A Cartoonist’s View of the Vietnam War

April 1, 2016

In 1965, the Scripps-Howard News Service sent Gene Basset to cover the growing war in Vietnam. But Basset wasn’t a reporter or photographer like the typical war correspondent — he was the chief editorial cartoonist for the giant newspaper syndicate. During the three months he spent in country, Basset sketched hundreds of scenes, typically completing each drawing in 10–15 minutes. Many of these sketches ultimately appeared in prominent American newspapers. After disappearing from view for nearly five decades, a collection of 87 of these drawings has been published in my Gene Basset’s Vietnam Sketchbook published by Syracuse University Press last year.

Basset’s illustrations are simple yet powerful depictions of soldiers and locals working their way through the grief of war. In keeping with this theme, I organized the drawings according to the well-known Kubler-Ross stages of grief resolution (Denial / Anger / Bargaining / Depression / Acceptance). Basset readily admits that he wasn’t always consciously aware of the emotions he was capturing as he simply “drew what I saw.” He also claims that he never tried to “make a statement” with any of his illustrations. If so, he failed miserably. Intentionally or not, the man with the pen made a point, often subtle but always poignant, in every sketch.

Gene’s genius is evident as one examines his work. Consider a few examples. Bargaining (the third stage of grief resolution) is subtly at work in “Here’s the Plan …”. In this scene, the artist depicts an American officer explaining his plans for the morning mission — plans that his skeptical Vietnamese or Montagnard troops may not fully embrace.

heres-the-plan
Here’s the plan …

In “Tell him to get out before we torch the place” the bargaining is more explicit — an American soldier urges a Vietnamese soldier to get all the villagers out of their huts before they’re intentionally set on fire. (In the real incident that Bassett portrayed here, they were not completely successful; a handicapped child was left behind and died.)

tell-him-to-get-out
Tell him to get out before we torch the place

Denial is the major sentiment of “Minor Wound,” in which an injured soldier is obviously in disbelief regarding his combat injury.

minor-wound
Minor wound

The Green Beret in “You #%@*! Next time don’t forget the #%@*! Beer!” needs no explanation regarding his anger.

dont-forget-the-beer
You #%@*! Next time don’t forget the #%@*! Beer!

And few scenes evoke a sense of sadness, loss, and depression as genuine as that evident in “Elephant grass, punji sticks, mines, and Viet Cong,” in which a team of Green Berets setting out on patrol disappears slowly into a field of tall elephant grass — perhaps never to return.

elephant-grass-punji-sticks
Elephant grass, punji sticks, mines, and Viet Cong

Although other wars had previously been depicted by cartoonists (think of “Willie and Joe” by Bill Mauldin), pen-and-ink illustration remains an uncommon tool for the correspondent. But it can be a powerful one: With a few finely honed strokes of the pen an artist like Basset can teach a lesson about the inseparability of grief from war that anyone with eyes and a heart can understand. Basset’s use of an old approach to such a modern war was unorthodox, but it was consistently on target.

 

Thom Rooke received his Bachelor of Science at the University of Michigan and M.D. degree at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. He is a Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN and holds an endowed chair in Vascular Medicine.