The White Donkey

The White Donkey: Terminal Lance by Maximilian Uriarte (Little, Brown, and Co. February 2016, 288 pages)

This book is a well-chosen addition to the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ 2020 reading list, the visually stunning and poignant graphic novel. The White Donkey: Terminal Lance explores the existential crisis of the military experience for any enlistee that joins during a time of war. This tale of one Marine’s journey from work ups, through combat deployment and return home presents in bold monochromatic images, the truths, fictions and perceptions commonly confronted in the war on terror.   

The White Donkey is the seminal work by artist Maxmillian Uriarte. Widely known for his comic strip in Marine Times, Terminal Lance,  Uriarte enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 19 in 2006. During his time in the Marine Corps he completed two tours to Iraq, one as an Infantryman and another as a combat photographer and artist. While on active duty in 2010 he began publishing Terminal Lance and continues to do so since leaving the Marine Corps. In The White Donkey he illustrates the common aspects of the intense personal struggles inherent in military service during a time of ongoing war abroad with an all-volunteer force and relative tranquility at home. Using raw imagery, frank storytelling, and apt emotional drama, Uriarte captures the camaraderie, frustration, humor and tragedy that experienced military members will recognize. In this aspect, the book provides the uninitiated an accurate glance into the life of a young soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine.  

Leveraging familiar characters from Terminal Lance (Abe and Garcia), The White Donkey exposes the themes that shape military life.  From the frustrations of the training environment to the perils of barracks living, the reader sees how the men and women that make up the bulk of the Marine Corps live and perceive the life around them. Illuminating matters from enlisted mentorship, to hazing and bullying, the book shows the daily lives of the military “every man” and the threats they sometimes pose to themselves. Likewise, in examining the characters’ personal and spiritual lives, Uriarte grants insight into the preparation or lack thereof, that many young men and women have for the disruptive and dynamic military lifestyle. And, he captures the tensions between the ecosystem and family left behind and the new-found culture of the service that those back home don’t understand.  

The heart of the works’ message is both the challenge of finding individual purpose and handling the all too common emotional struggles frequent in post deployment environments. With judicious use of shading and color, the book walks the reader through the surreal transition from tragic combat loss to the maddeningly sanguine hometown and to the darker emotional stages of grief. The juxtaposition of characters with realistic problems, coping and not with the cost of war, is relatable for veterans. It can also help others gain an inkling of the ways that service, sacrifice, and trauma are often intertwined.    

The conclusion, unfortunately, leaves little room for hope. The White Donkey carries a truth laden and soulful message, but gives the impression that only bitterness and regret lay at the end of the journey. It attempts to tackle the chief spiritual quandary in all life but provides only secular conclusions. That makes The White Donkey a cautionary tale for the considerate leader. An insightful book for what it says about the vulnerabilities many of us have; It is also an exposé on the cynicism and hope in purpose that compete for our souls. It reminds leaders of the obligation they have for the spiritual health of those in their care.       


Book review contributed by Lt. Col. Matthew R. Crouch, USMC.
Crouch is a Senior Military Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, he holds master’s degrees in Political Science and International Business Administration and is an Olmsted Scholar. He has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the US government or other organization.
Additional information about Matthew Crouch can be found at: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/expert/matthew-r-crouch/

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