Gene Basset’s Vietnam Sketchbook: A Cartoonist’s Wartime Perspective. By Thom Rooke. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2015.
Among the regrets of the passing of the newspaper age is the decline of news illustration. There are some places where digital cameras and video recorders can’t go—inside courtrooms, for instance. Although major metropolitan newspapers still employ sketch artists, these days it’s likely to be a single individual, not entire departments as once was the case.
Illustrations tell a different kind of story than videotape or photographs, one more grounded in impression, metaphor, and the subjectivity of the artist. Thom Rooke takes us back to the days of great newspaper sketch artists such as his subject, Gene Basset. Basset sketched for papers and magazines such as the Hawaii Star Bulletin, U.S. News and World Report, and the syndicated papers of the Scripps-Howard chain. The later was his employer for 19 years, many of which coincided with the Vietnam War, the subject of Rooke’s book.
Vietnam has been called America’s “first living-room war.” Indeed, millions vicariously experienced the war through television footage and glossy photographs reproduced in “picture magazines” such as Life and Look that resided on living-room coffee tables. Reportage and documentation were essential in informing about the war, but interviewers, sketch artists, and novelists have often done a better job of explaining what it was like to be in the war.
Gene Basset’s Vietnam Sketchbook is as advertised: 80 plus images rendered mostly between 1965 and 1969. They are captioned sketches drawn quickly in a loose style, not finely detailed stand-alone scenes. For sketch artists, time is of the essence—and never more so than when rendered in a warzone. As such, Basset’s images often capture the frenetic energy, the pump of adrenaline, and in-the-moment emotions of war better than photographs. Particularly compelling are Basset sketches that highlight contrasts: American jeeps wending their way through bicycle-clogged streets, the relative wealth of café patrons juxtaposed with peasant passersby, and the enormous size of U.S. soldiers vis-à-vis the Montagnard recruits they trained. In like fashion, Basset’s partly constructed images brilliantly render other aspects of the Vietnam War that are less discussed than firefights and bloodshed: the ennui of soldiers waiting in lines, negotiations in black markets; peasants tending water buffaloes; the tedium of painting a naval cutter; and GIs attending cockfights, buying pornography, or soliciting prostitutes in Saigon. The latter three tell another story; some of Basset’s less savory images were published under sanitized captions. A GI about to procure a sexual tryst was captioned “Nice Girl,” the claim of her pimp. But because he is standing by a small market, it was relabeled “Come, Real American Food” (55). Such deception anticipates the revelations of The Pentagon Papers, in which Americans learned that the official story of Vietnam often had little to do with reality.
All of this is to say that Gene Basset’s Vietnam Sketchbook is worth checking out. Whether the reader connects with Rooke’s narrative is more problematic. Rooke is a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic—a trained cardiologist, not a social scientist. His analytical framework is adapted from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ 1969 bestseller On Death and Dying, which postulated that the grieving process involves five distinct stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Rooke draws upon his medical observations to apply Kübler-Ross’ model more broadly; in essence, he asserts that many GIs and Basset himself refracted their Vietnam experience through the Kübler-Ross model. Though he acknowledges that Kübler-Ross later admitted her model was overly linear and (perhaps) reductionist, Rooke nonetheless finds connections with Basset’s imagery. He’s probably right that there are parallels, but by assigning Basset’s sketches to one or another of the Kübler-Ross categories, Rooke often imposes interpretations that are more mechanistic than convincing. This is especially so when he reads into images things that are not in accord with Basset’s own recollections. In an odd way, Rooke is rewrites some of Basset’s captions in ways analogous to military censors.
Or not. Rooke befriended Basset, who green-lighted this project, so one must assume Basset wasn’t as unsettled by some of the analysis as I. Does Rooke’s application of Kübler-Ross categories make for a unique frame, or a contrived one? It probably boils down to whether one finds the text an interesting case study in how one can apply theory, or if one would prefer more comment on sketch art, the field context of each image, or how Basset’s work is situated within the larger context of representations of the Vietnam War. Few reviews are more disingenuous than those that take writers to task for not penning the books the reviewers wish they had read. On the other hand, there is little intellectual merit in blithely asserting that all interpretive frameworks are equally valid. In the spirit of fair play, I see Gene Basset’s Vietnam Sketchbook as containing plenty of usable material for scholars approaching the Vietnam War from any of a number of angles. It will also make you yearn for the golden age of newspaper illustration.
Robert E. Weir, Ph.D.
University of Massachusetts Amherst