“Gassed” by John Singer Sargent

Today is the 100th anniversary of the United States’s entry into WWI, with a Congressional declaration of war. Fighting in Europe had been going on for three years at that point, and would continue for another year.

I don’t know how many people were already dead by the time the U.S. entered the fray. In the conflict as a whole, more than 17 million people were killed, about a third of which were civilians. That total does not include the deaths from a flu pandemic which took off in the stressed and mobile conditions, which killed another 20 to 40 million. Afterward, borders in Europe, Asia, and Africa were different, and some of the new governments were bloody, and there was starvation.

This is an oil painting called “Gassed,” by John Singer Sargent, one of my favorite painters, which he finished in 1919, based on time he spent with American Expeditionary Forces in Ypres (part of Belgium, which was supposed to be neutral, but was invaded). The clue that it’s Ypres is that it echoes another painting, “the Parable of the Blind,” by Pieter Bruegel, a Flemish painter from the Renaissance.


English speakers had trouble pronouncing Ypres (“E pruh”), so they nicknamed it “wipers.”

“Gassed” received some criticism from the literati for being too heroic. I don’t see it. I see helpless people hoping they’ll be led out of a tangled mass of limbs. I see mustard gas hanging in front of my eyes, and I know that mustard gas sometimes doesn’t blind you until two days later.

How can you, as a person, fight bombardment from the air? You can’t. And you can’t fight the air itself. This is why gas attacks are war crimes, this past. Against them, we are all defenseless children, even strong young men with guns, even soldiers. Yes, even enemy combatants.

Wipers your eyes, friends, wipers your eyes. Wipe your eyes and the burning is still there.