There’s a lack and a longing in the heart of Abe Belatzakof, the main character of Maximilian Uriarte’s graphic novel about the U.S. Marine Corps, The White Donkey: Terminal Lance. A middle class kid from Portland, Oregon, with a sharp intellect, an absent father, and a lover whose status in his life is uncertain, Abe enlists in the Marine Corps because he is "looking for something else." His journey takes him from the Marine base at Twentynine Palms to the war in Iraq, and finally home again. Along the way, his life will confirm what Aeschylus cautioned more than two millennia ago: "We must suffer, suffer into truth."
At the start of The White Donkey, Abe finds himself in the Bellows Training area of Oahu, Hawaii, in 2007. Alone in a hot, rainy forest, he is ambushed and captured by the man who will become his close friend, Jesus Garcia. (The image of one man’s hand reaching for another’s recurs throughout the novel, a leitmotif for the brotherly care that binds Marines.) Garcia has had far fewer life opportunities than Abe, but he proves himself to be good-natured and generous nevertheless, and he sees the Marine Corps as his escape from poverty, crime, and a future in prison. He also sees his decision to join as God’s will, and his faith in God and in the Marine Corps at times clashes with Abe’s atheism.
From the beginning, the two men are dogged by their inexperience—they’re both new to the fleet and constantly being called "boot" because they haven’t seen action in "The Suck" of the war in Iraq.
Abe: "How long do you think this whole boot thing is gonna last? I figured once we got to the fleet we’d be treated like actual Marines…"
Garcia: "I don’t know. It’s not so bad though. So they call us boot and make us clean their shit, but it’s kind of just how it is you know?"
Abe: "Yeah I guess so… I just think it’s fucking stupid."
Olsen: "You’re a boot until you’ve seen combat, boot… It’s quite simple."
Uriarte is unsparing in his representation of the tense, sometimes hostile interactions between Marines, whether enlisted or officers. Abe is hazed by a drunken Lance Corporal before deployment, Garcia regularly endures Hispanic slurs, company briefs are littered with sexist remarks, and many Marines display an uneasy mix of homoerotic and homophobic attitudes toward each other. Uriarte’s portrait of the incompetence and conniving amongst officers is especially scathing. During training in Hawaii, Abe’s platoon commander, LT Ding, delays his men’s return home with a fabricated training exercise, in which they must search for a hidden weapon ("a notional weapons cache," as Abe calls it): LT Ding’s own M4, which he misplaced in a port-o-john. It’s a critique of the need some officers feel to save face before their men, and it’s a pointedly ironic comment about the search for weapons of mass destruction that was the Bush administration’s initial explanation for invading Iraq.
Uriarte also satirizes the sentimental treatment of the military by civilians. While on leave in Portland before deploying to Iraq, Abe and Garcia meet Abe’s uncle Sammy, who "thanks them for their service," even though, as Abe says, "We…haven’t really…done anything…" Uriarte evokes all the awkwardness of the exchange, from Sammy’s lack of real understanding to the discomfort Abe feels. The civilian-military divide yawns wider at a dinner with Abe’s friend Spencer, who asks, "Are you excited to go to Iraq?" adding, "I would be, your life is like a real life Call of Duty or something."
Once Abe and Garcia deploy to an area outside of Fallujah as part of a unit providing security for a commanding officer, they encounter a war that is decidedly post-insurgency, where the line between enemy and civilian blurs, and the mission goals are obscured by the fog of politics. "How the hell are we supposed to know that these are good guys?!" Abe asks upon seeing black-masked Iraqi Police in civilian clothes. "The glow-belts," responds his team leader.
Uriarte dramatizes the impact of such ambiguities on the character of Marines who have trained for combat but must face a very different enterprise, one that is humanitarian, mind-numbingly dull, and potentially fatal. While the Marines interact with Iraqi locals, negotiate disputes, and bond with children, they also must face potential IEDs, the occasional sniper, and their mounting frustration that their efforts will lead to nothing. While Abe doesn’t face armed combat, the war harms him nevertheless, from his crumbling relationship with his girlfriend Jen, to the moral crisis of deciding if he should shoot an Iraqi driver speeding heedlessly toward a checkpoint, to the unexpected trauma that will shatter his world and redefine his life.
Maximilian Uriarte served in the Marine Corps Infantry, deploying to Iraq in 2007 and 2009. Though he began his popular comic strip Terminal Lance in 2010, Uriarte had already envisioned The White Donkey, and he used the comic strip to develop Abe and Garcia as characters. The White Donkey has a strong, unified feel, and though its stylized realism sometimes makes recognizing the Marines a challenge (because the men look similar in build, hairstyle, and uniform), Uriarte uses that sameness to bring out his characters’ expressions. One easily comes to see these characters as real people.
It is unfortunate that a book so careful and thorough in its examination of the enlisted experience and of life in post-insurgency Iraq should feel so rushed at the end. But the final quarter of the book, which details the consequences of the traumatic event that overturns Abe’s life, is less fully realized than the narrative preceding it. In his afterword, Uriarte writes that he approached The White Donkey as a film, and that the novel could be seen as a fully realized storyboard. Abe’s return to the U.S. and his experience of PTSD are indeed cinematic: Uriarte offers powerful images of the stupor, anxiety, and rage that a traumatized person suffers. But these powerful later scenes lack the more nuanced and developed narrative driving the rest of the novel. Perhaps the change is psychologically apt: by the end of the book, Abe’s world has collapsed around him, and the number of close-up frames on his eyes is almost suffocating. But the fact is that others do still exist in Abe’s life, though we only get glimpses of their lives and the way that Abe’s suffering affects them.
Still, there is no denying the power of the final pages. The image of the white donkey, which Abe first encounters on a road in Iraq and which appears to him again at moments of great moral and personal crisis, is a remarkable symbol for the war with all its ambiguities and suffering. Uriarte has grasped at powerful mysteries—about what drives young people to join the military and willingly confront danger, about the experience of trauma and grief, and about friendship—and by the end of the book, has given us a portrait of one man’s lonely, courageous attempt to come to terms with these mysteries and "finally figure out what I was looking for…"