Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front
By Todd DePastino
Norton, 370 pages, $27.95
In 1945 Gen. George Patton threatened to ban the U.S. Armed Forces newspaper, The Stars and Stripes, from his 3rd Army ranks if it did not stop carrying cartoonist Bill Mauldin's "scurrilous attempts to undermine military discipline." Of course, the more perceptive in the high command recognized that far from inviting insubordination, Mauldin's cartoons of slovenly and cynical soldiers actually " 'might be preventing it by blowing off a little steam,' " as Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. put it.
In fact, Todd DePastino's new biography, "Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front," tells the unlikely story of how this preternaturally boyish cartoonist joined the infantry at age 19 and left the service at the end of World War II as "the most famous enlisted man in the United States Army." Mauldin's weapon of choice was the pen, not the rifle, and his target was the daily indignities endured by the ordinary frontline soldier. The American infantryman, Mauldin claimed, " 'gives more and gets less than anybody else' " in wartime.
Nowhere was this truer than on the forgotten front of Italy in 1943-44. In July 1943, Sgt. Bill Mauldin landed in Sicily with 180,000 other U.S. and Allied soldiers in one of the largest amphibious assaults in history. The bulk of DePastino's book considers Mauldin's harrowing (yet exhilarating) experiences as a staff member of the 45th Division News, and The Stars and Stripes, on the front lines of the Italian campaign, an operation that cost 114,000 dead and wounded American soldiers. The long, hard slog up the Italian peninsula revealed a profound gap between the frontline experience of the infantryman and the relative comfort and safety of rear-echelon troops and officers, who "were ignorant of the men's suffering or, worse, indifferent to it," DePastino writes. It was this gap that Mauldin's simple drawings and colloquial captions sought to bridge.
Mauldin's own infantry unit, the 45th Division, spent 40 days in continuous combat, much of it in rain and mud, losing 30 percent of its troop strength. If DePastino offers a somewhat unoriginal account of the grueling campaign, he superbly captures Mauldin's place in it and his uncanny ability to depict the experience of the ordinary soldier's filthy, unglamorous and perilous daily grind. As Mauldin's cartoons of the infantrymen Willie and Joe showed, "life up front stood in stark contrast to the official sanitized picture promoted by the War Department and the media back home." In "Star Bangled Banter" and "Up Front," his wartime strips drawn at the front for Army newspapers, Mauldin "represented the army as a fully realized social world" whose brutal ironies would be self-evident to its denizens. "It was Bill Mauldin's great talent," DePastino observes, "to transform the infantry's surly alienation and disaffection into the stuff of pride and respect." Mauldin's pervasive sympathy for the underdog, DePastino suggests, derived from his hardscrabble, working-class upbringing on the fringes of the American Southwest during the Depression. Born in 1921 in highland New Mexico and raised in rural poverty by a ne'er-do-well father and emotionally unstable mother, Mauldin left home as a teenager. Judging from his memoirs, Mauldin saw his father, a World War I veteran, as "a little man in constant battle against elements he could not control" while admiring his "pride, doggedness, and resourcefulness in the face of adversity."
These emerged as the qualities with which Mauldin endowed his most memorable creations, World War II dogfaces Willie and Joe. These indelible characters, a decidedly less glamorous voice of the greatest generation, spoke for the ordinary soldier in Mauldin's best known work, "Up Front," his best-selling book of wartime cartoons published in 1945. (For readers not sated by the many fine illustrations in DePastino's book, Fantagraphics is scheduled to release this month a two-volume collection of Mauldin's Willie and Joe cartoons, edited by DePastino).
Although DePastino never fully acknowledges it, Mauldin's war years were the high point of his career. Like so many returning soldiers, Mauldin had trouble adjusting to home-front routines and domestic life after years of wartime service, and his marriage soon collapsed. In his drawings, Willie "went from being a grizzled GI, alienated by war, to a clean-shaven family man, struggling to retain autonomy and independence," DePastino notes.
Mauldin soon channeled his frustration, compounded by his own sense of guilt at "reducing the men of the front to a sort of patriotic commodity," into overt political statements, decrying the violation of the ideals--"'a world free from hate, prejudice, force, and intolerance'"--for which the war had been fought. Soon his controversial attacks on anti-communist politicians and his critiques of segregation reduced his marketability and attracted the unwanted attention of the FBI. He rapidly became disillusioned with the left's own shibboleths as well.
Despite a few memorable cartoons mocking opposition to the civil rights movement and some dabbling in the counterculture, Mauldin's work never fully recaptured the youthful exuberance, deft anti-authoritarianism and sardonic humor of his Pulitzer Prize-winning World War II drawings. Yet unlike so many of his "Good War" generation, he never succumbed to nostalgia or the temptation to romanticize the grim face of war. In the end, perhaps World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle summed up Mauldin's peculiar genius best. His cartoons, Pyle wrote, "'are about ... the tiny percentage of our vast army who are actually up there in that other world doing the dying.'"Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun