OUR MEN AND WOMEN in uniform are out of fashion just now. The Cold War has been won, and we're not involved in any very hot ones at the moment.
We will of course have need of our warriors again, by and by, and they will of course answer the call. Meanwhile, new military exhibits at the Smithsonian and at Washington Navy Yard mark this 214th summer of our independence.
The 50th anniversary of America's airborne infantry is noted at the National Museum of American History in a small exhibit that opens just in time for the national convention of airborne vets being held in Washington this weekend. Portraits, impressions and warscapes by combat artists of WWII are featured in the newly refurbished Navy Art Gallery.
Airborne units have always been elite ("That's armyspeak for flat crazy," as one Normandy Invasion veteran put it). Combining the speed and surprise of aerial attack with the ground-holding capacity of infantry, paratroops -- now usually transported by helicopter -- often are committed at extreme risk in hopes of dramatic gains.
Such vast airborne operations as those of World War II are no longer contemplated, but because they're highly trained and motivated, airborne troops are used for quick strikes and brushfire snuffing, such as Grenada and Panama: "Get the hell in, give 'em hell and get the hell out" is the modern doctrine of "vertical envelopment."
Women now may apply for airborne status, the exhibit points out. Although barred from combat, they are permitted to volunteer for the grueling training and physical testing that qualify them to strap on heavy packs and gear and jump out of airplanes into dangerous places. You've come a long way, maybe?
Exhibit honcho Margaret Vining, working mainly with volunteers and within a budget that would make most curators snicker, has created a stylish new corner in the American History museum's sadly neglected Hall of Military History.
The navy's combat artist program drew some wisecracks and even outrage at the outset but time has proved its value. The Navy Art Gallery show demonstrates that some first-class art was produced, but the most important and lasting value of the thousands of paintings and drawings is the way they capture the experience of a whole generation that went to war.
The horrific combat film and harrowing descriptions of the assault on Iwo Jima don't convey the eerie, random quality of that battle with quite the force of Mitchell Jamieson's brooding "The Beach at Dusk." His watercolor-and-crayon rendering of burnt-out tanks and landing craft on Iwo's black sands, with an impressionistic, smoke-wreathed Mount Suribachi looming over all, give texture to the Marines' forlorn description of the endless uncertainty: "The bullets came from nowhere, and the bastards came from everywhere."
Standish Backus went into Japan with the first occupation troops. In "Garden at Hiroshima, Autumn" and "Settlers of New Hiroshima," painted while radiation sickness still was developing in many of the "survivors," Backus gives us perhaps the first fully realized depiction of a new era in warfare in which the living may envy the dead.