Jewish World Review Dec. 16, 2003 / 21 Kislev 5764
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.
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
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
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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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved