The subtitle to Olivier Morel and Mael’s graphic non-fiction, Walking Wounded: Uncut Stories from Iraq (NBM) makes a simple telling point. Most of the news we receive from any battle front is going to be, by necessity, heavily edited. But Morel, working as a documentarian after the fact, meeting with veterans who’ve returned from the hellscape that is war, doesn’t have to worry about this. That war is ended: time to look at the effects it had on those who fought in it.
The book, illustrated in gray and dried blood flashback wash tones by Mael, describes filmmaker Morel as he gets to know a group of Iraq vets for the making of his documentary On the Bridge. As he grows closer to them, he also gets drawn into their personal traumas. “Staring deep into a wounded soul,” he writes, “and with a camera to boot, is not without its consequences – for them or for me.” In addition to examining the post traumatic stress of post-war life, then, Walking Wounded also examines issues arising from the pursuit of these hard truths.
The book opens with a young soldier phoning his family from Iraq, leaving a message to his parents from the desert. We later get to meet those parents who describe the soldier’s last days back home. Suffering from PTSD and subject to fits of rage, he was unable to emotionally leave the country where he saw himself becoming “a killer.” Among the other vets, we meet a nurse who served at Abu Ghraib, patching up prisoners who’d been brutally interrogated. “I never knew what happened to them,” she says, “but I knew we were responsible for their injuries.” Overseeing the camp’s blood bank, she gave prisoners transfusions that served to prolong their time at Abu Ghraib: placing her in heart-rending conflict with her role as a healer.
Morel makes a point of establishing early that the horrors of war were not just confined to Iraq (he includes a French WWI vet’s flashbacks to a bloody moment from that particular conflict), while he also avoids America bashing. Midway into the book, we see the French immigrant himself go through the process of applying for American citizenship and talking with other immigrants about the country that they are striving to make theirs. While recognizing the country’s flaws, to them, “the magical process of naturalization means ‘freedom,’ ‘independence,’ a ‘fresh start,’ ‘pursuit of happiness,’ and they’ve got good reason to believe in it.” At the same time, Morel does not let our leaders at the time get away scot-free, noting for instance in an appendix how the Bush Administration engineered a series of drastic cuts to the Veteran’s Administration just months before the war.
But Morel’s book works to keep its focus on the vets and the routes they choose to pull their lives back together: for some, it’s activism; for others it’s the act of communicating their experience through art; for still more, it’s working to reassemble a life of American normalcy. Still others never manage to get past it.
Mael’s art is moody and evocative: at times looking reminiscent of an old EC war comic (I see hints of Jack Davis in some of his warriors’ expressions), others looking more expressionistic. Walking Wounded was my first exposure to the man’s art, but I hope that it won’t be my last. He has a strong grasp on his figures’ emotions, as dark as they may sometimes be.
A top-notch piece of graphic narrative, Morel and Mael’s Walking Wounded had particular resonance for me as I reread it on this Memorial Day.