James John Magner’s book, “A Haunting Beauty: Vietnam Through the Eyes of an Artist,” examines the Vietnam War through, at times, conflicting view- points: that of an artist and thatof a soldier.
“These stories comprise the images registered on one optic nerve but interpreted in two separate ways — by the artist and the soldier,” writes Magner in the forward to the book. “They take place in a fantastic time, in a small world of wonderful characters and in-credible beauty.”
It took Magner more than 45 years and many life changes before he was ready to write his book.
Magner was born in Chicago, Ill. on April 18, 1943.
“I was born in an Irish neighborhood on the south side where you had to fight to get across the street,” said Magner. “I was drawn to art. I was fascinated by color and words but mostly color. I remember standing at an oil slick at a gas station at age 5. Oil slicks always fascinated me. They still do. Just watching the colors move.”
His family moved to Tucson in 1949. He attended the University of Arizona in 1964 and majored in art. He said he did a lot of painting, mostly watercolors and oils. At the same time, he was in ROTC.
“When you went to university in the ’60s, you had to take ROTC, it was mandatory,” said Magner. “The draft was on. If you stayed in ROTC and became an officer you could at least become an officer, you had some more control over the situation. As an artist I didn’t know if I’d have any job after college. I went ahead and tried for the commission. I think I had a personality that was somewhat adventurous and I wanted to be involved in where the action was, and that’s one reason why I went to Vietnam. I couldn’t imagine my generation going off to war and me not being with them.”
MAGNER WAS A PLATOON LEADER in the First Infantry Division from 1966-1967. He said he chose this position because he “couldn’t see any point of going to Vietnam just to shuffle papers. If you’re going to have an experience as a combat officer or an artist you have to get out there and see the countryside.”
“As a platoon leader, your every moment really is geared towards keeping everyone alive,” said Magner. “You’ve got 30-40 people whose lives depend on you and you have to convince them that you know what you’re doing. You have to convince them that you’re not going to tell them to do something that you wouldn’t do personally. There’s a lot of ‘follow me’ mentality. Every once in a while you have to be the first one to cross the river. The people in your platoon are not fools. You have to prove to them that you know what you’re doing.”
Magner received a Purple Heart for taking a bullet through the side during a battle near the Cambodian border in 1966 and a Bronze Star for valor.
He said it was a “continuous conflict between the two personas” of artist and soldier.
“You try to not get in each other’s way but sometimes you can’t help it. You’re in the same place at the same time and you have to use the same eyeballs,” said Magner. “It’s a matter of working out the balance between the two. If you’re in the middle of the battle you can’t spend a whole lot of time looking at the trees and the smoke and the sky. You have to try to stay alive.”
After the war, Magner held a number of jobs. First, he moved to Kansas City and worked at Hallmark Cards. Then he moved back to Tucson and taught emotionally disabled boys. He got his master’s degree in special education from the University of Arizona in 1972. He began a doctorate but never finished it.
Next, Magner got involved in local politics. He began working for Dennis DeConcini. When DeConcini won a bid for a Senate seat in 1977, Magner moved to Washington, D.C., to be his legislative assistant.
He moved to Burke, where he has lived for the past 35 years.
“I love Burke but the whole northern Virginia area is becoming so congested,” said Magner. “When we moved here 35 years ago, we were surrounded by woods, now we’re surrounded by SUVs.”
In 2002, he started writing a column about art for the Hill Rag on Capitol Hill. He does profiles of artists and a piece called Jim Magner’s Thoughts on Art.
“There’s a lot of great art in the D.C. area,” said Magner. “You wouldn’t know it from all the politics.”
He said writing his column has really helped him find his voice in writing.
THROUGHOUT HIS LIFE, he has continued to paint.
In 2006, Magner went to a writing workshop in Maine and brought some of his stories about Vietnam.
He said he had started writing his memories down because, “I wanted my kids to get a fairly realistic view of my time over there. I basically wanted to write some things down. I had no intention of writing a book, I just wanted to leave something for my kids and grandkids.”
The leader of the workshop in Maine encouraged him to write a book. At first, the memories were just stand-alone stories. He showed them to his girlfriend, Karen Whaley.
“I started reading the stories and I realized they could be tied together and made into a book,” said Whaley. “It was a story about a person and an experience not just a collection of stories.”
Magner said the book is about two things: “The first is a story of complex people who are thrown together and how they depend on each other and how they interact in a rather fantastic time — the ’60s — in an amazing place — the jungles of Vietnam. And the other thing is how art reflects life—the connection between beauty and the environment.”
About waiting decades to write the book, he said, “It wasn’t a deliberate decision to wait 45 years. But I’m glad I did because as details fade, the whole picture/perspective becomes clearer. As you get older you get a better sense of what it was about. And I don’t think I could’ve written this book 45 years ago.”
Whaley said, “He’s a tremendous writer. It’s kind of fascinating to read the two different personalities: the artist who really loves the beauty of the country and the soldier that had to go over there and fight. And it’s kind of the way he is as a person: he’s got a beautiful side but he’s got a lot of strength. You’re horrified by the war but he breaks it up with this laughter. It’s wonderful to read. I just think everybody should read it. It’s such a different take on the Vietnam War. You see movies and read books and it’s all about the horror. It has a different tone. This is about the experience of the soul of someone who was over there.”
In the future, he says he has a lot of books and paintings swimming around his head looking for a way out.
Magner has five children who all went to Lake Braddock High School and 13 grandchildren.
His book is self-published. It can be found on amazon.com or at ahauntingbeauty.com.