It’s rare for a miniseries to end as strongly as it began, and “Haunted Tank” has slowly declined, issue by issue, but only slightly. Henry Flint’s art looks a bit less elegantly detailed here, and Frank Marraffino’s script is a little less fresh (it’s surely difficult to surprise after beginning this incarnation of “Haunted Tank” with such a nice contrast between the blissfully ignorant ghost of J.E.B. Stuart and his postmodern and distinctly multi-racial descendent), but here’s the trap that the creative team smartly avoids with this series:
It doesn’t become about the racist ghost of a confederate soldier learning to accept the ways of the world today, and it doesn’t become about the soldiers of today learning to live with this charming old racist codger.
In other words, it’s not “Gran Torino: Iraq.”
The tension between (the dead but ghostly) General Stuart and the (very much alive, and black) Sgt. Stuart doesn’t dissipate as the story progresses. Marraffino and Flint provide more flashbacks to provide context for General Staurt’s own failings as a living human, but that doesn’t make the character sympathetic, necessarily. They don’t seem to be interested in justifying his racism some kind of historical force that excuses him because of when and where he lived. Instead, they show a man, a flawed man, and the mistakes he made then which correspond to the mistakes he makes (even in ghostly form) today.
Because General J.E.B. Stuart is a man who takes what he wants. He makes war out of a sense of conquest, because he loves the thrill of the battle, the satisfaction of defeating an enemy and taking what once belonged to someone else. Marraffino makes this characterization explicit, as Sgt. Stuart reacts to a reminiscence by the general with words that call out his ancestor as the greedy rapist that he truly is: “You galavant around recklessly with no regard to the cost,” he shouts at his spectral companion. And Sgt. Stuart realizes that the “curse” placed upon J.E.B. — the one that forces him to haunt the wartime exploits of his descendents — is nothing of the story. General Stuart loves the heat of combat, and his supposed curse is a wish-fulfillment, giving him a chance to fight in an endless war.
It’s a spot-on bit of characterization, but it also verges into allegory, as this comic addresses the war in Iraq in a way no other DC comic has. This may be a sanitized version of events — it certainly is, and a radically abbreviated one as well — but this comic directly confronts the war in which so many Americans have lost life and limb. And it doesn’t trivialize that sacrifice, but it does imply that the thirst for war — the thirst that drives this ghost of the Confederacy who prances around on his magical spirit horse — is the thirst that led to the taking of Baghdad and while the generals and politicians might be all to eager to make those kinds of decisions, it’s the men and women on the ground who have to deal with the consequences.
It may be an overly simplistic view of the war — of any war — but at least it confronts it and raises a voice in protest. You may think a “Haunted Tank” series may not be the right avenue for addressing such a heated political issue, but DC has a history of using war comics to tell anti-war stories, and maybe it’s time this one was told.
And the dead guy on the ghost horse was just one way to get the message across.