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Ted Rall enjoyed his fifteen minutes of fame (really infamy, but there's no longer any difference between the two) when he penned this inflammatory cartoon :

That's obviously pitch black humor, and it tars with far too wide a brush, but, if we're brutally honest with ourselves, who hasn't been made queasy by the interviews with some of the surviving spouses where they complain about money or speak about their recently lost loved one in oddly disassociated tones?  It's all part of one of the most disturbing aspects of modern America, where no matter how horrible the personal tragedy that befalls you, it's all fodder for the culture of celebrity.  The outrage this panel provoked must surely have been a function of our guilty pleasure at its forbidden message.  Of course, the key to the humor in Mr. Rall's cartoon is its conservative sensibility.  It's often said that to a liberal life is a tragedy, to a conservative it's a comedy--hard to think of a more clear cut instance of someone viewing the grotesquely tragic through a comic lens.

All of which makes this book nearly inexplicable, because herein he takes exactly the opposite tack.  Particularly in the "Graphic Travelogue" portion of the book, which recounts his attempt to cover the war for the Village Voice, we're subjected to the cloying notion of Ted Rall as tragic victim of circumstance.  The essence of the piece, which contains no real reporting despite his journey to the war's front lines, is that he and other journalists had a really tough time over there.  We're submitted to innumerable complaints about the living conditions, the lack of cooperation from the U.S. military, and the eagerness of the natives (who he seems to despise) to gouge every last dollar out of the rich Americans.  In one especially ill-considered moment of self-pity, he compares himself to a survivor of the Nazi blitz of London because his window was rattled by an explosion over twenty miles away.

Without attempting to psychoanalyze Mr. Rall, he perhaps reveals more than he should have when explains why he so desperately wanted to view the war at first hand :

    Ever since my Mom had first told me about her childhood growing up under the Nazi occupation, I'd wanted to see war for myself.

Of course, in this little psychodrama the United States has to play the role of the Nazis and Mr. Rall gets to be a kind of ersatz Holocaust survivor.  Luckily, he seems entirely comfortable viewing his own country in this light.  As he tells another journalist :

    It's a burden to be American.  Everywhere you travel, people hate your country.  You know they're right but if you admit it, you feel unpatriotic.

One might think that Afghanistan would be a poor setting in which to despise American values, the most backward nation on earth because least Westernized, but Mr. Rall actually has this to say about its experiment with communism :

    The only good thing to happen here was the Soviet invasion...

and this about its experiment with Islamic fundamentalism :

    The Taliban had been simple-minded, cruel hicks, but they'd brought law and order.

which would seem to suggest that the relatively benign Soviets and Taliban were also mere victims of the Nazi-like American imperialism.

This comic book insert ends with Mr. Rall splayed in an easy chair in his New York apartment, seemingly traumatized into catatonia.  Yet he has the gall to complain about attention-seeking terror widows?

Flanking this embarrassing bit of navel-gazing are the essays that Mr. Rall wrote about the war (see below).  They betray an appalling lack judgment about a region that he claims he has rare insight into.  He began by claiming that the American war effort was solely about the oil reserves in the region and that it would be futile to try and quash terrorism.  Then, when the Taliban fell and al Qaeda was destroyed in mere weeks, he was forced to write about how it wouldn't matter, apparently because the next government of Afghanistan won't be perfect liberal democrats.  Mr. Rall's pessimism and defeatism is almost admirable in its consistency, but it begs the question, which he nowhere addresses, of what he would have done about the situation after 9-11.  It's notable that in the drawing where he's huddled in his apartment we can see the Trade Centers in the background and the first plane is just getting ready to hit.  Perhaps this would have been his chosen response, to just cower in shell-shocked terror and await our doom.  Somehow this response seems inadequate.  Worse yet, particularly if you fancy yourself a humorist, this is the response of a tragedian, not of someone who perceives the comedy in any given situation.  It may well be that Mr. Rall's personal politics render him incapable of competently practicing his chosen profession.

There's one scene in all this where Mr. Rall captures his own befuddlement all too clearly :

    One week after the Taliban fled this dusty provincial capital [Taloqan] to join their comrades defending nearby Kunduz, freedom was in the air.
    Eleven-year-old boys toting rocket launchers bigger than themselves milled about the central square, playing soccer, flying kites and shooting
    their AKs into the air.  Women briefly lifted their burqas to take a clear look at the workman painting over the Taliban logo on the local school.

    I wandered the streets feeling more like Mick Jagger than a citizen of the nation dropping bombs on the locals...

Now that's funny.  But, unfortunately for Mr. Rall, our laughter comes at his expense.  You can almost imagine him shaking these Afghanis and screaming at them : "Don't you realize the Americans did this to you!"  His inability to grasp the rather basic idea that the dream of freedom is universal--shared even by the people of Afghanistan, who had it so good during the Soviet occupation and Taliban oppression--and that it is America, more than any other nation in human history, that helps people everywhere to realize this dream, leaves us pitying him.  What a sorry bundle of humorless self-loathing is Ted Rall.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (F)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -Ted Rall Online
    -uComics Web Site featuring Ted Rall
    -ESSAY : SAY ANYTHING (Ted Rall, Apr 3, 2002)
    -ESSAY :  Nothing Changed After 9-11 :  Our Smoke and Mirrors War on Terror (Ted Rall, March 6, 2002, Common Dreams)
    -ESSAY : How We Lost Afghanistan : Fighting Terror on $1 Billion a Month (Ted Rall,  December 12 - 18, 2001, Village Voice)
    -ESSAY : Taliban Family Values: Vice Steps Out of the Closet in Afghanistan (Ted Rall, December 5 - 11, 2001, Village Voice)
    -ESSAY : Gimme Danger: Drearily Awaiting Death on the Front Line (Ted Rall, Village Voice, November 2001)
    -ESSAY : THE NEW GREAT GAME: Oil Politics in Central Asia (Ted Rall, October-12-2001)
    -ESSAY : WHEN LIFE IS A SHORT-TERM LEASE: Everyday Life in Afghanistan (Ted Rall, Comic Book Galaxy)
    -INTERVIEW : My Interview with Ted (Alan David Doane, Comic Book Galaxy)
    -PROFILE : Ted Rall combines offbeat humor with hard-hitting satire (David Astor, Detroit News)
    -PROFILE : of Ted Rall (JOHN SCALZI, March 6, 2002)
    -ESSAY : Rall v. Hellman Lawsuit: An OVERVIEW (Danny Hellman)
    -ESSAY : Return of Rall: Oil conspiracy redux (Bryan Keefer, April 12, 2002, Spinsanity)
    -REVIEW : of To Afghanistan and Back (Andrew Arnold, TIME)
    -REVIEW : of To Afghanistan and Back by Ted Rall (James Rosen, Washington Post)

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