Robert Bates: Sketching the Draw Down

On November 24th of 2012, Robert Bates, a veteran Marine completing three tours of duty, opened an entry on his blog with the line “In just 10 days I will be back to the very place that almost killed me 4 years ago”. Late last year, from December 8th to the 18th, Bates returned to the war-torn country of Afghanistan, the “place that almost killed him” for a reason that many of us would consider foolhardy at best: art. Robert Bates is an acclaimed combat artist, with his work on display at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia. He’s no longer an active soldier, but in December of last year, returned to Afghanistan as a civilian illustrating the withdrawal of American troops in a project he calls “Sketching the Draw Down”. According to Bates, the process of combat art is easy, once you’re in a war zone. As he puts it, “Go to war. Do art. That’s about it”. But it’s getting there that’s the difficult part.

Bates has been an avid illustrator since he was two years old. When he reached adulthood, he became a correspondence student with an Art Instruction school. Then he joined the military, and his drawing took a backseat to his ambition to become a marine. He finished all but four lessons. For his first tour, covering East Asia and parts of Europe, he didn’t really think about art much. He would draw on occasion, such as when he drew a portrait for the memorial service of a fellow Marine killed in a drunken driving accident. It would take until his second tour, his first in Afghanistan, for him to get interested in art again.

In 2004, Bates led a squad stationed in the Afghani Mountains completely isolated in a time that Bates refers to today as “straight Spartan”. One day, his troops were on patrol looking over mountain villages that were to be searched during the next couple of days. His squad came to a security hall, when there was a call over the radio. “They were looking fore someone who could sketch the layout of the land”, says Bates, and the soldier who was typically assigned that duty couldn’t be found. Bates volunteered, and he “ran up a mountain for 20 minutes” to get where he needed to be. Once there, Bates sketched the landscape. His commanders liked his work so much that they asked him to continue to draw the terrain. It was then that Bates’ career as a combat artist began, though he really didn’t realize it at the time. It would take what Bates refers to today as two “bumps” in his military career for his passion for art to grow into something more, and be recognized.

On August 28th, 2008, Bates along with other Marines was executing a training OP at the Marine Combat center at Twentynine Palms, California. He and the group of Marines were training with live ammunition. During the exercise, Bates experienced a “negligent discharge”. A round from one of his weapons went through the legs of another Marine. Thankfully, the Marine wasn’t badly hurt, but Bates was reduced in rank from Sargent to Corporal. It was around this time that Bates started keeping a small, 60 page journal of his sketches “a running diary of what things were like over there, the human experience”. These drawings weren’t for the purposes of recording combat art, but simply recollections to share with his son.

Two years later, Bates ran into another bump. He was involved in an assault for laying his hands on another Marine during a hazing incident. He wasn’t demoted, but he was put on barracks restriction, essentially home arrest for the barracks. “You need an escort if you want to do anything” Bates says, “to go to the chow halls, the latrines…anything.” With nothing but time on his hands, Bates decided to create a Facebook page highlighting his sketches of the scenery and soldiers of war. That’s when he caught the eye of Michael Fay.

Michael Fay is a world-renowned combat artist, retired after 20 years in the Marines. He writes part time for the New York Times, and is an adjunct professor for various colleges in Virginia. His work hangs alongside Bates in the National Museum of the Marine Corps. Fay contacted Bates with a critique of his work, recommending that he “loosen it up”. Unexpected by Fay, Bates took his advice, and the two became friends. Their friendship eventually led to Bates’ inclusion in the Joe Bonham Project, a collaboration between sixteen renowned combat artists designed to highlight soldiers recovering from battle wounds. The Joe Bonham project toured through the United States, including a stop last summer at UNC Charlotte, and one later this year at CPCC. Multiple newspapers, including the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune, wrote about the exhibition. Eventually it caught the attention of Dick Gordon, host of “The Story”, a radio program for WUNC American Public Media in Raleigh. WUNC interviewed Bates for the “Sketching the War”, broadcast on July 10, 2012.

The idea for “Sketching the Draw Down” was actually an idea Bates got from Michael Fay. The two men were talking about Bates’ return to Afghanistan to cover the withdrawal of American troops from the country. The venture would require government approval and verification as well as personal funding. After five months of preparation (a process, Bates says, which was “enough to take an inch and half off my hairline”), a letter of accreditation from WUNC, and over $5,000 raised through social fundraising website Indie-A-Go-Go, Bates was prepared to return to Afghanistan.

On December 8, 2012, Bates landed in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. From there, he traveled to Helmand Province, and Zabul Province, still two of the most unsafe areas in an already dangerous country. According to Bates, the atmosphere of the soldiers there is completely different from the time he was last there: more of a cheerful, less-busy, but extremely boring vibe. “There were guys just counting down the days, time dragging on.” This time around, though, Bates was much more focused on “capturing the everyday experience” of the soldiers. At the same time, Bates portrayed the evidence of what he considers “our country’s longest and most forgotten war”. In addition to scenery with images of wrecked trucks, there were those “indescribable looks on the soldier’s faces”, longing for home.

Bates returned home on the December 18th, reuniting with his family and resuming classes as an Illustration major at UNCC. His goal is to receive his Master’s Degree in Illustration, eventually becoming an art professor. Bates hopes to continue as a combat artist, if there’s a war: “I’m out of business if there’s no war, not that I hope to be in business”. Still, he hopes to continue his artistry well into the future: “Every artist has the edge, if they haven’t done anything for so long they feel that something’s missing and they have to do something, even if it’s just for a week or two.”

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