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by Tom Lea
Look at an infantryman's eyes and you can tell how much war he has seen.
- Bill Mauldin, Up Front, 1944.
[Tom] Lea was one of the artists put into the field by Life after their takeover of the defunct [Army Corps of Engineers war art unit's] program. Various of his works appeared in the magazine, and up until the time he went into Peleliu, most of them could be pretty well classified as excellently done but high-grade propaganda. There was very little American blood, very little tension, very little horror. Mostly, it was what could be called the Bravo America! and This Is Your Boy type of war art. His almost photographic style easily lent itself to that type of work, as did the styles of Rockwell and others.
But something apparently happened to Lea after going into Peleliu. The pictures painted out of his Peleliu experience show a new approach. There is the tension of terror in the bodies here, and the distorted facial expressions of the men under fire show it, too. If the propagandistic style has not changed, his subject matter certainly has.
One of the most famous, of course, is the Two-Thousand Yard Stare portrait of a young marine who has had all, or more than, he can take. The staring eyes, the slack lips, the sleepwalker's stance. I've seen men with that look on their faces. I've had it on my own face. It feels stiff, and the muscles don't want to work right when you try to smile, or show expression, or talk. Mercifully, you're out of it for a while; unmercifully, down in the center of that numbness, though, you know you will have to come back eventually. But until you have to, you're pleased not to think much. Strangely enough, the marine in the portrait would be quick as a cat if a mortar round came shu-shu-ing in, or a fight developed there in back of him. His trained instincts by now are something he can depend on, and have been developed over a long period of combat fighting. The only thing not dependable is whether, if he has bad luck, they will still save him. I'm sure the men in Europe wore the same face.
Click on the picture to see a larger image, about 300 KB.
Painting held by U.S.Army Center of Military History, Fort McNair VA.
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