Sunday, February 19, 2006

When truth hurts

While parts of the Middle East and other areas of the Muslim world erupt again, this time over the publication of political cartoons depicting the image of Mohammed, first in Scandinavia and then throughout other parts of Europe, we had our own mini-eruption last week, at least inside the beltway, over a political cartoon published in the Washington Post by my favorite political cartoonist, Tom Toles.

Admittedly, the comparison of the two events ends there. There are no demands here that the Washington Post be punished by our government, or that Toles be fired, rather, the issue is over the intent, content, and propriety of his January 29th cartoon. The caricature came in the immediate aftermath of a report, commissioned by the Pentagon and subsequently leaked to the press, that outlined the sustained damage being done to our Army as a result of the strains placed upon it because of the sustained deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Subsequently, a peeved and defensive Secretary Rumsfeld expressed his disagreement with the conclusions of the study, and rather, pointed out that these experiences had created a different Army; far from on the verge of losing its readiness, the wars had made this Army “battle hardened.”

Toles’ cartoon, linked here , criticizes Rumsfeld’s remarks, and generated a letter of protest from the Pentagon, signed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Vice Chairman, and each of the respective service chiefs, arguing that the depiction of a soldier with multiple amputated limbs, makes light of their tremendous personal sacrifice for their country, and was in effect beyond the pale.

I often re-post Tom Toles’ cartoons, because so often, as the proverb says, a picture speaks a thousand words. When I saw the cartoon last week, it made me wince, but the thought that it was disrespectful to seriously injured soldiers never entered my mind. Instead, it forced me to think about the thousands of amputees these wars have produced. In an article some days later in the same paper, unrelated to this controversy, the photo of a young man (maybe 21 years old) walking on his two new prosthetic legs and with his new prosthetic arm, receiving physical therapy at Walter Reed Medical Center, further drove home the reality of this tragedy.

Yesterday, the “letters to the editor” section of the Post dealt with the controversy, with equal numbers of letters deploring the cartoon, as those who supported its principles and message. Mr. Toles himself stated that he had no intention whatsoever of making light of the tremendous pain inflicted upon the soldiers, marines and their families, and one of the letters was from the Director of the Disabled American Veterans Association, also expressing his opinion that he saw nothing insulting or offensive about the sad truth portrayed in the cartoon.

I chose not to re-post that cartoon of Mr. Toles here, because it is quite disturbing, but I think its publication is important, and I linked to it in case you haven’t seen it and wish to judge for yourselves. I absolutely don’t doubt the genuine sincerity that the Joint Chiefs expressed in the unusual letter they sent to the Washington Post, but I don’t agree with their premise. A letter to the editor from yesterday’s paper, reprinted below, best sums up my sentiments. This is a link to all of the letters published yesterday in response to this debate, and they’re all interesting and make valid, intellectually sound arguments, whatever side of the issue they support.

I was a lowly sergeant in the Army, not a member of the Joint Chiefs, which is probably why I get the Tom Toles cartoon showing the Army as an amputee, with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld making the kind of dismissive commentary on military challenges for which he is infamous. The cartoon was tasteless, but it wasn't pointless.

This administration hides the coffins, the rehab wards and the force-readiness statistics to protect itself from criticism of its mismanagement. It would like Americans to be oblivious to the financial and human cost of war.
Whoever wrote the letter for the Joint Chiefs knew that the cartoon wasn't about wounded soldiers. It was about rear-echelon political hacks who dismiss the results of their foolish decisions, who never seem to learn from their mistakes and who don't seem to care that when they write a check, the infantry signs it in blood.

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