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Marines Call It That 2,000 Yard Stare was on view at New-York Historical in 2018 as part of the exhibition Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms.
Written by Kevin-Michael Kamel, 11th Grade
“He left the States 31 months ago. He was wounded in his first campaign…. Two thirds of his company has been killed or wounded but he is still standing. So he will return to attack this morning. How much can a human being endure?”
– Tom Lea, 6/11/1945 Issue of Life Magazine
The first thing that the eye inevitably notices is the eyes facing out the frame. The Marine, unnamed, stares “That 2,000 Yard Stare” at the audience, his eyes gazing at everything and nothing. He is frozen, his mouth half-open, for us to wonder if he considers speaking, considers crying, considers calling, or does not even realize himself. One’s eyes may wish to travel and regard the rest of the painting, but The Marine will not allow it. His eyes, those of a killer, a lover, a friend, a foe, a man pushed to his absolute limit thrice over and told, “If you can hold a gun you can keep fighting,” and keeps pushing himself. They are the eyes who have been trained to look miles in total darkness, to consider the Nippon Khaki uniform as an immediate bullseye, strained to focus through a gunsight and keep peripheral vision at max performance. He tells us this, not through his speak, not through his half-agape mouth, not even through the eyes themselves at times. It is the fact that he lives- perhaps not fully, not as he did in 1940- and breathes. He has been through the campaign’s “meat grinder”, as it was called, faced a relentless enemy who has forgotten how to surrender, seen his company slaughtered and he survives. Luck only goes so far, and in Hell humanity must be cast aside. The Marine has gone through Hell and back, and yet, they know this is but another step.
Your eyes may finally be rid of the bewitching Marine, and soon the Hell his eyes speak of his brought to life. Around him, the ground is rendered burnt and grey, dry and pallid; the trees burnt to ash, and their limbs contorted and twisted in agony. The cause of this inferno is the tank, an M3 Lee with a flamethrower attached, nicknamed “Satan” for the diabolic firepower it unleashed. He and his fellow compatriots, show almost no signs of wounds- the Marine has an dented helmet and a rip through his shirt, but otherwise is unharmed. Perhaps this is what caused his suffering, that he is “unscathed” whilst his friends lay dead and dying. The fellow Marines in the background show the various stages of stress taking its toll. The soldier by the tank sits dejected, looking longingly at his rifle. By his pose, one would not imagine this was a victory- his body is broken and weak. The men behind him, however, are cleaning a bloody bayonet, hinting at the gruesome fighting, where their firearms are ineffective and they must engage in hand-to-hand combat. Yet their faces are drastically different, as is their posture, almost indifferent. In another scene they could be mistaken for washing dishes or cleaning a car besides the context, there is little to suggest they have just gone through the “meat grinder”. These soldiers form a triplex of the stages of grief. By the tank is a defeated and dejected Marine, in the foreground is The Marine in disbelief, even shock that not only has the been through Hell multiple times, he has to keep going. The last group, far in the background, with perhaps an unseen grimace, know that the only way out of Hell is to keep going and never look back.
“In war there is no substitute for victory”
– General MacArthur, “Farewell Address to Congress” 1951
Active combat in the Pacific commenced with the Second Sino-Japanese War, in 1937 when the Empire of Japan declared war on China after a minor border incident. This was escalated further as the Japanese seized islands across the Pacific and waged war in South-East Asia. Fearing that the U.S. would retaliate, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched an aerial strike against the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. The attack called a wave of war fervor, as Congress voted to formally declare war, and Japan now faced a threat larger than any it had faced before; though the Bombing of Pearl Harbor was certainly a shock, it was strategically ineffective, as a relatively small portion of the American Navy was destroyed. The U.S. retaliated by mobilizing fleets throughout 1942 to establish dominance in the Pacific before attacking the Japan’s various island bases. General MacArthur instituted the strategy of “island-hopping”, in which naval forces blockaded an island and the Marine Corps would land and capture it. An effective strategy, however the Japanese soon caught on to it by heavily fortifying themselves on their islands, thus negating the effect of a ship’s cannon barrage which was crucial to an easy landing. When this painting takes place, during the Battle of Peleliu, the Japanese have become well adapted to island hopping and are set to counter the American attack.
The mission was to capture Peleliu Island and its airfield to use it as a forward air base and strike point to hit the Imperial Japanese Navy and possibly mainland Japan. Military Intelligence had failed to identify the various hazards of the island, such as high coral walls on the beach which stopped the flow of supplies for the landing force, and heavily defended concrete bunkers which could destroy entire platoons if they walked into its line of fire. The main Japanese force, however, retreated control of the lowlands and the airfield for a higher position in the limestone mountains, where defenses were fortified and passes destroyed. Though the Marines had easily landed, and most of the island was defended by only by ambushing Japanese, many casualties were caused by the bombardment by the guns in the mountains. All in all, the assault on the mountains was like besieging an impenetrable castle, whilst bombs, bullets, and the very terrain fell upon you. Once reaching the mountains and tunnels, the soldiers had to fight through a maze of fortified positions booby trapped to kill any invader. The only effective way was to burn them out, by using flamethrowers to kill the defenders. Because of the confined spaces, the flamethrowers burned and frightened the enemy, while they also reduced the oxygen levels of the caves dramatically, suffocating those inside. Though they were not officially outlawed until the 1970s and 1980s, incendiary weapons in wartime use were still heavily looked down upon, but were “justified” by the Corps as retaliation for the war crimes done by the Japanese. The entire assault, well planned months before, became a shamble of fighting and confusion. Even the companies sent to the less defended sides of the island faced the peril of few
supplies and no navigational tools that were effective in dense jungle- all while watching for the vicious night raids that the Japanese under took to bleed out the Marines. The battle was eventually won, though at great cost and controversy, for all the bloodshed and torture, the strategic significance of the island proved minimal, as the Japanese hangars held few planes which could damage the U.S. Navy and most American planes couldn’t reach Japanese positions from Peleliu anyway.
“First is the Kaiser, then the Cavalry Officer, then the Officer’s horse, and beneath that is nothing. After nothing comes the Infantry.”
– German Military Idiom
Prior to World War II, the idea of keeping a “stiff upper lip” had been common for soldiers and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) wasn’t considered a clinical problem until after the Vietnam War. By the time of the Second World War, the idea that combat traumatizes people in a way deeper than just sleep loss or homesickness was beginning to be understood, however the stigma that anyone who couldn’t deal with “combat stress” was weak continued. General George Patton was tasked with Army command in Europe during WW2, and was infamous for his anger when soldiers had outbursts due to PTSD, which he believed were fake. The problem comes from many long held and deep rooted beliefs, dating from before the World Wars. In most armies around the world, before the World Wars, soldiers were made up of farmers, the impoverished, and in some cases convicts- those who could afford to pay their way out of being drafted could also afford an education and thus looked down upon the infantry regulars. The only wealthy men in battle were on horseback, and even by the advent of gunpowder, it was doctrine not to shoot at them. The mindset was that combat is glorious and that the men who did the actual fighting were naught more than fodder anyway, so there was little need to care about their mental health. The pure horror of standing shoulder to shoulder 50 yards from an enemy standing likewise, firing at each other in the open and watching their compatriots fall on either side whilst cannons fired and rendered entire regiments to disfigured corpses. From the sides, hundreds of men on horses, sabers and lances drawn, would crash in a stampeding tidal wave over the scrum of men- this was covered by the trumpet horns of victory. After the Great War, people began to suspect the main cause of combat stress was simply from the effects of artillery, which was half correct. A 3-foot long shell of metal filled with 10 pounds of high explosives, landing on your camp in groups of at least 10 at a time, twice every minute, for anywhere between 5 minutes to 10 hours, takes a toll on both your physical and mental well-being- thus the term shellshock. But the professional opinion was that artillery that only caused this, as if soldiers who were spared a barrage were also spared PTSD, as if running in open ground whilst entrenched sharpshooters and machine guns take aim has any less misery. It was only in the coming decades that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder became more widely recognized as a serious ailment. By then, however, countless damage had been done to millions of infantrymen.
“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”
-President Franklin D.Roosevelt, “Acceptance Speech for Renomination” 1936
In 1941, Europe was consumed by war, as fascist states led by Germany and Italy conquered the continent. Though the U.S. was officially neutral, President Roosevelt sought to assist the Allied nations of France, Britain, and Russia fighting against the fascists. Though he couldn’t send infantry to fight, Roosevelt supplied the Allies with weapons, vehicles, and planes, becoming what he called, “The Arsenal of Democracy.” To rally the American people behind this, in his State of the Union Address, FDR said that we must protect the Four Freedoms of every man, “Freedom from Want, Freedom of Speech, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom of Worship.” This speech was not well received, as America was just crawling out of the Great Depression, and didn’t want to hear that their times of struggle would need to be renewed again for idealism in foreign lands.
Painter Norman Rockwell had decided to paint four images depicting the usage of these four freedoms in America- parents putting their children to sleep, having a Thanksgiving meal, people of different faiths together in prayer, and a man speaking up during a town hall meeting. These images are the forefront of the Rockwell, Roosevelt and The Four Freedoms exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, which also displays various other works of Rockwell and his contemporaries. Unlike Rockwell, however, Thomas Lea did not paint in the U.S. He traveled with Marine Battalions in an attempt to paint soldiers not in a heroic light, but as people under pressure. As such, the inclusion of such a piece as Lea’s may seem an odd fit as, at first glance, it has none to do with the Four Freedoms and the art is a complete contrast from the other pieces in the exhibit, both in style and subject. However, it is this contrast that makes The Thousand Yard Stare so integral. In a gallery where soldiers are either depicted as dew-eyed youngsters or unflinching heroes, Lea’s piece is a foundation of reality: some soldiers were scared, some were heroes, some were bullied for their care package, some were able to have an touching homecoming with their parents, some were even able to transition back to civilian life. All soldiers are human, all humans have their breaking points, and it is the few that break their limit, and simply keep going. It was this that Lea shows in his painting, the stare into maw of death and the knowledge that one must keep going. These men did not keep going in some glorious ray of light, not for abstract ideals, but because there is no other way. This is the sad truth about war- no matter how free you endeavor to make one person, you must take away the freedoms of the people who deliver it.
Costello, John. The Pacific War, 1941-1945. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009.
Crocq, Marc-Antoine, and Louis Crocq. “From Shell Shock and War Neurosis to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: a History of Psychotraumatology.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2000, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181586/.
“Department of History – WWII Asian Pacific Theater.” Department of History – Vietnam War. Accessed August 03, 2018, https://westpoint.edu/academics/academic-departments/history/world-war-two-asia.
Heinl, Robert Debs. Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations. Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 2013.
Mahon, John K. Army Lineage Series. GPO, 1972
Moore, Robert. “World War II Museum Showcases Tom Lea Art.” El Paso Times. June 20, 2016. https://www.elpasotimes.com/story/news/history/2016/06/20/world-war-ii-museum-showcases-tom-lea-art/86114884/.
“Peleliu, Battle for (Operation Stalemate II) – The Pacific War’s Forgotten Battle, September-November 1944.” Battle of Neuve-Chapelle, 10-13 March 1915. http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_peleliu.html.
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