Up Front. By Bill Mauldin. Henry Holt and Company. $3.00.
At the age of twenty-three or so, Sergeant Bill Mauldin finds himself the outstanding American cartoonist produced by the war. He is a best-seller and winner of a Pulitzer prize. But readers of his book (it has a text as well as pictures) will doubt that he can be spoiled by early success. He has probably seen too much war to be spoiled in that sense ever again. Books combining pictures and prose by the same author are often a gamble, but this one is a rare feat: we have here not only the wonderful drawings with which Mauldin made his fame but a singularly able commentary on how the drawings were conceived and on the war itself, on war itself. You will recognize many of the drawings, including the most celebrated (“Fresh, spirited American troops, flushed with victory, are bringing in thousands of hungry, ragged, battle-weary prisoners . . .”) but there are others which, even now, can be properly appreciated only by combat soldiers. Mauldin has expressed their world in their own terms. It is natural that only people who have been close to combat, and for a considerable length of time, will fully understand the ironies peculiar to battle experience. In both pictures and words Mauldin deals with these ironies alone, and what emerges with fierce clarity is a portrait of the American combat soldier. It is not a pretty portrait. Bill Mauldin makes cartoons with a purpose, not to be cute or funny. But it is. a true portrait, the truest yet given us by an American artist in this war. Joe and Willie— mud-caked, unshaven, exhausted—can be compared only with Bairnsfather’s Ole Bill, who will always stand as the combat cartoonist’s best creation of World War I. But the gap of a generation is clearly evident. Joe and Willie— though just as resigned—are immeasurably more bitter and more pathetic. Some of Mauldin’s best drawings in this book display his flair for savage paradox, as, “He’s right, Joe; when we ain’t fightin’ we should ack like sojers.” And, for pathos, as the two stand wearily regarding a terrified bombed-out peasant and his family, “We oughta tell ‘em the whole army don’t look like us, Joe.”
For a man in his early twenties Mauldin writes extremely well. To a great extent he uses GI slang, which gives his easy style freshness and power. He observes acutely. (“Italy reminds a guy of a dog hit by an automobile because it ran out and tried to bite the tires.”) He loathes the romantic and sentimental bunkum written about this war. He has the combat soldier’s true hatred of Germans as Germans. Above all, he is trying to help the great mass of American civilians and the rear echelons of the Army to understand the small percentage of their number who are doing the hand-to-hand fighting and dying that the nation may live. To achieve this, Mauldin has flouted every consideration but his own conscience. His laughter at brass hats is loud and cynical. His contempt for army stupidity is ruthless. And in the postwar years he will hate you and me whenever we forget the debt we owe to the men who died. War has made Mauldin’s head grow older and wiser than his years, but he feels with the passion of his youth.
The top military secret of this war is the mind of the ordinary rifleman who has seen two or three years of combat. Mauldin has done as much as anyone can, I suppose, to explain him. Some of the hardest things to explain are the simplest, and one of the most illuminating drawings in this book shows us Willie turning back toward the Frenchwoman standing helplessly amid the fresh ruins of her home and saying to her, “Don’t look at me, lady; I didn’t do it.” Mauldin can think with this Tolstoyan sympathy and the next moment remark that most Europeans have swindled American soldiers outrageously, then turn again and forgive them for it. He can like the Briton, “if you can get behind his unholy fear of making a friend until he has known the candidate for at least five years.” But his first and last concern is the combat soldier, the man Mauldin can depict up to his waist in mud in a foxhole at midnight with all hell breaking loose around him, growling into a walkie-talkie, “This is Fragrant Flower Advance; gimme your goddam number.” It is the man holding a flashlight for his fellow dogface to shoot the rat that has crawled up their legs in the hayloft (“Aim between the eyes, Joe; sometimes they charge when they’re wounded.”) It is the man under the crazy shelter saying with infinite solicitude, “Drop them cans in the coffee gentle, Joe; we got a chicken stewin’ in the bottom.” It is the man who, laboring uphill with two elaborate suitcases, says, “Oh I likes officers; they makes mc want to live till the war’s over.” It is the misery and monotony of front-line life, which is rarely anything else, and the selfless comradeship of those who have to live it, a quality of tenderness that can never be understood by outsiders. Mauldin himself tries to be neither more nor less articulate than his characters, with the result that when his doughboy speaks and acts, we see him exactly as he is and we see battle exactly as it is, something that the participant is usually powerless to describe. There is nothing more characteristic of Mauldin’s work, nor of the combat soldier’s inarticulateness, nor of the overpowering effect of war upon the feeble human senses,’ than the cartoon showing Willie and Joe