American official war artists have been part of the American military since 1917. Artists are unlike the objective camera lens which records only a single instant and no more. The war artist captures instantaneous action and conflates earlier moments of the same scene within one compelling image.
"We're not here to do poster art or recruiting posters... What we are sent to do is to go to the experience, see what is really there and document it—as artists."
In 1941, the Navy Combat Art Program was founded in order to ensure that competent artists would be present at the scene of history-making events. Eight active duty artists developed a record of all phases of World War II; and all major naval operations have been depicted by Navy artists. During the Korean War, the program was revived with two military artists in combat contexts. Since then, artists have been sent to other combat zones, including the Persian Gulf.
The U.S. Army War Art Unit was established in late 1942; and by the spring of 1943, 42 artists were selected. In May 1943, Congress withdrew funding the unit was inactivated.
The Army's Vietnam Combat Art Program was started in 1966. Teams of soldier-artists created pictorial accounts and interpretations for the annals of army military history. These teams of five soldier-artists typically spent 60 days of temporary duty (TDY) in Vietnam embedded with various units. The U. S. Army Center of Military History (CMH) currently includes an Army Art Collection with about 40 representative war artists.
There are significant differences in the artwork created by the branches of the U.S. military:
""When you go over to the Air Force, the art is all airplanes. In the Navy, it's all ships. Army art tends to be more about the battle, and the Army loves trucks. They're fixated on vehicles. But the Marine Corps is fixated on Marines."
- — Anita Blair, chief strategist at the National Security Professional Development Integration Office.
Military art and the work of American military artists includes both peacetime and wartime. For example, USMC combat artist Kristopher Battles deployed with American forces in Haiti to provide humanitarian relief as part of Operation Unified Response after the disastrous earthquake in 2010.