The War Artist

Tony Ballantyne

October 1, 2021

My name is Brian Garlick and I carry an easel into battle.

Well, in reality I carry a sketch book and several cameras, but I like to give people a picture of me they can understand.

The sergeant doesn’t understand me, though. He’s been staring since we boarded the flier in Marseilles. Amongst the nervous conversation of the troops, their high pitched laughter like spumes of spray on a restless sea, he is a half-submerged rock. He’s focussing on me with dark eyes and staring, staring, staring. As the sound of the voices fade to leave no sound but the whistle of the wind and the creak of the pink high visibility straps binding the equipment bundles, he’s still staring, and I know he’s going to undermine me. I’ve seen that look before, though less often than you might expect. Most soldiers are interested in what I do, but there are always those who seem to take my presence as an insult to their profession. Here it comes…

“I don’t get it,” he says. “Why do we need a war artist?”

The other soldiers are watching. Eyes wide, breathing fast and shallow, but they’ve just found something to distract them from the coming fight. Well, I have my audience; it’s time to make my pitch to try and get them on my side for the duration of the coming action.

“That’s a good question,” I reply. I smile, and I start to paint a picture. A picture of the experienced old hand, the unruffled professional.

“Someone once said a good artist paints what can’t be painted. Well, that’s what a war artist is supposed to do.”

“You paint what can’t be painted,” says the sergeant. It’s to his credit he doesn’t make the obvious joke. For the moment he’s intrigued, and I take advantage of the fact.

“They said Breughel could paint the thunder,” I say. “You can paint lightning, sure, but can you make the viewer hear the thunder? Can you make them feel that rumble, deep in their stomach? That’s the job of a war artist, to paint what can’t be painted. You can photograph the battle, you can show the blood and the explosions, but does that picture tell the full story? I try to capture the excitement, the fear, the terror.” I look around the rows of pinched faces, eyes shiny. “I try to show the heroism.”

I’ve composed my picture now, I surreptitiously snap it. That veneer of pride that overlays the hollow fear filling the flier as it travels through the skies.

The sergeant sneers, the mood evaporates.

“What do you know about all that?”

I see the bitter smiles of the other soldiers. So I paint another picture. I lean forward and speak in a low voice.

“I’ve been doing this for six years. I was in Tangiers after the first Denial of Service attack. I was in Barcelona when the entire Spanish banking system was wiped out; I was in Geneva when the Swiss government network locked. I know what we’re flying into, I know what it’s like to visit a state targeted by hackers.”

There are some approving nods at this. Or is it just the swaying of the craft as we jump an air pocket? Either way, the sergeant isn’t going to be convinced.

“Maybe you’ve seen some action,” he concedes. “Maybe you’ve been shot at. That doesn’t make you one of us. You take off the fatigues and you’re just another civilian. You won’t get jostled in the street back home, or refused service in shops. You won’t have people calling you a butcher, when all you’ve tried to do is defend their country.”

This gets the troops right back on his side. I see the memory of the taunts and the insults written on their faces. Too many people were against us getting involved in the Eurasian war; the numbers have grown since the fighting started. There’s a cold look in the troops’ eyes. But I can calm them, I know what to say.

“That’s why the government sent me here. A war artist communicates the emotions their patron chooses. That’s why war artists are nearly always to be found acting in an official capacity. I’m here to tell your side of the story, to counteract those images you see on the web.”

That’s the truth, too. Well, almost the truth. It’s enough to calm them down. They’re on my side. Nearly all of them, anyway. The sergeant is still not convinced, but I don’t think he ever will be.

“I don’t like it,” he says. “You’ve said it yourself, what you’re painting isn’t real war...”

All that’s academic now as the warning lights start to flash: orange sheets of fire engulfing the flier’s interior. I photograph the scene, dark bodies lost in the background, faces like flame in the foreground, serious, stern, brave faces, awaiting the coming battle. That’s the image I will create, anyway.

“Get ready!” calls the sergeant.

There’s a sick feeling in my stomach as we drop towards the battle and I wonder, how can I show that?

A shriek of engines, a surge of deceleration and a jolt and we’re down and the rear ramp is falling…

* * *

We land in a city somewhere in southern Europe. Part of what used to be Italy, I guess. Red bricks, white plaster, green tiles. I hear gunfire, but it’s some distance away. I smell smoke, I hear the sound of feet on the metal ramp, the rising howl of the flier’s engines as it prepares to lift off again. I see buildings, a narrow road leading uphill to a blue sky and a yellow sun. I smell something amidst the smoke, something that seems incongruous in this battle scene. Something that reminds me of parties and dinners and dates with women. It takes me a moment in all the confusion of movement to realize what it is.

Red wine. It’s running down the street. Not a euphemism, there’s a lorry at the top of the hill, the front smashed where it’s run into a wall, the driver’s arm drooping from the open window, the silver clasp of his watch popped open so it hangs like a bracelet. There are jewels of broken glass scattered on the road, diamonds from the windshield, rubies from the truck’s lights and emeralds from the broken bottles that are spilling red blood down the street. It’s such a striking image that, instinctively, I begin snapping.

The soldiers are flattening themselves against the vine clad walls that border the street, the chameleon material of their suits changing to dusty white, their guns humming as they autoscan the surrounding area. Their half-seen figures are edging their way up and down the hill, changing color, becoming the red of doors and the dusty dark of windows. They’re sizing up the area, doing their job, just like me, cameras in my hand, in my helmet, at my belt. Sizing up the scene.

The peacefulness of the street is at odds with the tension we feel, and I need to capture that. The lazy smell of the midday heat mixed with wine. Lemons hanging waxy from the trees leaning over the white walls, paint peeling from window frames. A soldier pauses to touch the petals trailing from a hanging basket and I photograph that.

As if in response to my action, someone opens fire upon us from up the street and there is a whipsnap of movement all around. The sergeant shouts something into a communicator, the flier whines into the air, guns rattling, I see thin wisps of cloud emerge from the doorway of a house up the hill. Someone fired upon us, and now the flier’s returned the compliment. Incendiaries, I guess, seeing the orange white sheets that ripple and flicker up the plaster walls of the building.

I snap the picture, but it’s not what I’m after; it’s too insubstantial. If I were to paint this, the explosion would be much bigger and blooming and orange. It would burst upon the viewer: a heroic response to a cowardly attack.

Then I see the children, and the image I’m forming collapses. Children and women are tumbling from the house. The sound of the flier, the crackle of the flames, they paint a picture in my mind that doesn’t involve children. But the truth is unfolding. There were civilians in there! The camera captures their terrified, wide eyed stares, but it can’t capture that weeping, keening noise they make. It can’t capture the lurching realisation that someone just made a huge mistake.

I see the look on the sergeant’s face, that sheer animal joy, and I turn the camera away. That’s not what I’m after, but my hand turns back of its own accord. If I had time, I’d try and sketch it right here and now. There is something about the feelings of the moment, getting them down in pencil.

The sergeant sees me looking at him, and he laughs. “So? Innocents get hurt. That’s what happens in war.”

I make to answer him, but he’s concentrating on his console. The green light of the computer screen illuminates his face.

“That’s Saint Mark’s church at the top of the hill,” he says. “There’s a square beyond it with a town hall facing it. We occupy those two buildings, we have the high ground.”

He runs his finger across the screen.

“Big rooms in there, wide corridors. A good place to make our base.”

A woman screams. She’s pleading for something. I see a child; I see a lot of blood. A medic is running up, and I photograph that. The gallant liberators, aiding the poor civilians. That’s the problem with a simple snap. Taken out of context, it can mean anything.

But that’s why I’m here. To choose the context.

* * *

We make it to the top of the hill without further incident. The cries of pain are receding from my ears and memory. I focus on the scene at hand.

A wide square, littered with the torn canvas and broken bodies of umbrellas that once shaded cafe patrons. Upturned tables and chairs. Panic spreads fast when people find their mobile phones and computers have stopped working. They’ve seen the news from other countries; they know that the rioting is not far behind. Across the square, a classic picture: the signs of money and authority, targeted by the mobs. Two banks, their plate glass fronts are smashed open, their interiors peeled inside out in streamers of plastic and trampled circuitry.

The town hall is even worse. It looks like a hollow shell, the anger of the mob has torn the guts out of this place, eviscerated it.

This is what happens when a Denial of Service attack hits, wiping out every last byte of data attached to a country, smoothing the memory stores to an endless sequence of 1’s.

Everything—pay, bank accounts, mortgages—wiped out completely. Law and order breaks down, and armies are sent in to help restore order.

That was the line, anyway.

“Funny,” says the woman at my side. “We seem to be more intent on securing militarily advantageous positions than in helping the population.”

“Shut up, Friis,” snaps the sergeant.

“Just making an observation, Sergeant.” The woman winks at me.

“Tell you what, Friis, you like making observations so much, why don’t you head in there and check it out? “

“Sure,” she says, and she looks at me with clear blue eyes. “You coming, painter boy?”

“Call me Brian.”

“Aren’t you afraid he might get hurt?” laughs the sergeant.

“I’ll look after him.”

I pat my pockets, checking my cameras, and follow her through the doorway, the glass crunching beneath my feet.

A large entrance hall, the floor strewn with broken china. The rioters haven’t been able to get at the ceiling though, and I snap the colourful frescoes that look down upon us. The soldier notices none of this; she’s scanning the room, calm and professional. She speaks without looking at me.

“I’m Agnetha.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

She has such a delightful accent. Vaguely Scandinavian.

I’ve heard it before.

I see strands of blonde hair curling from beneath her helmet. Her face is slightly smudged, and it makes her look incredibly sexy.

We move from room to room. Everything is in disarray—this place has been stripped and gutted. There’s paper and glass everywhere. Everything that could be broken has been broken.

“Always the same,” says Agnetha. “The data goes, and people panic. They have no money to buy food, they can’t use the phone. They think only of themselves, looting what they can and then barricading themselves into their houses. They steal from themselves, and then we come in and take their country from them.”

“I thought we were here to help!”

She laughs at that, and we continue our reconnaissance.

Eventually, it’s done. Agnetha speaks into her radio.

“This place is clear.”

I recognise the sergeant’s voice. “Good. We’ll move in at once. There are reports of guerrilla activity down at the Via Baciadonne.

Baciadonne.” Agnetha smiles at me. “That means kisses women.

She’s clever as well as pretty. I like that.

The area is quickly secured, which is good because outside the random sound of gunfire is becoming more frequent. I feel the excitement of the approaching battle building in my stomach. The flier comes buzzing up over the roofs, turning this way and that, and I watch the soldiers as they go through the building, filling it with equipment bundled in pink tape.

We find a room with two doors that open out onto a balcony with a view over the city beyond. Agnetha opens the doors to get a better field of fire, then leans against the wall opposite, her rifle slung across her knees. She smiles coquettishly at me.

“Why aren’t you taking my picture?” she asks.

I point the camera at her. We both hear it click.

“Are you going to use that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Keeping it for your private collection?”

She stretches her legs and yawns.

“You don’t mind me being attached to your group, then,” I say, “not like your sergeant.”

She wrinkles her nose.

“He doesn’t speak for all of us. I don’t agree with everything the government says, either. We’re sent out here with insufficient equipment, less back up, and when we get home we’re forgotten about at best. I think it’s good that we have people like you here.”

She frowns. “So tell me, what are you going to paint?”

“Actually, I don’t just paint. I use computers, software, all those things. It’s all about the final image.”

“I understand that. But what are you going to paint?”

I can’t keep evading the issue. For all my fine words about reflecting the war as it really is, the sergeant had it right. I’ll paint whatever Command wants me to. I like to paint a picture of myself as a bit of a rogue, but, at heart, I know the establishment has me, body and soul.

“I don’t know yet. That’s why I’m here. I need to experience this place, and then I can try and convey some emotion.”

“What emotion?”

“I don’t know that, either.”

There’s a crackle of gunfire, sharp silver, like tins rattling on the floor. I ignore it.

“You’re very pretty,” I say.

“Thank you.” She lowers her eyes in acknowledgement. I like that. She doesn’t pretend she isn’t pretty; she takes the compliment on its own terms.

“How did you end up in the army?” I ask.

She yawns and stretches.

“I worked in insurance,” she says, and it seems all wrong. So drab and everyday. She should have been a model, or a mountaineer, or an artist or something.

“I lost my job when Jutland got hit by the DoS attack. Everything was lost, policies, claims, payroll. The hackers had been feeding us the same worm for months: the backups were totally screwed.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, and I am. Really sorry. So that’s why her accent sounded so familiar. Fortunately, she doesn’t seem to notice my reaction.

“Other people had it worse,” she shrugs. “We had a garden; we had plenty of canned goods in the house. My mother had the bath filled with water, all the pans and the dishes. We managed okay until your army moved in to restore order.”

She seems remarkably unperturbed by the affair.

“So you joined us out of gratitude?” I suggest.

She laughs.

“No, I joined you for security. This way I get to eat and I’m pretty sure that my salary won’t be wiped out at the touch of a button. If your army’s servers aren’t secure, then whose are?”

“Fair enough.”

“No, it’s not fair. It’s just life. Your army wiped out Jutland’s data. Just like it did this country’s.”

I try to look shocked.

“You think that we are responsible for the trouble here?”

“It’s an old trick. Create civil unrest and then send in your troops to sort out the problem. You’ve swallowed up half of Europe that way.”

“I don’t think it’s that well planned,” I said, honestly. “I just think that everyone takes whatever opportunity they can when a DoS hits.”

As if to underline the point, the staccato rattle of gunfire sounds in the distance.

“Aren’t you worried that I will report you?” I ask. “Have you charged with sedition?”

She rises easily to her feet and walks towards me.

“No. I trust you. You have nice eyes.”

She’s laughing at me.

“Come here,” she says. I lean down and she kisses me on the lips. Gently, she pushes my face away. “You’re a very handsome man. Maybe later on we can talk properly.”

“I’d like that.”

She looks back out of the window, checking the area. Little white puffs of cloud drift across the blue sky.

“So, what are you going to paint?” she asks. “The heroic rescuers, making the country safe once more?”

“You’re being sarcastic.”

“No,” she says, and she pushes a strand of blonde hair back up into her helmet. “No. We all do what we must to get by. Tell me, what will you paint?”

“I honestly don’t know yet. I’ll know it when I see it.” I look down into the square, searching for inspiration. “Look at your troop carrier.”

She comes to my side. We look at the concrete gray craft, a brutalist piece of architecture sat amongst the elegant buildings of this city.

“Suppose I were to paint that?” I say. “I have plenty of photos, but I need a context, a setting. I could have it swooping down on the enemy! The smoke, the explosions, the bullets whizzing past.”

“That’s what the army would like…”

“Maybe. How about I paint it with you all seated around the back? That could send a message to the people back home: that even soldiers are human, they sit and chat and relax. Or should I evoke sympathy? Draw the flier all shot up. The mechanics around it, trying to fix it up. One of you being led from the scene, blood seeping from the bandages.”

She nods. She understands. Then her radio crackles, and I hear the sergeant’s voice.

“Friis! Get down to the flier! We need help bringing equipment inside.”


“I’ll tag along,” I say.

* * *

The whine of the flier is a constant theme; the engines are never turned off. We join the bustle of soldiers around the rear ramp, all busy unloading the pink bound boxes and carrying them into the surrounding buildings.

“What is all that?” I wonder aloud.

“Servers, terminals, NAS boxes,” says Agnetha. “I saw this in Jutland. We’re establishing a new government in this place.”

“Keep it down, Friis,” says the sergeant, but without heat. I notice that no one seems to be denying the charge. The head of the soldier behind him suddenly spouts red blood. I’m photographing the scene before I realise what’s happening.


Everyone is dropping, looking this way and that.

“Up there,” shouts someone.

The sergeant is looking at his console, the green light of the screen illuminating his face.

“That’s the Palazzo Egizio. The Via Fossano runs behind it.”

He’s thinking.

“Friis, Delgado, Kenton. Head to the far end of the street. See if you can get into that white building there.”

I raise my head to get a better look, and I feel someone push me back down. At the same time there are more shots and I hear a scream. I feel a thud of fear inside me.

Agnetha has been shot.

Shot protecting me.

She’s coughing up blood.

“Agnetha,” I begin.

“Get back,” yells the Sergeant. “You’ve caused enough trouble as it is.”

Agnetha’s trying to speak, but there is too much blood. She holds out her hand and I reach for it, but the sergeant knocks it away.

“Let the medic deal with it,” he says. “Let someone who should be here deal with it,” he adds, nastily.

The other soldiers have located the sniper now, and I’m left to watch as a man kneels next to Agnetha and takes hold of her arm. She looks at me with those brilliant blue eyes, and I don’t see her. For a brief moment I see another picture. Blues and greens. Two soldiers: a man and a woman, standing in front of a flier just like the one behind us. They’re surrounded by cheering, smiling civilians. A young child comes forward, carrying a bunch of flowers. A thank you from the grateful liberated.

The picture I painted of Jutland.

I push it from my mind, and I see those brilliant blue eyes are already clouding over.

“We all do what we have to do,” I whisper. But is that so true? She joined the army so her family could eat. I’m here simply to build a reputation as an artist.

The medic injects her with something. She closes her eyes. The medic shakes his head. I know what that means. The sergeant looks at me.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“So?” he says, “How’s that going to help?” He turns away. The others are already doing the same. Dismissing me.

I take hold of Agnetha’s hand, feel the pulse fading.

* * *

The picture.

I wonder if Agnetha would approve of what I had done. I suspect not. She was too much of a realist.

I included the flier after all. But not taking off, not swooping down from the skies.

No, this was a different picture.

The point of view is from just outside the cockpit, looking in at the pilot of the craft. And here is where we move beyond the subject matter to the artistic vision, because the person flying the craft is not the pilot, but the sergeant.

His face is there, centred on the picture. He’s looking out at the viewer, looking beyond the cockpit.

What can he see? The dead children in the square, sheltered by the bodies of their dead parents? We don’t know. But that doesn’t matter, because there is a clue in the picture. A clue to the truth. One that I saw all the time, but never noticed. It’s written across the sergeant’s face. Literally.

A reflection in green from the light of the monitor screen, a tracery of roads and buildings, all picked out in pale green letters. Look closely at his cheek and you can just make out the words “Saint Mark’s Church. All those names that were supposedly wiped for good by the DoS attack, and yet there they were, still resident in the sergeant’s computer. And none of us found that odd at the time. We could have fed that country’s data back to it all along, but we chose not to.

They say a picture paints a thousand words.

For once, those words will be mostly speaking the truth.

Tony Ballantyne is a British science fiction and fantasy author who can be found on Twitter and at his website. His latest novel is Midway, about a writer exploring his relationship with his dying father. “The War Artist” originally appeared in Further Conflicts.