James Butcher was a 20-year-old lance corporal who had been in Vietnam only a couple of months, but that was long enough to realize that the scene in front of him — a Marine, sitting alone, waiting for his flight at the Phu Bai Air terminal in 1967 — was a powerful image of solitude and quiet that war so rarely affords.
So Butcher, a combat artist, took out his sketchbook and started drawing, hoping to get the details right. Doing nothing, he knew, is an important part of combat. “It’s when you can contemplate where you are, what you’re doing,” he said. “It’s when you learn a lot about fear.”
Eventually his scribbling became a painting, titled “Waiting,” and it is part of an exhibit, “Fly Marines! The Centennial of Marine Corps Aviation: 1912-2012,” which opened Saturday at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Much of the collection is dedicated to showcasing the awesome, amped-up might of the Marines’ air power. In frame after frame, there are hoo-rah scenes of Marines doing battle from the air in “Top Gun” fashion, from the open-cockpits of World War I to the fearsome Cobra helicopters used in the current conflicts.
A pair of fighter jets are painted as rhapsodically as Degas ballet dancers, a blur of motion and grace as they lift off in sync. Other images speak to purpose, mission and a super-charged patriotism; it’s no wonder that the painting of the jet flying into the dark smoke while framed by an American flag was used as a part of a recruiting campaign.
In the exhibit, like in the movies and recruiting advertisements, jets are sexy and powerful and cool, and in the collection they strike many poses. There they are on aircraft carriers, over the minarets of Baghdad, the fields of France. There are helicopters under fire in Vietnam and delivering supplies to a Kurdish refugee camp. There’s the majestic Marine One, lifting off from the White House lawn, with Ronald Reagan in tow.
Then there are images of jets unleashing ordnance by the ton, works that conjure Hiroshima and shock and awe, and affirm, in fire and ash, that the aircraft has long been the most mighty weapon of war.
“If you came here today looking for pretty airplane pictures, you are going to be hard pressed to find but a couple of those,” said Lin Ezell, director of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, which oversees the Corps’ art collection. “The show is a celebration not about the form of the aircraft itself but the function of aircraft in war, and that always has to do with people.”
It is in the works in which the aircraft is relegated to the background that the collection rises above a mere showcasing of raw military firepower and begins to capture the war ethos and the Corps’ uncommon, and almost tribal, band-of-brother ethos.
The purpose of air power, after all, is largely to help the units on the ground. And that story is told best when the Marine is the main character and the aircraft plays a supporting role.
In one of the most powerful works, “Close Air Support,” the focus is on Marines advancing through enemy lines in North Korea. In the foreground is a dead Marine, his blood staining the snow and the blown-up tree stump next to him. But there in the distance is salvation: a Vought F4U Corsair, dropping a bomb on the bad guys.
The exhibit also touches on the important role Marine aircraft have played in escorting the wounded and fallen and the dangers pilots face, even while high above the battlefield.
One painting, titled “Ascent,” shows an honor guard carrying a flag-draped casket of a fallen Marine into the belly of a C-17 headed home from Afghanistan in 2002. Another is a still life of a pilot’s chair pocked with bullet holes, presumably the detritus of a deadly fire fight during the Vietnam War. In contrast to the ceremonial symbol known as the “fallen soldier battle cross” — two empty boots, a rifle with a helmet perched atop it — the work depicts a helmet dangling unceremoniously from the chair by its strap. And the scorched chair sits as lonely as a tombstone.
When he served as a combat artist in Iraq, Staff Sgt. Kristopher Battles, whose work from Iraq was part of the exhibit, was always on the lookout for scenes that told intimate stories of the wars and the people fighting them. But in the Corps they say, “every Marine’s a rifleman,” and so his foremost focus was “on the mission.” That meant he carried a 9 mm pistol and an M-16 rifle in addition to his paints and sketchbooks.
“You need to know when to be an artist and when to be in combat mode,” he said during a tour of the exhibit.
Forty-five years after he landed in Vietnam, Butcher still remembers the young Marine he painted waiting for his plane. “He was thinking about his girlfriend,” he said.
It’s not his best work, he admits. The plane isn’t to scale. He was young then, an amateur who had limited training and was still struggling to find his style. And compared to many of the other pieces in the collection, it is decided muted. The Marine waiting for his plane has his helmet off, his gear and rifle stashed at his feet.
And it isn’t clear whether the plane he is about to board is going to take him into combat or is finally headed home.
“Fly Marines! The Centennial of Marine Corps Aviation: 1912-2012” runs through Jan. 6, 2013, at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, at Independence and 6th Street SW.