Book Review: Portraits of Courage

I remember a couple years ago when I first heard that George W. Bush was painting wounded warriors – I wasn’t sure what to think. On the hand, I was very cynical, “painting the people he sent to war?” It seemed like an empty gesture coming far too late. But then I heard him interviewed about it. He commented that painting someone is a very intimate act because it requires you to deeply reflect on that person, engaging in a unique relationship to understand who they are. I was intrigued, surprising even myself as I thought “wow, what an incredible way to honor those who served under his charge.”

Fast forward to earlier this month when George W. Bush was making the media rounds promoting his new book “Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors.” The book is a compilation of sixty-six portraits and a large mural painted by President Bush. Each painting is accompanied by a story written by the President. The proceeds from the book go towards the George W. Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative, a non-profit that serves post-9/11 veterans and their families. After seeing Bush make the press rounds for the umpteenth time, I decided to order a copy for myself. Having interviewed wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans for my dissertation research, I was very curious to see what this book was all about.

gwb-painting

Thanks to Amazon Prime, the book arrived on my doorstep a few days later. I was excited to curl up on my couch and dive in. Over the course of three sittings, I read through every story and gazed upon each portrait. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what I found was a gracefully dynamic and compelling window in to the experiences of today’s combat veterans. It’s not just about their injuries, it’s about seeing their lives in context: their backgrounds, why they joined the military, their families, their recovery, and what they’re doing now. It shows off the humor, grit, humility, and tenacity of those who volunteered to serve our nation, qualities that anyone who has worked with or knows veterans will be familiar with. What I appreciated most about the book is that it is the people who came to the forefront–it was Scott, Juan, and Bryce that I saw–not the fact that they are “wounded warriors.”

Before I ordered my copy, I had stumbled upon Terminal Lance’s review of the book. His biggest qualm was President Bush’s lack of “self-awareness” or reflection on being the one to have sent these men and women to war. Something that he felt robbed the book of being more just than a “nice tribute.” While I agreed initially, after reading the book I saw that Bush was intentionally trying to get out of the way. He opened with a four page introduction, most of which was about his journey into painting, ending with why he’s honoring wounded veterans through this medium. Any self-involved musings about how he handled himself as President or (potential) guilt he feels would detract from these veterans and their stories.

I would recommend Portraits of Courage to anyone who is interested in learning more about the experiences of wounded veterans, and here’s my top three reasons why:

Focused on the person: Most of President Bush’s portraits are close-ups, featuring an intimate portrait of the face with few background details. Rare exceptions include my one of my favorite images of Scott P. Lilley with his daughter MiKaylie on his lap, Roque Urena with his wife Marlene, Melissa Stockwell’s famous picture dancing with the President, and several of amputee veterans golfing. Bush notes this intentional choice in his introduction, saying that he hopes “to give viewers a sense of the remarkable character of these men and women. I wanted to show their determination to recover, lack of self-pity, and desire to continue to serve in new ways as civilians.” He also was purposeful about his decision for wider portraits, saying he “wanted to reflect the energy of an amputee playing golf…or the power of a loving relationship between husband and wife” (15). Throughout the narratives, Bush would occasionally point out how deliberate he was in painting the look in their eye or the presence (or absence) of anxiety and stress. One of the most interesting portraits was that of Army Major Christopher Turner, someone that Bush painted twice. In the first painting he depicted Christopher with “anguish”, using dark colored background and a sunken-in look on his face. After hearing from Christopher a few weeks later, who felt encouraged from sharing his story at the Warrior Open event, Bush painted him again “with a new outlook and a bright future” with a drastically different portrait (165-166).

I found Bush’s approach to these paintings refreshing because it removed the element of visibility, a polarizing experience for wounded veterans. My research has shown that visibly injured veterans have vastly different experiences than those with invisible injuries because of the attention visible wounds get in public (see one example here). By intentionally cropping out everything but the veteran’s face, Bush cuts out all that noise. For most portraits, unless you read the story you wouldn’t know whether they lost a limb, have a TBI, or struggle with chronic pain. The portrait draws you in to the story, and once you read the story–you no longer see a one-dimensional “wounded warrior.” Even veterans with burn injuries and facial scars blend in because of his painting style with hasty, wide brush strokes. I imagine that the veterans with visible injuries enjoy a moment where the focus isn’t on their missing arm or leg, and the veterans with invisible injuries are glad to be on equal footing with their visibly-injured counterparts.

Didn’t Put “Wounded Warriors” In a Box: The diversity of stories featured in Portraits of Courage truly represents the range of experiences in the wounded veteran community. I struggle with the typical media portrayals of “wounded warriors” that create an inaccurate stereotype of wounded veterans. It’s either the amputee veteran competing in sports or physical activity or the concern about veterans with PTSD–remnants of a cultural uncertainty about how trauma affects our mental health. Given that the President met most of these veterans through his Warrior 100K mountain bike ride event or the Warrior Open golf tournament, I was initially suspect at how diverse the group would really be. But Bush breaks the mold showcasing the lives of veterans who came from different backgrounds, served in different capacities, and have different trajectories post-injury. He tells the story of veterans like William Ganem who lost his leg in Iraq and pursued higher education after getting out of the military. Eventually getting his master’s degree from USC’s School of Social Work and working with the Semper Fi Fund as a Veteran Service Officer. Or Bryce Cole who served in the Army, returning with serious injuries from hitting several IEDs in Iraq, who sells medical devices for his day job, but ultimately is focused on being a good father to his two sons. There isn’t one kind of “wounded warrior”, and Bush shows the range of experiences that wounded veterans have.

Equal Playing Field for Invisible Injuries: On the last page of the book there is a one-page statement about how President Bush and the Bush Initiative suggest people to get involved in honoring our nation’s veterans if they so desire. Their first suggestion involves invisible injuries: “Change the way you think about invisible wounds of war like post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, taking care to eliminate any preconceived ideas or stigma. Understanding that with effective treatment and support, these injuries can be overcome.” The portrait-style alone gives invisibly injured veterans the opportunity to be seen in the same way as their visibly injured peers, taking away the element of physical differences. But more importantly, I found that President Bush’s narratives depicted invisible injuries in a real, raw manner without victimizing these veterans. He addressed how the invisible injuries can get in the way of life just as much as losing a limb, sometimes even more so.

Despite living in a progressive-era, where PTSD and TBI are seen as a natural and expected consequence of war, invisible injuries aren’t always given the legitimacy they should be. The veterans with invisible injuries I’ve interviewed speak about an added challenge in their recovery process–advocating for and justifying the existence of their injuries. The structure and the attention given to invisible injuries in Portraits of Courage truly fulfills the President’s mission in breaking down the barriers of recognition for these injuries. I was especially moved by the story of Dave Smith, a Marine Corps veteran who struggled with depression and PTSD from a friendly fire incident where in the fog of war he wounded one of his friends. War isn’t simple, neither are the wounds of those who fight it. Stories like Dave’s need to be heard. These portraits and the accompanying stories also showed that PTSD isn’t a lifetime sentence, but it also isn’t something that is easily dealt with.

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Final Thoughts

The one thing I found missing from the book was an appendix that addressed the process of how these portraits and these narratives came to be. In the acknowledgements section, President Bush talks about painting from photographs–no one sat for their portrait. I was curious to know more of the ‘behind-the-scenes’: How were these veteran’s asked to be part of the project? What was their reaction? When did they see their portrait? How did they feel their story was represented? Of course, I understand that I’m a Sociology nerd and maybe one of the few who would appreciate more insight into how the project came together. Overall, I found this to be an educational and insightful book into the lives of today’s wounded veterans – one that I would recommend to anyone.

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