THANKSGIVING IS a good time for putting things in perspective. Bill Mauldindid that in a wartime drawing from Europe 70 years ago that carried a message which still touches us. Mr. Mauldin was a soldier and combat cartoonist (recipient of the Purple Heart) serving with the 45th Infantry Division in its long, bloody progress through Italy. Along the way, he created the characters who were to personify the reality of the war for millions of Americans. They were Willie and Joe — two unshaven, disheveled, perpetually exhausted enlisted men, pushed to the brink by combat and by the suffering of soldiers and civilians, but determined to see the thing through and keep their sanity and humanity.
Their creator sympathized deeply with the infantrymen he knew and expressed to the people back home the deprivation and danger they faced — but also their dignity and generosity, as exemplified in a drawing he did of an American soldier giving his Army rations to a child in Italy amid the rubble of war.
“It would take a pretty tough guy not to feel his heart go out to the shivering, little six-year-old squeaker who stands barefoot in the mud, holding a big tin bucket so the dogface can empty his mess kit into it,” Mr. Mauldin wrote in his popular book “Up Front.” “Many soldiers, veterans of the Italy campaign and thousands of similar buckets, still go back and sweat out the mess line for an extra chop and hunk of bread for those little kids.”
These were men who had firsthand knowledge of personal sacrifice and the horrors of war and also a special appreciation of the good fortune enjoyed by their country. When the war was over, they and other Americans knew that, while we faced great challenges paying off war debts and converting to a civilian economy, they were as nothing compared with those confronting devastated nations in Europe and Asia. Americans looked to the future with a sense of hope and with the good sense to render help to nations blasted into ruin and starvation. The government set out to educate its veterans and to underwrite a series of national improvements. As in crises before and after, the country was thankful for the things that mattered: the survival of union, the enduring common faith in representative self-government.
Perhaps it takes really bad times to make us see things in proper proportion. The current discontent roiling the country’s politics might make one think we were on the brink of destruction. Hardly. Real grievance and serious injustice persist, but often the dangers are escalated into the realm of hyperbole by people seeking to make a buck, or a career, by doing so. This might be as good a time as any to reflect on Thanksgivings past — during the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II and in the grim months after Sept. 11, 2001 — to recall that the answer to real crisis lies in our imagination, generosity of spirit, commitment to democratic ideals and a refusal to be ruled by vague fears and mindless malice. In other words, to be grateful and, for a moment at least, thoughtfully silent.