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Jewish World Review Dec. 16, 2003 / 21 Kislev 5764

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Military protects a gentle, necessary freedom: Art | WASHINGTON As I walked down a Pentagon corridor past Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's office, I was surprised to see several paintings by Dwight D. Eisenhower hanging on the wall.

I'm not sure why the art- work caught me off guard. I certainly knew that the president and general had enjoyed painting as a hobby - as did his contemporary, Winston Churchill. And as I walked along I saw the various other exhibits on the walls of historical material depicting Ike's military career.

But somehow I hadn't known that quite a few Eisenhower paintings had ended up here at the Defense Department. My favorite, I think, was the picture he did of his boyhood home in Abilene, Kan. Maybe that's because I've visited that house, now part of the Eisenhower Library and Museum, and I love its rural simplicity.

But what most struck me about Ike's paintings was the juxtaposition of the incredible military power deployed from - and represented by - this building and the gentle, creative pursuit of art.

It's far too simplistic to put it this way, but in some ways we use military force to defend the right of people - even generals - to paint. That is, sometimes forces in the world try to circumscribe freedom of expression. They seek to silence people's voices, erase their words, cover over their art.

This happens because of fear, sometimes. Or because of a misguided sense that certain people are instruments of the Divine's will. Or merely because of a megalomaniacal desire for control and power.

Whatever the cause, the result is that these forces can and do crush the spirit of people and prevent them from offering the gifts of their insights to a world hungry for meaning.

Military force makes me nervous, skittish, skeptical - even our own, which often has been used for noble purposes. But anyone who has paid attention to the forces of darkness loose in the world knows that without a military to oppose them, those forces would overrun societies and obliterate liberty in pursuit of rancid visions.

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So even though we sometimes misuse our military and even though a few of my policy disagreements with Rumsfeld and his associates are profound, I certainly want the United States to have a strong, ready military. To let our military decay - as we did several times in the last century - is an irresponsible invitation to the world's tyrants and mischief makers.

But, in the end, our military should be in the business of defending our freedoms. This includes the freedom to paint either the kind of cozy country scenes that characterize much of Eisenhower's work or the kind of radical counter-cultural stuff some of us dismiss as trash but that, nonetheless, is an outgrowth of an atmosphere of freedom that encourages new ways of looking at the world.

Remember how the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan were so petrified of the freedom art represents that they tore down ancient statues of the Buddha? No one can be free where sculptors aren't free to sculpt, painters to paint, musical composers to compose, writers to write, dancers to dance.

We are, of course, under no obligation either to enjoy or approve of the message, if any, of such art or even appreciate the artistry. But artists must be free to exercise their gifts.

I saw a badly written, badly acted play in Kansas City recently at one of my favorite theaters - one that rarely disappoints me. As the final scenes dribbled out, I imagined myself a dictator with the power to stand up and stop the show - not only for this night but for good.

It gave me chills. Better, I thought, to endure mediocre or even bad theater than to dam up the river from which it flowed.

I cannot draw or paint a thing. Although Ike's paintings seem even to my untrained eye to be mostly amateurish, I'm nonetheless grateful to him not only for his important military prowess that helped us conquer the evils of Nazism and facism in World War II but also for his willingness to use the freedom he helped to preserve to paint.

I hope the Pentagon leaders who work in this building stop now and then and pay attention to Ike's paintings. It may help them remember that a prime purpose of a military is to make the world safe for artists.

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JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved