The wind heaved a sigh over San Francisco’s coastline. Eucalyptus bark and pine needles crunched quietly underfoot. I was walking to Fort Point along the peninsula, having taken a long detour through Crissy Field in The Presidio; I had visited a friend at Fort Mason before savoring a moment of quiet under the Golden Gate Bridge. A smeared grey hung over the fort when I arrived, amidst gusts of a wintry breeze, and the towers of the city’s iconic suspension bridge disappeared into fog.
I’d come here in the hope that the Pacific’s salty air would prove an anodyne for my insomnia. A bout of anxiety was plaguing me after a dozen or so white nights, and the attendant migraines that sprout from the soil of sleeplessness were doing my head in. Hence the two-hour walk. And in the end, it did help ease the pounding.
Strange to encounter a therapy in nature, and strange as well to pass through so many military landmarks in a city famous for its anti-war sentiment. I counted a mental list: Fort Point, a former U.S. Army post, Fort Mason, another former Army post, The Presidio, the lynchpin in maintaining the U.S. occupation of the Philippines, and Crissy Field, where, if you dig deep enough, you’ll eventually hit tarmac. The City paved over Crissy Field Air Force Base in 1974, as the Vietnam War limped to an end. Anti-war sentiment, already simmering since the mid ‘60s, was boiling over as Daniel Ellsberg’s leaked Pentagon Papers revealed incontrovertible evidence of gross malfeasance and flagrant disregard for human life in the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations who permitted the war to rage on. The American landscape bears the residue of its imperial megalomania, and you never have to dig especially deep to find traces.
My head started to clear, and I made moves to leave. By that time, the fog had burned off, and the sky shone grey. Funny weather, I thought, not able to place why it bothered me. It was a peculiar color: not silver—though this grey did have a luster—and not pewter or alabaster. It was a cool, blanched gunmetal. And I had seen it while leafing through, of all places, a book on British Romanticist painter Joseph Mallord William Turner.
At a library, I’d picked up Turner’s Britain by the curator James Hamilton, which clocks in at a slim 208 pages—mostly out of idle curiosity. In truth, I was more interested in the books on Sargent, but Turner’s Britain had a magnetic draw. I skimmed the text and pored over the reproductions: The Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1835), The Fighting Temeraire (1838), Rain, Steam and Speed (1844), and The Hero of a Hundred Fights (1800-1810, 1847). Turner is considered to be the grandfather of immersive abstract painting, Hamilton explained, and these works evinced why.
Most interesting to me, however, were Plymouth, with Mount Batten (1817) and Chatham, Towards Fort Pitt (1837), which were two of Turner’s less-known and -celebrated landscape paintings—or, at least, I assumed they were, since Hamilton made only passing reference to both in the text and afforded them each a short caption. (They also receive little attention from art historians and critics, as far as I can tell from Internet searches.) Plymouth and Chatham number among the many clear-eyed pastorals Turner produced.
Unlike his abstract works, however, Plymouth and Chatham come across as one-dimensional. His England exudes a gentle grace, but that wasn’t what enthralled me. It was the fact that, upon a closer inspection, soldiers populated both scenes. Odd, I thought. Odder still, there was that same grey sky I’d found in San Francisco. What was this color doing here? Landscapes are narrations, documents even. Valleys of towering crags chronicle the journey of a million-ton glacier down a hillside, raking the land below it. A fault line portends calamitous ruin. A desert’s silence reminds us that little can survive its terrain. Likewise, visual artists offer a testimony of sorts in their work, though it’s up to the viewer to decipher their secrets, lest paintings remain merely pigment on canvas. I obsessed: what was Turner documenting when he painted those little soldiers under Plymouth’s and Chatham’s gunmetal sky?
During the 19th century, Turner captured the vicissitudes of Britain’s Industrial Revolution in oil paint. His renown primarily lies in painting this zeitgeist, but he also depicted the mission creep of a nascent war machine. Britain, at the time, was the preeminent naval power, and it extended its hungry tentacles from Ireland and Canada to India, Hong Kong, and South Africa. In these colonies, British overlords ruled with an iron fist, keeping global markets, commodity trade, and sea routes in a stranglehold. For Britons, colonial expansion elsewhere went largely unquestioned as the key strategy to planetary domination, but the domestic military presence elicited suspicion. What were these agents of conquest doing stationed among us?, I imagine them wondering. Are we in their crosshairs?
Soldiers were gaining a foothold in the social landscape of Britain that, it turned out, would persist long after Napoleon’s decisive defeat at Waterloo in 1815. The wars with France’s First Empire ignited militarization efforts, but the kindling had been there for more than a century. “Despite Britain’s famed lack of a regular standing peacetime army,” historian Priya Satia writes, “there were always sufficient troops on hand to restore order.” Under the Mutiny Act, first signed into law in 1689 and “passed year after year in peacetime” for nearly two centuries, “Parliament voted to retain a peacetime army of about seventeen thousand in Britain.”
This problem of peacetime military buildup appears to have dogged Turner over the years. Plymouth, with Mount Batten (1817) and Chatham, Towards Fort Pitt (1837), spanning between them a long two decades and a long 250 miles of England’s watery southern border, speak to an anxiety about the growth of military power alongside technological advances that threatened to forever shift traditional social formations. Windmills, turnpikes, bridges, foundries, and steam locomotives—Turner’s famed subjects—accelerated the pace of everyday life, but so too did Britain’s military, whose plunder helped finance these vast construction projects. Across the Isles, pulses quickened with a collective sense of anticipation as an imperial Britain teetered on the bleeding edge of superpowerdom. The stakes were high. Turner rendered the bubbling emotion at this world-historical juncture with exactitude: “My business is to paint what I see,” he said, “not what I know is there.”
So, what did he see? Not always a whole lot, it seems at first blush. Plymouth offers a glimpse of life on the bucolic edge of a port city. Three women farmhands harvest grain as two men look on a few feet away. The men—one a soldier, the other a marine—lay at rest, their faces hollow and piercing. Somewhere in the territory between the chivalrous from the lecherous. Behind them, a forest of delicate masts and white sails sprouts from the sapphire waters of the English Channel.
In Chatham, redcoats survey the bustling city from a lookout at the Napoleonic-era fort, by then converted into a military hospital. This time, though, twenty years after painting Plymouth, the soldiers have multiplied. Two have become almost a dozen. (An additional dozen or so figures in the composition are likely soldiers as well, but Turner renders them too soft and too puny to determine.) They stand nonchalant in the uncrowded foreground, little toy figures keeping a lonely vigil. Clouds blanket the right frame in a bottled green. Darkness presses towards the city from the fort.
There’s something tacit in the dark corners of these unassuming, unloved works: a small but prescient gesture at an oncoming reality. At the time of painting Plymouth and Chatham, Turner’s Britain had no real enemy on its shores, nothing to justify such martial posturing. By 1815, after 127 years of near-constant war, the British Empire had far outstripped its French and Spanish rivals as the unequivocal superpower, its naval supremacy and imperial conquests unmatched. Fort Pitt has, consequently, outlived its original mandate, and yet here, it persists. Camouflaged into the landscape, it became a fixture of it, a feature as natural as the green fields.
The army steamrolled the landscape of this English idyll, gathering momentum as it hummed along. Though the military outposts were eventually decommissioned and the warships parted out for scrap—as depicted in The Fighting Temeraire (1838)—this demolition work was undertaken only in order to make room for bigger, better models. Forts were relocated and ships constructed anew. The goal was, of course, always growth: strategic, stealthy expansion.
Indeed, and contrary to what some art historians suggest, Plymouth and Chatham do not represent a denouement, “the calm of a nation at peace,” but rather the inauguration of a new era of accelerated expansion, plunder, and empire-building. Within the century, England would control a staggering one-quarter of Earth’s landmass—and nearly a quarter of its population as colonial subjects. There was never any escaping this fate, Turner seems to suggest. Soldiers, their forts, and their guns were always here to stay. Whether in 19th century Britain or 21st-century America, this is how militarism quietly weaves itself into the thread of daily life. Change progresses slowly, until suddenly there is no imagining things otherwise. Can there be a Plymouth without a military presence—or a Chatham without Fort Pitt? Besides, haven’t there always been soldiers here, on the edge of our painted city?
Perhaps I’m making too much of these oblique references to military buildups. But after all, Turner’s premonition of militarization did come true, and so did his vision of how quietly it would transpire. Turner buried these keen intimations in the unformed figures of soldiers and marines, in flattened landscapes and billowing sails atop the Channel. Witting or not, his two snapshots of England impress on the viewer that this is a nation on the warpath.
Something else insists on this point: in Chatham, the soldiers are armed. By itself, this observation carries little weight—obviously, soldiers carry weapons—but armament during Britain’s Industrial Revolution had the pernicious knock-on effect of creating an economy reliant on arms.
It’s no exaggeration to say that England industrialized at gunpoint. According to historian Priya Satia, gun manufacturing in Birmingham acted as an engine for Britain’s Industrial Revolution. As mass manufacturing and industrialization inaugurated a period of intense prosperity for British capitalists and landowning gentry, the role of firearms shifted. In the early 1800s, the gun morphed into a symbol of the colonial enterprise: the White Man’s Burden with a satin plating of gunmetal. Firearms “gave violence a polite form suitable to modern sensibilities while expanding its scale to truly barbaric levels,” Satia writes. Violence pervaded British society, and guns unleashed it on the world, making tormentors of ordinary men. By 1815, hundreds of men newly minted in the art of sharpshooting were roaming the streets. Light weapons gradually became ubiquitous.
Across the Pacific, gun fever caught on, too. While British gun culture took on new brutality amidst the Napoleonic Wars, the American experience of armament was forged from the beginning in blood. Guns pervaded everyday life in the colonies. Early settlers in the New World were “armed to the teeth,” according to historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: ready, willing, and able to exterminate the Indigenous nations that stood in their way. In 17th-century colonial America, a hundred years before the ratification of the Second Amendment, bearing arms wasn’t a right so much as an obligation. The state of Virginia required adult men own and carry a gun, “even provid[ing] government loans for those who could not afford to buy a weapon.” In New England, meanwhile, the government “made laws such as the 1632 requirement that each person have a functioning firearm plus two pounds of gunpowder and ten pounds of bullets.”
Gun love in America meant stockpiling firearms and ammunition, but it also meant executing countless small wars against Indigenous peoples over the course of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Settler militias developed the instruments (guns and biological warfare) and techniques of modern war-making (total war) that would push the frontier ever westward. Rough justice defined life in the colonies, and settlers’ lawless hooliganism was permitted—desired, even. That’s what the gun legislation was all about: all-but ensuring violent confrontation between the white settlers and the Indigenous peoples of what would later be known as North America. In a time when many Natives still fought with hand-hewn wooden and stone weaponry, the result was catastrophic: population collapse, the despoliation of cities and nations, and the eradication of cultural legacies thousands of years in the making. Human skeletons collected in piles, along with the bones of the staple food source of Indigenous peoples, the bison, hunted by settlers to near-extinction. The trail of bodies whitened the vast expanse of the West. These were “American holocausts,” as historian David Stannard labels them: merciless scorched-earth counterinsurgency operations conducted with the full support of the colonial legislature. Both would later adapted to fit the toolboxes of military planners well into the 21st century.
Guns, in other words, bore out an unprecedented era of social destruction. In America, where firearms seem so woven into our DNA that it’s difficult to imagine any sort of disarmament ever taking place, it’s harrowing to read Satia’s tome Empire of Guns, and to discover just how much these machines terrified commentators in the years before Turner produced Plymouth. Bullets tore bodies apart. Internal organs were shredded. The attendant wounds confounded doctors who struggled to keep pace with a flood of never-before-seen injuries. In the pre-antibiotic age, before surgeons routinely sterilized their instruments, infections spread quickly and often proved fatal.
Exhuming history is exhausting work. What’s most remarkable about the research conducted by Satia and Dunbar-Ortiz is their resurrection of a long-forgotten history that gets at the predicament of modern gun love. In the pursuit of hegemony, Britons and Americans distributed a weapon that was meant from its inception to maximize harm. Never mind the arguments about hungry frontiersmen or hunting wild animals. Before anything else, guns were for taking lives and taking land. As armament took off, Britain—as well as its burliest offspring, the United States—transformed into what Satia terms a “military-industrial society:” a society in which not only the economy but also the very fabric of social formations began to revolve around the war machine. Small wonder the U.K. and the U.S.—to say nothing of the countries they once controlled—find themselves trapped in ongoing cycles of civil strife, gang violence, and so-called “forever wars” fueled in large part by a preponderance of military ordnance.
Wherever firearms have facilitated colonization, there have followed on its heels a dangerous cheapening of human life. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the United States: a country that counts, on average, 106 people killed by gun violence, 64 deaths from gun suicide, three police murders of civilians, and more than one mass shooting each and every day. Is it surprising, then, that Satia characterizes guns as “miniaturized cannon[s]” that “instantly” militarize the everyday banal, converting “any setting” or situation “into a battlefield” and anyone unlucky enough to find themselves in such circumstances into cannon fodder? A careful observer might get the sinking feeling, as geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore does, that “Killing somebody has always been on the American agenda.” You can’t help but wonder who’s next. Dread wraps its fingers around your throat. With our lives flooded with guns and artillery, what could result but murder and death?
There is nothing glamorous about the ordinary disasters of war, and artists have long been in on the secret. John Singer Sargent rendered the horrific aftermath of World War I-era chemical warfare while on commission with the Ministry of Information, a British propaganda outfit. It was a quiet act of rebellion to paint Gassed (1919), to depict this ocean of woozy soldiers blinded by mustard gas in sage greens and eau de Nil. Some stagger upright, led presumably to a medic station in two single-file lines, but most simply lie in shallow piles in the dirt. Gauze bandages their eyes. Behind them, the lucky ones play a game of pickup soccer.
Was this battle won? Or lost? Sargent offers no answer. For these youthful men laid low in yet another senseless conflict, victory and defeat are immaterial. Calamity is their only certainty. The maimed bodies of broken men strewn across the battlefield attest as much.
Gassed is a wretched visual, but it’s also an honest one. All military victories are Pyrrhic; war furnishes no true victors, only a continuum of victims and perpetrators. No one escapes unscathed in the all-consuming disaster. Wounds may heal, but psychic scars never do. The cracked demeanors of these reluctant heroes betray the horrors they were ordered to face. These are not bred warriors. These are simply men in the throes of sorrow, crushed and defeated, even if victorious on the battlefield.
You may want to look away from Gassed, but wherever else you turn, you’re confronted with the aftermath the painting depicts. The unhoused veteran on the corner asking for spare change, the victims of PTSD scattered throughout American society from imperial wars—they insist on an uncomfortable truth. War, like any total disaster, never really ends, not even after the ink dries on treaties or ceasefires. “After every war / someone has to clean up,” the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska wrote, “Things won’t / straighten themselves up, after all. / Someone has to push the rubble / to the side of the road, / so the corpse-filled wagons / can pass.” Time and again, in country after country: Ireland, Korea, Chile, Bosnia, South Africa, Vietnam, East Timor, Iraq, Palestine.
Why does anyone go to war, then, knowing full well the repercussions? Having read our history? For resources and megalomania, sure, but also because someone up high tells us to. Propaganda, which became a dirty word only after WWI, alchemizes the singular pursuit of power into a collective effort of social uplift: a rising tide to lift all boats. In reality, of course, the mandate to serve and the call of duty are remarkably discriminating, falling on the shoulders of a very shallow pool of citizens. (In the United States, it’s generally Brown and Black people, poor Whites, the colonized, and the oppressed. Take Guam, which has the highest rate of enlistment of any U.S. territory, notwithstanding the fact that its islanders enjoy essentially no constitutional rights or protections.)
The British government commissioned Sargent for this project of propaganda, having asked him to “contribute the central painting for a Hall of Remembrance for the World War” that would honor the dearly departed as well as British-American wartime unity. Sargent (a man who had grown so weary of finessing the portraits that won him his acclaim that he quietly ratcheted up the price of his commissions over his storied career to slow their pace) endeavored to create portraiture on a much grander scale to memorialize the unfathomable sacrifice of ordinary men. He commemorated The Great War as an epic tragedy first and as a victory second. As the central visual in the Hall, Gassed compels visitors to remember that the road to the Allied victory was paved with shocking destruction and wreckage. Even victory can be a slog. That’s the power of art like Gassed: it does the double duty of exposing the terribly long afterlife of violence, perhaps even politicizing the viewer against it.
Sargent’s opulent portraits, like Dr. Pozzi at Home (1881), Portrait of Madame X (1884), and Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892), are exquisite in their own right, but Gassed is something altogether different. It appeals to the human disgust at waste, not a love for the sublime. In Sargent’s rendition of the theater of war, lives are lost, futures trashed, and flesh rended from bone. We’re repulsed by what we see, as I imagine he intended, and by the distinct lack of culpability. Someone allowed this maiming to transpire. But Gassed doesn’t point a finger at any perpetrators or hint at the catalysts of World War I. Ringleaders and ambitions are absent. Instead, Sargent forces the viewer to ruminate on the senselessness of the scene, and on the consequences of a dazzling appetite for war.
This isn’t hero worship—it’s lamentation. If only all talk of war were conducted in such an elegiac register.♦
Matthew Byrne is a writer and translator who holds an MA in sociology from the University of California, Riverside. His writing has appeared, or will soon, in Guernica, The Brooklyn Rail, Truthout, and other outlets, and his most recent translation is forthcoming at Gulf Coast.