“In war, and the constant wake of war, does survival depend on rejecting and repressing one’s pains, emotions, and fears – one’s vulnerability? Or, does survival depend on radically embracing one’s vulnerability?”
—From the “Radical Vulnerability” Program Guide at the National Veterans Art Museum
Last Friday, members of the Neighborhood Writing Alliance had the amazing opportunity to attend a special workshop at the National Veterans Art Museum, on Radical Vulnerability. The phrase may seem strange to some, but the workshop, named after the current exhibit at the NVAM, allowed participants to discover not just the meaning of the phrase, but why it is so vital. The workshop was co-sponsored by NWA, the NVAM, and the Theatre of War Project, currently in Chicago and hosted by the Goodman Theatre.
Like any workshop, it began with introductions, but the experiences and perspectives in the room were diverse. Civilians of all stripes, soldier’s wives, children and siblings, as well as veterans from at least three US armed actions overseas came together to explore what radical vulnerability might mean.
Aaron Hughes, of the NVAM, Writer Warriors, and Iraq Veterans Against the War, first tried to contextualize the answer. The art on display at the NVAM as part of the exhibit seeks to allow veterans to explore their own vulnerability in a radical way, though Aaron suggested that the radical nature came not from the admission of vulnerability and humanity, but embracing it. He led the group on a tour of the pieces that showed not only the different wounds of war, but the different answers, and calls to action that emerge as soldiers return home. Many pieces were painted or drawn on “combat paper,” a canvas made from the ripped, soaked, and transformed fatigues of soldiers. One piece, called “How to Make Combat Paper” by Christopher Arendt described, on combat paper, fifteen steps including “Step four. Hate the war, hate yourself,” and “Step fifteen. Teach others to make combat paper. Live your life.” The Radical Vulnerability exhibit seeks to expose the humanity and vulnerability that war can erase, and Aaron described the cathartic effect of turning one symbol of that reserve into something else.
Regina Vasquez’s “Fatigues Clothesline” also used fatigues as a canvas, but in their original form. The project invites service members who have survived Military Sexual Trauma (MST) to draw, write, or paint their story on the inside of their fatigues, and then hang them for the world to see. Among veterans using military healthcare, close to 2/3 of female soldiers experience MST, as do 1/3 of men. Given the culture of silence in the military, and the threat of retaliation for reporting, actual numbers could be much higher.. Many members of the workshop paused for a long time to walk along the line, and read every story.
The troubles of war on display seemed to never end. “They’re Mine to Keep” is a visualization of a soldier trying to protect and claim memories that kept slipping away by Edgar Gonzalez Baeza. Other pieces memorialized the first man a soldier ever killed, the powerful drug cocktails prescribed to the overwhelming numbers of veterans and soldiers with anxiety, depression, PSTD, and other unnamed psychological problems, in place of allowing them to talk.
For part of the workshop, participants were invited to move their chair to any place in the exhibit and write. Writing in and among these works of art and expressions of humanity was a powerful experience, and NWA writers returned to the circle with pieces inspired by varied aspects of the experience. One writer recalled in the fifteen steps to making combat paper, a journey of her own with twelve. Another wrote about her youthful protests of war, now tempered by a new sensitivity to those the war affects. The exhibit not only exposed the undeniable humanity of the soldiers who made the pieces, but the human ability to share experience, and compassion through art.
Aaron was kind enough, and patient enough, to share stories of his own experiences in Iraq, and his frustrations as a veteran. He explained how the suicide rate among soldiers and veterans has exploded in the past 5–10 years, and veterans have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Most soldiers, he felt, weren’t shattered by the loss of a patriotic dream. They only signed up for a job. Instead, they were broken by the dehumanizing nature of war. And yet, the military apparatus, which seeks so determinedly to squash the human individuality of soldiers, is often the only place they can turn, because fellow soldiers are the only ones who truly understand their experience.
And that is why exhibitions like Radical Vulnerability are so important. They allow soldiers to embrace and find their humanity among other soldiers, and also to bridge the gap between themselves and civilians. Those who don’t fight cannot imagine fighting, and many of the pieces NWA participants wrote expressed awe at the complete foreignness of the soldiers’ experience. Yet they also allowed a window of compassion and understanding. As one participant put it, we can ease the pain that will not go away. Before the workshop ended, each participant had a chance to explain what the phrase radical vulnerability meant to them. The answers words varied, but they all embraced the spirit of common humanity.