A section of Joe Sacco’s 24-foot-long illustrated panorama of the Battle of the Somme, First World War.
It is Armistice Day today, or what in the U.S. we often refer to as Veterans Day. In the last couple days, I’ve noticed a couple news outlets (here and here, and friends, including Richard Rothaus) commenting or reporting on Joe Sacco’s latest illustrative work on the Great War entitled, The Great War: July 1, 1916, The First Day of the Battle of the Somme, An Illustrated Panorama (W.W. Norton, 2013). In America, there is a tendency to remember the Second World War more than the First World War. The former was a kind of mopping up of the latter.
Within that former, or WWI, The Battle of the Somme (or Bataille de la Somme; or Schlacht an der Somme) took place between July 1 and November 18, 1916, and it proved to be one of the most horrific military engagements in industrial human history, where something like 60,000 soldiers died, and a total of 1,000,000 men were wounded or killed. Sacco portrays this in his 24-foot-long panorama, complete with howitzers, machine guns, entrenched soldiers in tin hats… The details are superb, and so is the idea of illustrating war with the medium of cartoon. Another recent portrayal of the serious topic of war by way of cartoon comes from Waltz with Bashir, some remarks on that here.
The Battle of the Somme map from Wikipedia commons.
I think the medium of cartoon is attention-getting, especially for these serious topics, for a couple reasons. When it comes to the First World War, it sometimes seems that we’re reading about a topic that certainly happened, but it is in such a far away temporal place. By capturing or re-imagining it with cartoon, a viewer is impressionistically given the choice to mentally go back and forth between the idea of a cartoon and that of reality. One is supposed to be nonrealistic while the topic is very, very real. This in turn is of interest because wars have induced re-education, at least where nations try to get their soldiers to think of the enemy as just that: non- or sub-human, something we might call the “other,” often captured by the phrase, “They aren’t like us.” This psychology, at least as laid out by Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, allows a soldier to not think too hard about pulling the trigger or getting up out of one’s trench and marching head-long into mortar and machine gun fire: one doesn’t think about marching into mortar and machine gun fire before or while marching into mortar and machine gun fire.
This is a point of discussion — conceptualizations of “the other” — that comes up from time to time in the history of conflict on the northern Great Plains. Just last week, while talking about Paul Beck’s, Columns of Vengeance (U of Oklahoma Press, 2013), I was thinking about how much these otherwise ordinary farmers were mustered into being Union soldiers, and how they conditioned themselves (or were conditioned) to think of Native America as something other than human. When someone thinks of another human as sub-human, the human with those thoughts is becoming less than human. We might also say that humans are capable of great compassion, but they are also capable of atrocious avarice and hate. By being conscious of this, perhaps we can lean more toward the compassion and empathy instead of the avarice, malice and hate.
An August 5, 2012 photo of the Charles Barth memorial oak tree.
War is terrible, and terrible things will always happen in war. It’s important to reflect on this. I was privileged to be able to chat at length about the Second World War with my late great uncle Charles “Bud” Barth. He was a front-line medic in the European Theatre of the Second World War. I have blogged about these chats here and here and here. Anyhow, that’s what I’ve thought about a bit this morning.
At left, here is a August 5, 2012 photo of the silver oak tree I planted in my family’s yard in Bismarck, North Dakota, right around the time that Charles passed away. I call it the Charles Barth memorial oak tree. The tree itself was purchased from Cashman’s Nursery, a great local greenhouse in southeast Bismarck. I’m reminded of Charles when I look at that tree.