On -isms: White Donkey Review

By | Thursday, September 22, 2016 Leave a Comment
The White Donkey, the debut graphic novel by Maximilian Uriarte, came out last April but I've heard surprisingly little press about it. And what I have heard came from decidedly outside the comics community. Uriarte is a former Marine who served for four years, with multiple deployments to Iraq. He'd been working on a strip called Terminal Lance that was published in the Marine Corps Times and this book is an outgrowth of that.

The story is about a young man, Abe Olsen, who signs up with the Marines in search of... something he can't exactly define. After some harsh training, he finds himself shipped off to Iraq and experiences the war there in much the way any US Marine might. He eventually comes home and, suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, loses himself in alcohol. The book details Abe's journey along this entirety of this difficult path, showing just how war can change a man. Although Uriarte is very clear that this is a work of fiction, it's also obvious that he's not exactly making this up either. The story here is based on his and his friends' experiences, and thus comes across as being brutally honest even if the specific events depicted didn't actually happen. This is the life of a US Marine today.

Uriarte does a good job of presenting everything through a sort of everyman perspective. And despite Olsen being the protagonist here, we also get some slightly differing perspectives via some of his peers. While I don't think it conveys the entirety of a Marine's experience, it certainly goes a long way to informing someone like me, who's got no real military background. (Both my grandfathers served, but also died when I was too young to really learn much directly from them.) And like, I expect, many joining the military for the first time, readers don't always get complete explanations for military terms and behaviors. Olsen, during his training, asks questions, but is as often as not given incomplete answers if any at all.

I'm actually a little ambivalent about how I feel about this story. I mean, it's well done and Uriarte clearly knows how to craft a solid story, but the content itself pulls at me in two different directions. First, it does provide, as I suggested above, good insight into what a soldier today has to deal with. PTSD is not just that they saw a friend die. There's a great deal to learn here, I think, about the type of things a soldier deals with, ranging from "mundane" hazing to, yes, watching your friends get blown up. It's that full gamut that changes them -- the entirety of the experience can be traumatizing.

But on the other hand, I'm bothered by the obscenely casual racism, sexism, and homophobia that permeates the story. Yeah, Olsen points out that making a joke about Taco Bell at his Latino friend isn't cool, and that the guy they keep calling "Charlie" isn't even Vietnamese, but that doesn't deter anyone. Even the most powerful (to me) exchange, when an Iraqi police officer dresses down Olsen for his arrogance, the very culture of the Marines seems to allow Olsen to let that wash off his back. Throughout the entire book, the culture that's shown is one of deriding everyone and making sure that you don't see anyone else as fully human.

One of the points the book brings up is that soldiers that do suffer from PTSD not only ignore symptoms but go out of their way to hide them from others. I've heard elsewhere that it's because soldiers are taught that is a weakness. I'm left wondering if maybe the real weakness is learning to see others as something less than human. Thanks to this book, I can appreciate more of how soldiers are indoctrinated into a culture they might not have actually embraced beforehand, and how that in turn has helped to give rise to post-service problems they might have. I have greater empathy for soldiers of all types now. But less respect for the military establishment they serve though.
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