The War Drawings and Etchings of Kerr Eby

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Recently a colleague who collects old prints handed me a book he had found on the Internet. What first grabbed my attention about the book, titled simply WAR: DRAWINGS & ETCHINGS, was the artist’s name: Kerr Eby. Being an Eby myself, I knew of Kerr Eby’s work; according to family history we’re related.

Many years ago I bought a card at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art of a Kerr Eby drawing of a gentle Connecticut landscape. Then, a few years ago, a student gave me two books of artwork by army artists.

I didn’t know the army employed artists. Starting in World War I the army commissioned artists to record in drawings and paintings the life of the soldier and the activities of the army, not with the intention to glorify war but to honor the sacrifice it requires of its soldiers.

Kerr Eby was one of the artists. His charcoal drawing in the army’s book is titled "Pencil Sellers–Class of ’17." It shows a platoon of men moving down a muddy road. You can’t tell where they are headed; the title’s grim words tell you that they march toward being amputees, selling pencils on our city’s street corners. I should have been prepared for Kerr Eby’s book on War by this drawing, but I wasn’t.

Born in 1889, Eby died in 1946. He had an opportunity to observe and record World War I as a member of the Corps of Engineers and World War II in the Pacific as a war artist-correspondent. Eby’s depictions of war are sobering, so much so that many are painful to look at, let alone describe. As with the "Pencil Sellers," sometimes the greatest pain is in the juxtaposition of title and image. The body of a soldier is sprawled face down on the ground. The title is "Mama’s Boy." While he made up the titles, Eby asserts that he made nothing up for the subject matter of his drawings. He saw every terrible scene in real life.

WAR: DRAWINGS AND ETCHINGS contains Eby’s sometimes eloquent, sometimes gruff Introduction as well as his drawings. He begins this way, "I write in all humility of spirit, in the desperate hope that somehow it may be of use in the forlorn and seemingly hopeless fight against war." Out of print now, the book was published by Yale University Press in 1936. Eby reflects on how the loss of life in World War I had not brought peace to the world as had been promised and protests the next World War looming ahead. He does not claim to be a pacifist; he sees a need for an army and navy in the world as it is. But he also rages against the stupidity and waste of war as a means of settling disputes. He writes, "we who know something of what war means should get up on our hind legs and do or say what we can."

In the end, Eby gives up on the possibility that men will ever be able to find a way out of the trap of war. Therefore he calls on women around the globe to organize, speak up, and find a way to bring an end to war. At a time when soldiers were mainly men, he calls on mothers to resist sacrificing their sons to war and on young women to resist giving up brothers, husbands, and lovers, a loss that will blight the lives of a war generation forever. Acknowledging that no sane person wants war, but many people resign themselves to it, he urges all his readers to speak up – before they get swept along again in another torrent of destruction.

Sadly we are still confronted today with the moral urgency of Eby’s message – to do all we can to work and speak for peaceful, nonviolent ways to resolve human conflict.

This is Lois Eby.

–Lois Eby is a painter who comments on the arts, women’s issues, and civil rights.

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