With the passing of Andy Rooney this week, we Americans lose yet another link to the last noble war, World War II. Rooney was an irascible wordsmith who’d made his bones writing for the Stars and Stripes during the great war. His deceptively simple commentaries and observations made him a fixture at the CBS program 60 Minutes, and an object of considerable ridicule to people of my children’s generation.
What he did week after week seemed so easy.
The Stars and Stripes was the serviceman’s paper and the source of most of the nuts and bolts reporting during the war. It was, believe it or not, a truly independent voice. Eisenhower refused to censor the writers at the paper believing that it was ludicrous to tarnish and adulterate the very rights his men were daily dying to defend.
He was a very old-fashioned thinker, that Eisenhower. He probably wouldn’t get too far in the high-tech, Madison Avenue army of today.
But no general, no writer, no politician, and no other warrior meant as much to the ordinary dog soldier in the European Theater (and probably the Pacific as well) as Bill Mauldin did. In the middle of chaos and war he put out six cartoons a week. Six! He helped put out the very first American grunt paper published on Axis soil when he and his buddies managed to find a printing press in Vittorio, Sicily immediately after having endured a stormy assault on the beach in Sicily. Read his chapter on this episode in his book, The Brass Ring and he makes it sound like it really wasn’t all that big a deal.
It was a big deal.
His cartoons were insubordinate; they called the Army brass to task for all manner of thick-headed stupidity, from Patton’s insistence that soldiers maintain a crisp military appearance even in the foxhole, to shave-tail officers pawned off on men who’d been to hell three times over. Patton himself called Mauldin on the carpet, chewed him out and made it clear that if it were up to him Mauldin would be in jail. Mauldin gave as good as he got, and a delighted Stars and Stripes reported the whole imbroglio for its equally delighted readership.
Through his characters of Willie and Joe Mauldin became the voice of the average American soldier. We here at home knew what our boys were like; we connected with our heroes in the field largely because men like Mauldin were there to make that connection for us. Even if you knew no one personally who was fighting in the war you felt as if you did, because Willie and Joe were your friends, your defenders. They provided an outlet for the day to day frustrations of the American GI, and they provided a true and emotional bridge between the soldier in the field and the Americans safe at home.
It was a very big deal.
Who does this for our men and women today? Who are these soldiers we’ve been sending out again and again and again to die? During the days of the draft everyone had a stake in our wars. Now we operate as if the Department of Defense was just another division of Wal-Mart. I’m sure it is very efficient, but haven’t we somehow lost connection? I read recently that a soldier was killed in Afghanistan and in the story it said this was his 14th deployment. I thought it was a misprint, but apparently not. How is that even possible? How can we ask so much of these young men and women? Who speaks for them? Who is their Bill Mauldin?
Ask yourself if, in today’sAmerica, a modern Bill Mauldin would even be permitted to exist.
Then explain to me why that isn’t a very big deal.