In-Country by Phillip B. Fehrenbacher

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Bill Mauldin’s cartoons immortalized infantrymen Willie and Joe who fought in Europe during World War II. In Up Front, which contains a collection of those cartoons, Mauldin calls his drawings “pictures of an army full of blunders and efficiency, irritations and comradeship.” His basic criterion for humor insists that men of purpose have the capacity to “still grin at themselves.”

In a similar manner, Phillip B. Fehrenbacher drew more than a hundred cartoons based on the Vietnam War. He served nearly two years in Vietnam, in 1968-69, but only began producing cartoons in 2015. He collects them in In-Country: Memories of a Tour of Duty in South Vietnam (CreateSpace, 116 pp. $16.95, paper).

In explaining the long delay, Fehrenbacher might cite Mauldin who said, as a cartoonist, “maybe I can be funny after the war, but nobody who has seen this war can be cute about it while it’s going on.”

Books by the two men share a commonality in that they depict the average GI as a pawn fighting for survival on multiple levels in an arena not of his choice. Their humor derives from situations in which life could hardly be more miserable, but it is.

Fehrenbacher nails the plight of soldiers in a combat zone, but his humor could benefit from tighter unity. His cartoons would be more effective if he had arranged them chronologically. In other words, he should have started with those about new arrivals, then featured experienced troops, then short timers, and finally men ending a tour. In the middle of the book, for example, he depicts a departure of a Freedom Bird, which just does not fit there. Chronology would build a story-telling continuity.

Fehrenbacher also oversells his humor. Above many cartoons, he explains the situation. Below the cartoons, he presents titles that repeat the explanation. But his cartoons are strong enough to stand alone and speak for themselves.

Because Fehrenbacher had nearly half a century for reflection, I expected deeper insights and criticisms of the war to emerge from his drawings. Nevertheless, his final cartoon makes the book’s strongest political statement. In it, a lieutenant asks, “So then…what would the colonel like the body count to be?” A seated colonel looks puzzled and says, “Hmmm….”

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On the other hand, I might have expected too much from the book.  “The cartoons are not always funny,” Fehrenbacher says, “but hopefully jog the memories of those who were there and inform those who were not.”

Undoubtedly, he fulfills that goal.

—Henry Zeybel