ANGER + CLIP ART = CATHARSIS | October 13th 2008
Ever since October 2001, America's "War on Terror" has had a venomous critic in David Rees. He has used a comic strip to lambaste the absurd air-punching sloganeering of it all, writes Robert Lane Greene...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
In September 2001 everyone wanted a fight. The deadliest-ever foreign attacks on the United States convinced right, left and centre that the world was poisoned with "bad guys" and it was an American patriotic duty to fight them. When Congress agreed to authorise George Bush to go to Afghanistan, only one member of Congress--Barbara Lee of California--voted against it. She then needed extra police protection at the Capitol. It was time to fight.
On October 9th, just a month after the attacks, David Rees posted the daring first instalment of "Get Your War On", an internet comic strip. It featured two typical office workers having the following telephone conversation:
It was an inauspicious start. The two clip-art characters seemed without dimension, frozen in position from frame to frame. The entire strip was red, a feature that would rarely change (evoking war and blood, yes, but it is hard on the eyes after a while). The characters said nothing particularly funny or interesting, and relied on blue language to make a point. And the political sentiment was as simplistic as it was angry: war begets war; you can't punish killing with killing; an eye for an eye and the whole world ends up blind. Michael Walzer's just-war theory it was not. More like a bumper-sticker.
But the two characters go on:
In those early, angry days of the so-called "War on Terror", Rees took aim at what he knew to be absurd: the air-punching sloganeering that inaugurated America's long and complicated struggle against international Islamist violence. War on Terror. Dead or Alive. With Us or Against Us. Everyone wanted the fight to be simple, the bad guys clear, the good guys secure in the knowledge that they were doing right.
Rees, who released a book collecting seven years of "Get Your War On" in September, sniffed something sinister in the Bush administration's rhetoric early on. Sure, politicians have always had catch-phrases--"War On Poverty", "Give Peace a Chance", "The Change We Need". But George Bush's slogans transcended mere prods to motivate the American people. Rather, they seemed to capture his alarmingly un-nuanced world-view, rendering his sense of world affairs like a gun fight at the O.K. Corral. When France and Germany refused to back America's war in Iraq, Bush declared that these long-time allies were either "with us or against us". This was no rhetorical flourish, but a call to arms. Rees's strip offered catharsis for those who found this all not a little alarming. "Get Your War On" would soon become a reliable source of criticism against a seemingly unhinged foreign-policy agenda.
February 10th 2003:
The strip gradually introduced a few more clip-art office drones, but it never really evolved into a narrative. The characters are nameless. They frequently swap roles between those ranting against the Bush administration and those expressing a caricature of support. (A: "Why is every body breathing down Bush's neck, forcing him to prove Iraq has turned a corner? We didn't defeat the Nazis overnight, you know!" B: "Dude, we've been fighting in Iraq longer than we fought in World War II"; A: "But that just proves George W. Bush is a mightier warrior than Franklin D. Roosevelt!!!")
I discovered the strip in 2002, and enjoyed blowing off steam laughing at the over-the-top rants even as I didn't always agree with the politics. But reading a book-length collection of Rees's seething brand of sarcastic humour is not unlike listening to a lot of speed-metal music at once: everything is either loud or louder. Frankly, it's exhausting.
And yet gem-like riffs reside among the strip's bountiful swearing, capital letters and italics.
December 20th 2005:
Two weeks after Sunni extremists bombed the Shia Al-Askari mosque and shrine in Samarra, setting off the single biggest wave of bloodshed in the entire Iraq war, Rees's Sitting Black Office Worker was impressed with America's top general, who had recently said things were "going very, very well, from everything you look at".
March 6th 2006:
Between fusillades, Rees reveals some surprising characteristics for an angry cartoonist. One is prescience; in early 2002, he was riffing about war in Iraq, although it would not begin for another year. In spring 2006 he began to rib John McCain for shedding his maverick suit for an ill-fitting orthodox Republican one. And he has long criticised the way America's relentless campaign in Iraq has pulled resources and attention away from Afghanistan, well before Barack Obama made this concern mainstream. It is worth checking his website for animated vignettes with these characters, which are reliably entertaining.
But perhaps Rees's most striking quality is his persistence in spotlighting the unending bloodshed. The years have ushered a parade of Washington obsessions--the Iraq Study Group, the Plame Affair, the Democratic takeover of Congress, warrantless wiretapping, etc--yet Rees has been rare in his dedication to reminding readers that real people continue to die violently, and at an alarming rate. One of the last strips in the "Get Your War On" book, from August 7th of this year, could almost be the first oned (unfortunately an image of this strip is not available):
A: Will you remind me what our goals are in Afghanistan?
B: Same as Iraq: Large piles of dead terrorists. Freedom. Fewer beards. Bragging rights. Stability.
A: "Stability." How does that work, again?
B: Easy: you just invade a country and keep killing people until it calms down.
Like his first strip, this one isn't terribly funny. But it is a dark reminder of what the slogans try to veil: that war is hell and victory is never pure, if it even comes at all. Many Americans have tired of trying to win the war, and have grown ever more confused about what a successful "war on terror" looks like. Rees has shown an almost incredible stamina, in his sarcastic and angry way, in trying to end it.
"Get Your War On: The Definitive Account of the War on Terror, 2001-2008", by David Rees (November 2008; Paperback; 256 pages; Soft Skull Press)
Picture credit: David Rees
(Robert Lane Greene is an international correspondent for The Economist.)