Tuesday, 13 March 2012

On Soldiers Who Kill Civilians: Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert's "Head Count"



I'd always intended to write about Head Count, Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert's fiercely principled response to the My Lai Massacre, in this week's The Year In Comics. It's the 44th anniversary of the Massacre this week, and Kanigher and Kubert's brave and committed Sgt Rock tale - from June 1971's Our Army At War - remains a passionate restatement of the soldier's responsibilities towards civilians. There's something deeply poignant not just about the morality which Head Count discusses, but also about the fact that both creators were veterans of World War II commenting upon the horrors of the Vietnam War. Yet what I of course couldn't know when I was writing about Head Count was that the posting of my thoughts about it on the Sequart site would coincide with the terrible news of the recent massacre of 16 women and children by a lone US Army sergeant in Afghanistan. I'd hate for anyone to think that I was using Kanigher and Kubert's work as a way of commenting upon the specifics of this particular tragedy, and so I'd like to assure anyone who chances upon either this page or the content at Sequart that the piece was written and posted days before the facts of the appalling situation in Kandahar broke.

Does Head Count have something to offer the debate about what has happened in Kandahar? In the broadest sense, I believe it does. But I wasn't trying to present any such an argument. I really don't think, with so much still unknown, that this would be the time to do so in such a form anyway.. If nothing else, it would be disrespectful to Kanigher and Kubert's fine, fine work to attempt to do so. Head Count deserves to be considered in the context of its day, and that's what I've tried my very best to do. I hope you might consider popping over to Sequart and reading the piece.


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9 comments:

  1. Ive seen that cover, but never knew the background. I must have a read ...

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    1. Hello Martin:- I must have seen that wonderful cover in a DC book of the day, and those are the comics you always want to read. I finally caught the story in the Fireside DC Comics At War collection. I'm sure it must be elsewhere too. It's good stuff ...

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  2. Thank you for the link to Sequart.

    I was a hair too young to have experienced/heard about My Lai personally as it happened (I'll be 41 this year), but I did see another take on it on, of all things, Law and Order.

    Like the Sequart piece, it ends with some of the blame applied to the Army, with McCoy mentioning that the soldiers were kids, given tremendous firepower, dropped into a situation where they couldn't tell friend from foe. Basically, it ended saying the Army had failed them just as they failed their fellow man. It didn't make what they did any less wrong, but it did say that they weren't simply bad seeds.

    I don't think you'd see a piece like this today, even without the worry of being made a target for boycott or accusations.

    Look at how (Poorly, IMHO) Marvel handled 'Civil War' compared to this. It's night and day. No real nuance, and certainly no real understanding of the issues compared to the 'Head Count' piece.

    Like Lee and Kirby, Kanigher and Kubert were actual veterans of World War II. I don't know if any of the writers or artists in today's books are veterans, and I would be genuinely surprised if there were any.

    I also want to thank you for not tying it to this recent incident in Afghanistan.

    Now, I've never served, so I lack any real insight into the military process. The closest I get is my mother's brother and my father's brother having served (in Vietnam), with the one as a helicopter mechanic and the other a Russian translator. Both came home whole and healthy, thankfully. Not so my grandfather's brother, shot down over Germany in WWII as a bomber captain.

    I think 'Head Count' does a fine job, really better, IMHO, than any equivalent story would if attempted today. There's the fact that the people involved in creating it had first-hand knowledge of the kinds of situations soldiers would find themselves in. That's probably the strongest point in its favor. As odd as it sounds, there seems to be more polarization today over depictions of soliders and war than there were back in 1971 when this was written (and I was born).

    That's actually scary given the societal movements of the time, the riots, the Billy Jack phenomenon, etc.

    I think the comment on the article, made by Forrest Helvie, really strikes home.

    "Considering the difficulty some–BUT NOT ALL–of our servicemen and women are experiencing in terms keeping the rules of engagement in mind as they engage in combat operations amidst civilians, soldiers like WO1 Thompson and his crew should never be far from our minds."

    I think that's the difference between, say, WWII, and Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Arghanistan, and other recent miliary actions. It's not a straight-up war, one side against the other in direct combat. I wonder if the veterans see that and understand it better than those of us who never served.

    A LOT to think about here. I hope I added a little to things.

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  3. Hello Earl:- Thank you for following the link. It’s appreciated, I promise you.

    “I was a hair too young to have experienced/heard about My Lai personally as it happened (I'll be 41 this year), but I did see another take on it on, of all things, Law and Order.”

    I’m incredibly grateful for any aspect of pop culture which helps to keep the historical memory of these events alive. We do live in a culture which so often undermines even the idea that a historical memory is important. Good for Law and Order. It’d be easy to be snotty about that, but that’d be muttonheaded thinking and nothing else.

    ”Basically, it ended saying the Army had failed them just as they failed their fellow man. It didn't make what they did any less wrong, but it did say that they weren't simply bad seeds.”

    I can’t tell you how relieved I am that you’d say that. To say that I’ve been … a touch nervous about the piece isn’t, I hope, to seem precious, or to over-estimate the importance of one little article. It’s just that I didn’t want to in any reduce the event to kneejerk politics.

    ”I don't think you'd see a piece like this today, even without the worry of being made a target for boycott or accusations.”

    There are few successful examinations of social issues in the mainstream of comics today. There’s certainly a lack of will on the part of creators to do so, with the usual suspects standing against the tide, bless ‘em. Gillen and McKelvie taking their stand against the persecution of young gay men in Generation Hope #9 comes to mind, but the seventies was a far more engaged period. And it’s to Kanigher and Kubert’s credit that they said what they did.

    ”Like Lee and Kirby, Kanigher and Kubert were actual veterans of World War II. I don't know if any of the writers or artists in today's books are veterans, and I would be genuinely surprised if there were any.”

    And that’s a really good point. I know there were veterans of the Vietnam War who began working in comics in the Seventies, such as Mike Grell and Jim Starlin, two smart and humane writers.

    ”I also want to thank you for not tying it to this recent incident in Afghanistan.”

    Thank you for saying so.

    ”Now, I've never served, so I lack any real insight into the military process. The closest I get is my mother's brother and my father's brother having served (in Vietnam), with the one as a helicopter mechanic and the other a Russian translator. Both came home whole and healthy, thankfully. Not so my grandfather's brother, shot down over Germany in WWII as a bomber captain.”

    I never served either. My mother and father did, as did many other members of my family, meaning that there was always a sense of what military service was, for good and ill, but never any details given out. I know my Uncle John served in Korea, that my Dad worked on RAF AWAC craft for years, and so on. My generation was surrounded by older folks who’d put in their national service at the least, and the London I grew up in was, even to the end of the Seventies, still a London where there were ruins and bomb-sites to be found. I think it meant that we all had a sense of how terrible war could be on a personal, taken-for-granted level. That may be gone now, but it was hard for that Britain to get too gung ho about military action. It’s a good attitude, I think., to respect the soldier without glorifying war.

    cont;

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    1. cont;

      ”I think 'Head Count' does a fine job, really better, IMHO, than any equivalent story would if attempted today. There's the fact that the people involved in creating it had first-hand knowledge of the kinds of situations soldiers would find themselves in. That's probably the strongest point in its favor. As odd as it sounds, there seems to be more polarization today over depictions of soliders and war than there were back in 1971 when this was written (and I was born).”

      I think that there are considerable differences between the “civilian” armies of the Vietnam War and before, and the volunteer forces of today. But rather than portraying the realities of today, far too much of the media is more than content to present every soldier as a bull-necked good old boy, every pilot as a Top Gun trope, and so on. It’s disrespectful, for one thing, and unhelpful, for another. I certainly don’t think there’s too many comics which have helped there. Garth Ennis’s War Stories deserve praise, certainly.

      “I think the comment on the article, made by Forrest Helvie, really strikes home; "Considering the difficulty some–BUT NOT ALL–of our servicemen and women are experiencing in terms keeping the rules of engagement in mind as they engage in combat operations amidst civilians, soldiers like WO1 Thompson and his crew should never be far from our minds."

      Yes. I was also grateful to him for the generous way he corrected my lack of knowledge re: WO Thompson’s rank.

      ”I think that's the difference between, say, WWII, and Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Arghanistan, and other recent military actions. It's not a straight-up war, one side against the other in direct combat. I wonder if the veterans see that and understand it better than those of us who never served.”

      There’s a worrying tendency to regard veterans as citizens who somehow haven’t got much to say about the conflicts they experienced in anything other than the sense of eye-witnesses. But then, dialogue isn’t our cultures greatest strength. Babble, yes. Respectful dialogue, less so. Neither Kanigher or Kubert’s politics are mine, but I’m tremendously grateful to them for expressing themselves in the way they did. (As many folks have said before me, those war books were often far more radical texts than the far more lauded super-books.)

      ”A LOT to think about here. I hope I added a little to things.”

      Absolutely. My best to you.

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    2. Read your article at Sequart, Colin. It's another excellent piece of writing, which educates me about an event I wasn't familiar with.

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    3. Hello Miguel:- Thank you. And I must say, it's good to see another piece go up on your Comics Without Frontiers site tonight. Whenever you've the time and inclination to put those up, I've the same to read 'em :)

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    4. Thanks, Colin. I also like what you've been doing with your blog lately. Your review of Hermann's French BD was engrossing. Are you familiar with François Bourgeon? I think you'd like his comics too.

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    5. Hello Miguel:- You're very kind. The Sequart pieces have given me the chance to take on some topics which I might otherwise not have dealt with, and it's been good for me. Thank you for being kind about the Hermann piece. I'm keenly aware that you'll know far far more about his work, in that series as well as all others, than I am.

      I'd love to read some of François Bourgeon's work. What I've read about him - right down to his fights against publishers demanding what seem to be quite shockingly unfair things - is inspiring. But my French is appalling - actually non-existent - and I can't find English translations anywhere. If I were a billionaire, I'd be setting up a publishing company to get all such material into English. Sadly, I'm not and never will be :)

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