‘Weapons of mass creation’ - Sunset Park mural examines recruitment of young poor women for Iraq War

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A new mural in Sunset Park by a group of young women provides a stark reminder of the continuing toll of the war in Iraq, particularly among young women from low-income backgrounds.

The three-story mural – which faces west on a building on 23rd Street and 3rd Avenue, clearly visible from a large stretch of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway – is designed to focus attention on the increasingly prevalent military recruiting of young women in poor neighborhoods. It seeks to separate the myths propagated by recruiters from the harsh reality of actual enlistment.

It is one of the more than 80 murals in the city by the Groundswell Community Mural Project, a non-profit that founded in 1996 that is responsible for over 80 murals in across the city. Through art, Groundswell seeks to inspire young people to reckon with the urgent social issues they face.

In particular, the Sunset Park mural is the work of participants in Groundswell’s Voices Her’d program, which focuses on issues affecting young women. During a period from February through August, 13 women ages 18-21 worked with professional artists and educators to conceive, designed, and finally painted the mural. It was unveiled this past week and will be formally dedicated on September 6.

Done in acrylic paint – which has a shelf-life of 25 years – the mural uses the bold colors and imagery of traditional war propaganda to send an opposite message.

Its central image is three young women in classic military poses, except instead of holding weapons, they are holding symbols of academic and artistic enrichment: a pencil, a diploma and a paintbrush, “weapons of mass creation” as Elizabeth Maroney, 18, one of the young artists, described.

From the paintbrush streams a banner reading: “We Are Not Government Issued.” This banner is connected to another reading “Arm Yourself With the Knowledge to Think for Yourself.”

These bold statements of defiance are, in effect, a counterargument against the entreaties of military recruiters.

“People need to know the truth about what they’re getting into,” said Katie Yamasaki, the project’s lead artist. “This is about enabling young women to make informed choices.”

The sobering facts necessary for an informed choice are displayed in some statistics presented at the bottom of the mural, such as the number of fallen female soldiers in Iraq (113, by some counts) and the number of women in Iraq who have reported experiencing sexual assault.

Another of the young artists, Sophia Dang, a 19-year-old rising sophomore at SUNY Stony Brook, said she briefly considered joining the military when she and many other of her fellow New Utrecht High School students were courted by recruiters.

“I considered joining before college. The recruiters tell you all about the benefits, but when we started researching it, we saw that it wasn’t like that. You get paid $3.39 an hour and work 80 hours a week,” she said.

Moroney, a Bensonhurst resident who will be a sophomore at LIU-Brooklyn next year, said the recruiting itself creates a climate of hopelessness for those to whom it is directed.

“It’s pretty much like they’re saying, ‘You’re not going to make it to college, so join the military.’ It really lowers peoples’ expectations for themselves and makes it look like it’s their only option,” she said.

The mural also features parachutes filling the sky, inscribed with messages designed to underscore the devastating impact of the war both abroad and on the home front. One of these parachutes reads, “Our Bodies, Dreams, Communities, Moralities, Schools, Families, Taxes, etc.” a long list of priorities the murals creators believed were sacrificed for the war.

“The war is bleeding domestic programs, which, like the recruiting, disproportionately hurts low-income people,” Yamasaki said.

The lower part of the mural shows dog tags honoring fallen female soldiers.

But some of these dog tags lend a touch of redemption to the sad tale depicted in the mural: They show female soldiers landing on the ground and supporting civilians, their decency prevailing in the face of their cruel circumstances.

Updated 3:44 pm, October 19, 2011
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