Mightier Than the Sword

Bill Mauldins enduring war cartoons

Fifty-eight years ago, he doubtless never envisioned his cartoons having such an abiding effect on people: old soldiers recounting how his drawings and observations "saved my soul in that war," "kept my humanity alive" or just gave them the only laughs they found amid the blood and frostbite. There were letters from war widows thanking him for making their dead husbands' lives a little brighter before they were killed. There were letters from old men recounting their war experiences at length because they had no one else to tell them to.

And there were letters appreciative of Mauldin's postwar battles. When he returned to civilian life with a Pulitzer Prize and universal acclaim, papers were anxious to print his observations on American life until they found they had a principled gadfly on their hands. He didn't have to do too many cartoons targeting racism, Joe McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee and such before papers started dropping his work. While always pro-soldier, Mauldin became anti-war as only a person who has seen war can: one cartoon pre our involvement in Korea shows two rich old men at their club in comfortable leather armchairs, with one proclaiming, "I say it's war, Throckmorton, and I say let's fight."

Mauldin persevered and became one of our most respected political cartoonists, garnering a second Pulitzer. For many people, the symbol of America's grief after JFK was assassinated was Mauldin's simple poignant cartoon showing Lincoln's statue weeping. He kept working up through the 1980s, never losing his insight or humor.

He supported George McGovern and other lost causes, but I don't know if he would have wanted to be called a leftie. He once summed up his political beliefs thus: "I'm against oppression by whomever."

I think about that when I ponder the hate-flecked cartoons of the Times' Michael Ramirez, who unflinchingly sides with entrenched power. When the last tree falls to the timber company's axe and the last squirrel is running for cover, Ramirez will likely be there taking pot shots at it.

I would love to know what Mauldin would make of our nation's current challenges. But I don't know and wouldn't presume. He has seen enough of war, from Anzio to covering our first tangle with Iraq, and I hope it is the farthest thing from his mind now.

I'll likely go back and read him some more letters. If your life has been touched by Mauldin's work, I'd recommend you do the same. (You can write to him or see about visiting via the Register's Dillow, who has been doing an earnest job of it. Try gldillow@aol.com, or write via The Dreaded Register, 625 N. Grand Ave., Santa Ana, CA 92701.)

If you're at all like me, I'd recommend visiting Mauldin alone because I cry watching Jerry Lewis telethons and was tearing up like an idiot while reading these letters aloud. If not Mauldin, I hope you're thanking someone because it's a sorry-assed life you're leading if you're not grateful to someone for it, and in this world today, you never know how many chances you'll have to let them know.

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