I’ve always found art museums relaxing. Not because of the sculptures and paintings themselves; rather, I enjoy the stroll through warmly lit hallways, pausing methodically in front of colossal explosions of paint. I ask why…why is this art? Why did some poor kid from the middle of nowhere dedicate his life’s work to something I feel a five year-old could have replicated on accident? And for a minute or two of silence, I stare at a piece of art and attempt to pierce into its creator’s soul. That is, of course, until I regain consciousness and conclude that I have no idea what he was thinking.
Last month, I made one such journey to the Seattle Art Museum. But this time, even from over 100m away, a bright and shiny sculpture caught my eye…
I strolled up closely to find that this piece of art was actually 40,000 dog tags strung together to create a lavish and regal cloak. 40,000 dog tags. I still have the dog tags I carried through my year in Afghanistan. They dangled in my back right pant’s pocket the entire time. They’re bent, shiny, and weathered…I suppose much like myself. It was hard to consider the number of dog tags laying before me. 40,000. Now, we all know that there have been nowhere near 40,000 KIA in the wars of this generation. Nor have there been so many WIAs. But I think what this sculpture encompasses is a demographic I recently heard coined as “The Invisible Wounded”.
There are many of us who go overseas and serve our country, and though our scars may not be physical in nature, they are certainly painful. Though it only sounds like a soldier spends 12 months in combat, the psychological effects can last far longer. Though it is only the soldier who deploys, it is the mother, the father, the children, the wives and husbands who are asked to sacrifice so much along with them. Perhaps 40,000 dog tags on this sculpture is appropriate after all.
I looked for the description of the artist. To my great surprise, the artist was not American…but Korean! The sculpture was entitled “Some/One” By an artist named Do-Ho Suh. I was astonished, and partially offended. What is an outsider to the American military contribution building sculpture out of dog tags for?! That takes some nerve! But in retrospect of my six weeks spent in Korea as a West Point Cadet, I recalled the effect that a conscript army has on a society. Every single male in Korea serves in some capacity towards the betterment of his country. Perhaps as an outsider, a Korean looking at our democracy, I can understand how astonishing it can be to have a democracy of nearly 300 million people sustained through a force of about .5% of its benefactors.
The cloak of democracy fits a little heavier on those bearing the armor and ammunition in combat. And as warm of a welcome as I’ve had upon returning to the United States, it still feels lonely. It still feels like my experience is foreign to most. Seeing this sculpture elicited so many philosophical questions and seething emotions I had buried through my twelve months in Kandahar. But at the end, it was nice to know that such a sentiment was showcased in a major city’s portfolio. I hope that you’ll consider this piece of art and what it means to you.