Two-time Iraq War veteran Maximilian Uriarte’s graphic novel, The White Donkey, billed as “the story of a Marine and his surreal journey” to war, attempts to crystallize the collective experiences of enlisted grunts during the surge and the IED road wars. It’s a story about searching for reason in unreasonable situations.
Uriarte achieved cult success as the creator of the satirical web comic Terminal Lance, which follows the fictional Abe Belatzeko and Jesus Garcia (also the main characters of The White Donkey) through Marine Corps infantry misadventures on a weekly basis—think Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe, but with dick jokes.
On his second deployment in 2009, with a Combat Camera unit (his first tour in 2007 was as part of Third Battalion, Third Marine Regiment), Uriarte traveled around Iraq photographing, sketching, and documenting the everyday lives of deployed Marines. His experience certainly shows in his illustrations—the minutiae of combat equipment and the nuances of military bases and civilian towns are presented on the page in vivid detail. Each shade in Uriarte’s muted color palette—green, blue, and tan—signifies a different geographical region or timeline.
But while the visual storytelling is strong, the plot lacks punch and complexity. The Marines’ dialogue is often laden with lengthy conversations to justify the actions and reactions of the honorable, upright characters. This flattens them. Homophobic, ableist, and racist slurs and stereotypes whiz by without reflection on the idiosyncratic Marine Corps culture that perpetuates them, which feels like a missed opportunity on Uriarte’s part, since we’re led to believe that Abe isn’t the “typical knuckle-dragging grunt.” If Abe is atypical, then it stands to reason that The White Donkey should be an atypical war story.
In some ways it is. We don’t see troop movements or battle plans. There is no talk of overall strategy, aside from the old ‘hearts and minds’ adage. We see a very small portion of the war—the monotonous day-to-day of one platoon, often one man. We see ineffectual leaders making difficult decisions during the stress of combat. One of the moments of highest tension comes when Abe shoots an unarmed man driving a car toward an impromptu vehicle checkpoint. The man survives, but Abe’s confidence is shaken, his understanding of right and wrong disappearing into gray gradations.
Abe belongs to Third Battalion, Third Marine Regiment, like Uriarte did. These are the Marines who took over the Haditha area of operations after the murder of 24 Iraqi civilians by Marines from Third Battalion, First Marine Regiment, under the command of then Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich. Uriarte sets the scene: Haditha is mentioned several times, we learn that Corporal Albrecht (Abe’s grizzled team leader) was in Haditha when the battalion took over, and Abe shoots an unarmed civilian… but there’s no delivery, no larger conversation about the legacy of trauma inflicted on a distant country, only a stock exchange about the importance of quick decision-making.
The White Donkey examines our expectations of war according to what the media has showed us. Uriarte is concerned with how the war impacts people who are expected to transition back to a civilian world that understands the conflict in terms of The Hurt Locker and American Sniper. Abe’s sister, girlfriend, and best friend at home blend into that landscape, with little discussion as to how Abe’s deployment has left dents and pockmarks in their own lives.
The story takes a turn after the death of Abe’s platoon mate and close friend, Garcia, by IED. We follow Abe into a shame spiral of self-blame, survivor’s guilt, alcoholism, suicidal tendencies, and recovery, all in the span of a few months. And then Abe finds what he’s looking for, he recover. The happy ending might be what Uriarte’s internet followers expect, but it doesn’t ring true to the conflict and it simplifies the process of healing and atonement for veterans and families affected on either side of the war.
The White Donkey might have worked better in installments, providing Uriarte time to explore the contradictions of the Marine Corps, the complicated conflict in Iraq, and its impacts on those deployed to fight, those left at home, and Iraqi civilians as well. As an individual piece, it buckles under the burden it’s been given to carry.