War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

ethics of the war artist

The soldier must understand that what he or she is asked to do is far more ethically burdensome than what any other social institution asks its members to do.

The Warrior’s Way, a Treatise on Military Ethics
Richard A. Gabriel

a few years ago an emergency physician (and former soldier), working on contract with the CF in a hospital in KAF, created a storm of controversy when an article he wrote for a major American magazine was published. the article was about the death of a soldier he attended professionally.

the author, a novelist and non-fiction writer, described in graphic detail the final hours of the identified soldier in a Role 3 hospital at KAF. the ensuing controversy was over patient-doctor confidentiality, whether confidentiality even existed after the patient’s death, and also, whether or not someone had the right to write about information that is privileged.

I continually ask myself, in the course of this work, whether or not I am stepping over the ethical line. I have been let into soldiers’ lives on many levels. I’ve been told many, many private stories. stories of TICs, stories of ramp ceremonies, stories of R & R in Cyprus, what the effects of PTSD are on the soldier and the family, stories of intimate lives… I know some things that partners, children, mothers, fathers, best friends, colleagues, superiors etc. do not know. I have witnessed a lot first hand. I have been trusted with a lot.

the question is: can I, do I “use” this for my work? because to do so is to truly witness. and if so, how can I write this without betraying confidence? how can I witness without exploitation? how can I witness in honesty both the good and the bad? is this possible? must I wait years to write this? and what about my diaries? when I give them to the archives, do I put a 50 year restriction of access on them so that privacy is guaranteed. (not that there is awful information or sensitive information in them).

often, I ask myself how I would feel if I saw my life, the public and/or the private side of my life published by someone else. anyone related to a writer has justifiable fear of reading the writer’s work, as inevitably, bits and pieces, or great chunks of the writer’s life make it into the material. while in May Day, there is no real life S, or J, or M, certainly parts of myself, my friends, soldiers I’ve met etc., make it either subconsciously or consciously into the work. e.g., I am a dancer but I know no WOs with names beginning with M who are posted in Afghanistan, nor Lt.s with names beginning J who have been sent home with PTSD.

how must it feel to recognize some detail of one’s life, e.g., a facial tic, a speech pattern, or something physical such as a birthmark that looks a bruise on one’s derrière, or a scar across one’s cheek, or an incident or behaviour where one is less than stellar, appear in a fictional character or a non-fiction piece of writing? I know first hand that some of those closest to me feel publicly exposed from time-to-time. for this I ask forgiveness and counsel them not to read my work.

and some soldiers are flattered that their lives may appear in print, on canvas, film… others may feel humiliated or betrayed.

and just as there is no ethical training for an artist – and some may argue that artists should not concern themselves with ethics, that art serves only itself – there is no ethical training for the war artist. nor is there a clear definition of what it is to be a war artist.

I remember writing to the war artist Scott Waters, about a series of photos an artist used for his anti-war work, and asking Scott whether or not the artist had exploited the people whose images he used for his art. the disturbing images were of a physically damaged child and of a physically damaged old man. it bothered me that the artist had never asked his subjects permission to use their images. that the subjects were merely subjects to be used for work that would hang in shiny galleries in New York or London or Toronto. and yet, as I write this, I ask myself if I’m being a hypocrite. don’t I “use” the lives of others too?

these are just some of the issues at the heart of this work.

my rule of thumb is to never attribute or locate the source of my material unless the soldier wishes the recognition. just as I never publish photos without permission. this is the double-edged sword of course. I would love to give credit where credit is due. I also want my readers to know that all of my work is based on reality. I have either seen or heard all of these things. but what I do is throw them into the soup pot of creation, stir it up, then ladle it out for others to consider.

ultimately, the war artist should take the physician’s oath into consideration… “do no harm”, then hope and pray he/she does just that, harms no one. but then, is there truth in any of that?

5 Comments (Closed)

Douglas Hill

This is a tough issue that deserves a response.

The fact that you are there by invitation and that you have a mandate from the military means that it is expected you are going to use what you uncover, in some way or another—you are not paparazzo; you are not voyeur: you are a designated observer who is there for the purpose of expressing what this military experience is to you.

By that token, you are not only permitted, but required to use this material. Political correctness is not an option. To avert your pen is to blunt its power, to colour war and soldiering as “pretty”.

You are into it; there is no escaping that.

Sep 19 2009 · 17:02

Bob Devine

From reading your posts since you started and because you post these concerns today I do not think anyone needs to worry that you will do anything that is hurtful. I am confident you will do just fine as you develop the events you are experiencing into your craft.

Sep 19 2009 · 22:41

Alex VanderWoude

I believe the way you are “using” the material is both appropriate and ethical. You try hard to ensure that individuals cannot be definitely identified in order to maintain their privacy, unless specifically asked by an individual to publish something about that person. Locking your observations into a time capsule would be a more thorough way to ensure no confidences are betrayed, but it would also rob your work of the immediacy and timeliness we on the outside need. After all, are you doing this just for your own satisfaction, or are you trying to communicate important — perhaps vital — information to your fellow human beings? We cannot hope to understand unless we either pick up a rifle and see for ourselves, or someone like you lets us in on the secret.

The risk, of course, is that you will say too much. But based on your publications so far it seems to me that the things you write about will not compromise operational security, and thus endanger lives. Rather, the worst damage you could do would be to someone’s pride — bad enough, especially to that person, but such embarrassment can be lived down. And I am confident that you yourself would be mortified if a slip of your pen had such a result, and you would do whatever you could to make amends.

Sep 19 2009 · 23:03


As you’ve said, you’re an artist/a poet, not a journalist, and you have always been upfront and candid about who you are, what you are doing and why. I do understand and appreciate your concerns; the fact you are concerned is indicative enough of your care not to misrepresent what you’re doing or abuse your privileged observer position. Thanks to you there is a different window on this much misunderstood part of our society. Huzzah!
For another discussion on embedded artists, see also http://etude.uoregon.edu/summer2009/craft

Sep 20 2009 · 14:30


In war, the rules of ‘normal civilisation’ are scattered to the winds, with the blood and body parts. The only rule a poet, or artist of any kind, must have is to be HONEST and to apply her, or his, own moral standards as best they can.
I’ve no doubt you have done it already, but if not, read the works of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sasoon and all the WW1 poets. They were the first to escape from the ‘glories’ of Tennyson’s ‘patriotic’ and sanitised versification of slaughter and write about war in all its ugliness – and strangely-warped beauty.
Remember Polonius’s advice to Laertes in ‘Hamlet’: “Above all else, to thine own self be true”. I’m sure you will be.

Sep 25 2009 · 01:14

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The page you're reading contains a single diary entry entitled ethics of the war artist. It was posted here on September 19, 2009.


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