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Price of Victory

Who Am I? Exhibition

Published onAug 25, 2020
Price of Victory

Price of Victory, designed 1944, cast 2006
Christian Petersen (Danish – American, 1885–1961)
Foundry: Polich Art Works (Rock Tavern, New York)
Cast bronze, 1/9
Gift in memory of Bernard C. Schulte, World War II Veteran, and Sylvia Brockschink Schulte from your Iowa State University children and grandchildren: Florine Schulte Swanson and Ronald Swanson; Kendell Swanson and Vicki Van Roekel Swanson; Stuart Swanson and Lori Pickup Swanson; Steve Swanson and Denise Swanson, and Ben Schulte. In the Christian Petersen Art Collection, Christian Petersen Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University.

Interpretation 1

By 1944, Petersen must have been well enough acquainted with the losses caused by the war to produce a sculpture that is particularly moving in its immediacy. Although he gave it a metaphorical title – Price of Victory – the image is disturbingly real. Petersen depicts an American soldier at the moment of death, as he is struck by a bullet. With his body already sagging toward the earth. One arm is drawn to his chest while the other hangs by his side, unable now to break the fall which will come in the next instant…According to Petersen’s first biographer, the sculpture did affect those who saw it, for when it was shown in the Gold Star Hall of the Memorial Union after the war ended, college administrators were asked to take it off display. “The statue apparently has created too much grief for those who had seen it, particularly persons who had lost a loved one in combat.” Upon learning of the reaction, Petersen reportedly commented, “It is the greatest compliment ever paid to my work.”

Excerpt from Christian Petersen: Sculptor, 2000 by Lea Rosson DeLong.

Interpretation 2

I am a historian of war and society, so when I look at Christian Petersen’s Price of Victory, I see it through different lenses. On one hand, it is a text, a physical representation of the moment in which it was created. Knowing its historical context – what was happening when Petersen sculpted it, how he felt, how the people who saw it understood it – helps me make meaning of it.  On the other hand, it is a work of art. It always exists in its own present, well beyond the moment in which it was created. What has this dying man represented in the years of his existence? What does he tell us about ourselves, right here and right now?

As I write this, Parks Library is closed. I cannot go to the University Archives to search for answers. I cannot search back issues of the Iowa State Daily to learn about the sculpture’s 1944 reception. But I equally cannot disembody the soldier in front of me by uncoupling him from his time. Although clearly sculpted as an “every-soldier,” this soldier, dressed in American World War II kit, does not offer me any universal truths about war.

“But, why not?” you might ask. “Isn’t war hell, as they say? Isn’t this an image of the misery and suffering that always come from war?” 

“Well, yes,” I would respond. But it’s so much more complicated than that.

Based on my limited knowledge, Christian Petersen did not relish war, but neither was he a pacifist. He wanted viewers to understand the horrible, deadly cost of World War II so that they could judge for themselves whether its carnage was worth the price. But Petersen’s answer, sculpted into the “V” for victory shape of the soldier’s collar, hand, and legs, was “yes.” This is not an anti-war statue.

And yet, I very much see an anti-war message bubbling up through layers of history and memory. As a historian of America’s war in Vietnam, it is hard to see purpose in such suffering. Through the lens of that war, the sculpture represents the infinite cost of war rather than a painful but acceptable price of victory.

When Iowa State first displayed Price of Victory in 1944, it evoked too much pain. It reminded the campus community of what it had lost and what it had yet to lose. It was removed within 24 hours of its installation in the Memorial Union. People at the time could only bear their sacrifice if they weren’t reminded of the cost. When it was exhibited again during the Vietnam War, students cheered its presence. What they saw as the sculpture’s antiwar message was, in itself, a type of victory over an establishment that chose to fight an immoral war it could not win.

As I write this, we are in the 19th year of the Forever Wars. The National Guard has been deployed to our own streets in a very different type of war. I can’t help but wonder how our future selves will interpret the price of victory or what that victory looks like.

Dr. Amy Rutenberg
Assistant Professor, History


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