By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 2, 2006
In a protest with an unusual number of high-level signatures, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and each of its five members have fired off a letter assailing a Washington Post cartoon as "beyond tasteless."
The Tom Toles cartoon, published Sunday, depicts a heavily bandaged soldier in a hospital bed as having lost his arms and legs, while Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in the guise of a doctor, says: "I'm listing your condition as 'battle hardened.' " Toles said he meant no offense toward American soldiers.
The letter to The Post, signed by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the vice chairman and the service chiefs of the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force, said: "We believe you and Mr. Toles have done a disservice to your readers and your paper's reputation by using such a callous depiction of those who have volunteered to defend this nation, and as a result, have suffered traumatic and life-altering wounds . . .
"While you or some of your readers may not agree with the war or its conduct, we believe you owe the men and women and their families who so selflessly serve our country the decency to not make light of their tremendous physical sacrifices." The letter, which a reporter obtained from the Pentagon, is being published today.
The cartoon is based on remarks that Rumsfeld made last week. In rejecting warnings by a Pentagon-sponsored study that the Iraq war risks "breaking" the Army, he said the U.S. military is "battle hardened" and an "enormously capable force." At the bottom of the cartoon, in smaller type, Rumsfeld says: "I'm prescribing that you be stretched thin. We don't define that as torture."
In an interview, Toles called the letter "an understandable response" but said he did not regret what he drew. In thinking about Rumsfeld's remarks, he said, "what came soon to mind was the catastrophic level of injuries the Army and members of the armed services have sustained . . . I thought my portrayal of it was a fair depiction of the reality of the situation.
"I certainly never intended it to be in any way a personal attack on, or a derogatory comment on, the service or sacrifice of American soldiers."
As for the Joint Chiefs' letter, he said: "I think it's a little bit unfair in their reading of the cartoon to imply that is what it's about."
Fred Hiatt, The Post's editorial page editor, said he doesn't "censor Tom" and that "a cartoonist works best if he or she doesn't feel there's someone breathing over their shoulder. He's an independent actor, like our columnists." Hiatt said he makes comments on drafts of cartoons but that Toles is free to ignore them.
Asked about Sunday's cartoon, Hiatt said, "While I certainly can understand the strong feelings, I took it to be a cartoon about the state of the Army and not one intended to demean wounded soldiers."
Dave Autry, deputy communications director for Disabled American Veterans, said he was "certainly not" offended by the cartoon.
"It was graphic, no doubt about it," he said. "But it drove home a point, that there are critically ill patients that certainly need to be attended to."
Toles, who won a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for the Buffalo News and joined The Post in 2002, said he expected criticism for drawing the quadruple amputee, as he does for about two-thirds of his efforts.
"It is the nature of cartooning that someone can read an analogy a cartoon uses to mean things other than what was intended," Toles said. "The only way to avoid that problem is to draw cartoons that have no impact."