Aaron Hughes is an artist, activist, and a Veteran of the Iraq War. He served in the Illinois National Guard from 2000 to 2006. He was deployed to Kuwait and Iraq in April 2003 and stayed until July 2004 as an 88M truck driver. On his return to the states he has dedicated his life to making art that will deconstruct the culture of dehumanization and hate that was so prevalent while deployed. He is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. You can see an example of his work here. He talks here with Saif Rahman and John Feffer from Foreign Policy in Focus.
Saif Rahman: First and foremost- you are a veteran, an activist, and an artist. How does your work help to express your feelings about the war?
Aaron Hughes: To me “art” provides a space to present and communicate complexity. It is not restrictive to a language, a symbol, an ideology, a system, a narrative… but instead “art” can provide a freedom to find new ways to express memories, thoughts, and emotions that can challenge historical ways of communicating.
I didn’t understand the war. I did not understand the ease of dehumanization or the ambiguous, anxious convoys of nothingness, for nothing. I did not understand the day-in-day-out reality of dust-covered skin, uniform, truck, and children. I wanted to think this American kid from the Midwest could help the oppressed Iraqi people.
Then I awake to my weapon pointed at the hungry, and I am the oppressor. No thoughts express the realization of the “Others” humanity. So I struggle through the gray complexity of “art” to deconstruct the social, cultural, racial, economical, and political walls of dehumanization. In a hope that for an instant “art” can bring about the realization of ones own and others humanity.
Saif Rahman: On that same note, more specifically -how does your work describe a narrative about the war that cannot be fully expressed simply by words? Please explain.
Aaron Hughes: I do believe I am trying to get at a narrative of the war. But that narrative cannot function like the modern narrative of progress. The war is without progress. My experience in the war was not only without progress but was also without clarity of any sorts. There was not a right or wrong, a logic, or reason — just reactions and actions. That is why I hope to create a narrative that instead functions with ambiguities, gray areas, and a cyclical postmodern structure. In war there is no hero and no villain just individuals stuck in a role that only has one outcome: sad, destructive death.
Saif Rahman: Your work spreads across many mediums – mixed mediums, drawing, performance art, poetry – how do you feel the different methods that you use gets at different points, stories, and possibly different audiences?
Aaron Hughes:I am not sure. The choice in medium is something I think little about. Different mediums function to me like different tools in a toolbox. I hope the more tools and variety of tools that I use will allow me to get closer to fixing the broken perspective of humanity held culturally across the world. In many ways I use one system of communication to deconstruct another. With a thought that a space will be formed in the contradictions that must be filled buy the viewer.
John Feffer: Aside from your own work, what do you think have been some notable art inspired by the Iraq War?
Aaron Hughes: Other Iraq Veterans Against the War such as Joshua Casteel and Cloy Richards are writing some of the most powerful testimonies to the pain of humanity lost in myths of war.
Returns, a play written by Casteel leaves the audience with the honest complexity of a veteran struggling to carve out a new space for his new identity in the midst of history, nostalgia, memories, and flash backs. James the lead character is trapped in the midst of other characters that represent alter identities, memories, friends, ghosts, victims, the guilty, and the repenting. In Returns, James lives dreading the next news of a suicide of a fellow veteran in a family of veterans. The ghosts increase as the need to structure a life of narrative and meaning tries to combat the nightmare of post traumatic stress…
This type of vulnerable honesty is what can bridge the gap between the war and the spectacle of American culture.
John Feffer: What kind of reactions have you heard from people who have seen your art?
Aaron Hughes: A notable reaction is from my fellow veterans that can relate on an individual basis to the work. When they have a chance to reflect on their experience in an alternative way that is not dictated to them by mass media or some false heroic narrative there is an opportunity to reclaim their experience, emotions, and memories.
On second thought, perhaps it is the reaction of the families of those that have been deployed. A mother of a soldier from my sister unit of the 1644th Transportation Unit came to me in tears thanking me for sharing with her what she would never hear from her son. I hope whatever the reaction, the work can create a space for reflection and empower individuals to act.