"We Cannot let This Reprehensible Cartoon go Unanswered"

|

The Joint Chiefs of Staff write a letter to the editor of the Washington Post over a Tom Toles cartoon featuring a legless soldier that they found "beyond tasteless."

Editor and Publisher reports on the Post's reaction here; folks over at AmericaBlog are quite alarmed. Not sure I agree that this should be read as an egregious attempt at intimidation that rises to the level of attempted censorship; and those wishing to shout a hearty "God Bless America" can compare this reaction to an offensive cartoon to the one from Denmark that some saw as an insult to Mohammed, blogged by Cathy Young below and me here.

Still, it is at least fair to say that they should have better things to do with their time and the better judgment to realize that such a letter could be read in a potentially sinister way, and just let it go by.

NEXT: Blasphemy in Denmark — and here

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Or maybe they should express their views and have them debated, both pro and con, in an atmosphere of peaceful give-and-take in the US democratic tradition. Which is what is happening.

  2. Albo—I have strong inclinations to agree. The difference that makes a difference here, I think, is the “government officials on government letterhead on govenrment time” part.

  3. Let me preemptively point out my own stupid typo. In summary: we aren’t paying them to write complaining letters to the editor.

  4. So Albo, what was the pro cartoon that they printed? What ever happened to equal time?

  5. Neither are most of our employers paying us to be here. But here I am…

  6. Neither are most of our employers paying us to be here. But here I am…

    Yes, but you’re not forcibly taking money from your employer, are you? And if you are please tell me how.

  7. After I saw the cartoon Wednesday, I couldn’t figure out what they were so upset about. It’s a fairly routine cartoon that I didn’t find especially funny, but it had nothing to do with being offensive. It just wasn’t that interesting to me. I can’t imagine why they were moved to write the letter. I really don’t care that they DID write a letter, though.

  8. While I agree that this may be a waste of government resources, I can’t get all that upset by it. After reading the letter, I don’t certainly see it as any attempt at censorship. It’s fairly innocuous, and shouldn’t have taken more than a couple of minutes of our government’s valuable time. Of course, being the government, it may well have taken 7 people working through the night getting overtime pay and a catered midnight snack…

  9. When the Joint Chiefs start rioting and calling for the newspaper to be closed, the editor fired, etc., pls. let me know.

    Until then, whatever, dude. Just because the Joint Chiefs are government employees doesn’t mean they have to lay down and take it from every two-bit cartoonist who can grasp a crayon between his digits. If they want to write a letter of protest, fine. Still, this kind of thing usually just brings more attention to whatever you were protesting, so its not usually the brightest thing to do.

  10. The final issue of the Garth Ennis comic “303” from Avatar Press featured a certain chief executive being assasinated by an ex-military man. Given the shrieking the Right bellowed out over the “leftist” actions of Superman and Captain America in recent years, I was stunned that they did not jump all over this.

  11. With all the talk of cartoonists today, one might think that they wield some major power over the opinions of their readers.

  12. That’s preposterous.

  13. But why do cartoons hate America?

    har, i got to say it finally.

    Funny how the joint chiefs chose to focus solely on the ‘callous depiction’ of a maimed soldier, and not on the actual point of the cartoon… the callous treatment the Pentagon has shown to wounded vets.

    As my veteran marine drill-seargent dad would have said (in an unintentional pun),

    “enough of this mickey mouse shit! Get back to work!”

  14. That’s preposterous.

  15. Stretch — I don’t rely on force so much as deception… just like our government 😉

  16. The only thing “beyond tasteless” and “reprehensible” is having to watch a decorated officer and the first Marine ever to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff turn into a Bush administration hack.

    Anyone with a mammalian brain and basic reading comprehension skills knows the cartoon is harmless. The Joint Chiefs are just trying to win the “who supports the troops more than the other guy?” contest, probably at the request of Rumsfeld.

  17. Umbriel, you are not acting in an official capacity. By putting their letter on letterhead, and referring to “we,” they are.

    Ditto to RC. A letter from people who are on the Joint Chiefs? Fine. A letter from the Joint Chiefs of Staff? Uh uh.

    And on the substance of the letter, in no way was this an attack on the the troops. It’s a cartoon about how the troops are being screwed by the political leadership. I’m sick and tired of the asshats in the administration hiding behind the troops every time someone attacks the administration on policies and the orders they give.

  18. Jeff P. — What “leftist” superhero activities are you referring to?

  19. Does anyone know if the Post has published the (now infamous) 12-Mohammeds cartoon that has got the Danes all fatwa’d?

  20. It would’ve been funny if they’d used letterhead and jointly (yuck, yuck) signed a one-sentence letter: “We are not amused”. Lost opportunity, that.

    Wonder if they feel a kinship with angry, Muslim anti-cartoon folks about now?

  21. With all the talk of cartoonists today, one might think that they wield some major power over the opinions of their readers.

    Comment by: B.D. at February 2, 2006 01:30 PM

    That’s preposterous.

    Comment by: Zonker at February 2, 2006 01:34 PM

    “Wow.” “Wow.”

  22. (Pertains to comics, so kind of off-topic)

    Jeff P. – my friend turned me on to Garth Ennis with the limited series Ghostrider that’s about come to it’s conclusion. Good stuff.

  23. Lasagnia!

  24. With all the talk of cartoonists today, one might think that they wield some major power over the opinions of their readers.

    I actually wouldn’t be surprised if they held more sway than than the writers.

  25. My diagnosis: What a bunch of blockheads!

    Five cents, please.

  26. Brian – “government officials on government letterhead on govenrment time”

    When I read this, the first thing that sprang to my mind was the anecdote about Condelezza Rice being accosted in a shoe store for not being at work while the Katrina shit was hitting the fan.

    It seems that we expect our high level officials to be not just available 24/7, but actually active at work 24/7. It seems the criticism can be thrown at them for being on the clock, or being off it. It’s gotten to the point where these people ARE the office, for better or worse. I’m not sure that it’s a valid criticism to say that someone cannot make a personal statement from thier position.

    At any rate, I can’t see how using the prestige or weight of a public office to make such a statement is in any way an abuse – the first amendment applies to them too. That said, they have neither the authority nor the power to do anything more than sending a letter.

    The statement is far from censorship – and any media outlet, or even individual blogger, that sees it as “intimidation” should have a much stronger spine and thicker skin. It might be intimidating to some people to recieve such a letter, but then some people consider a spider 1/16″ across to be intimidating.
    I’d place the chances of Toles’ being “disappeared” by the JCS at somewhere VERY close to 0%.

    Crying “censorship” over this is like crying wolf. If it happens enough it makes the real thing, like Campaign Finance Reform, that much harder to stop.

  27. Great.
    Now we have to win the hearts, minds and cartoons of the Muslim world.

  28. I liked the letter.

    It did not threaten or hint at a threat. It included no demand to fire the cartoonist, to avoid such cartoons in the future, or even to apologize. It merely expressed a harsh opinion.

    I wish more people in government were that respectful of the First Amendment.

  29. And on the substance of the letter, in no way was this an attack on the the troops. It’s a cartoon about how the troops are being screwed by the political leadership. I’m sick and tired of the asshats in the administration hiding behind the troops every time someone attacks the administration on policies and the orders they give.

    If you’re going to comment on the substance of the letter, you might actually want to read it. The Joint Chiefs made no claim that the cartoon was an “attack on the troops”, nor were the Chiefs “hiding behind the troops” or any of the other nonsense you allege.

  30. “Until then, whatever, dude. Just because the Joint Chiefs are government employees doesn’t mean they have to lay down and take it from every two-bit cartoonist who can grasp a crayon between his digits. If they want to write a letter of protest, fine. Still, this kind of thing usually just brings more attention to whatever you were protesting, so its not usually the brightest thing to do.”

    It did not threaten or hint at a threat. It included no demand to fire the cartoonist, to avoid such cartoons in the future, or even to apologize. It merely expressed a harsh opinion.”

    That. Is. Not. The. Point. The point is that the Joint Chiefs spent the time to write this little letter. If one, or all, the joint chiefs had gotten together after work and penned this little thing and signed it with their own names, fine. But acting as government officials, on government time, on government letterhead, it DOES make a difference.

    Though, I don’t share Doherty’s level of alarm. Quite frankly, I’d much rather the Joint Chiefs spend time writing letters to the editor, than have them galavanting around the globe on multi-trillion-dollar nationbuilding misadventures.

  31. “Until then, whatever, dude. Just because the Joint Chiefs are government employees doesn’t mean they have to lay down and take it from every two-bit cartoonist who can grasp a crayon between his digits. If they want to write a letter of protest, fine. Still, this kind of thing usually just brings more attention to whatever you were protesting, so its not usually the brightest thing to do.”

    It did not threaten or hint at a threat. It included no demand to fire the cartoonist, to avoid such cartoons in the future, or even to apologize. It merely expressed a harsh opinion.”

    That. Is. Not. The. Point. The point is that the Joint Chiefs spent the time to write this little letter. If one, or all, the joint chiefs had gotten together after work and penned this little thing and signed it with their own names, fine. But acting as government officials, on government time, on government letterhead, it DOES make a difference.

    Though, I don’t share Doherty’s level of alarm. Quite frankly, I’d much rather the Joint Chiefs spend time writing letters to the editor, than have them galavanting around the globe on multi-trillion-dollar nationbuilding misadventures. Yes, my tax dollars paid for them to write this thing, but that’s all my tax dollars paid for. If they had used that time to, say, start a war, then, well, I’d be paying for their time, AND I’d be paying for the war.

  32. ‘The Joint Chiefs made no claim that the cartoon was an “attack on the troops”, nor were the Chiefs “hiding behind the troops”‘

    I don’t know what letter jf’s link takes him to, but the one I read yesterday, and the one the link takes me to when I follow it, includes these little gems:

    “…such a callous depiction of those who have volunteered to defend this nation…”

    “…we believe you owe the men and women and their families who so selflessly serve our country the decency not to make light of their tremendous physical sacrifices…”

    Nope, no charges that the troops are being attacked there. And no way a responding to a cartoon that disses the top brass by penning an ode to the sacrifices of the troops counts as hiding behind them.

    Did YOU read the letter, jf? It’s tough to believe you did.

  33. Public relations consumes a huge portion of the government’s budget. The Joint Chiefs may have wasted 15-20 minutes of their day writing a letter, but the government spends countless millions on anti-drug propaganda. The letter may not be acceptable to the absolute strictest of libertarians, but it’s still one of the least offensive government actions imaginable. It’s certainly not worth complaining about.

  34. joe, the letter specifically and solely mentions the depiction of a multiple-amputee soldier in that cartoon and the use of the same. You can read between the lines all you want, but your interpretation exists in your own head, not in the words contained in the letter sent by the Joint Chiefs.

  35. Words contained in the letter sent by the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

    “…such a callous depiction of those who have volunteered to defend this nation…”

    “…we believe you owe the men and women and their families who so selflessly serve our country the decency not to make light of their tremendous physical sacrifices…”

    Nope, I’m looking right at the lines themselves.

  36. You know, it is interesting that the most newsworthy cartoons around, those Danish cartoons that have so many Muslim knickers in a twist, haven’t been publishing in our leading “news” papers.

    Come on NY Times/WaPo/LAT! Stand up for free expression! Speak truth to power!

  37. Anyone with a mammalian brain and basic reading comprehension skills knows the cartoon is harmless.

    and this is the disquieting problem i see in this. this is obviously a non-issue in the material plane. so just what are the joint chiefs braying about?

    in the end, an affront to holy militarism — the notion that the organized slaughter machinery of the state is a moral agent of impeccable credential that is (or should be) above such bawdy criticism as might emit from a doodle.

    it seems to me that any nation in which a significant percentage of the population would agree with the joint chiefs that the military should not be so ciritcized — not on empirical points, nor on articulable ideological ones, but essentially spiritual ones — is charging pell mell into the maw of martial self-immolation.

  38. A couple points on the time issue and then one other remark. The joint chiefs and other high level government types work essentially all the time. There is no time clock and no “on” and “off” time. At a pretty deep level it does not make much sense to talk about their being “on the clock” because they are never off of it. Also, they spent about two minutes each on this. Someone had the idea, sent an email, got replies, a staff person wrote it up, they all read it, a couple small edits were made and some staff person carried it around to people’s offices to get it signed.

    Seems like a tempest in a teapot to me.

    What surprised me is the picture of Toles. I always pictured him looking rather like scrooge given the crabbed, nasty, ideological and vaguely stalinist odor on most of his cartoons. Instead he looks like someone from “That 70s Show”.

    Jeff

  39. Joe, your obvious glee at soldiers having limbs blown off is on display.

  40. It’s a cartoon about how the troops are being screwed by the political leadership.

    i would submit that this bit probably got a laugh out of those servicemen who saw it.

    it is amazing to me to look back at the first world war — less than a century ago — and read the literature of george bernanrd shaw, siegfried sassoon, wilfred owen, robert graves and finally erich maria remarque which were not only mildly critical but openly savaging and subversive of the entire belligerent military and political construct — not to mention disdainful of the very people they were ostensibly defending.

    what is allowed has changed quite a lot.

  41. If you do not comply with my demands, I shall injure you mercilessly with my cartoon-drawing skills!

  42. gaius marius,

    Yes, we have greater freedom of speech today. After all, we have no current example of what happened to The Masses.

  43. Can’t work up any outrage over this – I suppose that says something good about how citizens don’t fear the military here. On the other hand, “The Joint Chiefs of Staff” AKA the leaders of the most powerful Military ever shouldn’t be e-mailing cartoonists.
    Put me down in the “Against recieving letters from Generals in their official capacity” column.

  44. My best friend is a Muslim and he can take a joke…but apparently there is no such thing as comedy in the muslim world… now its all making so much sense.

    WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH

  45. P.S. Wrong Thread Above…

  46. what is allowed has changed quite a lot.

    Remember when they put Ted Rall in jail for his cartoons?

  47. Ya’ll seem to be missing the implied threat made by the JCs’ letters. News media rely on access to news-makers for their stories. Anybody who doesn’t get that the JCs very subtly told the editors of the Post (and every other media outlet)that “you’re pissing us off and you’d better knock it off or you’ll lose access” misses the point. I don’t think the censorship argument is that far-fetched.

  48. Ya’ll seem to be missing the implied threat made by the JCs’ letters. News media rely on access to news-makers for their stories. Anybody who doesn’t get that the JCs very subtly told the editors of the Post (and every other media outlet)that “you’re pissing us off and you’d better knock it off or you’ll lose access” misses the point. I don’t think the censorship argument is that far-fetched.

  49. What’s the big deal? They (or a secretary) spent time to write it. Your. Point. Is. Pointless. They probably have a whole PR department that deals with the media. Why aren’t you all upset about that, if this one fickin’ letter is so offensive?

  50. gaius marius – you forgot Eugene Debs in your list.

  51. “you’re pissing us off and you’d better knock it off or you’ll lose access” misses the point. I don’t think the censorship argument is that far-fetched.

    loss of access does not equal censorship

  52. Welcome back, Gaius! I take it Babia Maria is finally sleeping through the night?

  53. loss of access does not equal censorship

    Technically true, but I find it disturbing that in a supposedly free country with a supposedly free press, a government that is supposedly accountable to the people will only give information to news outlets that promise to discuss things in the way said government sees fit.

  54. Will Allen,

    I haven’t written anything to suggest that upcoming dismemberment of servicemen is either good, or deserved. You, on the other hand, described upcoming slaughter of Palestinians as both. Rather a significant difference. But nice try. If you’re eight.

  55. “… a government that is supposedly accountable to the people will only give information to news outlets that promise to discuss things in the way said government sees fit.”

    That’s why good news organizations file FOIA requests, lawsuits, and quote anonymous sources. Never ask a government official anything. Because a government official won’t tell you anything.

  56. gaius,

    I recommend Randolf Bourne’s essays of the WWI era. These were compiled in an excellent book – I believe the title was “Untimely Papers”

    His essays were radical and provocative – enough to get him thrown into the federal hoosegow.

  57. What next? Do they pull Johnny Got His Gun off the bookshelves at Border’s? Do they try to stop MTV from playing Metallica’s One video?

    Wouldn’t put it past ’em…

  58. The real outrage should be directed at the Bush Administration, the Pentagon and the Republican Congress that has used our troops as human shields against the political ramifications of their poor decision making. Wouldn’t the ultimate support for our troops be to bring them home to their families and give up this illegal war of choice.

  59. I have strong inclinations to agree. The difference that makes a difference here, I think, is the “government officials on government letterhead on govenrment time” part.

    Ah, yes … these bureaucrats shouldn’t have been goofing off, frittering away the day hunched around the table in the War Room passing around draft after draft (no pun intended) of their angry letter to the Post when they should have been concentrating on a plan for an orderly withdrawal of troops from Iraq (say, into Iran?)

    Sheesh. Rarely will I stick up for senior military officials, but it bloody well is their job to stick up for the troops they must order into harm’s way when they think those troops are being demeaned or unfairly treated. Second, dollars to donuts, they didn’t write the letter. Some lowly three star general probably got the assignment; they approved and signed it. Third, these guys put in amazingly long hours. (God forbid they chatted about the Super Bowl on company time, too!)

    And use of official letterhead? Right. They probably should have chipped in to buy a postcard, instead.

  60. “What next? Do they pull Johnny Got His Gun off the bookshelves at Border’s? Do they try to stop MTV from playing Metallica’s One video?”

    I, for one, wish that MTV would start playing Metallica’s One video, or even some of the “Black Album” stuff. Or even any videos at all. Does MTV have anything to do with music anymore?

  61. DA, I think you’re missing the point. This isn’t a budgetary or wasted money issue. It’s about the fact that the Joint Chiefs of Staff felt the need to take an official position criticizing a cartoon that was critical of Rummy and the administration. They could have written the letter on a Sunday morning instead of sleeping in and it would still be a problem.

    And joe’s right – the notion that the cartoon is critical of the troops is ludicrous. An eight year old might reach that conclusion, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff are presumably a little smarter than that; they’re hiding behind the troops.

  62. The Joint Chiefs aren’t attempting censorship, they’re attempting *spin.* Toles’ cartoon pointed up the criticism of the Bush administration that it’s hurting the troops by stretching them too thin. The cartoon also mocks’ Rumsfeld’s response to the criticism. In other words, the cartoon portrays the *administration* as insensitive to soldiers.

    The Joint Chiefs’ letter shifts the terms of the debate by making an idiotic accusation which Toles and his supporters nonetheless feel they have to take the time to rebut. The discussion shifts from the callousness of the administration to the [so-called] callousness of the cartoonist. The administration goes from defense to offense. Mission accomplished.

  63. DA, I’m sorry, I just saw that you were responding to Brian Doherty’s “we aren’t paying them to write complaining letters to the editor” posts specifically, and not to the general criticism on the thread. I should have read your post a little more closely.

  64. I see from the article that a Disabled American Veterans spokesman is *not* offended by the cartoon. He misinterpreted the cartoon’s message, but the basic point is that a lobbyist for the supposed targets of the cartoon — disabled veterans — isn’t working bothered by it, showing that this is a case of synthetic outrage by the Defense Dept.

  65. It clearly is a critique of Rummy’s attitude toward the military in the face of evidence that they are stretched to the limit. It indicates Rummy’s disregard for individual sacrifice and his horrendous policies which have left the military broken.

  66. If the complaint is that government employees should be doing something more productive, I’m surprised one would start with this example.

    Employees of a company got mocked in the paper and their bosses wrote a letter to the editor in their defense. Seems like good management and morale maintenance to me.

    (I know, I know, “How was that mocking?!?!?” Take it up with the Joint Chiefs, not me)

  67. If the JCS wanted to intimidate a newspaper they would be extremely foolish to do it publicly. There are plenty of ways they could communicate displeasure and/or threats privately, without fear of censorship accusations.

  68. The cartoon was extremely snotty, and the response from the Joint Chiefs was entirely appropriate. Criticism isn’t censorship.

    -jcr

  69. I was just surprised that a group of senior government officials didn’t know that a newspaper’s managing editor has no authority over the editorial pages.

  70. I’ve seen tasteless, and that ain’t it.

    Wish he could come out and play ball though. We need a third base.

  71. Wish he could come out and play ball though. We need a third base.

    When he goes swimming we call him Bob…

  72. … and when he comes to our door, we can call him Matt …

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.