The Goya of the Infantry
Cartoonist Bill Mauldin won a Pulitzer and made General Patton furious but today is unknown.
The caption reads, Fresh, spirited American troops, flushed with victory, are bringing in thousands of hungry, ragged, battle-weary prisoners. The picture shows the rain beating down, the mud beneath the boots, the G.I. barely able to walk. Victors and vanquished are equally hungry, ragged, and battle-weary.
Bill Mauldin’s World War II cartoons showed the American infantryman’s war: muck, flying bullets, exhaustion, pompous fools of officers. Infantrymen loved them, then the American public. They’ve never entirely disappeared from memory, although now most Americans only know Willie and Joe, Mauldin’s iconic protagonists, from the affectionate references in Peanuts. Charles Schultz, quondam dogface, honored Mauldin in his work for decades.
Mauldin was an 18-year-old boy from New Mexico when he enlisted in the 45th Infantry Division in 1940. The 45th was mostly Oklahomans; Willie was based on a Choctaw sergeant. Mauldin cartooned first for the 45th Division News and then for Stars and Stripes. He published the collection Up Front in 1945 and it became a best-seller and won a Pulitzer. His postwar career was less distinguished. His leftwing politics reduced both his appeal and his artistry.
Wartime brought out Mauldin’s genius—the 45th Division’s war, in Italy and then through France and Germany. He’s best at the black humor of combat. Soldiers scramble up a near-vertical rocky mountain, and the leader, with fire incoming, shouts down, Hit th’ dirt, boys! Willie and Joe huddle in a foxhole, underneath an oblivious German tank, and Willie tells the guy on the other end of the field telephone, Able Fox Five to Able Fox. I got a target, but ya gotta be patient.
When they’re not under fire, they’re under rain: Now that ya mention it, Willie contemplatively as the drops bounce off his helmet, it does sound like th’ patter of rain on a tin roof. There’s not much shelter from a storm, in a world of flat mud and puddles and rain and one scrubby excuse for a tree: This damn tree leaks. Greater love hath no soldier than to bring temporary comfort to his sodden buddy: Joe, yestiddy ya saved my life an’ I swore I’d pay ya back. Here’s my last pair o’ dry socks.
It’s not Jack Kirby’s Captain America socking Hitler in the jaw. It isn’t Captain Marvel leading America’s fighting men into battle, or Robin shaking the hand of a soldier. Those were comics for the boys at home, not for the men at war.
Mauldin draws bold and spare, captures the exact moment that illuminates the situation, and provides just enough expression on the soldiers’ faces for the readers to know how they feel. Willie looks at the one pane of glass that hasn’t been destroyed in a window frame, in the ruins of a house, with a longing for completeness devoid of malice. Joe reassures him: Go ahead, Willie. If ya don’t bust it ya’ll worry about it all night.
Who drew like Mauldin? The single-panel cartoon with the gag caption is New Yorker material, so maybe you can compare him to Charles Addams. Some of the starkness is Rockwell Kent, or the abstracted landscapes of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration series is unexpectedly parallel, with its abstracted figures complemented by captions—a comic strip camouflaged as tempera paintings.
But where Mauldin came from—that doesn’t matter as much as his audience. Mauldin drew for his fellow soldiers. The audience made his cartoons like no others in the world.
Mauldin drew for soldiers fresh from the world of Hollywood and blockbuster novels. Willie and Joe, bullets flying as they stand outside a Banco del Popolo, know it’s the shoot-out scene from a Cagney crime flick: This must look awful suspicious. A soldier on a horse bringing in a bunch of prisoners warbles a cowboy song: I’m headin’ fer th’ la-a-ast round-up! Writing a letter at night, by a thick book almost punctured by a shell: Dear, Dear Miss Mitchell, You will probably think this is an awful funny letter to get from a soldier, but I was carrying your big book, “Gone with the Wind,” under my shirt, and a— The Willies and Joes reading Mauldin got the jokes, because they’d gone straight from a last night at the movies to their first day in basic training.
Mauldin drew for soldiers who knew they weren’t always nice. Willie and Joe don’t scruple about getting fresh food: I could of swore a couple of krauts wuz usin’ that cow for cover, Joe. Go wake up th’ cooks. Some fire on their own officers, when they’re stupid enough to light cigarettes at night: You’re not on the job, sentry—a sniper almost got me. Mauldin’s readers knew they’d fragged a few lieutenants between Sicily and the Alps.
Mauldin’s soldiers don’t know everything about the countries they were fighting in. They know that they are richer than the ragged Italian children who flock to them, and that sometimes a mother by the road wants to bring her child to her breast: Feed it, lady. Nobody’s lookin’. They know their Army has wrought destruction and that the locals aren’t happy: Don’t look at me, lady. I didn’t do it. They know how alien and dangerous they seem to the people they fight among: We oughta tell ’em the whole Army don’t look like us, Joe.
The Willies and Joes learn a bit about the soldiers they fight with. A British soldier says, You blokes leave an awfully messy battlefield. The curiosity, under fire, is often practical: Know any good Moslem prayers? I don’t wanna miss any bets. They don’t necessarily learn all that much: You Irish woulda lost this war without allies like Texas and Russia.
They learn a bit about the soldiers they fight against. Sometimes the Germans are friendly, like the soldier who has no objections as the Americans take wine für Offiziere: Nein, nein—go ahead! I vould not think of interfering. A German prisoner, counting his money, is grossly happy with his good fortune: Luger, $100 … camera, $150 … Iron Cross, $12 … it is good to be captured by Americans. Other Germans are by far too disciplined: Tell them prisoners to act sloppier in front of th’ lootenant. He might start gittin’ ideas. At the end of the day, the Germans keep fighting, even in the ruins of their towns: I don’t think th’ krauts like bein’ liberated.
Willie and Joe learn the most about every man on their own side who is doing his best to get them killed. There’s the medic who stands up to light a cigarette and says, sublimely fatuous, It’s okay, Joe. I’m a non-combatant. There’s the man in the tank who blithely informs the infantry that, We’ll go away an’ stop botherin’ you boys now. Jerry’s got our range. There’s the officer who uses cant to order men to their death: Must be a tough objective. Th’ ol’ man says we’re gonna have th’ honor of liberatin’ it. There’s the sergeant who leavens his cant with honest self-interest: I need a couple of guys what don’t owe me no money fer a little routine patrol. With friends like that, who needs enemies?
Mauldin’s soldier audience didn’t want to read about shellshock, or getting wounded, or dying. It’s civilians who want those stories where the soldier dies to make a literary point—the sort of person who reads Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and thinks it’s so brave and powerful. Mauldin’s readers knew any of them could end up like Bob Dole, lucky if he wasn’t blown to bits by a German shell in the Apennines but survived with his arm shriveled for life. Mauldin knew, Willie and Joe knew, that you could die easy in this war: I feel like a fugitive from th’ law of averages.
It’s astonishing that the Army let his bleak, sardonic cartoons appear in their newspapers during wartime, for soldiers to read at Anzio and along the Normandy hedgerows and amid the rubble of the Third Reich. Granted, the staff of Stars and Stripes was pretty pink—including Mauldin. Yet captains and colonels let Mauldin make a name for himself, even as he satirized officers’ self-importance and stupidity. Patton didn’t take kindly to Mauldin’s mockery of him as a martinet, but Eisenhower himself overruled Patton’s attempt to squelch Mauldin.
The Army knew Mauldin was good for soldiers’ morale, say some. Others say the Army used Mauldin to tell the American public it would need their support through a long, hard war. Those explanations aren’t enough. What other army allowed so grim a cartoonist freedom to publish in its own newspaper? What other nation’s generals thought their soldiers’ morale was best served by a Mauldin? America was different. Its soldiers wanted Mauldin and its officers gave him the green light.
They came from the old America, the America that scarcely had an army until 1940, where all the millions of civilians suddenly drafted into the army just didn’t think it was natural to defer to officers or follow their rules. Willie and Joe, all Mauldin’s soldiers, never give their assent to a soldier’s life. They never love the Army, and in the end, they go home without a backward glance—Next question: Do you wish to remain in the army? It says here I gotta ask.
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A later generation of leftists hated America, its army, and its soldiers all at once. They looked at the officers and they saw Nathan Jessup and they looked at the soldiers and they saw Travis Bickle. Bill Mauldin didn’t cartoon that way. Willie and Joe don’t have much time for the martinets, the boasters, and the boosters—but they just refuse to let their souls be enlisted along with their bodies, and they endure until they can return to a normal life back home. Willie and Joe were normal Americans of 1940, brought into the Army to do a necessary but a horrible job. America’s officers still respected their citizens enough not to ask them to pretend to like what they were doing. Our army and our government, after all, were still made up of normal Americans as well.
That was a long time ago—almost beyond living memory. We have had a permanent, swollen army almost since Willie and Joe went home, and an ever-swelling government, and elites grown so distant from normal Americans they can barely even pretend they can stand them. When we look back to Willie and Joe—it’s not the tramping in the mud of Italy we should remember, but their refusal to give their assent to the insane life their government and their would-be superiors had foisted on them. That refusal was the heart of the Old America, the heart we should make our own.
Oh, and Mauldin’s cartoons are beautiful—stark, rough, concisely expressive, evocative of the miserable victorious war so many Americans had to fight. The masterstrokes of the dogface Goya should illustrate every history of Americans at war: hungry, ragged, battle-weary, and ready to go home.