02 February 2006

Tastes Bad—Less Fulfilling

Today's WaPo includes an interesting letter to the editor from the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the top six generals and admirals—one from each service, and a chair and vice-chair) protesting a political cartoon that appeared on Sunday. The cartoon depicts a wounded veteran with multiple amputations being told by "Dr Rumsfeld" that "I'm listing your condition as 'battle hardened.'"1 The Joint Chiefs were not amused, declaring that:

Using the likeness of a service member who has lost his arms and legs in war as the central theme of a cartoon was beyond tasteless. Editorial cartoons are often designed to exaggerate issues, and The Post is obviously free to address any topic, including the state of readiness of the armed forces. However, The Post and Mr. Toles have done a disservice to readers and to The Post's reputation by using such a callous depiction of those who volunteered to defend this nation and, as a result, suffered traumatic and life-altering wounds.

Those who visit wounded veterans in hospitals have found lives profoundly changed by pain and loss. They also have found brave men and women with a sense of purpose and selfless commitment that causes battle-hardened warriors to pause.

While The Post and some of its readers may not agree with the war or its conduct, these men and women and their families are owed the decency of not having a cartoon make light of their tremendous physical sacrifices.

"A Reprehensible Cartoon" (02 Feb 2006).

I agree that the cartoon was "tasteless." At least the Joint Chiefs didn't fume that Toles had no right to express his opinion in a tasteless fashion, or even this fashion; "owed the decency" is not the same thing as "had no right to express." What I find more interesting is what is not in that letter. First, and most obvious, the letter offers no defense of "Dr" Rumsfeld, or attack on the substance of Toles's opinion, or anything else of that nature. That is proper. It is not the place of military officers to comment, in their official capacities, upon opinions expressed or implied by citizens outside the very narrow boundaries of military operations.

Second, more subtly, the letter ignores the reflexiveness of the cartoon with itself (and, for that matter, with the letter itself)… and I suspect purposefully so. The cartoon is precisely about—or an accusation of—"mak[ing] light of [wounded veterans'] tremendous physical sacrifices." Whether one agrees with Toles or not that this administration (and particularly "Dr" Rumsfeld) is doing so, that is the opinion that Toles expresses in his cartoon. There is plenty of rhetorical support, and mined quotations, for every possible point of view. The ultimate point is that context matters; and it matters to the underlying argument, too.

I wouldn't have drawn the cartoon Toles did, even if I had his talent. Then, I'm a veteran myself. That means I'm more sensitive to some ways to provide comment and amusement on war than are some others (and I have no idea if Toles is himself a veteran), and undoubtedly that I'm less sensitive on other topics. The Joint Chiefs' letter properly expresses their disapproval of the means of expressing the opinion, instead of attacking the opinion or the individual who expressed it. Now, if we could just get that restraint into the elected branches of the government…

  1. I'm not going to reproduce the cartoon here, if only because Mr Toles (and the WaPo) own the copyright and have not licensed that. At the moment, you can find it on this page.