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Dr. Toon: War and Pieces

Dr. Toon draws parallels between Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons and the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the current Iraqi War.

Martin Goodman.

a determined low-technology adversary can take a great deal of the kind of punishment meant to break more developed societies.
Derek Leebeart, The Fifty-Year Wound
How about ending this cartoon before I hit?
The Coyote, Gee Whiz-z-z (1956)

At some point during 1956, the same year in which the above cartoon featuring the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote made its debut, a North Vietnamese commander named Ho Chi Minh led his Cong-san forces against South Vietnam for the first time. Roughly translated, Cong-san meant Communist; from this term came the phrase Viet Cong. Virtually no one in America was then familiar with this appellation, but over the next decade that would change drastically. Among those who knew the term well were President Dwight Eisenhower and his successor John F. Kennedy.

Although Eisenhower backed French forces against the Cong-san with several billion dollars, Kennedy decided to make a deeper commitment against Communist forces in Southeast Asia. The young president strongly felt the need to make such a move. The year 1962 featured a failed invasion of Cuba by U.S.-trained insurgents. The previous year, East Germany erected one of the most visible symbols of the Cold War, the infamous Berlin Wall. As Kennedy himself put it, Now we have a problem making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place.

By the time director Chuck Jones made his 23rd Road Runner and Coyote film, there were nearly 17,000 Americans in South Vietnam serving as advisors. When Jones left the series in 1964, Americas involvement in Vietnam was roughly a year away from commencing its overt military phase. Millions more would be mobilized in the coming years, and when all was said and done, some 58,000 of them would die in combat. During the carnage, Rudy Larriva directed most of the Road Runners remaining adventures, but Jones imprimatur was already well established.

Chuck Jones, with his Road Runner cartoons, unwittingly predicted the terms under which the Cold War was waged during the late 1950s through the 1980s. No other animation director formulated a more precise or timely picture of Americas agonies in Vietnam. The Road Runner and Coyote also serve as an eerie analogy to the current war in Iraq, but even more eerie is the fact that Chuck Jones never intended for his Roadrunner cartoons to serve this purpose.

Chuck Jones with his Road Runner and Coyote cartoons, unwittingly predicted major events like the Cold War, Americas agonies in Vietnam and our current war in Iraq.

The Cold War was an inescapable fact of American life that influenced every nuance of the countrys collective consciousness, and perhaps, on some level, that of Jones as well. In his book Hollywood Cartoons (1999), animation historian Michael Barrier noted: The Road Runner cartoons were perhaps the most consistently violent of all the Warner Bros. cartoons Perhaps that was because they were the most fitting metaphor for warfare. In fact, the title I chose for this months column is that of Jones final Road Runner cartoon as a Warner employee.

From the full-blown fear of nuclear Armageddon to the subtle paranoid ideations of a free world steadily nibbled away by stealth and espionage, Americans lived their lives against a steady, unsettling background of Them vs. Us. The Road Runner series was born and continued amidst several seismic shocks administered to the free world. The first Road Runner/Coyote film, Fast and Furry-ous, arrived in 1949, the year that China went Communist and the Soviet Union exploded their first nuclear weapon. The series second short (Beep Beep) premiered in 1952 during the height of the Red Scare.

Chuck Jones was an extremely intelligent individual who certainly took notice of the world around him. According to Jones, he was attempting to create a parody of stereotypical chase cartoons; what he coincidentally did was create a metaphor for the questionable strategies of war in the era of the Unthinkable with superpowers in the role of the Coyote. More specifically, Jones foresaw the results of warfare fought when superpowers faced far weaker but determined guerilla enemies who believed that their survival was at stake. Take note that America was not unique in taking on the role of the Coyote: the Soviet Union, in all its monolithic strength, met defeat at the hands of Afghanistans rag-tag, resourceful mujahdeen in the 1980s.

The metaphor is, in many instances, remarkable. One of the earliest and ultimately fatal mistakes of the Vietnam War was a failure to understand the enemy, their culture, political structure, or even their language and geography. Russia made the same mistakes in Afghanistan, despite being able to call upon a multiplicity of ethnic conscripts. Many at the highest levels of American military command underestimated the North Vietnamese and their tactics, leading to disastrous consequences. General William Westmoreland proposed to fight under the untenable strategy of big-unit warfare, and seemed to discount the enemys guerilla methods.

The Coyote is like a superpower dealing with guerilla warfare. He escalates endlessly without an exit strategy.

Technicians and counterinsurgency experts, rather than soldiers, ran the war using, as Cold War historian Derek Leebaert put it, games, models, probabilities, and options. As with the Coyotes meticulously drawn blueprints, most of the time they guessed wrong. Many of these mistakes resonated in Iraq and the Soviet war with Afghanistan, with the addition of miscalculating the importance of the opponents religious beliefs (despite a wrenching example earlier in Iran).

The Coyote is equally ignorant of his enemy. The Road Runner is more than a physical being; he is supernatural, a trait sometimes attributed to Charlie by Vietnam veterans. The Soviet forces called Afghan fighters duhkti or ghosts. Nature and physics are the Road Runners unfailing allies, and the bird seemingly has the power to turn even the cliffs, rocks, and mesas of the desert against his avid, well-armed foe. The Coyote simply ramps up several levels in determination, puts in another order for intimidating weaponry, and attempts to defeat the Road Runner without a change in strategy. Fanatic escalation marked his efforts but in the end they were all for naught.

The Acme Company, an eponymous arms supplier that delivers high-tech weapons on demand, arms the Coyote. Acme is much like the military-industrial complex that powered Americas post-nuclear wars. From jet-propelled roller skates and Iron Bird Seed to explosives and biological weapons such as Triple-strength fortified Leg Muscle Vitamins or Earthquake Pills, the Coyote is the recipient of a prodigious arsenal that is supposed to help him subdue and destroy his foe. Thus it was in Vietnam and Iraq, from use of defoliants and the first helicopter gunships widely used in combat to the lethal computer-operated hardware and laser-guided weapons of the Iraq campaign.

Like the Viet Cong and Iraqi insurgents, The Road Runner is a lightly armed, low-tech opponent who uses his wits and an occasional surprise attack. All cartoon images courtesy of Warner Bros. Animation.

The Road Runner, on the other hand, has no such recourse, as he is a lightly armed, low-tech opponent. The bird has neither teeth nor visible claws. The Roadrunner does have his wits, stealth, and the capacity for an occasional surprise attack that sets a catastrophe into action. The Road Runner also has the speed to disappear into the territory within seconds, a trait shared with the Viet Cong and Iraqi insurgents. Even when the avian does show up where the Coyote plans him to be, sustained combat does not take place. Like the American forces in Iraq and Vietnam and like Soviet troops in Afghanistan, the Coyote must continually chase down an elusive foe and fight on the enemys terms.

In both Vietnam and Iraq, the President and his Pentagon strategists faced public criticism over the lack of an exit strategy. After hearing stirring affirmations of lights at the end of the tunnel and missions accomplished, America continued to see thousands of lives and trillions of dollars cast to the winds of war with no certainty as to when it all might end. In both cases, the governments America propped up did not seem to have the viability to survive should American troops withdraw, and so the struggle took on an indefinite length. In Vietnam withdrawal led to the collapse of South Vietnam. In Iraq, the result could well be sectarian civil war. Exactly how to extricate ones forces when one is nation rather than empire building seems to be a considerable conundrum for American foreign and military policy.

Acme, who supplies Coyote with his weapons, is much like the military-industrial complex that powered Americas post-nuclear wars.

Pity the poor Coyote, who never had an exit strategy either. Through 43 cartoons and 44 years of futility, humiliation, and injury, the Coyote never did consider that Acme might be a food vendor as well as an arms supplier, or that the Road Runner somehow commanded forces that the Coyote could not overwhelm conventionally. Jones described his scrawny protagonist by quoting Georges Santanyana: A fanatic is someone who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim. Such sentiments find echo in the infamous communiqué following the destruction of the Vietnamese hamlet Ben Tre: We had to destroy the village in order to save it. War breeds fanaticism. During the Vietnam era, the tiny nation to the North absorbed more firepower than was expended during all of WWII. Chemical defoliants erased, in total, an area the size of Massachusetts. The Coyote and American military strategists both pursued a policy of escalation even after the futility of such a course was clear.

Yet, due to indecisive Presidential policies and a determined opponent, the United States did not achieve its aims. As in the case of the Coyote, those aims may have been impossible to begin with. The goals of the United States in Iraq are not entirely clear even to some of the wars supporters, but one of them appears to be the instillation of democracy in a country that has never known one, in the teeth of fundamentalist radicals who will not stop at suicide. If this is not possible, the eventual exit strategy may entail considerable bloodshed for Iraqis and humiliation for the worlds foremost superpower. The Coyotes only exit strategy in every cartoon he shared with the Road Runner was, of course, total defeat and mortification. The Soviets shared his experiences in Afghanistan.

Chuck Jones died in February of 2002. Thirteen months later coalition forces led by the United States thundered into Iraq. Military victory was swift but nation building continues to come at a bloody cost. As this column neared completion, hundreds of Iraqis died in a four-day bombing spree coordinated by insurgent forces and the American death toll topped 1,900. Chuck Jones was no politician, nor are there many remarks or interviews on record that clearly indicate his political views. Jones did direct the 1944 short Hell Bent for Election in support of Franklin Roosevelt, and the few snippets obtainable from histories and autobiographies suggest a somewhat liberal, pro-union stance.

This hardly suggests that Chuck Jones was any sort of political commentator, but it could be that he did have uncanny prescience. Or perhaps Chuck Jones was subconsciously absorbing and expressing the Cold War milieu. It could also be true that the resemblance between Road Runner cartoons and situations in Vietnam, Soviet Afghanistan, and Iraq are sheer coincidences. However there is, at least for this writer, the nagging sense that animation once again served as an oft-neglected mirror for the culture and the times that produced it.

Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.