Author: Thom Rooke
Publisher: Syracuse University Press
Date of Publication: September 015
Date of Review: August 2015
Thom Rooke’s “Gene Basset’s Vietnam Sketchbook: A Cartoonist’s Wartime Perspective” is currently my favorite book of 2015. Using eighty-six sketches in eighty-nine pages, Rooke and Basset take the reader through Dr. Kübler-Ross’s original five stages of grief while reflecting on the Vietnam War. Rooke poignantly and succinctly addresses the unifying humanity of war more generally—during and after war, we all grieve the permanent loss of something or someone.
Comprised of five chapters each representing the traditional stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—“Gene Basset’s Vietnam Sketchbook” ties together Basset’s cartoons and descriptions with Rooke’s naturally flowing and emotive insights into war-grief. Like a doctor with supreme bedside manner, Rooke (who really is a medical doctor) gives his reader all the relevant options, usually in the form of rhetorical questions, and then carefully helps the reader arrive at his or her own understanding.
Rooke states early on, “If there is anything of value that a person who missed the war—as I did—may be able to bring to this discussion, it’s a genuinely objective perspective.” (p. xii, preface) Reading this sentence raised red flags because of the “biased” nature of drawing and interpreting cartoons. Rooke notes, “Whereas a photograph is grounded in objectivity, a sketch always reflects an element of bias. At its unretouched core, a photo shows us ‘what happened,’ while a sketch conveys ‘what I think happened’ or maybe even ‘what should have happened.’” (p. xx, preface) Rooke understands that while he “objectively” navigates around divisive elements of the Vietnam War, he recognizes that “artistic license” and double-subjectivity (both his and Basset’s subjectivity) are unavoidable. This amounts to a book that is easily relatable and also deeply introspective—focusing on the ego in all of us while acknowledging the id and superego’s influences.
No other part of this book captures the symbiosis between objectivity and subjectivity quite like the unprejudiced yet sincerely personal Epilogue; which, in its brevity avoids pitfalls like “was it worth it” and “who won,” and instead reminds the reader of the undeniable responsibility we all share as a species that wages war against one another.
I get goosebumps when I consider the profound universality of Rooke and Basset’s last two words in the Epilogue: “Welcome Home.” They answered one of today’s most challenging questions facing civilians: how to address those returning from war.
My fellow Millennials are without a compass when it comes to responding to our current wars and soldiers, sailors, and Marines. Today’s civilians know fewer service members than ever before. A quick glance at “Stars and Stripes” provides us civilians—people more removed from our current wars than Rooke was from the Vietnam War—with a truly horrifying reality. Our Spartan military of a relatively small number of highly specialized soldiers, many of whom even when home live in barracks that are impenetrable by the public, feel like complete outsiders within the country they fight for. Civilians, with absolutely no comprehension of war, who don’t even know the names of the operations Congress has approved, see soldiers in airports, and awkwardly avert their eyes or offer “thanks for their service.” One soldier recently wrote, “So many people give you lip service and offer fake sympathy. Their sons and daughters aren’t in the military, so it’s not their war. It’s something that happens to other people.” (Quoting, Phillip Ruiz, a former Army Staff Sergeant who served three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Article by, Zucchino, David. “US Military and Civilians are Increasingly Divided” Los Angeles Times and Military.com. May 25, 2015. http://www.military.com/daily-news/2015/05/25/us-military-and-civilians-are-increasingly-divided.html). In TV and movies soldiers are superheroes, super-villains, or super-tragics—they’re almost never the man or woman next door. (See, Merry, Stephanie. “There’s a Divide Between Civilians and Soldiers. Hollywood is Partly to Blame.” “The Washington Post” and “Stars and Stripes”. May 21, 2015. http://www.stripes.com/there-s-a-divide-between-civilians-and-soldiers-hollywood-is-partly-to-blame-1.347701).
Reading soldiers’ interpretation of how civilians view them genuinely makes me feel terribly, both because there’s some truth to their perception, and because it negates most people’s genuine desire to show respect and gratitude. Culturally, we’ve swung in the opposite direction from the time when Vietnam veterans were spat upon while walking down concourses; in fact recent polls show that most Americans report they feel members of the military are “highly respectable.” Americans, overwhelmingly, are proud of our soldiers; unfortunately, our reverence can also alienate the people we are attempting to respect.
In a war where few of us experience war-grief directly, it’s hard to understand how we should feel and respond to those still serving. Politics, budgets, party lines, religions, resources, those are the front-page war-headlines—they’re void of ethos or urgent humanity. Occasionally we hear about suicide, PTSD, and violence rates among soldiers and veterans, but those headlines—as true and terrible as they are—seem to push civilians further away from those in uniform, confirming our them-not-us (denial) mentality. Maybe it’s also because of today’s hyper-real/raw war photos, YouTube clips, and Hollywood’s HD renditions of war, that society is stuck in the early grieving stages of denial and bargaining. Civilians, facing a war we’ve resigned will never end, are denying war’s literal existence by bargaining away our soldiers—our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, neighbors and friends.
“Gene Basset’s Vietnam Sketchbook: A Cartoonist’s Wartime Perspective” seems an unlikely guidepost for how to resolve the devastating alienation felt by our current service members, while also teaching society how to understand war. Frankly, I’ve never read a book that so succinctly addresses the problem and (one) solution to soldier/civilian alienation and war-grief reconciliation. Rooke is helping America realize Dempsey’s call for civilians and soldiers to come together under a “shared understanding.” (Quoting, Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff calling on both civilians and service members to build relations: “We can’t allow a sense of separation to grow between us. As the all-volunteer force enters its fifth decade, civilians and the military need to maintain the shared understanding necessary for a healthy relationship.” Article by, Garamone, Jim. “Dempsey Calls on Americans to Discuss Civilian-Military Relations.” American Forces Press Service: Department of Defense News. July 5, 2013. http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=120412)
Our soldiers are also civilians; they are like us because they are us. When you’re through with grieving over something, or when you’ve been away for a while, what’s the one thing you want most of all? To be welcomed home, and to move forward in the place and with the people you belong.
Originally, I took notes on each chapter specifically to highlight my favorite cartoons, phrases, or lessons provided by both Rooke and Basset, but I’m going to refrain from summarizing this book because I believe “Gene Basset’s Vietnam Sketchbook” is a journey too masterfully charted to be distorted by a summary. Instead, I’ll leave you with this quote about the genesis of Basset and Rooke’s endeavor: “One afternoon over cocktails, Gene and I were discussing some obtuse aspect of the United States’ ongoing involvement in Iraq—or maybe it was Afghanistan? He started reminding me that the government was ‘repeating the mistakes of the past.’ To illustrate his point, Gene hurried off to his basement and returned minutes later with a collection of drawings he had made more than forty years earlier in Vietnam.”