The night before the U.S. Army invaded Iraq in 2003, James O'Neill listened to American rockets rip through the sky.
If he had any illusions about what was going to happen, they were dispelled at that moment.
"They're not messing around," he remembers thinking.
That feeling only intensified the next morning, when he and other soldiers headed through breach lanes that had been blasted through Iraqi mine fields.
"I was thinking, a whole lot of people are going to die," O'Neill said.
At that point, he also asked himself a question: "What the hell am I doing here? I wanted to go to art school."
O'Neill, who grew up in Hingham and studied art at the University of Hartford before joining the Army, vowed that if he made it home alive, he would rededicate his life to making art.
"What I did not know then was that Iraq would come home with me," he wrote later in an artist's statement.
Indeed, the war in Iraq is the sole subject of the prints and drawings in an exhibit opening next week at Salem State University. It is O'Neill's second solo show since graduating last spring from the graduate program at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
The images are murky nightmares of body bags and dead camels, at once hard to make out and intensely disturbing.
They record things he saw on the shore of the Tigris River while serving on a 22-foot patrol boat, duty that was performed exclusively at night.
"It's one big toilet," O'Neill said of the river, where the dead bodies mingled with raw sewage.
The Army had trained him as a bridge engineer, and when he first went in, O'Neill expected to rebuild bridges the Iraqis would blow up while retreating. But that never happened, and instead he was sent out on the river to provide a show of force around one of Saddam Hussein's palaces, which now served as an Army headquarters.
As powerful as the images are, it took O'Neill years after returning from the war to get a grip on his subject matter.
The impetus came when he had to prepare a master's thesis for graduation, a threshold much less threatening to cross than the border between Iraq and Kuwait, but just as important for the development of his career.
O'Neill, who is now 41, felt conspicuous at the school as an older student, but also self-conscious about his preference for working as a figurative artist. Where most other students worked in conceptual modes, he depicted the world as he saw it through his eyes.
"Oh my God, what am I supposed to do?" he thought. "I just like to draw the figure. That's not going to cut it."
Once it had occurred to him to portray experiences from Iraq, O'Neill felt he needed guidance on approaching this subject and searched through art history for inspiration.
He looked at a series of prints called "Miseries of War" by Jacques Callot, a Frenchman working in the 17th century, and at prints by Francisco Goya that depicted atrocities during the Napoleonic wars of the 19th century.
O'Neill also examined work by Otto Dix, a German who portrayed the horrors of World War I.
"When I was looking at these old print masters, I was struggling with, what am I trying to say?" he said.
But it was in "talking shop" about military experience with one of his teachers at the museum school, a man who had served in the Vietnam War, that O'Neill discovered what he had to do.
His teacher's war experiences were very different from O'Neill's.
"He would go out with the Vietnamese forces and come back once a month to report. One day, he said, 'You know, Jim, it was a very lonely war.' That totally blew me away," O'Neill said. "Given his experience, that made sense."
O'Neill needed to grasp his own, unique experience of war in a way that made sense to him.
That process is on display in this exhibit, where he experiments with different approaches. Monotype prints build up layers of diluted color to capture a desert landscape as it appears through night-vision goggles.
The drawings, which O'Neill said he has come to prefer, are made with compressed charcoal that gives him "a much richer black." Their dim light and scenes of decay recall his patrols on the Tigris, while also suggesting the distortions of memory.
Perhaps the most important thing O'Neill has discovered with this show is that he plans to continue working in the same vein.
"I think this is going to take a few years," he said. "It's taking a lot longer than I originally thought. This is what I will be doing for the foreseeable future."
THE WAR IN IRAQ
What: Prints and drawings by James O'Neill
Where: Winfisky Gallery, Ellison Campus Center, Salem State University
When: Feb. 21 through March 29. Open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., or by appointment.
Artist's reception: Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2 p.m.
More information: 978-542-7890 or salemstate.edu/arts