Philosophy From the Foxholes: Bill Mauldin

« Wherever despotism abounds, the sources of public information are the first to be brought under its control. Where ever the cause of liberty is making its way, one of its highest accomplishments is the guarantee of the freedom of the press. » — Calvin Coolidge

Ah, the pitfalls of anchoring yourself to the news cycle: given the shocking news, last week, of the impending, unjustified closure of one of the greatest American journalistic institutions, the independent military daily newspaper The Stars and Stripes (founded in 1861!). I was all set to cobble together a series of posts showcasing the work of S&S’s greatest cartoonists, but then the massively unpopular decision was just as abruptly reversed. For now.

So I’ll stick to one post for the nonce (Shel and Tom will have to wait) and feature one of history’s greatest soldier cartoonists, William Henry “Bill” Mauldin (1921-2003), twice recipient of the Pulitzer Prize (1945, 1958), the Legion of Merit… and a host of other distinctions, both military and civilian.

Our baby-faced artist photographed during WWII.

With but a single exception, the following are samples from his essential Up Front collection (1945), which Mauldin humbly opens with: « My business is drawing, not writing, an this text is pretty much background for the drawings. »

But such a background! Mauldin is, naturally, funny and insightful, but there’s much to learn therein, not merely about men in war, but just about everything under the sun. While so many nowadays mix up freedom and privilege, it’s good to be gently reminded of the high price of both.

« Until some intelligent brass hat repaired a big brewery in Naples and started to send beer to Anzio, the boys at the beach-head were fixing up their own distilleries with barrels of dug-up vino, gasoline cans, and copper tubing from wrecked airplanes. The result was a fiery stuff which the Italians called grappa. The doggies called it ‘Kickapoo Joy Juice’, and took the name from the popular ‘Li’l Abner’ comic strip which Stars and Stripes printed daily. It wasn’t bad stuff when you cut it with canned grapefruit juice. »
Mauldin’s biographer, Todd DePastino, wrote, in his Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front: « First published on October 13, 1944, this cartoon made the 23-year-old Bill Mauldin the youngest Pulitzer Prize winner in history. Both he and his editors at Stars and Stripes were astonished by the selection, which did not seem to them particularly noteworthy. »

For a deeper dive into Mauldin’s war through the eyes of his ragged infantrymen, scrounge yourself a copy of Fantagraphics’ glorious Willie & Joe: The WWII Years (2008).

In closing, shall we hear from another president?

« I have great respect for the news and great respect for freedom of the press and all of that. » — Donald J. Trump

-RG