Category: Artists and the Afghan war

Libros No Bombas – Books Not Bombs

Libros No Bombas (Books Not Bombs). Mark Vallen ©. 6" x 11" inch postcard reproduction of an original oil painting.

"Libros No Bombas - Books Not Bombs". Mark Vallen © 6" x 11" inch postcard.

My painting, Libros No Bombas (Books Not Bombs), was one of two canvases I premiered at the exhibition, ¡ADELANTE! Mexican American Artists: 1960s and Beyond, which took place at the Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale, California from September 9, 2011 through January 1, 2012. The painting is now available online as a 6″ x 11″ inch full-color postcard reproduction (pictured above); the same card sold in the museum gift shop throughout the duration of the exhibit.

Printed on heavy card stock, the postcards are blank on the backside and are available directly from Art For A Change in packets of 5 postcards for $6.50, plus $3.50 for shipping in the U.S.

The cards can be purchased here. Teachers, parents, and students are encouraged to buy the packs of cards and share them with friends and associates.

At first glance Libros No Bombas seems only a simple portrait of a teenage girl, but the background story of the artwork and how I invite viewers to consider it, is what gives the painting its socio-political significance. Witnessing thousands of youthful antiwar activists at the 2010 Chicano Moratorium protest in East Los Angeles inspired me to paint this portrait of a young Mexican-American student toting a backpack. I wanted my canvas to give a picture of the idealism of youth striving for decent education in these times of economic collapse, draconian government cutbacks, and endless war.

“Books Not Bombs!” was a slogan written on placards and chanted during L.A.’s 2010 Chicano Moratorium protest, however the catchphrase belongs to people everywhere who work for an end of illiteracy and under-education as suffered in underprivileged working class communities. My artwork reminds viewers that overworked and underpaid teachers, ill-equipped schools, shrinking education resources, and austerity budgets are the social costs of an economic system tied to empire and militarism.

At the time of this posting, a U.S. sailor became the 3,000th U.S.-led “international coalition” soldier to have died in the Afghanistan war since 2001. During that same period the National Priorities Project estimates the U.S. has spent over $532,475,000,000 on the Afghan war. As Detroit city officials literally begin to turn off nearly half of the city’s streetlights for lack of cash, the Obama administration talks of a “partial withdrawal” from Afghanistan by 2014. It is time for the wars to end, the soldiers to come home… and for America to turn the lights back on.

 "Libros No Bombas" (Detail). Mark Vallen ©

"Libros No Bombas - Books Not Bombs" (Detail) Mark Vallen ©

The War Is Finished!

 "The war is finished! Let's go home!" - Poster printed in Russian and distributed in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

"The war is finished! Let's go home!" - Poster printed in Russian and distributed in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

In 1983 a poster appeared on walls all across Soviet occupied Afghanistan. The print featured a tough Soviet Red Army soldier kneeling in the snow, smashing his Kalashnikov automatic rifle over his knee while roaring – “The war is finished! Let’s go home!”

I thought of that poster when President Obama announced on Dec. 16, 2010 that there was “significant progress” in his war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mr. Obama was telling the press about his administration’s “review” of Afghan war strategy when he proclaimed, “Thanks to the extraordinary service of our troops and civilians on the ground, we are on track to achieve our goals.”

This month marks the one year anniversary of the president deploying 30,000 extra combat troops to Afghanistan. Of course, the president’s claims of success are contradicted by the grim findings of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) conducted for the president by 16 U.S. intelligence agencies. According to the NIE, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “large swaths of Afghanistan are still at risk of falling to the Taliban.”

Norine MacDonald, president of the policy research group, The International Council on Security and Development, made the following remark about Obama’s Dec. 16 war strategy review, “It… is primarily for U.S. domestic political consumption.” Indeed, does anyone believe Mr. Obama’s assertion that “our goals” in Afghanistan are on the verge of being met, and that U.S. troops will start their withdrawal next year?

In 1983 Vincanzo Sparagna and Savik Shuster published a mock version of the official Red Army newspaper, Red Star, and distributed the broadside in Soviet occupied Afghanistan. The counterfeit paper carried a proclamation that it was published in 1984 and written by “soldiers coming from all the principle garrisons of the Soviet Union.” The bogus paper announced; “The war of invasion is finished! There’s unexpected peace in Afghanistan! Soviet and Mujahideen troops are fraternizing! Comrades, our true enemy finally sleeps! Destroy your weapons and let us return home. The war is finished!” The parody Red Army newspaper featured the bold illustration of the Soviet Red Army soldier destroying his Kalashnikov rifle that is shown above.

Sparagna and Shuster set up their operations in Peshawar, Pakistan, where they contacted and made alliances with Pakistani based Afghan Islamic guerrillas who were crossing into Afghanistan to wage “holy war” on the Soviet occupiers. Sparagna and Shuster supplied the Afghan mujahideen with thousands of copies of their phony Red Star newspaper, and the Islamic guerrillas plastered the posters on walls all over Afghanistan, sometimes right under the noses of the Soviet Red Army. Sparagna and Shuster were two journalists who worked for the monthly Italian magazine, Frigidaire, but the story of their poster collaboration with the mujahideen was covered in magazines in Austria (Wiener), Italy (Current, Frigidare) and Spain (Interviu). The French magazine Actuel, which also ran the story at the time, reported that Soviet and Afghan soldiers actually surrendered or defected to the mujahideen while clutching the “War is Finished!” poster.

Sparagna and Shuster’s poster campaign could have been part of the massive covert undertaking designed to undermine the Soviets in Afghanistan that was carried out by the CIA in the 1980s; the only mystery being whether Sparagna and Shuster were dupes of the Cold War intelligence operation or were instead willing accomplices in the venture. It is amazing to think back to the 1980s when Americans viewed the Islamic guerrillas of Afghanistan in a favorable light. In the archives of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library one can find Reagan’s Proclamation 5034, where in 1983 he proclaimed March 21st to be “Afghanistan Day,” a time for Americans to celebrate – in Reagan’s illustrious words:

“an extraordinary people who, in their determination to preserve the character of their ancient land, have organized an effective and still spreading country-wide resistance. The resistance of the Afghan freedom fighters is an example to all the world of the invincibility of the ideals we in this country hold most dear, the ideals of freedom and independence. (….) It is, therefore, incumbent upon us as Americans to reflect on the events in Afghanistan, to think about the agony which these brave people bear, and to maintain our condemnation of the continuing Soviet occupation.”

The U.S. has entered its 10th year of war and occupation in Afghanistan, the only change in all of those years being that Barack Obama is now the Commander in Chief. When George W. Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001, I remembered the copy of Actuel magazine I purchased back in 1983. The French monthly had published a reproduction of the “War is finished! Let’s go home!” poster as an illustration to its article on Sparagna and Shuster’s poster campaign. As the U.S. bombs rained on Afghanistan, I wrote and posted an essay titled The War Is Finished!, which you can read here; the piece of writing was based on the facts recounted in Actuel regarding Sparagna and Shuster’s notorious print and how it was utilized to help defeat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

We should all be haunted by the truism that “Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires,” as well as by the thoroughly reactionary politics behind Ronald Reagan’s “Afghanistan Day” proclamation. And speaking of the great communicator, since March 21, 2011, is only two and a half months away I would like to take the opportunity in advance to wish the readers of my web log a glorious “Afghanistan Day.”

A Great Nation Deserves Great Tanks

"Light wages - heavy tanks." Silkscreen street poster produced by an anonymous artist from the Atelier Populaire collective during the Paris student/worker revolt of May 1968.

"Light wages - heavy tanks." Silkscreen street poster produced by an anonymous artist from the Atelier Populaire collective during the Paris student/worker revolt of May 1968.

Few artworks from the 20th century make the connection between war production and the impoverishment of society as clearly as the French poster from May 1968, “Light wages – heavy tanks.”

Created by an anonymous artist from the Atelier Populaire collective that was active in Paris during the student/worker revolt of May ’68, the poster came to mind when I read the news that the Obama administration was further escalating the war in Afghanistan. On Nov. 19, 2010, U.S. defense officials confirmed that a company of M1A1 Abrams Battle Tanks – 16 in all – are being deployed to Afghanistan; it will be the first time the U.S. has used tanks in the nine-year long Afghan war.

Manufactured by General Dynamics Land Systems (formerly “Chrysler Defense,” a division of the Chrysler Group), each M1A1 Abrams Battle Tank costs $6.21 million. Weighing 68-tons, the M1A1 is equipped with two 7.62 M240 machine guns, a .50 caliber M2 machine gun, and a 120mm cannon that can pinpoint and destroy a building from a mile away. The tank has a crew of 4, carries 40 standard armor piercing or depleted uranium cannon rounds, and is also equipped with a full array of computerized targeting and control systems. The heavily armored tank is the most advanced combat vehicle in existence.

On Nov. 19, 2010, the Pentagon correspondent for CNN, Barbara Starr, reported that the M1A1 Abrams Battle Tank uses “300 gallons of fuel in 8 hours.” In my Dec. 1, 2009 article, “Hey, Hey, LBJ…” President Lyndon Baines Johnson in Poster Art: 1962-1968, I wrote that Pentagon officials “stated that it costs an average of $400 to put a single gallon of fuel into a combat vehicle in Afghanistan.” Surely that price has gone up since I published my article, but when considering Obama’s deployment of M1A1 tanks to Afghanistan, let us examine the cost in dollars.

Based on the Pentagon’s 2009 cost estimate for fuel, that would mean running a single M1A1 tank for 8 hours a day would cost approximately $120,000. Running 16 tanks for 8 hours a day would cost roughly $1,920,000. To run 16 tanks 8 hours a day for 1 month would cost $57,600,000. Running 16 tanks 8 hours a day for a one year period would cost $691,200,000. Fueling those 16 tanks for 4 years of war – the minimal amount of time spent at war that Obama and NATO have agreed will be necessary before the “beginning” of U.S. troop withdrawals – that cost will be $2,764,800,000. Yes, that is correct – the cost would approach 3 billion dollars.

The costs above are for fuel only, and do not include tank maintenance, ammunition, compensating the crews and associated costs, i.e., medical, veterans benefits, etc. The above calculation also does not include inflationary costs, or the likely expansion of the one company tank force of 16 to include dozens more of the heavily armored combat vehicles. In its Nov. 19 report on Obama’s tank deployment, The Washington Post quoted an unnamed U.S. officer saying that “The tanks bring, awe, shock and firepower – it’s pretty significant.” The paper also quoted that same officer as saying the number of tanks deployed could expand “depending on needs.”

Here I must note that President Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2011 includes the meager sum of $161.3 million for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA); an amount that will cover the cultural and artistic needs of the entire U.S. for one year. This of course means that Mr. Obama will be spending more than four times the annual NEA budget in order to fuel 16 battle tanks in Afghanistan for a period of just one year – that is, $691,200,000. There are many vital social services in the U.S. that could use such a cash infusion, but since my web log is devoted to an examination of art and its intersection with politics, I am restricting my commentary to the nation’s arts budget.

The NEA’s slogan is “A great nation deserves great art,” but it seems there are those who believe that it is not great art that we need, but great tanks.

The Madonna of the Napalm

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Stolen Paper Editions, Mill Valley, California. Offset poster. 1967. 57.5 x 31.5 cm. Sharp's poster depicted U.S. President Johnson, the pro-war Australian Prime Minister John Gorton, and the U.S. backed South Vietnamese Prime Minister, Nguyen Cao Kỳ.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Stolen Paper Editions, Mill Valley, California. Offset poster. 1967. 57.5 x 31.5 cm. Sharp's poster depicted U.S. President Johnson, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, the pro-war Australian Prime Minister John Gorton, and the U.S. backed South Vietnamese Prime Minister, Nguyen Cao Kỳ.

Back on December 1, 2009 I wrote an illustrated article titled Hey, Hey, LBJ…, an essay concerning U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson as depicted in anti-Vietnam war posters from the 1960s. I self-published my treatise on the occasion of President Obama deploying 30,000 U.S. combat troops to Afghanistan.

While there are obvious differences between the Vietnam and Afghan wars, the parallels are striking. This article revisits the historic posters of the 60s that excoriated President Johnson for escalating the war in Southeast Asia, by examining a specific silkscreen print not included in Hey, Hey, LBJ…, – Martin Sharp’s The Madonna of the Napalm.

Sharp’s poster was created in 1967, and it is a good example of how the alternative culture of the 60s meshed with the antiwar activism of the period, however, an evaluation of the poster brings up unavoidable questions regarding the present day U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan. Sharp’s Madonna of the Napalm is a biting condemnation, not just of military conflict, but of third world dictators, the compromised political leaders of Western democracies, religious piety distorted by fanaticism, and the overall decrepitude of “liberal” society rendered insane by imperialist war. We have not seen the likes of this poster since the late 1960s, but given the painful similarity between Obama’s Afghan catastrophe and Johnson’s Vietnam disaster, we ought to see such posters proliferate in the near future.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. U.S. President Johnson is depicted in this poster detail.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. U.S. President Johnson is depicted in this poster detail.

To start with, Sharp’s poster is a gem when it comes to psychedelia. His acerbic but fanciful caricatures were drawn with detailed though fluid pen lines, and when combined with vibrant fluorescent orange and black ink, an eye-popping visual was achieved. Moreover, Sharp’s semi-Gothic, neo-Art Nouveau style was the very epitome of psychedelic aesthetics.

One can only imagine the excitement his poster generated when viewed under the “black light” displays that were so popular during the sixties. But this was not simply another day-glo poster from the Aquarian Age, it was an angry political diatribe against the centers of power and fully intended to help incapacitate the war machine. Sharp’s Madonna of the Napalm represents a sub-genre rarely mentioned in modern-day coffee-table books dealing with psychedelic prints from the sixties – that of the political protest poster.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. Nguyen Cao Kỳ is depicted in this poster detail. Kỳ served as Prime Minister of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, then served as Vice President until 1971.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. Nguyen Cao Kỳ is depicted in this poster detail. Kỳ served as Prime Minister of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, then served as Vice President until 1971.

The central character in the poster is a depiction of President Johnson as an ancient Byzantine Madonna figure, but there is nothing sacred about this icon, who wears an imposing radiating nimbus made from rifles.

Floating in the heavens behind this demonic sham Madonna are skull-faced, black-winged angels of death. The unholy mother of war clutches a mortar shell in one claw, and a deformed puppet general in the other.

The general, with a glowing halo made from the U.S. flag, is none other than the U.S. backed Nguyen Cao Kỳ, who served as Prime Minister of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, and then served as the Vice President until he retired in 1971. Kỳ originally received military training from the French army, who founded the Vietnamese National Army (VNA) to help assist in their colonial control of “French Indochina.” Kỳ served the French well, but in 1954 when they finally departed Vietnam in military defeat, the VNA was reorganized into the American supplied and controlled “Army of the Republic of Vietnam” (ARVN).

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, is depicted in this poster detail.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, is depicted in this poster detail.

The background of Sharp’s Madonna of the Napalm presents some interesting character studies. At bottom left one can see Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense for Presidents John F. Kennedy and LBJ, and a primary architect of the U.S. war on Vietnam.

Starting out with the firm belief that the U.S. could win the war militarily, by May 1967 McNamara informed LBJ that the war was “becoming increasingly unpopular as it escalates – causing more American casualties, more fear of its growing into a wider war, more privation of the domestic sector, and more distress at the amount of suffering being visited on the noncombatants in Vietnam, South and North.” Six months later LBJ would remove McNamara from his post.

Contrast McNamara’s remarks to those made in May of 2010 by Obama’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who said; “We’re not leaving Afghanistan prematurely, in fact, we’re not ever leaving at all.”

An anthropomorphized kangaroo figure holding a boomerang is depicted in the upper left corner of the poster; the caricature is of John Gorton, the pro-Vietnam war Prime Minister of Australia who governed from January 1968 to March 1971. Under Gorton’s administration around 8,000 Australian soldiers assisted the U.S. by fighting in Vietnam, but Australian public opinion turned against the war – hence the boomerang.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. The pro-war Australian Prime Minister, John Gorton, is depicted in this poster detail.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. The Australian Prime Minister, John Gorton, is depicted in this poster detail.

On May 1, 1970, over 200,000 people gathered in Melbourne, Australia for a mass protest dubbed the “Vietnam War Moratorium March.” Eventually some 50,000 Australian soldiers would be rotated into the war, around 3,000 would be wounded, and nearly 600 were killed. The last Australian soldiers would finally be withdrawn from Vietnam in 1972.

Since I first published Hey, Hey, LBJ…, on December 1, 2009, there have been numerous developments in Mr. Obama’s ever escalating war. In Dec. 2009 U.S. military fatalities in Afghanistan stood at 947, as of this writing 364 U.S. soldiers have been added to that list, for a total of 1,317 killed.

As our Nobel Peace Prize Laureate President intensifies his war, those casualty rates are rising. There are now around 100,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan along with 52,000 allied NATO troops. The Afghan war is the longest in U.S. history, The ninth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan falls on October 7, 2010.

[The Madonna of the Napalm poster image was provided to me by Lincoln Cushing – www.docspopuli.org]