Over the past 150 years of American warfare, the armaments, techniques and uniforms of soldiers have changed. The faces have not.
At least that’s how it appears in the 116 photos on display at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.
“The American Soldier, a Photographic Tribute” covers nine wars from the Civil War to the Iraq War. It opens at the museum Saturday and will be on display until Sept. 6.
“This is not a blood and guts exhibition,” said curator Cyma Rubin. “This is about the American soldier as a human being and what happens along the way: the conditions, the heroics, the family, the humor, the indoctrination and some major events.”
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Naturally, the span of the show roughly corresponds to the span of photography. Though photography dates to the 1820s, the portable cameras that could be operated in the field didn’t coincide with warfare until the Civil War in the 1860s.
The poster-sized photographs in “The American Soldier” cover the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
“The faces you’re going to see in the Civil War are the same you’re going to see in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s just different uniforms,” Rubin said.
Rubin also is the curator and producer of another traveling photo show, “Capture the Moment, The Pulitzer Prize Photographs.”
“The American Soldier” was inspired by a single photo published in The New York Times in 2002, Rubin said. It’s not an image of heroics, at least not the kind involving a battlefield. Instead, it shows a weary World War II soldier collapsed on a pile of blankets, cigarette dangling almost vertically from his mouth, his face in a 1,000 yard stare. Cpl. Frank Johnson had been sent to gather the blankets and ammo during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.
The image gave Rubin the idea to track down lesser-known images of war that evoke the life of the American soldier.
“Four thousand pictures later, I finally settled on 116,” Rubin said.
In the exhibit, each section begins with its own text panel led off by a quote. The first quote, from the Civil War, was made by Pvt. John C. Davis on July 2, 1863.
“I can’t tell you how funny I feel knowing tomorrow I’ll see a big battle. Kind of scared inside but I’m not going to run,” Davis wrote in a letter home.
Davis was killed the next day at Gettysburg. He was 14 years old.
One Civil War photo shows a soldier of the 31st Pennsylvania Infantry and his family at a camp near Washington, D.C. A girl holds a younger sister. A boy holds a dog.
At one showing of the exhibition in North Carolina, Rubin said that photo held particular interest for one visiting boy.
“He said, ‘I was wondering what happened to the doggie when the war was over,’ ” Rubin recounted. Rubin told him the dog probably went home with the family.
But about five minutes later the boy returned to the photo.
“He said ‘I know how that little boy feels about going to war because my daddy is in Iraq.’ The next day the kid brought his mother to see it,” Rubin said.
Perhaps few areas of photojournalism have benefited more from the advances in photographic technology than war journalism. Smaller and more portable cameras with responsive and quickly resettable shutters made real-time battlefield photography possible. Gone were the posed — sometimes days later — photos of the Civil War era.
As early as World War I, emotions were being captured, even if it was just a woman crying over the deployment of her sweetheart in 1917. A comical Keystone Kops-like photo of soldiers negotiating an obstacle course also dates from that war.
Not all of the photos are of American origin. One shows U.S. soldiers and sailors captured by the Japanese on Corregidor in May 1942.
The action comes closer to the viewer as time and technology progresses. A grief-stricken American infantryman is embraced by another GI in Haktong-ni, Korea, in 1950. In the background, a medic fills out casualty tags for their comrade who was killed in action.
By the Vietnam War, photographers were using light-weight single-lens reflex cameras. One photographer followed a group of paratroopers as they waded single file across a Vietnamese river in 1965. Streaks of rain fill the dark portions of the photograph as drops kick up thousands of rippled circles on the river’s surface.
African Americans are well represented in the show with desegregation of the military becoming apparent only following World War II. But one Civil War photo shows black and white soldiers being treated together at a field hospital.
In one especially poignant Vietnam War photo by Larry Burrows, a wounded black Marine strains to reach his more gravely wounded white comrade in 1966. The caption describes it as a first aid center, but it resembles little more than a mud pit.
Burrows was later killed when the helicopter he was riding in was shot down in Laos. Such was the fate of many war journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 31 journalists were killed in 2014 while on the job, 13 by crossfire.
The brief 1991 Gulf War marks the first color photos in the show. Huge plumes of orange fire silhouette soldiers in Kuwait. Flesh tones stand out amid gray-green military drab as U.S. Special Forces arrest fleeing Iraqi soldiers in another image from Kuwait.
And in arguably the most well-known image of Operation Desert Storm, the face of Army Sgt. Ken Kozakiewicz is contorted by grief after realizing the body bag in the helicopter he was riding in held a friend. The image was made by David Turnley.
The Afghanistan and Iraq wars are represented with combat photography, flag-draped caskets and images of tough-as-nails Special Forces soldiers.
The show ends with Renee Byer’s image of a joyous homecoming, a scene repeated so many times at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and other military bases across the country in recent years.