This past summer, one of my vacation stops was Normandy, where I had the opportunity to visit some of the D-Day landing beaches, as well as the American Cemetery. It was a profoundly moving experience, and that day weighs on my mind with Veterans Day this week. When a co-worker suggested that I look to this American holiday to inspire my review, I became curious about what Joplin Public Library’s collection had to offer regarding war-time experiences.

Much to my surprise, besides the usual heavy historical tomes, I found graphic novels. Some depicted a particular event, such as Larry Hama’s “The Battle of Iwo Jima: Guerilla Warfare in the Pacific.” Others, such as those described below, focused more on the human cost of war.

Last Day in Vietnam, by Will Eisner

Here, Eisner, considered one of the format’s greatest practitioners, looks back on his years of military involvement, first as a soldier during World War II and then as a civilian contractor during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. “Last Day in Vietnam” is not a true story; rather, it’s a fictional memoir, inspired by people and experiences he encountered while traveling and working.

The titular story focuses on an Army major escorting an unseen guest on a junket into the jungle, like Virgil in a helmet and BDUs. He’s been given a safe duty to ride out his last day in country, and his jovial, wise-cracking demeanor is that of someone who knows he’s going home. His attitude is almost jarring in comparison with that of his fellow soldiers, particular the “sniffers” their helicopter picks up and drops off during the journey; the blank faces and thousand-yard stares of these men trained to detect Viet Cong in the jungle reveals much more about war than words ever could. Only later in the story, when the reporter and his guide find themselves in the middle of a firefight, does the major reveal the anxiety and fear beneath his jokes and grins.

Other stories in the collection focus on a Vietnamese waiter sharing his perspective of the journalists who pass the time drinking and sunning on hotel patios, soldiers who become casualties of their weakness for the local ladies and booze, and men who are not entirely what they seem.

In “Last Day in Vietnam,” Eisner’s pictorial storytelling is easy to follow, his black-and-white images clean and not overly detailed, and the dialogue revealing about the true consequences of battle.

The Harlem Hellfighters, by Max Brooks and Caanan White

Fans of the author’s other work (“World War Z” and “The Zombie Survival Guide”) might be surprised to know that he wrote a historical graphic novel inspired by a little-known part of World War I and African-American history.

From the first enlistments in 1917 Harlem to their return to America in 1919, the 369th Infantry spent more time in combat than any other American unit, never lost ground to the Germans and won numerous commendations. Their determination and courage in battle caused the enemy to nickname them the Harlem Hellfighters.

Their fictionalized story as depicted in the graphic novel is a rough one. The regiment faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles before it even made it to the frontlines in Europe. Weapons that should have been used in their training were sent to private gun clubs. The segregated community in which they trained openly despised them. No parades sent them off to war, unlike their white fellow soldiers.

Upon arrival in France, they were used as dock laborers instead of soldiers. And when they finally made it into the trenches, the U.S. government quashed French attempts to treat them as equals, insisting on the enforcement of Jim Crow laws. Never mind the Germans; the Harlem Hellfighters were locked in conflict with their own government and military.

“The Harlem Hellfighters” is a tough read. The racism that the soldiers encounter is brutal and discouraging, and the chaotic horrors of battle are unvarnished. But it’s also an important and ultimately inspiring read that I highly recommend.

War Brothers, by Sharon E. McKay and Daniel LaFrance

“War Brothers” focuses on a different type of soldier: children kidnapped and forced into servitude by members of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel faction trying to bring down the Ugandan government. McKay based her graphic novel on true stories she collected during time spent with child soldiers, and the result is riveting.

Jacob and his friends, newly returned to school, are forcibly taken from their dorm and conscripted into “military” service. They are beaten, starved and threatened with death if they fail to follow orders. Imagine being told to beat a fellow student to death or given a machete and told to kill a woman protecting her child. This was reality for the child soldiers: kill or be killed. Eventually, a handful of children escape their rebel captors, embarking on a dangerous journey home. To find out if their ending is a happy one, you’ll need to read “War Brothers.”

I hope that you’ll take the time to check out these books and many others from the Joplin Public Library. Just don’t try to do so Wednesday, Nov. 11, as the library will be closed in observance of Veterans Day. We will reopen at 9 a.m. the next morning.

 

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