Mightier Than the Sword

Bill Mauldins enduring war cartoons

You do not know where life will lead you.

At age 5, before I could read most of the words, and certainly long before I could appreciate their context, I fell in love with the World War II cartoons of Bill Mauldin. Kids are fascinated by war, and there was war like I never saw it on TV, with dogfaces more disheveled than they appeared in movies, griping about everything, lobbing tomatoes at their superior officers during a victory parade, and stalking an equally hangdog German adversary who was carrying a bottle of hooch, prompting one GI to whisper to the other, "Don't startle 'im, Joe. It's almost full."

I still have the book of Mauldin's cartoons and wartime experiences—Up Front, published before the war ended in 1945—and it still strikes me as one of the most deeply human books of the past century, wherein Mauldin's haggard dogface protagonists, Willie and Joe, stand in for the Everyman who is thrust into a war that's not of his making. One cartoon bears a news item caption: "Fresh, spirited American troops, flushed with victory, are bringing in thousands of hungry, ragged, battle-weary prisoners." In Mauldin's accompanying drawing, the crumpled-looking victors are barely distinguishable from their prisoners as they slog beside one another through the rain and mud, asleep on their feet.

Hollywood has changed since I was a kid, where showing the more realistic, human side of war is now commonplace. But Mauldin's cartoons were not only drawn during the thick of the war, when American newspapers and movie screens were full of rah-rah patriotism, but they were also drawn for the Army's official newspaper, the Stars and Stripes. That was one of the significant things distinguishing us from our adversaries in that war. There's no way a "master race" military publication was going to show soldiers as everyday guys who had more regard for a dry pair of socks than they did their commanding officers. But enlisted infantryman Mauldin and his uniquely American irreverence appeared in every week's Army paper, letting the scared, brave shipping clerks, farm boys and autoworkers who were sandwiched between the mud and the machine-gun fire know that someone understood them and their circumstances.

No less a figure than General George S. Patton tried to make Mauldin temper his cartoons, but he wouldn't back down, and that's one of the few battles Patton lost.

You don't know where life will lead you, and Mauldin, a baby-faced kid from New Mexico with a penchant for drawing, doubtless never imagined himself finding the pluck to stand up to Old Blood and Guts as the voice of dogfaces everywhere.

I don't know what kind of mail Patton got, but Mauldin is presently getting hundreds of letters per week from strangers who love him dearly. And this I know only because I had no idea at age 5, copying Mauldin's cartoons on tracing paper, that 42 years later, I'd be reading these letters from people I'd never met to a man I didn't know.

I thought Mauldin had passed away years ago, and the World War II-aged fans of his I knew had assumed so as well. But in July, The Orange County Register's Gordon Dillow wrote the first of several moving articles about Mauldin, who, it turned out, was alive, 80 and in a Newport Beach nursing home, suffering from Alzheimer's, speechless and in need of company.

I can only afford one mainstream paper to be honked-off at and take the Times, so I didn't hear about Mauldin until friends in Chicago mentioned recently that the Register's stories had sparked pieces about Mauldin in the Chicago Tribune. (My friends thought it was further proof of the Times OC's inconsequentiality that the Tribune, which owns the Times, was citing the Register, and that's probably true, though the Timesdid eventually follow with a splendid Mauldin story of its own).

Thanks to Dillow, thousands of people have been writing to Mauldin, and hundreds have visited him. Before I learned how ill he was, my first thought was that there are few people alive I would rather interview. But communication sadly is a one-way street with him now, if that.

Sitting by Mauldin's bedside talking to him, I had to wonder if he hears it all, way in there, or if maybe he's already in a better place and words are just warm mush in his ears. If you've sat with family members through their last days, you know how it is, and you also know how such particulars scarcely matter. The only thing you really need to carry out of this life is the knowledge that you're loved, and I feel certain that's getting through to Mauldin. Folks at the nursing home say he does brighten when all the vets come in with their stories. And, unlike me, who gets to pat myself on the head in print for it, they're doing it just because it's the right and thankless thing to do.

Thankless isn't quite the term because they get to do the thanking. I'm glad I got a chance to, since a large part of whatever small good I might be at mixing humor, ethics and life in print comes from Mauldin being such an influence on me as a kid. It took almost no time to tell him that, and lacking any old war stories, I didn't have much else to say. He has been getting far more mail than people have time to read to him, so I read through a pile of that for him.

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