Aaron Hughes. "21 Days to Baghdad/Chicago: Day 21-Chicago Skyline" from Mileh Tharthar, Iraq, graphite on vellum, 2009.
Aaron Hughes didn’t know he wanted to be an artist. He was just twenty years old in 2003, a student studying industrial design at University of Illinois, when he was suddenly summoned to fight in the United States’ second war with Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“I was a truck driver,” Hughes says, recalling his early experiences in the war. “I would do these missions over and over again, hauling supplies to different bases in Iraq and back out.”
When Hughes arrived the first thing that made an impression were the Iraqi children. “As soon as you cross the border there’s kids – they’re not even as tall as my desk,” he says. “They were willing to jump on a semi truck to get food and water. I was really excited at the time because I thought these are the kids we are going to help. These are the kids we are going to provide humanitarian relief to. We’re going to pass out food and water. We’ll help fix some roads and go home.”
Aaron Hughes. "Dust Memories: Al Najaf," collage, ink, watercolor, charcoal, citrus transfer, 2006.
But things weren’t going to be that simple.
Hughes admits that he began his military career with a lot of patriotic fervor. Like many U.S. citizens he believed the United States was in Iraq to promote democracy, find weapons of mass destruction, and provide humanitarian aid. But as the war lingered Hughes began to question why he and his fellow soldiers were occupying a country halfway around the world.
“I quickly learned that we weren’t there to provide any humanitarian relief,” he says. “If anything we were there simply to build out the military infrastructure and support the contractors working for the military, not leaving much space for the humanity of the Iraqis or my fellow soldiers.” The war for Hughes had simply become a year and a half of the dehumanization of the Iraqis, “of pointing my weapon at them and telling them to get the fuck away from my truck” – completely counter to the humanitarianism that he imagined had brought him to Iraq in the first place.