Commentary — August 4, 2011, 9:51 am

Following Homer

The August 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine features paintings by Steve Mumford, who embedded with the 3/6 Marines in Marjah, Helmand Province, in 2010 and with the 2/3 Marines in Nawa, Helmand Province, in 2011. Mumford’s images were inspired by Winslow Homer’s Civil War studies, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly during that conflict. Below, a gallery of Homer’s work, with an introduction by Mumford.

In February of 2003, I was listening to radio reports of journalists embedding with military units that were gearing up for the invasion of Iraq. At the time, I was working on a series of paintings about the Vietnam War. I remembered that conflict through the impressions I formed as a child — through photos published in Life magazine, and through the anti-war marches my mother brought me to on the Boston Common.

LEFT: Thanksgiving Day in the Army — After Dinner: The Wishbone. By Winslow Homer, Harper’s Weekly, December 3, 1864. RIGHT: L. Cpl. Josh Kopp and L. Cpl. Jacob Pitcher waiting to move forward. Marja, Afghanistan, June 25, 2010. By Steve Mumford, Harper’s Magazine, August 2011.

I grew up looking at Winslow Homer’s paintings and watercolors in Boston’s museums, and occasionally in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; I loved their drama and their seemingly straightforward realism. What I found moving about Homer’s work was that it wasn’t directly about the morality of the Civil War, so much as it sought to recreate the experience of the soldiers. His art rarely read as propaganda. It showed the powerful bonding among men on the front lines, as well as the terror. Homer had experienced it and drawn it.

It hit me unexpectedly that I could go to Iraq as an artist. By early 2003, it was already too late to be embedded, so I flew to Kuwait and haunted the fancier hotels until a couple of French journalists offered me a ride to Baghdad in their SUV. Recently, after many trips to Iraq, and with the country’s attention shifting to the worsening situation in Afghanistan, I joined the Marines in Helmand province to continue drawing America’s war zones.

Steve Mumford

St. George, Maine

The Union Cavalry and Artillery Starting in Pursuit of the Rebels Up the Yorktown Turnpike. By Winslow Homer, Harper’s Weekly, May 17, 1861.

A Bivouac Fire on the Potomac. By Winslow Homer, Harper’s Weekly, December 21, 1861.

LEFT: The Army of the Potomac — Our Outlying Picket In the Woods. By Winslow Homer, Harper’s Weekly, June 7, 1862. RIGHT: Marines looking for targets after a firefight. Trek Nawa, Afghanistan, February 26, 2011. By Steve Mumford, Harper’s Magazine, August 2011.

Charge of the First Massachusetts Regiment on a Rebel Rifle Pit Near Yorktown. By Winslow Homer, Harper’s Weekly, May 17, 1862.

The War for the Union, 1862 — A Bayonet Charge. By Winslow Homer, Harper’s Weekly, July 12, 1862.

The Surgeon at Work at the Rear During an Engagement. By Winslow Homer, Harper’s Weekly, July 12, 1862.

The Army of the Potomac — A Sharp-shooter on Picket Duty. By Winslow Homer, Harper’s Weekly, November 15, 1862.

Army of the Potomac — Sleeping on Their Arms. By Winslow Homer, Harper’s Weekly, May 28, 1864.

Single Page

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In a Walmart parking lot in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 2015, a white police officer named Stephen Rankin shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen-­year-­old black man named William Chapman. “This is my second one,” he told a bystander seconds after firing the fatal shots, seemingly in reference to an incident four years earlier, when he had shot and killed another unarmed man, an immigrant from Kazakhstan. Rankin, a Navy veteran, had been arresting Chapman for shoplifting when, he claimed, Chapman charged him in a manner so threatening that he feared for his life, leaving him no option but to shoot to kill—­the standard and almost invariably successful defense for officers when called to account for shooting civilians. Rankin had faced no charges for his earlier killing, but this time, something unexpected happened: Rankin was indicted on a charge of first-­degree murder by Portsmouth’s newly elected chief prosecutor, thirty-­one-year-­old Stephanie Morales. Furthermore, she announced that she would try the case herself, the first time she had ever prosecuted a homicide. “No one could remember us having an actual prosecution for the killing of an unarmed person by the police,” Morales told me. “I got a lot of feedback, a lot of people saying, ‘You shouldn’t try this case. If you don’t win, it may affect your reelection. Let someone else do it.’ ”

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