The picture appeared in Life in 1945. It shows us the war-ravaged face of a U.S. Marine infantryman during the battle for Peleliu, a tiny, inconsequential island in the South Pacific where more than 1,700 marines ultimately lost their lives. The man who made the painting that Life reproduced in a photograph was Tom Lea, an artist from El Paso, Texas. Lea worked as an illustrator and war correspondent for Life throughout World War II, mostly in the Pacific theater. His work up until that time had mainly been of the propagandistic, hooray-for-our-side variety, but this Peleliu picture was different. Something seems to have happened to Lea that punched all the sis-boom-bah out of him. He titled his picture, because of the round-eyed, eerily vacant look on the young man’s face, “The Marines Call It That 2,000 Yard Stare.” The look would become famous, then emblematic. It came to stand for and illustrate the ferocity of warfare in the 20th century of the “modern” era on this small planet.
“Battle fatigue” we called it in World War I. “Shell shock” became the term of art in World War II. These days we mostly use, and sometimes overuse, the dryly clinical “post-traumatic stress disorder,” or PTSD, to define the condition. Meanwhile, history, as it has a way of doing, has edited Lea’s original title for his picture, so that it has come down to us as simply “The Thousand-Yard Stare.” But in looking back from the vantage point of the second decade of the 21st century to that seemingly far off time in the mid-20th, Lea’s portrait of the young marine still seems apt. It was in many ways a nightmare century.
Let’s look at the numbers. World War I, which lasted from August 1914 to November 1918, claimed 37 million casualties, including 17 million dead. One million died at the Battle of the Somme alone, where 57,000 were killed or wounded on a single day. World War II, which came along just twenty years later and lasted from September 1939 to August 1945, claimed 70 to 80 million dead, the majority of them, by this time, civilians. The Soviet Union alone suffered 26 million killed in that war. The total military dead was “only” 25 million, but cemeteries don’t know the difference between civilian and military. It’s all just fill to them. About six million of the overall total, of course, were Jews, murdered systematically by the Nazis and their accomplices in the Holocaust. By war’s end bombs capable of killing 100,000 innocents in a single, low-altitude flash were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Add to all these warfare totals the victims of the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-1919, which war’s movements helped to spread and which claimed upwards of 50 million victims, the so-called Armenian genocide of 1914-1915, which claimed one and a half million, the Stalinist terror of the 1930s, which claimed maybe two million more, plus all the “little” wars like the Korean one, the Vietnamese one, even the Russo-Japanese, Boer, Falklands, Arab-Israeli, and Iran-Iraq ones—add them all up and you get a pretty grim picture of life on the third rock from the sun over a hundred year span.
I own a book titled Cultural Calendar of the 20th Century, published in 1979 by Phaidon Press. It was assembled by British poet and art critic Edward Lucie-Smith, since deceased. I’m not even sure now how I came by it; maybe I bought it in one of the used-book stores here in the Twin Cities, where I live, sometime in the 1980s. It’s a handsome, folio-sized volume suitable for coffee-table display, and it lays it all out, what life was like on the planet, with pictures and text, year by year, up through 1975. Each year gets two full pages to strut its stuff. Stroll through it with me now and let’s look at some of the pictures, ponder some of the texts.
The century starts on a festive note with the Paris Exposition of 1900. We see pictures of impressive urban architecture: the Eiffel Tower, an art-nouveau Paris Metro entrance, the Hotel Negresco, a beaux arts “masterpiece” down in Nice. (Anent that hotel, more below.) There is, however, at the bottom of the two-page spread, a black and white photo of the destroyed legation quarter in Peking, a token of the Boxer Rebellion, which began that year. In the text, we learn that the German government has decided to build a fleet of 38 battleships over the next twenty years and that King Umberto I of Italy has been assassinated by an anarchist. Also, Max Planck publishes his work on quantum physics.
Now let’s skip forward ten years to 1910. There’s a picture of Emiliano Zapata; the Mexican Revolution is underway. Gaudi’s “Casa Mila” apartment building opens in Barcelona. Plastic is invented. The big noise in music that year is issuing from Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite.” Old-age pensions are introduced in France.
But soon it’s 1914 and the guns of August are beginning to roar. By 1916 the Battle of Verdun is underway, and although Joyce will publish his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that year, the Easter Rising in Dublin will attract far more notice among the Irish, and the slaughter on the Western Front will get most of Lucie-Smith’s pictorial attention. “The real but sordid epic of the Western Front,” reads the caption on a photo of two soldiers pulling a dead comrade out of a shell hole, “German troops in the mud at Verdun.”
By 1919 the shooting is ended, the punitive Treaty of Versailles is signed and Hitler founds the National Socialist German Workers Party. The 1920s come roaring in, only to be snuffed out in the 1930s by the Great Depression. By the time the 1940s arrive it’s once again time for wholesale carnage, culminating in early August 1945 with a photo of the utterly flattened landscape of what had been Hiroshima, and with an absolutely grotesque picture of naked bodies from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp piled outdoors like so much refuse for horrified Allied liberators to view.
Also in 1945 we see Truman, Churchill, and Stalin linking hands at Potsdam, where their discussions, we’re told, “influenced the fate of millions throughout the world.” On the facing page there’s a photo of a Henry Moore sculpture titled Family Group, depicting a man, woman and child, linked pretty much as Truman, Churchill and Stalin are in their picture. “Art asserts human value,” reads the caption, and one has to wonder if Lucie-Smith is being wryly cynical at this point, or hopeful beyond the evidence because there really is little choice. The only other picture in this two-page spread is of the mushroom cloud rising over Hiroshima. Orwell’s little Animal Farm will turn out to be the big book of that year.
The “Age of Anxiety” is ushered in, while the ash still settles over in Japan, with the Nuremberg war-crimes trials of 1946, even as, in yet another interesting Lucie-Smith juxtaposition, the first postwar Volkswagen Beetles are being exhibited at the Paris Motor Show. The “Anxiety” was triggered, of course, by the fact that we had now entered “The Nuclear Age,” which meant that for the first time in history mankind had achieved the ability to totally destroy itself. “Duck and cover,” schoolchildren were being taught; crawl under your desks and do not peek at the blinding flash. The only thing saving us, ironically, was something called MAD, which stood for “mutual assured destruction.” It is saving us yet, but what with the knowledge and even the wherewithal for making “dirty” atom bombs having sifted all the way down to the junior high school level by now—not to speak of the rushing ease with which engineered biotoxins can be produced and spread—for how much longer, who can say?
Despite the nuclear jitters, the 1950s were a hopeful time, at least in Lucie-Smith’s pictorial portrayals. They were a time of Jackson Pollock’s “Lavender Mist,” of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean—both destined to die young—and of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Some novels of the period, like The Tin Drum and The Naked and the Dead, looked back to the horrors of the recent past, but for comic relief one could always nip into New York’s Museum of Modern Art for a quick look at “Monogram,” Robert Rauschenberg’s witty assemblage (he called them “composites”) featuring a billy goat and a spare tire.
But with the arrival of the 1960s the mood turns dark again. The murder of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963, sets the tone for the remainder of the Lucie-Smith book. Things start spinning out of control; they go psychedelic, kaleidoscopic, or just topsy-turvey. It is the time of the assassins: Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan B. Sirhan, James Earl Ray. Lucie-Smith’s choices to illustrate the year 1963 include a picture of the surviving Kennedy brothers (one of whom, Bobby, will himself soon be dead) and widow Jackie, viewing the presidential casket as JFK’s funeral cortege rolls past. Possibly as a change of pace, though maybe not, Lucie-Smith also offers us Roy Lichtenstein’s famed pop-art painting of two fighter jets engaged in comic-book combat (“WHAAM!”).
Then, starting in the mid-60s, Vietnam moves center stage, bringing with it sex, drugs and rock & roll, “Hell No, We Won’t Go!” and the My Lai massacre. All of which are followed by Watergate, “We all live in a yellow submarine,” and the murder of the Jewish athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Suddenly, the whole world is a target-rich environment. Terrorists begin to control the agenda hither and yon, and these were mere nationalists using terror instrumentally—nothing like the mass-murdering glaze-eyed types we confront today.
Lucie-Smith concludes his book—none too soon, it would seem—in 1975, with a large, open-mouthed picture of the great white shark from the top box-office movie of that year, Jaws. He juxtaposes this with a sculpture titled Cry 1, by an artist named Ludmilla Seefried-Matjekova, which features a caged man, his arms uplifted in supplication, his mouth agape much like the shark’s in Jaws. “Save us!” he seems to be saying. South Vietnam has just fallen; civilian personnel are being helicoptered off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon (soon to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City). Woody Allen’s Love and Death is also a top movie of the year along with Jaws. And finally, as an absurdist counterpoint, we see a naked man being led away by police as a crowd at an English soccer match appears to both laugh and jeer: streaking is the new international craze.
So there you have it. Tom Lea’s “Thousand-Yard Stare” and Edward Lucie-Smith’s Cultural Calendar of the 20th Century: a picture and a picture book. Images on a page. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how certain still photos can arrest us in a way that moving pictures—newsreels, movies, videos—seldom do. “A photograph is powerful, even in the age of video, because of its ability to ingrain a single truth.” So wrote David Brooks in one of his recent New York Times columns. The mind appreciates the pause these still shots offer in the onrushing flux of time. Stop, study, and perhaps understand, they seem to say; maybe there’s a learning moment here. Think of that AP wirephoto from the 1970s of the terrified little Vietnamese girl running stark naked toward the camera and away from the napalm blossoming up behind her. Or the picture of the girl leaning over the fallen body of the Kent State student killed by Ohio National Guardsmens’ rifle fire, the look on her outraged face seemingly urging the cameraman to do something! Yes, pictures like these are powerful. Think back to that portrait by Dorothea Lange of the migrant mother and her two ragged children that became a kind of national pieta of the Depression era. Or, on a happier note, recall the shot of the young sailor lustily kissing the girl in Times Square on VJ Day.
These pictures are part of our mental archive. We carry them with us wherever we go. We drag them out when we need them, and sometimes when we don’t. When I think back to the century recently passed the images that rush to my mind, in addition to the ones already mentioned here, are of things like Alberto Giacometti’s statues and statuettes, those thin, attenuated, almost stick-like figures seemingly so antithetical to the rounded, muscular Greek statuary of classical antiquity. Giacometti’s statues, with their blank, Easter Islandish gaze—their own thousand-yard stare—seem somehow to echo Samuel Beckett’s two bootless vagabonds, Vladimir and Estragon, alone on their bare, minimalist stage with only a thin little leafless tree for shelter. Is that us now? Is that who we have become?
One of the earliest images in my memory bank—I must have been around eight when I first came across it—was of a blindfolded American airman, one of the Doolittle raiders, I believe, on his knees, his hands tied behind his back, and looming over him a Japanese officer, his samurai sword raised high, about to deliver the decapitating blow. That picture was in Life, too, I think. It haunted me for weeks. The poor airman looked so helpless, so defeated, and the squat little officer so intent on what he was about to do.
It was that arch-pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer, writing way back in the 19th century, who came up with what remains perhaps the pithiest description of the human condition ever penned. “No rose without a thorn,” he wrote, “but many a thorn without a rose.” One wonders what he might have thought of the 20th century. News photography has a bias toward the violent, the explosive, and the awful. I realize that. Nobody bothers to photograph all the planes that land safely at LaGuardia, because that’s not news. “If it bleeds, it leads,” the cynics in the media say, so if life imitates art, it may also imitate the selectivity inherent in the mediated images that now so thickly surround us. Our memory is influenced by the technology behind the images we store and remember.1 So do thorns really outrageously outnumber the roses in this life, and if they do is it our own fault?
Lucie-Smith’s book stops before the arrival of the Rwandan genocide, during which Hutu tribesmen obliterated 800,000 of their Tutsi brethren. It stops before the AIDS-HIV epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, which by the end of the century had wiped out more than 22 million more. It stops before 9/11 and the serial grotesqueries of radical Islamist terrorism. The Hotel Negresco—that beaux arts “masterpiece” Lucie-Smith used to open his book on a hopeful note of the year 1900—was very much in evidence just recently, its bold, red-lettered signage blazing away in the background in much of the TV footage coming out of Nice after the slaughter of 85 hapless Bastille Day revelers by a terrorist trucker on the Promenade des Anglais. Now we are well embarked on the second decade of the 21st century, and who knows what lies ahead. Now that we live in the age of Instagram and selfies, of Facebook and Twitter and all the rest, we can pretty much rest assured that whatever happens next, somebody out there will be clicking a shutter, thumbing an electronic device, building a record. Our mental archive will grow, and much of it will consist of stills working as the condensation symbols they are. The question is, will that archive reflect reality, or help create it?
1Note Alison Winter’s Memory: Fragments of a Modern History (University of Chicago Press, 2012), and Maryanne Wolf’s review of it, entitled “Memory’s Wraith,” in The American Interest.