The Things They Carried

  • October 12, 2021 07:57

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Details of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial statue, also known as The Three Servicemen or The Three Soldiers.
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“In addition to the three standard weapons—the M-60, M-16, and M-79—they carried whatever presented itself, or whatever seemed appropriate as a means of killing or staying alive. They carried catch-as-catch-can. At various times, in various situations, they carried M-14s and CAR-15s and Swedish Ks and grease guns and captured AK-47s and Chi-Coms and RPGs and Simonov carbines and black market Uzis and .38-caliber Smith & Wesson handguns and 66 mm LAWs and shotguns and silencers and blackjacks and bayonets and C-4 plastic explosives… They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

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— Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”

When my father, Frederick (“Rick”) Hart, was commissioned to create a sculpture for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, he knew how important it was to get everything right. 

From the start, Rick relied on a friend named Charlie Berl. Charlie was a Marine who had served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969, where he saw a lot of combat. After he got out of the Marines, Charlie worked in construction. He was in good shape, and Rick had used him as a model before.

To assist him with his research, Rick also turned to the staff of the United States Marine Corps Museum. They were supportive, and eager to help. Not only were they willing to loan Rick a few pieces of authentic Vietnam-era equipment, they also put him in touch with Dennis Reem, an amateur military historian. 

Sculptor Frederick Hart with clay models of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial statue. August, 1983.
Tim Dillon, USA Today

Like Charlie, Dennis had served as an infantryman in the Marines, and he saw combat in Vietnam in the late 1960s. Like Charlie, Dennis agreed to serve as a model. Furthermore, Dennis was able to provide Rick with invaluable reference material in the form of his own military gear, authentic artifacts from the time he served in Vietnam. 

It was Dennis who first supplied Rick with a “boonie” hat, a bucket-shaped, broad-brimmed hat, also known as a “bush” or “tropical” hat. Dennis explained that, for many Americans in Vietnam, wearing a boonie hat became routine, especially during the later years of the war. Rarely, if ever, had that particular type of headgear been so widely worn. 

It was important to Rick that his sculpture evoke what it was like at the time. It was crucial that it bring the experience in Vietnam into focus, and distinguish it from the experiences of veterans of other wars. The fact that the boonie hat was so specific to the time made it just the kind of detail Rick was looking for.

Other loans from Dennis included belts, pouches, and one-quart canteens. Dennis loaned Rick his olive drab Tropical Combat Uniform jacket and trousers, what Dennis called his “fatigues.” He loaned him what would come to be seen as the most distinctive, and personal artifacts of the period: military identification tags, or “dog tags,” and a pair of worn-out Tropical Combat Boots, or “jungle boots.”  

Sculptor Frederick Hart at work on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial statue. August, 1983.
Washington Post

He and Charlie and others introduced Rick to even more Vietnam vets, who came to visit the studio. If any of them were bothered by anything about the sculpture, by some detail that was not quite right, Rick wanted them to let him know about it. On some occasions, they talked it over right there in the studio. On other occasions, they talked it over after work, at a local bar, over a round of beers. 

At the beginning of the summer of 1983, as the weather started to warm up, Rick set up a fan in his studio. The heat made the clay soft, and Rick had to be careful. At the same time, he needed to pick up the pace. Deadlines were looming. 

First, Rick sculpted the figures bare-chested. Then, to the first figure, he added a fatigue jacket. Now, on top of the fatigue jacket, he was working on adding a Type M69 body armor vest, more commonly known as a ”flak jacket.” It was another emblematic item: a protective garment for the upper body, a vest stiffened with layers of ballistic nylon, which was worn by many American soldiers who served in Vietnam. Nearby, the authentic article was draped over the shoulders of a mannequin, where Rick was using it as a model. 

One of the first questions Rick had for the vets was about how they wore their flak jackets. For his research, he had gathered hundreds of photographs of Americans fighting in Vietnam, and he noticed that a lot of them wore their flak jackets unzipped, and wide open at the front. This was what the vets called an “unsecured” position. It left the wearer vulnerable. However, as many of them admitted to Rick, this was a common practice nonetheless; in the hot and steamy climate, whenever they were given a choice between better ventilation and better protection, the preference was almost invariably for better ventilation. 

Later on that summer, Rick had just finished a long day of sculpting. The flak jacket was almost done, and now Rick took a step back to admire his work. A couple of vets had just come in, and they joined Rick in standing before the nearly completed clay figure. One vet drew a bandana out of his pocket, and mopped his brow. Then he put the bandana back in his pocket, and took a long look up at the figure. 

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with this,” the vet said. 

“What’s that?” asked Rick.

“No towel,” the vet replied. “I never saw anything like that. Three guys walking around, without a single towel? Nothing to soak up the sweat? Not a chance. Not in Vietnam. Man, you’ve got to put a towel in there.” 

Later, Rick took another look at the photographs he had collected. Now that he was looking for it, sure enough, there it was, again and again, lying across the backs of their necks, and falling over their shoulders: the same green towel, a humble government-issue “GI” towel. 

“Well, I’ll be…” Rick muttered in amazement. It seemed like such an ordinary thing, almost not worth noticing — until he had it pointed out to him. 

As another vet explained, the GI towel was also used to cushion heavy loads. This, too, made it a comfort. Now, Rick was beginning to grasp the full significance of the GI towel. A lot of the things these guys had to haul around, they had to haul around just because they had to. They had been ordered to do so. But here was something soft. Something light. Something easy to carry. Something that brought a little relief.

With a small, distinctive detail like this, Rick could tell a part of the story. He could tell a part of the story of the human experience. However, in this case, the detail turned out to be a difficult thing to sculpt. Rick had never attempted to represent a texture quite like this before. 

Fortunately, Rick relished the challenge. He devoted all of his attention to it. He went beyond a naturalistic modeling, elevating the humble GI towel to a rhythm of shapes, cascading over a series of artful folds. Rick used a sharp tool to dimple the clay, honing in on individual fibers of fabric. 

In the meantime, from the Marine Corps Museum, Rick had obtained a couple more pieces of equipment. He had obtained several items which spoke of the harder, more unforgiving aspects of the Vietnam War experience. First, he received, on loan, in an olive drab holster: a Colt M1911 .45 caliber automatic pistol. Then he received an M16 rifle. 

Rick was later loaned an M1 steel helmet, with a camouflage cover. Before sculpting the helmet, for the sake of authenticity, Rick was advised to slip a small bottle of GI insect repellent under the headband. 

The story Rick told was shaped by the material culture of the war itself. The story he told was shaped by the guidance he was given by Vietnam vets. Also, the story he told was profoundly shaped by a documentary he saw, which was called Vietnam Requiem. 

The documentary, Vietnam Requiem, popularized the claim, later debated, that the average age of the Americans who served in the Vietnam War was just 19 — making them, on average, the youngest Americans to serve in any war up to that time. 

Inspired by the documentary, Rick did his own research. He was shocked by what he found out. The Americans who served in the Vietnam War did appear to be particularly young, especially when compared with the average ages of soldiers in other conflicts.  

For instance, the average age of a Civil War solider was 26, the same age as the average American combat soldier in World War II. In World War I, the average age of an American “doughboy” was 24, making him five years older than the average combat soldier was said to have been in Vietnam. 

Like many other vets who were just teenagers when they went off to fight in Vietnam, Charlie and Dennis were already in their thirties. Now that Rick was ready to devote all of his attention to the figures’ facial features — which were major focal points, providing much of the emotional content and meaning of the sculpture — he needed more youthful faces. 

Therefore, he asked Dennis if he had any photographs from around the time he enlisted. He did. Dennis gave Rick some snapshots from boot camp, and from his high school graduation. Rick tacked them up on a wall in his studio, near where he was working. Rick studied the photographs. Then he went to work. 

Still, he felt like there was something missing. “There were a number of things which were very important to me to say and to put down forever in this work in bronze,” Rick said later. “One of those things was the shadow that fell across their faces, the shadow of mortality.” 

Day after day, Rick continued to work on the same figure’s face. Again and again, he went over the same patch of clay. Time after time, it ended up looking even worse than when he started. He was going nowhere. 

Then, in late 1983, Rick received a letter postmarked from Chesterland, Ohio. It was from a woman named Muriel Bargar. Muriel had written to Rick because she had read about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the newspaper. She had seen pictures of his early progress on the sculpture, and she wanted to let him know that she liked it. Also, she enclosed a photograph of her son, Richard Bargar. 

Muriel told Rick about how, not long after he graduated from high school, Richard volunteered for the Army. He served in the 101st Airborne Division. He was promoted to the rank of Specialist. In 1968, Specialist Richard Bargar was killed in Vietnam. He was just 18 years old. 

Rick wrote back to Muriel, to thank her for her letter. Also, he expressed his sympathy. He went on to fill her in on the progress of his work. 

Then he asked Muriel if she would mind sending him a few more photos of her son. Rick was inspired by what he saw in the young man’s face, in the photo she had already sent, and he wanted to use him as a model. Rick wondered whether or not he might be able to borrow some more photos from around the time Richard graduated high school, and joined the Army. Muriel was only too glad to provide them.

Rick was struck by the fact that the American involvement in Vietnam was a war waged, in large part, by teenagers. He was struck by the fact that it was, more than any other American war, a children’s war. He was inspired to show how young they were. He was inspired to tell their story: a story of hardships endured, fellowships formed, and innocence lost. 

In his final version of the statue, The Three Soldiers advance as if dazed, as if almost overwhelmed by the terrible power of the things they carry. The things they carry — an accumulation of armor, weapons, and ammunition — stand in for an even greater accumulation of flak jackets, pistols, M16s, M60s, M-79s, M-14s, AK-47s, shotguns, bayonets, and C-4 plastic explosives. 

Encumbered though they are, The Three Soldiers’ humanity remains intact. Inscribed on their limbs: the strain of combat, and the strength of camaraderie. On their faces: the innocence of youth, and the shadow of mortality. 

...

Feldman, Claudia. “Vet takes stand for Vietnam as model for memorial monument.”Houston Chronicle. Section 6, Page 5. October 1982. 

Marling, Karal Ann and Robert Silberman. “The Statue Near the Wall: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Art of Remembering.” Smithsonian Studies in American Art. pp. 5-29. Spring 1987. 

Vietnam Requiem. ABC. Original air date: July 15, 1982. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0hv9glzf560


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Sculpting from Life

Honoring the skill and imagination of the most impactful artists, and the inspirational works which helped determine the shape of contemporary art, with a special emphasis on figurative sculpture, and the fine art of Frederick Hart.

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