Amherst Magazine

The Pain of War


George Bellows, The Bacchanale (1918)

Soldiers drink and cavort while removing wounded. The Bacchanale, from The War Series, 1918, lithograph, by George Bellows. Mead Art Museum, gift of Charles H. Morgan.

War calls forth extraordinary acts of bravery and selflessness. War also, as The Bacchanale vividly shows, can bring out the most savage impulses of which humans are capable.

The soldiers Bellows depicts were no doubt ordinary men before they went to war. Those who survived returned to families, jobs and civic involvement, and most no doubt resumed their ordinary lives. But could they possibly still be called “ordinary”? Bellows no doubt intended The Bacchanale as propaganda on behalf of American participation in World War I. “See how the savage Hun behaves” is the message of The Bacchanale. But without intending to do so, the piece awakens a deeper, and nonpartisan, anxiety: How do we regard the men and women who return from a war, knowing that they may have observed or even committed unspeakable acts?

It is hard to look at The Bacchanale and not be reminded of the pictures from Abu Ghraib. Our leaders were quick to insist that torture and humiliation of prisoners is aberrant behavior, not a reflection on our soldiers or our way of life. If only war crimes were that simple. War is hell precisely because it requires soldiers to behave in ways that common sense says are wrong.

Several months ago, a young man living in Belchertown, Mass., killed himself. Jeffrey Lucey had served in the Marine Corps in Iraq. Family members said that he was haunted by what he had seen and done in Iraq and that he could not forgive himself.

The casualties of war go well beyond what happens on the battlefield, and the wounds fester long after the shooting has ended.

—Jan E. Dizard, Charles Hamilton Houston Professor in American Culture

Next: Käthe Kollwitz, Schlachtfeld (Battlefield) >>