On the Sgt. Rock Story “Head Count,” by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert

Camus defined a rebel as a man who says no, and that’s exactly what Warrant Sergeant Hugh Thompson was on Saturday, 16 March 1968, when his helicopter flew over the Vietnamese village of My Lai.

Faced with the sight of a platoon of US soldiers who were continuing their massacre of somewhere between 347 and 504 Vietnamese civilians, Thompson ordered his helicopter down and stood between the rampaging American troops and some of the few villagers who’d so far survived the three hour slaughter. It wasn’t simply that the soldiers had murdered their victims, as appalling a situation as that was in itself. The men of C Company had also raped, tortured and mutilated a great many of My Lai’s women, elderly men and children. Sergeant Thompson was the man who said no, who stood between his supposed comrades and, in his words on the day, the “human beings, unarmed civilians” that his fellow Americans were determined to abuse and kill.

In any sane world, Sergeant Thompson and his crew would have been immediately hailed as national if not international heroes. Instead, Thompson found his reports were buried, his testimony insulted, his honesty and patriotism demeaned.  Even the medal he was awarded for his intervention on that day arrived with a citation which buried the reality of My Lai with a mention of a mythical enemy firefight. Instead of receiving the respect he so obviously deserved, he discovered an America which sent him letters containing death threats and packages holding dead animals, as well as the machinations of the distinguished Democratic Senator L. Mendal Rivers, who wanted Thompson, and Thompson alone, court-martialled for the crime of raising his weapon at an American soldier. The Republic, it seemed, wasn’t ready for a hero whose actions testified to the fact that the homeland’s fighting men could be just as corrupted by poor leadership and impossibly challenging circumstances as any other nation’s soldiers. In many ways, that’s still true.

Published three years after the butchery at My Lai, Head Count, from Our Army At War #233, was writer Robert Kanigher’s response to the massacre and its protracted aftermath. It’s not a tale which attempts to discuss the events of the day directly. Head Count is set the Europe of World War Two rather than the Vietnam of the late Sixties, and Kanigher chooses to push aside most of the specific issues associated with C-Company’s despicable behaviour in order to emphasise the soldier’s duty to protect innocent civilians at all costs. If considered in isolation from the moment of its publication, Head Count can seem today to be a remarkably mild comment in relation to the events which provoked it, but it is worth remembering that the comics mainstream has produced little if anything that equals it in commitment and passion during the long years since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.  In its time, the Sgt. Rock of Easy Company story was considered so daring and pertinent that it was even featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, presented there as evidence that comics could contribute to the national debate over the issues of the day.

As a polemic re-emphasising the soldier’s responsibilities during war-time, Kanigher’s script for OAAW #233 was brave and forthright. There was certainly no reference in Head Count to the supposedly extenuating factors which were then being used to defend Charlie Company in much of the press and a small sequence of court-martials. No psychological stress, no temporary insanity, no misleading military intelligence, no good intentions, no mention of deluded if entirely noble-hearted innocents abroad. Instead, Kanigher’s murderous GI – “Pvt. Johnny Doe” – is revealed to be an American who simply enjoys killing anyone that he chooses to associate with the Nazi cause, regardless of who they are and what the circumstances might be. All Johnny Doe is interested in is carving a few more “kill” notches to his rifle butt. Where Kanigher does add some psychological back-story to explain something of Doe’s savagery, he chooses to present the Private as a foundling, denied the love of his parents and brutalised by a life of abandonment in a succession of state institutions. The war may have allowed Doe to express his corruption, Kanigher tells us, but it hasn’t made him what he is and it can’t be used to excuse his behaviour.

Head Count proved too provocative a story for the editor and artist of Our Army At War, Joe Kubert, who was wholeheartedly committed to supporting Kanigher’s stand on the rights of civilians during war and yet hesitant to show Rock shooting Doe at the tale’s end. As Bill Schelly recounts in Man Of Rock, his fine biography of Kubert, Kanigher’s tale originally ended on an unconditional note. Doe was preparing to throw a grenade into a house containing both German soldiers and their civilian hostages, which caused Rock to shoot him dead before he could do so. In Kubert’s edited version, Rock is left unsure whether it was his shot or Doe’s gung-ho carelessness which caused the Private-obliterating explosion which brings Head Count to a close. Was Johnny Doe a murderer or a hero, Rock is made to ask the reader in the final panel, and despite the ambiguity of Doe’s final fate, it’s still obvious that he was nothing other than a brute willing to commit terrible acts in the name of his own hatreds rather than the interests of America.

Kubert’s caution is entirely understandable when considered in the context of the time. Sadly, a comic book containing the adventures of, for example,  a four-colour Sergeant Thompson simply wouldn’t have been acceptable to the mass of American citizens and a great deal of their media in 1971. Even the sight of Sgt Rock purposefully shooting dead a fellow American soldier ran the risk of attracting a fearsome measure of criticism during a time when the public’s support for Lieutenant William Calley, the commanding officer of C-Company at My Lai, was fiercely sympathetic. Simply for Kanigher and Kubert to have come out with the strong statement that they did was in itself a principled and confrontational business. That Head Count by chance appeared in the same month as DC’s war books began to bear the “Make War No More” slogan only served to accidentally empathise a sense of a radical, counter-cultural sensibility at work in Kubert’s fiefdom at National Periodicals, which left Our Army at War #233 looking far more critical and progressive in the day than might now seem feasible.

Kanigher’s script identifies two immediate causes of Johnny Doe’s inhumane actions. The first lies in what appears to be Doe’s essentially depraved character. He’s a kill-happy sadist with a glib, effective way of excusing his behaviour and manipulating the opinions of others. (He even succeeds in beginning to undermine Rock’s authority with his men, who take to Doe’s commitment to murdering Germans like “a starvin’ kitten to sweet cream”. Bloody-handed expediency is, according to Doe’s worryingly persuasive example, the least costly way to win wars.) But the second cause is Rock’s untypical weakness, is his failure, rooted in his fundamental decency, to stamp out Doe’s rule-breaking. When Doe shoots two apparently-surrendering German soldiers in the back, his excuse is that no-one had heard any word of capitulation, and Rock lets the matter slide. When Doe sneaks out of camp without a word to go on a “personal killing spree”, Rock barely raises a word of complaint. As Doe shoots “farmers” who’re later revealed to be disguised German soldiers on nothing but a hunch, Rock swallows his better nature after being swatted away with the words, “If I’m wrong Sarge … I’ll apologise.”

Loved by the press, admired by his fellow grunts, Doe carves out a level of autonomy which no Private should ever be granted. It appears that Kanigher wanted to suggest that well-meaning and yet somewhat lax officers shared the responsibility for incidents such as My Lai. As such, the otherwise entirely-admirable Sgt. Rock is revealed to be in part to blame for Doe’s rampages, because he just hadn’t been nearly enough of a disciplinarian. If the likes of Rock just do their job, Head Count rather subversively suggests, and if they’re neither too trusting nor too tolerant in doing so, then much of the problem will disappear. Whether that was Kanigher taking a subtle shot at the culpability of the Army as a whole for incidents such as My Lai, or whether he was making a more general point about the responsibility of good men in authority on the ground, is impossible to now say. But it’s certainly undeniable that Rock’s weak-kneed behaviour cuts Doe the slack he needs to indulgence his taste for blood-letting.

However, there is one scene in which Kanigher appears to be directly criticising the Army itself. In what seems to be pointed reference to the official cover-up of My Lai, Doe receives a hero’s burial, watched on by an Easy Company who are aware that he was anything but. A senior officer declares that Doe’s “outstanding heroism … resulted in the capture of this enemy-held town”, and yet the reader will soon be shown that nothing of the sort was true. Even in Rock’s request that the reader makes their own mind up about Doe’s guilt lies a suggestion that the Private’s dishonourable behaviour is being buried at the same time as his body. Even Sgt Rock, it seems, is unable to speak openly about exactly what has happened, is presumably either being told not to tell the truth by his bosses or – far less likely – involved in a low-level cover-up which obscures his killing of Doe. It’s the closest Head Count comes to lambasting the Army for the abuses carried out under its colours, and even there, the blame is focused on a willingness to obscure ill-deeds rather than the ill-deeds themselves.

But that’s as radical as Head Count gets. For all that Kanigher and Kubert were obviously appalled by My Lai, it’s telling how well their take on the responsibilities of the soldier might sit with the views of the majority of Americans who choose to side with Lieutenant Calley and the men of Charlie Company rather than with the hundreds of innocents they abused and killed. In Head Count, Johnny Doe is the odd one out, the very obvious exception to the rule, the bad apple corrupting the upstanding if naïve citizen-soldiers who fight with him. In the case of My Lai and the great many other documented US mass atrocities of the Vietnam War, the problem actually lay not with individual rule-breakers so much as with cohorts of typical Americans who’d become corrupted by what Philip Zimbardo would called evil situations. During the massacre at My Lai, it was Sergeant Thompson who was the exception rather than the rule.

Nor is the Private Doe of Head Count the typical male that his placeholder name suggests. Rather than having his identity largely subsumed into that of the group he belongs to, as has so often happened with soldiers associated with abuses of power during wartime, Doe stands alone, quite obviously separate to the men of Easy Co.  Indeed, Doe’s even physically distinct from them, for Kubert draws him as a distinctly slovenly, broad-faced, chain-smoking barrack-room lawyer. In that, Doe’s a far cry from the rough-hewn everymen of Rock’s men of war, and so he’s immediately marked out as different and quite probably degenerate. Yet what’s perhaps most disturbing about the vast majority of those soldiers who do commit atrocities is that they aren’t anything other than typical themselves. With the exception of the sprinkling of disordered individuals which any army finds itself carrying, the men and women who abandon their legal and moral responsibilities during their time in service are mostly if not entirely indistinguishable to those who don’t.

Finally, what’s largely missing from Head Count, beyond the suggestion that Rock himself should have acted sooner and the suggestion of an official cover-up, is the blameworthiness of the institution of the American Army for the training and supervision of its troops in Vietnam. Kanigher and Kubert suggest that Doe is acting despite the culture of the Army rather than because of it, and yet there’s far more than ample evidence that the US Army during the period was catastrophically poorly led from the corridors of the Pentagon right down to the lower ranks of the officer corps. (The records of how Charlie Company were prepared for their mission to My Lai make chilling reading. They almost appear to suggest a deliberate programme to create unethical behaviour in soldiers already traumatised and alienated by their experiences.) For all that the stand taken by Head Count was undeniably admirable, it did focus on individual blame when the facts suggested that the ultimate responsibility for the likes of My Lai lay with the Army as a whole. Providing poor leadership, poor training, wretched analysis, and slapdash oversight, the Army even failed in its whole-hearted determination to cover-up anything which might challenge its own status and power.

But then, that’s why there could never have been a Sgt Chief Hugh Thompson comic book from a mainstream publisher. None of those Americans who attempted to reveal the truth about the conduct of so much of the Vietnam War, from both within and without the Army’s ranks, could ever have been presented doing so while playing the role of headlining patriotic protagonist, because that would have meant heretically re-casting the role of the antagonist in the Vietnam War too. It was hard enough for the comics industry of the day to engage with the war against the Viet Cong, and on the whole, they choose not to. But to throw in with the radical critique of the war, and to perceive the Pentagon and the state it sought to serve as being at least in part “the enemy” would’ve been both ideologically and commercially impossible. The belief that the USA’s war in Vietnam was in many ways a war against America herself, against so many of the nation’s fundamental principles, was never going to appear as a consistent theme in any of 1971’s comics.  That would have been just too radical, too contentious, too controversial a proposition.

As far as the mainstream is concerned, it still mostly is. Today’s comic-books often struggle to even begin to match the decent-hearted, smart-minded expression of fundamental moral principle which marked Kanigher and Kubert’s Head Count.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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  1. Great article, Colin, and one well worth reading taking recent events into account. Considering the difficulty some–BUT NOT ALL–of our servicemen and women are experiencing in terms keeping the rules of engagement in mind as they engage in combat operations amidst civilians, soldiers like WO1 Thompson and his crew should never be far from our minds.

    Only one minor point of correction: Thompson was a warrant officer and ranked WO1 (Warrant Officer One) at the time of the Mai Lai massacre. The warrant officer is ranked below commissioned officers but above non-commissioned officers (sergeants), and they are tasked with specific roles in the Army. I only bring this up as I know he is often cited as an exemplar of the Army Warrant Officer Corps, just as the NCO Corps and Officer Corps (of which I was a part) have their own “heroes.”

    • Colin Smith says:

      Hello Forrest:- Thank you for the correction. I’m ashamed that I somehow managed to make this mistake despite working ridiculously hard not to make such obvious mistakes. Military ranks are something that I know nothing about, which is why I thought I’d checked everything. I appreciate you correcting me and I’ll get in touch with Mr C. and see if it’s possible to reverse my mistake.

      What I’ve always admired about WO Thompson and his fellows is that they behaved humanely and bravely in ways which simply didn’t help their own immediate interests. Their behaviour can’t be labelled in the light of this political party/ideology or that. They simply did the right thing, although it was hardly a simple business. They, and the thousands of others who have done the same, need to be emphasised every bit as much as those who fail to live up to standards we need them – despite often impossible circumstances – to live by.

      I find it incredibly inspiring to learn that Hugh Thompson is now openly celebrated in the way you mention. Next stop, a statue of the men and women who say “no” for the very best reasons and to the very best ends in every town square, outside every city hall.

  2. It’s important to point out people like this! You have misguided individuals who enlist, but then refuse to obey basic orders citing freedom of speech, etc. (See recent news headlines for a soldier who made this mistake with his Facebook page). On the other hand, you have brave men such as Chief Thompson and his crew that understood when the right time was to disobey an unlawful order.

    Of course, you rightly point out that doing the right thing can be hard to do. Moreover, we may not even know what the right thing is until sufficient time and space have allowed us greater perspective. But did the comics industry not know what the right thing was and simply take a while to learn how to engage in social discourse later, or did they take the easier way out and choose not to deal with this? It’s an interesting question you raise. I’d like to think the medium has grown enough that it will not sit idly by so easily and miss the opportunity to create those future “Hugh Thompson” comics… but it’s always tricky when the dollar is concerned, isn’t it?

  3. I just want to say publicly how much I admire this particular article. It’s a testament to the power of comics, to address these matters — and like all literature, to speak to the future, to carry lessons forward. What a splendid illustration of the medium, as part of The Year in Comics.

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