would be detached from their units and sent to Vietnam for 60 days. They formed a team, usually of five artists. Once in-country, they could go anywhere they wanted and move about freely within a unit. They could accompany infantry units into the field, or they could ride helicopters or airplanes if they chose to. Their duty was to sketch, draw, and paint whatever interested them. The artists were encouraged to use whatever media (oil, watercolor, charcoal, etc.) they were comfortable with and were told to create within their chosen styles.

When the team was finished in-country, they were flown to Hawaii where they spent another 75 days finishing their work. At the end of that time, the artists left their work and returned to their individual units.

Between 1966 and 1970, nine teams were sent to Vietnam. They created a body of work that is remarkable for its variety of subject matter and media. The images today —many of which have been digitized and are available online —are a searing and emotional record of what soldiers and civilians in Vietnam experienced during that time. Many of the images can be seen on Wikipedia.com.

Illustration: Sketch of a Combat Artist at Work by Paul Rickert, Vietnam Combat Artists Program, CAT I, 1966. Courtesy of the National Museum of the U.S. Army.

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.
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