Hell on Earth (Until Kingdom Come): The photographic era’s encounter with warfare, on display at the Brooklyn Museum


Brooklyn, NEW YORK--Harvard philosophy professor George Santayana wrote that “only the dead have seen the end of war.” Contrary to John Lennon’s imagination and mankind’s collective desire for world peace, Santayana’s somber perspective appears vindicated. However the world changes, episodes of conflict and cruelty inevitably arise. The Brooklyn Museum’s* temporary exhibit, WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath, documents the recurrence of these violent episodes since the dawn of the photographic era, leading us to a solemn assessment of humanity’s ability to construct lasting peace. The exhibit includes 400 photographs taken during conflicts on six continents over a span of 166 years, ranging from the Mexican-American War in 1846 up to the Libyan civil war in 2012.

Instead of presenting the photographs in chronological order, art curators Anne Wilkes Tucker, Will Michels and Natalie Zelt organized the collection in a thematic arc: flashpoint, recruitment and training, transport to the front, camp routine, combat, injury and death, devastation, POWs, homecoming and remembrance. Regardless of era or nationality, the phases of conflict look remarkably similar for every war. The raw emotion expressed in photographs of soldiers kissing their loved ones goodbye doesn’t change much over time. Examples of fear and courage, life and death were just as real in the 1853 Crimean War as they are today in Afghanistan.

The collection features several Pulitzer Prize-winning images, such as Joe Rosenthal’s “Old Glory Goes Up on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima,” Eddie Adams’s “Saigon Execution,” and Nick Ut’s “Vietnam Napalm Girl”—all of which were shot in black and white. Less well-known photographs are even more arresting by virtue of their unfamiliarity; James Nachtwey’s portraits of a “Survivor of a Hutu Death Camp” and a woman “Mourning a Brother Killed by a Taliban Rocket” capture the unspeakable grief and suffering of war. The curators’ decision to include the perspectives of civilians and soldiers as well as photojournalists provides fresh views into the fog of war.

Without being on the front line, it can be difficult to empathize with our nation’s servicemen and women. Through WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY, New Yorkers can view war through the eyes of those who have experienced it. Although some of the photographs may be inappropriate for younger viewers, teens and adults should take the opportunity to see the collection at the Brooklyn Museum before it departs at the beginning of February. College students can view the exhibit at a discounted rate ($8 recommended).

At the end of the exhibit, viewers are encouraged to share their reflections on a poppy-shaped paper—a symbol of peace that commemorates the veterans of World War I. Statements such as “give peace a chance,” “some say I’m a dreamer,” and “when will we ever learn?” were typical. Yet these comments miss the point. The WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY collection invites viewers to a share in a sober evaluation of the human condition and its constraints. Photographs can capture the reality of evil and inspire moral outrage. These images explain better than words the justifications which drive democratic nations to war: the sunken USS Maine in Havana harbor, Japanese torpedoes hurtling toward battleship row at Pearl Harbor, and aircraft colliding with the World Trade Center buildings on September 11. Sometimes war must be waged to restore justice and secure a better peace.

General George S. Patton understood this truth of human nature better than most. Perhaps the most incisive verbal reflection about war found at the exhibit is his: “the quickest way to get it over with is to go get the bastards who started it. The quicker they are whipped, the quicker we can go home.”

*The Brooklyn Museum is located at 200 Eastern Pkwy, near Prospect Park and is closed Mondays and Tuesdays and open from 11am to 6pm on Wednesday through Sunday, except on Thursdays when they keep their doors open until 10pm