Monday, May 29, 2017

Candid biography of cartoonist Mauldin shines light on worst of war


        No fallen soldier actually benefits from the empty platitudes that rise from a million Facebook pages on Memorial Day. The fulsome and generic praise that passes for "honor"—and I've been guilty of it myself in the past and no doubt will again in the future—seems more designed to make the speaker feel a warm bubble of self-satisfied civilian complacency than to reflect the actual miseries and horror of service; "sacrifice" is too glittery and false a word. 
      This column was actually a book review, but I think it touches upon the reality we are whitewashing today with our lip-service. It ran when the column took up a full page, and I've left in the sub-headlines and the joke at the end.


     The youngest soldiers who served in the Second World War are in their late 70s now, and an estimated thousand American World War II vets die every day. They are sent off in a blast of "Greatest Generation" tribute, patriotism and nostalgia, which is only fitting, on a personal level, though it does get a bit cloying and of course is a gross simplification of what actually happened.
     Thus it is a refreshing tonic to read Todd DePastino's new biography, Bill MauldinA Life Up Front, which, like its subject, picks candor over mythologizing.    
     Mauldin was a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, famous for creating the Willie and Joe characters in World War II -- unshaven, exhausted foot soldiers yearning, not for glory, but for dry socks and a hot shower. Mauldin was on the staff of this paper for 30 years, and died five years ago this month.
     While he is best-known for his World War II work -- and the grieving Lincoln statue he drew the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated -- Mauldin continued, for decades after V-J Day, to provide a refreshing counterpoint to the tendency of people -- particularly military men -- to rhapsodize their past heroics. During the Vietnam era, DePastino notes, Mauldin "reminded those who complained about draft evaders that during World War II, 'the draft board had to drag most of us, whimpering, out of the bushes.' "
     Some 400,000 American soldiers died in World War II, so of course their sacrifices -- and the sacrifices of those who survived -- should receive commemoration. So long as we also remember that the heroic tales we tell ourselves -- as usual -- are only the shiny surface of the story. There is more.



     During the last nine months of World War II, Todd DePastino tells us, more American soldiers fighting in Europe died of alcohol poisoning than of communicable disease. In Italy, 20,000 U.S. troops deserted their units -- one reason the military brass tolerated Bill Mauldin's syndicated blasphemy was because the truth was far worse, and they hoped that collapsing morale might be bolstered if the men could see a faint reflection of reality and laugh at it.
     Meanwhile, on the home front, a sizable chunk of the American public was eager to make peace with the Nazis and declare the whole thing a draw. Which is why the Allies had a ban on depicting dead soldiers, for the same reason George W. Bush tried to keep Americans from seeing flag-draped coffins, as an attempt to undercut demands for peace.
     "Such candor might increase sentiment for a negotiated peace with Germany, a position shared by nearly a third of Americans in mid-1942," DePastino writes.
     Since Mauldin specialized in presenting soldiers, not as the spit-and-polish warriors of home-front propaganda, but as mud-caked mopes seeing how flat they can press themselves to the ground, it's fitting that DePastino renders World War II, not as the heroic moment of moral clarity we prefer to remember, but as a terrifying ordeal where the good and bad guys could be hard to sort out. In this book, American soldiers rape and kill, driving around Morocco shooting Arabs for fun.
    "Some shot them for sport," DePastino writes, " 'like rabbits in the States during hunting season,' as one American explained in a letter home."
     Then there was Naples. DePastino calls the city under American military control "the largest black market in history" with stolen Allied supplies accounting for 65 percent of the city's per capita income.
     "Cargo pilferage in Naples attained levels unprecedented in the history of warfare," he writes. "Food, clothing, fuel, medicine, blankets, cigarettes, and vehicles disappeared in such large quantities that by December 1943, Allied infantry were receiving only two-thirds of the supplies earmarked for them."
     This was not brazenly done under American noses; rather, it was brazenly done with enthusiastic American help.
     Not to give the impression that the underside of the war is all that DePastino shows us. There are truly moving moments, such as Gen. Lucian Truscott's Memorial Day speech.
     "Before a crowd of Army luminaries and VIPs from the States, including several U.S. senators, General Truscott climbed onto the speaker's platform and turned his back on the audience; his address, he informed the crowd, was for those lying beneath the endless rows of graves in the sandy soil of the Anzio beachhead."
     And what did Truscott say?
     "He apologized to the men arrayed before him for sending them to their deaths. It was his fault, he said, and the fault of all those commanders who order men into battle. He had made mistakes, the general admitted, and those errors had cost lives."
     Truscott "promised that in the future if he ran into anybody, especially old men, who thought death in battle was glorious, he would straighten them out. He said he thought that was the least he could do."


     A Life Up Front is the first biography of Mauldin. It won't be in stores for a few weeks. Sorry for jumping the gun, but it's such a wonderful book, and I can only begin to describe how it captures Mauldin's complex, tragic, funny, fascinating personality. Some events almost defy belief, except that you can't make such things up. Mauldin, on his own from an early age, returns home at 17 to show off his new ROTC uniform to his alcoholic father. "He arrived at the old homestead to find Pop drunk and naked, wallowing in a bathtub filled with homemade beer," DePastino writes. " 'There he was,' Bill recalled with laughter decades later, 'pissing in the beer and then scooping some out for a drink.' "


     Bill Mauldin could make the most mundane matter into a joke. On the physical exam that admitted his scrawny, 110-pound self into the Arizona National Guard five days before it was federalized into the U.S. Army, Mauldin said:
     "They didn't really test our eyes, they sort of counted them."
                   —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 2, 2008


  1. A hearty dose of blasphemy indeed.


  2. The civilian tendency to sentimentalize and glorify war has, throughout history, had some pushback from real warriors. That soldier's soldier the Duke of Wellington said, "Next to a battle lost the greatest misery is a battle gained."

    The tendency became stronger in the Great War. Siegfried Sassoon wrote:

    "The Bishop tells us: 'When the boys come back home
    They will not be the same
    For they'll have fought
    In a just cause: they lead the last attack
    On Anti-Christ, their comrades
    Blood has bought
    New right to breed an honorable race
    They have challenged death and dared him face to face."

    "We're none of us the same!"
    the boys reply,
    For George lost both his legs
    And Bill's stone blind,
    Poor Jim's shot through the lungs
    and like to die
    And Bert's gone syphilitic
    You'll not find
    A chap who's served that hasn't
    found some change"
    And the Bishop said:
    "The ways of God are strange."



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