As a boy growing up in Alton, Illinois, Ned Broderick listened to his father and uncles talk about World War II. “They told of going without sleep, having a hard time finding food, being in cities that were bombed flat.” He remembers saying something bad about the Germans and being surprised to hear his father reply, “The German soldiers were just like us.”
In 1965 Broderick wanted to enlist in the military. An army recruiter promised him all sorts of opportunities. A Marine Corps recruiter said, “The Marine Corps will promise you a pack, a rifle, and a hard time.” He’d learned from his father and uncles to be skeptical of recruiters’ promises and decided the marine recruiter wasn’t lying. He joined the marines.
When his unit arrived in Vietnam it was put in a Buddhist cemetery, “and the South Vietnamese army took big bulldozer tanks and just started cleaving the graves down. It didn’t make any sense to me, and a lot of Vietnamese were tremendously upset.” Soon the Americans began attacking North Vietnamese command posts, but Broderick came to respect the North Vietnamese soldiers. “It was like what my old man was saying. I’d take these guys’ packs and dump them out and see pictures of their families.” He wrote poetry to express his feelings about the war, and he found poems by North Vietnamese soldiers. “I had the interpreter translate them, and I realized we were killing people exactly like ourselves.”
A year after he was discharged Broderick was studying at Chicago’s American Academy of Art, and he’s been painting ever since. Many of the faces in his work are contorted or partly obliterated. He says they’re “paintings of the war, an extension of feelings I developed in it.” A supporter of the war’s goals then and now, he sees trauma as inherent in war, essential to the human condition. “We open our eyes and get out of bed and face a war every day–and go on and endure and prevail. Life is a continuous conflict, because everything about you that’s worthwhile is challenged.”
Some of Broderick’s pieces refer specifically to Vietnam. In the sculpture Le Duc Tho Goes to Paris to Discuss the Shape of a Table we see a real Chinese submachine gun sticking out of the mouth of the North Vietnamese peace negotiator. The work is angry, aggressive. “Le Duc Tho did not come to Paris to look for peace,” he says. “He came to Paris to fight the Vietnam war on another level.”
His painting The Wound has a marine at its center and a dead Vietnamese soldier in the foreground, both framed by a tattered American flag Broderick brought back as a war memento. Blood seems to drip from the corpse’s nose onto the flag, pushing the painted image into three dimensions, giving it a creepy reality. A longtime collector of discarded objects, Broderick believes physical things have an aura and combining them with painted imagery does “more than can be done with just words or just painting.” The flag, he says, “represents the nation, and the wound is how the Vietnam war wounded America’s image of itself.”
Artwork by some 80 Vietnam veterans, including Broderick, can be seen in the exhibit “Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections” at the Vietnam Veterans’ Art Group, 1727 S. Indiana, at least through September. Hours are noon to 7 Wednesday through Friday and noon to 5 Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free; call 913-9117.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Nathan Mandell.