Friday, December 19, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #353: The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks & Caanan White

When you think "African-American military history," you automatically think "guy who writes zombie books," right? It's not just me, is it?

Max Brooks, of World War Z fame, has had a passion project for the past decade or so -- which he details in his Author's Note at the end -- and it had nothing to do with zombies. (Though you could construct a through-line involving horribly mutilated human bodies, if you wanted to.) He's been enthralled with the story of the Harlem Hellfighters -- more officially the 369th Infantry Regiment of the US Army during World War I -- since the age of eleven, and spent years working on versions of a screenplay about their exploits.

Brooks transmuted those screenplays into a graphic novel, The Harlem Hellfighters, which came out earlier this year. Art is by Caanan White, whom Brooks implies he's previously worked with, though I can't figure out on what project.

We could ask all kinds of impertinent questions about this book -- is a white guy from LA the best one to tell this story? is it really in anybody's best interest to glamorize any aspect of the most brutal and dehumanizing war in history? does the black and white presentation really work with this art entirely devoid of tones? -- but The Harlem Hellfighters accomplishes its goals well, becoming an uplifting Hollywood movie on the page and making its 21st century readers feel morally superior and firmly anti-racist. (It's in development now, so it may yet become the movie it wants to be.)

Brooks tells the story as we would expect, throwing in a mixed bag of real historical and invented fictional characters, so he can include real events (Henry Johnson, the very first American to earn the French Croix de Guerre!) and many scenes of contemporary white people being horribly racist as well. The focus is on the fighting, so that group is lining up for induction on page twelve and soon rushed through basic and a queasy sea-journey to get to France, where they can start getting their faces shot off like millions of French, Germans, British, and Russians before them. The bulk of the book, as expected, is set in the trenches, mixing incredible feats of martial valor (forced marches under fire, ambushing Germans to save prisoners) with the usual explanations of the squalor those soldiers had to live in (lice. millions of lice) and an occasional not-quite-as-racist-as-you-d-expect white guy.

World War I had so many horrible things about it -- it only escapes being the premier abattoir of the 20th century because of what happened twenty years later -- that there's something disconcerting about focusing on the young men who desperately wanted to go fight. (Though one soldier here gives the best explanation: where else could he have white guys paying him to kill other white guys?) The Harlem Hellfighters is entirely focused on these young men and their struggle, and has no time for larger political questions, so the war just is.

I suppose it's good that these guys got trained, were able to stand up for themselves, and brought glory to themselves and their unit -- and that some of them even made it back to the US alive in the end -- but I still think if you're looking at The Great War as a place to prove yourself, get medals, and be recognized for martial prowess, you're entirely barking up the wrong tree. So this is a very heartfelt, well-dramatized and -drawn book that teaches entirely the wrong lesson.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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