There’s no doubt that Olivier Morel and Maël’s Walking Wounded addresses a serious topic.
The Iraq War (and the overall War on Terrorism) most certainly stands as this generation’s Vietnam War. The war itself has some highly questionable motivations and practices (which I will omit to discuss at length here because I, by no means, am an expert, but for further context, I will direct you to this). And, like the veterans of the Vietnam War, the veterans of the Iraq War have returned home to a similar indifference and lack of support. To make matters worse, the veterans of this war all decidedly enlisted to protect our country; a mandatory draft did not exist at the time of the war, adding a further layer of complexity to veterans’ experiences upon returning because the decision to join the battle was even more of a conscious one even if the battles they were placed in were completely unexpected, potentially making these soldiers feel even more guilty about the horrors they experienced and implicitly making the public even more passive about the welfare of these troops with a, “you should have known what you were getting yourself into” sentiment.
Before we proceed, let me establish that this review in no way will address my own opinions of the Iraq War or American foreign policy over the past two decades. In addition, before I go on to explain the flaws of the Walking Wounded: Uncut Stories From Iraq, let me also say that I have always and will always support American veterans; my family has multiple veterans, and I have multiple friends who are currently in the military or have returned from service, so my criticism of the Morel graphic novel does not come from any political leanings or judgement on American soldiers; it comes from the novel’s failure to execute a coherent story and failure to evoke empathy in addition to pathos and sympathy.
Now, onto the analysis and review…
We as a general public should demand more sophisticated and nuanced discussions of war and its psychological impact on our soldiers. During and after the Vietnam War, we saw a wealth of films that allowed those of us at home (and those of us who were not born at the time such as myself) to understand what our soldiers experienced and how they felt. Ranging from Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort to Bob Clark’s Deathdream, viewers, even now, could begin to understand the absurdity our soldiers faced and, in turn, the great difficulty they would endure upon returning home and attempting to re-integrate into civilian society. On the non-fiction side of film, war documentaries such as Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds dropped you right into soldiers’ daily lives in war, thus showing us how and why Vietnam veterans would face immense hardship when they returned home. With these Vietnam War films, you do not sit through conjecture or hear any platitudes about the brutality of war; you walk side by side with the people in front of you, seeing what they see, making you feel completely consumed by their worlds. Sure, there’s a message lying in all of these works (some that you could even describe as propaganda), and the plot, the characters, and the editing exist to convey this message, but you do not spend 90 minutes sitting with people who repeat the director’s intended message to you over and over.
In today’s documentaries about any serious topic (war, environmental damage, health care accessibility, hunger, and really any topic that addresses the suffering of living things), more often than not, you get spoon fed the message of the director with talking head interviews with various people who essentially say the same thing. Again, to repeat, these topics are important, but the recent trend in the documentary form with its perspective-less interviews frequently fails to produce any deeper empathy than that of a public service announcement. And even worse than the cold, distanced, content-less interviews are the moments of “artistic expression” meant to convey the message in some abstract way. These moments frequently do even more damage to the communication of the theme of the work, breaking up the tone of the interviewees with these abstractions that at best evoke some short sense of pathos and some pat on the back for pretentious creativity that is difficult to critique in public without some dissent.
Now, what happens when one of these serious modern documentaries filled with heart-wrenching interviews and artistic interludes gets extended into graphic novel form?
You get the Walking Wounded: Uncut Stories From Iraq, a clumsy, awkward novel that fails to provide further dimensionality and richness to Morel’s documentary film On the Bridge (which in itself haphazardly handles the stories of the veterans it includes) and feels more like an attempt to capitalize on a “hot” media form without ever studying how to create a story in the comic form that everybody is ranting and raving about.
The Walking Wounded includes the stories of the veterans included in On the Bridge with a tiny bit of Morel’s perspective as he made the film. In the novel, Morel does address the moral line between storytelling and exploitation that all documentarians face, but given the sparseness of these moments of reflection in the novel, his own perspective on the making of the film only feels like a digression away from the stories of the veterans. So, if the novel does not expand on Morel, then shouldn’t he use the graphic novel to expand on the stories of the veterans?
Well, he does include some moments of how the interviews with our veterans, Wendy, Vince, Ryan, Jason, Kevin, and Lisa and parents of veteran Jeff Lucey came to happen, but with his attempt at non-linear storytelling to portray each veteran’s role in the film paired with their experience in and out of war, Morel butchers the stories and throws them incongruously together, making it difficult to get to know each veteran beyond the panels where they discuss how they felt deceived by our politicians and how the terrors of war make it difficult to experience regular life. We get no time to live with our veterans and have them naturally recount their experiences in war and in civilian life; we only get their answers to Morel’s pointed questions. Consequently, given all of the veteran stories included in the 122 pages of the Walking Wounded, the novel is a modge-podge collage of understanding post-traumatic stress syndrome rather than an insightful, pensive work which explores and attempts to comprehensively understand how PTSD manifests and affects our veterans.
Thus, what makes the Walking Wounded an infuriating read is its absolute failure to extend the stories of the veterans featured in On the Bridge; in fact, he chops them shorter in the novel and interrupts them with making of the film moments, failing to build greater perspective and empathy, which, in total, fails the veterans included in the novel and the cause-at-large to provoke change in our society’s approach to veteran care and support in reintegration into civilian life. The Walking Wounded provides no more depth or information than a news item, and with its attempt to include so many stories into a small book, it feels like a human interest piece about veterans that you would see produced for CNN or PBS. Morel would have seen far more success if he focused on one specific veteran, but instead, he includes only didactic moments from each veteran’s story, making the whole book as thought-provoking as a pamphlet on veterans’ PTSD in a psychologist’s office; and, to further this info pamphlet vibe, Morel even includes a patronizing Notes section which includes elementary definitions for a range of items such as The Subprime Crisis and Crash of 2008 and Abu Ghraib, all of which need far more discussion and analysis than what he provides (did he not think his readers were capable of looking up information about the topics he described?).
All of my anger at Morel’s incompetence can be summed up in one moment…When Morel meets Ryan Endicott, a young marine who is sitting alone at a Christmas party, and strikes up a conversation with him, Ryan discusses how he hates everything, especially Santa. To hammer home Ryan’s struggle with the trivialness of everyday civilian life compared to his experiences in war, Morel and Maël include an image of Morel and Ryan speaking on a bench dwarfed by a sepia image of a giant Santa carrying a bag of weapons. If that one scene alone does not convey the utterly poor and grossly heavy handed execution of the Walking Wounded, then I pray for the future of documentaries and nonfiction graphic novels, for we have regressed in our expectations of how to present, digest, and comprehend controversial and difficult topics, thus doing no justice to the stories of the people ultimately affected.
Walking Wounded by Olivier Morel and Maël is available via NBM.