Willie and Joe

Quintessential American Soldiers

In a recent City Journal retrospective of three American cartoonists, Stefan Kanfer recalled one whose name might not be familiar: Bill Mauldin. You may, however, remember his drawing of the Lincoln Memorial statue with its head in its hands, an act of mourning the day after John F. Kennedy was shot.

Mauldin was an Army G.I. during World War II. Having learned to draw from a correspondence course and later at the Academy of Fine Art in Chicago, he began contributing cartoons to the 45th Division newspaper. Soon his cartoons appeared in Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper.

His drawings depicted, writes Kanfer, “two ‘dogfaces,’ unshaven battle-weary men known only as Willie and Joe.” Willie’s and Joe’s remarks vividly illustrated the lives of the common soldier. In one, Willie remarks to a medic: “Just give me the aspirin. I already got a Purple Heart.” In another, Joe, peeking out from his tent at a puppy shivering in the rain, says: “Let ’em in. I wanna see a critter I kin feel sorry fer.”

Mauldin wrote about Willie and Joe saying: “Their nobility and dignity come from the way they live unselfishly and risk their lives to help each other. They wish . . . they were someplace else, and they wish . . . they would get relief. They wish . . . the mud was dry, and they wish . . . their coffee was hot. They want to go home. But they stay in their wet holes and fight, and then they climb out and crawl through minefields and fight some more.”

Kanfer notes that historian Stephen Ambrose described the soldiers of the Battle of the Bulge in much the same way. “What was unacceptable to the G.I. in that foxhole,” Ambrose explained, “was letting his buddies down. They knew the difference between right and wrong, and they didn’t want to live in a world in which wrong prevailed.”

That same motivation has always spurred our soldiers to action — including our troops in Operation Iraqi Freedom. They also endured hardships, bad weather conditions — and some, taken prisoner, endured torture — all because they knew that in fighting the war, they were overthrowing a regime in which “wrong prevailed.”

I remember the famous photo a few years ago of a Princeton student at an anti-war rally carrying a poster that read, “Nothing is worth dying for.” How sad. But Col. David Perkins at a ceremony in Baghdad, remembering those who died in Iraq got it right. “There are things worth dying for,” he said. “Freedom is one of those things.”

And while we do well to celebrate great war heroes like Eisenhower and Patton, don’t forget the quiet, humble sacrifice of the enlisted soldiers that Willie and Joe represented: those who left the comforts of home, the love of family, and the safety of their country to fight so that right would prevail.

In his discussion of Psalm 131, Saint Augustine wrote that “humility of heart is a sacrifice.” On this Memorial Day let us share the sacrifice of those who served in all the wars: from the Revolution through Iraq — and do so by humbling ourselves in gratitude to them. And yes, fly the flag today and say a prayer of thanks for all the Willies and Joes who humbled their hearts, taking on difficult roles to serve our country.


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