LOS ANGELES, California—Americans have been familiar with the idea of war throughout the nation’s history.
From its own internal to external conflicts, like the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, to its welcoming and incorporating immigrants from war torn countries, the United States has experienced the causes and effects, costs and benefits of war.
As the U.S. defense budget is over 50 percent of the government’s discretionary spending, or optional spending funded by taxpayers, the U.S. government keeps itself prepared for war and involves its citizens in the process.
Just buying items at the corner store can contribute to war.
At least that’s what the Los Angeles based reggae/funk/heavy rock, five member band, Kounterfeit Change, suggests in its song “War and Crime.”
Throughout the music video for the song, the band is playing on a beach as the sun sets. Images of nuclear testing sites, protests, and flag burnings from around the world are frequently shown while the group members vocalize words like, “Buy a bullet, so you can pull it back more, wondering what’s left in the store.”
The band continues, seemingly singing from the perspective of someone who has been killed during war, while other people are ambivalent, “chilling on the outskirts” and purchasing items with money that fuels wars.
Paralleling bombs falling from the sky with tears falling from eyes, Kounterfeit Change connects all people to the pain war causes.
Connecting people to multiple aspects of war has historically been a part of war art. War artists draw, paint, carve, and create other ways of displaying images they see during war and describing how war contributes to everyday life.
War artists can be combatants, civilians witnessing war, or prisoners of war, depicting military, political, social, and cultural aspects of war. These artists use their art to educate people about the causes, process, and consequences war has on all who are affected, directly and indirectly.
U.S. war artists are called “combat artists,” and have historically been used to chronicle aspects of war. During the Vietnam War, soldier-artists produced pictorial interpretations for military history annals.
War artists can be appointed by governments to relay images from the battlefield or to create propaganda during war time, shaping the history that will be seen for generations.
Art as “guerilla warfare”
Late historian, playwright, and author Professor Howard Zinn (1922-2010) told Resonance Magazine in 2004 that political power is controlled by the corporate elite and the arts can be thought of as a type of guerilla warfare.
“When tyrannies are overthrown, it starts in the culture, which is the only area where people can have some freedom,” Professor Zinn, who wrote the book Artists in Times of War, was quoted. “They're subtle and indirect, so the establishment gambles that they won't lead to anything threatening, but often they lose that gamble.”
He continued, saying that artists have a special power to touch people, a power reaching beyond politics. They use fiction to create an ideal future out of past and present truths.
“When Dalton Trumbo wrote his novel Johnny Got His Gun, it was fiction. The character in it, so far as we know, didn't exist in real life. It was a soldier found on the battlefields in WWI without arms and legs and eyes and nose, nothing but a torso and a brain and a heart beating,” Professor Zinn was quoted. “That was not reality, that was a fiction, that was a lie. But his novel describes the thinking of that person in such a way as to tell you the truth about war.”
Although he noticed singers like Bruce Springsteen and the Dixie Chicks speaking against the war, Professor Zinn added that artists in this era have a more difficult time critiquing war and politics than artists have previously, because the media and government have overwhelming control.
“Music could be as direct as anti-war songs or maybe more subtle. Paintings can be very directly political, like the paintings that were done by Goya during the Napoleanic war, showing the horrors of war,” Professor Zinn was quoted. “There's a long historical continuous line going back to ancient Greeks where there were wars fought, and the Greek playwrights spoke out against war through their characters.”
Professor Zinn told Resonance Magazine that artists in this era who venture past entertainment and make political statements, specifically regarding war, often encounter fellow artists, critics, or the general public who feel artists should solely provide entertainment.
“It helps them when they hear somebody tell them that this is historically the great role of artists,” he was quoted, moving beyond war and speaking about artistic responsibility. “This is how artists have inspired social change.”