Different Points of View at the Talbot County Free Library
by Bill Peak
Books are funny things. You read one in March and, months later, in
September, you read another and find that the two books want to strike
up a conversation with each other, argue their respective points, tie
the knot or separate in a huff. You the reader are left to determine
the outcome, you are judge, jury, and marriage counselor all in one.
Winslow Homer is one of my favorite painters. Some thirty years ago,
the National Gallery mounted a full-scale exhibition of Homer's works.
The catalogue from that exhibit occupies pride of place on the coffee
table in our living room. On cold winter nights I like to sit by the
fire and thumb through its pages as one might an album containing
pictures of long-lost friends.
I pretty much always pause when I hit page 39, where you will find
Homer's The Sharpshooter on Picket Duty. The work has long
fascinated me for its realism, which was not the way military affairs
were commonly depicted in the art of that time. Painted in 1863 after
Homer had observed sharpshooters in action during the Peninsular
Campaign, it shows a Union soldier perched on a branch in a dry and
scraggly-looking pine tree, one foot braced against the tree's trunk,
the other dangling free beneath him. The young man's face is
partially obscured by the cocked hammer, breech, and trigger guard of
his rifle, only his right eye showing above these as he aims down the
length of the barrel.
Paradoxically, the painting always strikes me as both innocent and
grim—the soldier clearly young, his position up in a tree reminiscent
of boyhood, while his weapon's working parts have rendered him as
anonymous as the person he is about to kill.
According to the catalogue, the public admired and celebrated
sharpshooters during the Civil War, seeing them as proof of the
modernization of their culture and the way in which it waged war
(rifled weapons had only recently become more than an expensive
curiosity). I was reminded of the nineteenth century's adulation of
its sharpshooters in 2012 when American Sniper came out. Written by
Chris Kyle (who, after serving four tours in Iraq, became—as his
subtitle proclaims—“the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History”),
the book fairly flew off our shelves at the library.
The public's admiration notwithstanding, the Winslow Homer catalogue
goes on to assure me that both Union and Confederate soldiers didn't
care for sharpshooters at all. And Homer agreed with them. He wrote
to a friend about what he knew of sharpshooters and their craft, ”I
looked through one of their rifles once when they were in a peach
orchard in front of Yorktown in April 1862….the above impression [at
the top of the letter Homer has penned in a telescopic sight, and
through its crosshairs we see the back of an unsuspecting soldier idly
staring out over a parapet] struck me as being as near murder as
anything I could think of in connection with the army & I always had a
horror of that branch of the service.”
I remember my father had a similar horror of sniping as practiced by
the Japanese on Okinawa, and my guess is that soldiers in subsequent
conflicts have felt a comparable aversion. So what is it about
snipers that we civilians find so interesting? For I am no different.
Just the other night I was reading one of Lee Child's Jack Reacher
novels—reveling in the way Reacher's knowledge of things like "barrel
velocity, windage, and trajectory" would allow him to take out the bad
guy from a distance of several hundred yards—when I suddenly realized
precisely what it was that I was enjoying. And once again, in my
mind, that Union soldier climbed up into his pine tree and took aim at
a fellow human being.
Books talk to each other that way, the National Gallery's catalogue
entering into a dialogue with Chris Kyle's Sniper and Lee Child's
Die Trying to pose a question that, on their own, none of the books
had asked. Is it a sort of voyeurism that explains our fascination
with snipers? Is it because, as do they, we can only view the murder
of war from a safe distance? Does their experience in some
unconscious (unsavory?) way mirror our own?
I'm afraid I have no answer to these questions. My books' colloquy
dwindled away without ever reaching any firm conclusions. But if
there is an answer, or answers, to what has become for me a troubling
imponderable, I'm sure I'll find it someday in yet another book at the
Talbot County Free Library.