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Bill Mauldin: Icon of Irony

10.15.2008 | BOOKS

Bill Mauldin: A Life up Front
Todd DePastino
W.W. Norton, 2008

Bill Mauldin's work may have had as big an impact on Baby Boomers, especially boys, as it did on the enlisted men and women of World War II. For the post-war generation, it was likely to have come through exposure to his book, Up Front, named after his regular cartoon in Stars and Stripes. It chronicled the trials endured by, and indignities heaped on, two sleep-deprived G.I.s named Willie and Joe, who were perpetually steeped in both mud and ironic resignation.

The reactions of soldiers in the European theatre ranged from, "Somebody understands us" to "He's one of us." The next generation was more apt to respond, "Oh, this is what war is about." His work made a big dent in this ten-year-old's youthful illusions about war and soldiering. A boy is never too young to learn the truth about war.

Of course, Mauldin wasn't the first, but as Todd DePastino makes clear, few, if any, artists and authors before him did so with his sophisticated irony.

What makes Mauldin's sensibility especially noteworthy is that it wasn't the product of a liberal arts background, but a hardscrabble upbringing in Arizona. For those unfamiliar with Mauldin -- and there may be many because, oddly, DePastino's is the first biography of him -- he's a great American story. A runty, but scrappy, kid with a face like Puck, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps.

Young Bill, always drawing, actually sent away to a correspondence school he found in Popular Mechanics magazine. In those days, at least one of these schools was the real thing: It funneled young artists into a newspaper syndicate. Bill learned the basics and later apprenticed himself to other cartoonists. The first happened to have created the famous jack-a-lope postcard.

While still a teenager, he worked as an advertising illustrator and also painted signs and posters. When his parents split up, he moved by himself to Phoenix. Fortunately for him, the city boasted a top high school which both furthered his art education and introduced him to the military in the form of the ROTC.

Though Mauldin failed to graduate, he was able to study anatomy and formal drawing at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. It was then he launched an assault on the marketplace by working like a monk, and sending off wave after wave of his cartoons to magazines, to however scant success.

Mauldin joined the Arizona National Guard, and, despite his small size, adapted well to military life. Surrounded by Indians, he began to develop his lifelong sympathy for minorities. Meanwhile, he drew cartoons for the 45th Division News.

Kept stateside training throughout 1942, Mauldin continued to peddle his cartoons since and began to break into newspapers. He finally shipped out for the Allied invasion of North Africa as a representative the 45th Division News.

The Sicilian invasion was Mauldin's first exposure to the heart-stopping chaos of battle. After the bloody landing, during which he saw sights such as the bloody remains of Allied paratroopers hanging from olive trees, he claimed to have learned the "first practical lesson about war: nobody really knows what he's doing."

War as a Career Opportunity

In order to help keep the 45th Division News –- and his career – going, Mauldin sought out indigenous printing firms, or what remained of them, in Italy. Though he believed in what he was doing, he felt guilty that he wasn't serving as an infantryman. "I knew that nine out of ten guys getting killed out there," he said, "were also better at doing something else than getting killed."

When the Germans finally retreated, he rushed to produce a souvenir book of the Sicilian campaign. His primary motive was money, since he was now married and a father. But he also used the money to keep the 45th Division News functioning. One can't help but marvel, though, at how Mauldin was able to hold fast to his vision of an artistic career amongst the carnage.

Predictably, he ran afoul of General George Patton, commander of the Seventh Army, "a spit-and-polish man," DePastino writes, "who bristled as much at Bill's disheveled soldiers as at the subversive nature of the humor." But Mauldin also found angels, such as a division commander who believed his cartoons helped the enlisted men let off steam.

Still, Patton was about to can Mauldin when he got entangled in his famous scandal. For those unfamiliar with it, the general terrorized wounded privates he thought were malingering in sick bay. Still, Mauldin was finally forced to confront Patton, a scene that alone is worth the price of the book.

The US Army's slog up Italy to Rome was, of course, its bloodiest struggle with the Wehrmacht. Mauldin would spend four or five days at the front for "inspiration." Then he would return to Naples for an equal number of days of "perspiration." DePastino, who's a master of narrative flow, writes that, before Mauldin, "few have tried to turn the unremitting misery of primitive mountain warfare into something funny." He sums up:

"Underlying the humor was a glaring gap between civilized conventions, such as the use of of a toilet, and the line's animal existence, where men [often] defecated in their trenches. This life up front stood in stark contrast to the official sanitized picture promoted by the War Department and the media back home. . . . No mud, no shit, no fear."
"Though Mauldin depicted only a fraction of the real war, his fans in the foxholes read the truth between the brushstrokes and clipped caption lines."
Mauldin finally found a job with Stars and Stripes, the military's own organ; the peace-time liberals who ran his branch welcome him. Drawing for the entire American Fifth Army in Italy, he was "opening himself up both to greater rewards and harsher criticism."

To those on the front line, officers whose main concern was keeping their privileges out of hands of enlisted men became a huge source of resentment. Mauldin's cartoons during the late fall and winter of 1943 and 1944 "virtually dripped with insinuations and veiled meanings."

He especially clashed with the commander of military police in Naples who focused less on stopping the pilferage of 20,000 tons of supplies daily by crooked soldiers and starving Neapolitans than on keeping enlisted men out of the clubs, bars, theaters, and whorehouses to which access was only granted to command.

Willie and Joe Bring Both Enlisted Men and Mauldin Recognition

It wasn't until February 29, 1944 that Willie and Joe were born. DePastino writes that they "spoke in a pidgin of slum dialect and army slang close to the urban ethnic working-class origins shared by so many infantry soldiers in Italy. Such group traits were far more important to the cartoon than the idiosyncratic characters themselves." In fact, the "trauma of combat had blotted out personality, reducing men to laconic survivors."

Mauldin's credibility was further enhanced with the troops by a Purple Heart he was awarded for a minor wound. Meanwhile, his career was boosted by an article on him by Ernie Pyle and, surprisingly, the support of Eleanor Roosevelt. By the end of January 1944, book, magazine and newspaper offers were pouring into Stars and Stripes and he secured a contract for Up Front. After it was published, the New York Times reviewer wrote "Mauldin has told more people what the soldier really thinks about war than all our living poets."

In fact, on May 9, 1945, one day after Allied victory in Europe, Mauldin learned that he'd been awarded the Pulitzer for distinguished service as a cartoonist. For the Army's part, the Allied high command in Italy awarded him the Legion of Merit. Still, he remained conflicted.

"Bill instinctively withdrew as the accolades piled up around him. … Instead of satisfaction, he often felt bitterness toward the vile war that had catapulted him to fame. The feeling went beyond survivor's guilt [to the modicum of censoring he was forced to do]. His self-censored cartoons had degraded the traumas of combat, making its horrors palatable for mass consumption and, at worst, reducing the men of the front to a sort of patriotic commodity."

Though at 25 he looked 18, Mauldin was one of America's most famous veterans. Up Front spent 19 weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list. Back in Los Angeles with wife and son, he cartooned about his return to domesticity. His son characterized his work during that period as "'Willie and Joe' meets 'Familly Circus'." However, his marriage broke up since his wife and he had cheated on each other while he was overseas.

Soon, his political consciousness emerged full-blown with a pronounced leftward tilt not commonly seen in those who came from nothing. A former colleague on Stars and Stripes said Bill was apolitical until late in the war. He "knew nothing about politics. . . but he kept his eyes and ears open." DePastino writes:
"He spoke out for public housing and price controls, for labor unions [and] denounced racial segregation [and] the belligerent nationalism which, he believed, would only lead to another world war. But most of all. . . Bill attacked the purveyors of a malignant anti-Communism –- the new Red Scare -- which threatened. . . the very civil liberties men had fought for."
Mauldin continued with his cartoons, columns, and books, though when Russia became certifiably totalitarian, he edged away from the left. A 1958 move to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch saw his work regain its edginess -- and win a second Pulitzer Prize. In 1962 he accepted a better offer from the Chicago Sun-Times.

The day President Kennedy was shot, Mauldin rushed off his "single most memorable cartoon," DePastino writes, "indeed, perhaps the most powerful editorial cartoon of the twentieth century." It, of course, depicted Abraham Lincoln, seated in his monument, with his head in his hands.

In 1965 Mauldin was reporting from Vietnam when the first major assault on American ground forces occurred in Pleiku. Seeing American troops attacked again, he turned hawkish. That didn't last long. DePastino explains:

"If Pleiku represented the apex of Bill's swing to the right, then the Chicago Democratic National Convention in August 1968 completed his return to the left. Of [Chicago Mayor Richard] Daly he said 'I figured that if that son of a bitch is on the right, then I wanna be on the left.'"
Mauldin even grew his hair long, learned to enjoy Zap Comix, and made a young blonde his third wife (his second died in a car accident). But, aging, he cut back on his work and donated papers and cartoons to the Library of Congress. Still, he made it to Iraq before Desert Storm.

Unlike Vietnam, this experience engendered no regression into right ward. "I most emphatically do not approve of this one," he said. Two weeks before the bombing campaign began, he retired from the Sun Times.

When he became disabled with Alzheimer's disease, newspapers and veteran organizations began a campaign to encourage World War II veterans to visit him. They rose to the occasion and though he'd lost the ability to respond, he received a steady stream of visitors.

Today it's hard to imagine a figure like Mauldin, who, despite his left-leaning views, was held in high regard by the American Legion crowd. Todd DePastino does as much justice to Bill Mauldin as he did to the enlisted men of World War II.

About the Author
Russ Wellen is an editor at Freezerbox who specializes in foreign affairs and nuclear deproliferation.
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