An Exceptional War Cartoon
Over the last fourteen years I have seen hundreds of war cartoons depicting the various situations that reflect America’s involvement in international conflict. After a while, it seems like I am seeing the same satire reflected in nearly the same way but with a different picture. However, now and then I get a pleasant surprise. Someone publishes a cartoon that suggests a different angle of a conflict. The following cartoon does just that.
Tom Toles, “You’re Here to Help, Right?” Washington Post, 4 September 2016.
Vultures circling or, as they are doing in this drawing, assembled in a tree is as common a theme in cartoons about death as the Grim Reaper. However, the way the vultures are used, representing more than the idea that something is dead or dying, but representing the victim’s potential rescuers, is a trope that is not often used.
Toles suggests that Syria’s neighbors are merely waiting for Syria, under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad, to kill itself so that neighboring countries can take over what is left. The vultures are the nations surrounding Syria. The Islamic State, Bashar al-Assad, and The Syrian National Coalition are not among the vultures, they could be best described as the cancers within that are slowly causing Syria’s demise. However, the estate of the cancer victim is up for grabs when Syria becomes a corpse. That is what the vultures are after.
Syria’s neighboring countries have done nearly nothing to help end the war in Syria (and it is no coincidence that there are five vultures in the tree). Iraq has its own problems. Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon have had a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil policy toward al-Assad and his nation (if he, indeed, has a nation). Taking sides will rankle someone and those three nations do not want any more enemies than they have now. Turkey has had to defend itself from the confrontations between the three cancers in Syria in order to prevent itself from getting infected. Turkey is doing nothing to help the victim, but is doing its best not to harm the victim either. Those are the vultures in the neighborhood tree.
Russia and the United States are also principals in the Syrian conflict. Their interests are merely implied in this cartoon. The United States would like al-Assad to abdicate. Russia would like for him to remain in power. What’s the reward, for any of this? Even though Syria is the 68th largest oil producing nation in the world, they both want the oil. Now that the price of oil is under $50.00 per barrel, why should anyone care about Syria’s oil. The conflict began when the price of oil was much higher and, historically, once a country is in a conflict, it is difficult to get out without paying a high price. And while energy is always an issue with Russia and the U. S, there is also a matter of reputation at stake. As it was during the cold war, neither Russia nor America will back down.
Tom Toles uses an embedded panel to make a secondary comment in his own cartoon. In the lower right corner, Toles depicts himself at his drawing board watching the scene in front of him. The practice is similar to Pat Oliphant’s Punk the Penguin who gets the final say in his drawings. Toles says of the vultures, “They know how to pick their friends.” He is suggesting that when Syria finally dies, and the cancers (combatants) die with it, the surrounding nations will get their slice of Syria. Let’s hope that when the time comes there is something worth taking because few people believe that there is anything of Syrian leadership that is worth saving.
This cartoon is among the few that cannot be copied in a few decades, change the labels, and have a cartoon that reflects the times. This cartoon stands out as one that depicts the uniqueness of the Syrian conflict and only the Syrian conflict.