Machete Squad could have been a great graphic novel. This 160-page memoir details the story of Brent Dulak, a US medic sent to Afghanistan to patch up wounded solders and civilians at a remote outpost located near the town in which the Taliban were born.
Dulak’s story has a brutal honesty that drives his frantic narrative. The book opens with a chaotic scene in which all the medics at a mobile hospital desperately try to stitch up a gunshot casualty. The initial shots of that incident are a riot of arms, legs and medical devices as the medics and other personnel try to stitch up the victim. That moment immediately gives the book a sense of existential fear and frustration. It shows the deep problems these men will have in handling even the most basic aspects of their work, the intense emotional toll the deployment has on Dulak and his fellow medics.
As the book goes on, Dulak learns his job well but never fully adjusts to life in Afghanistan. He must treat mutilated children, patch up his buddies, and make small moral compromises in order to simply get by in a country that continually destroys his sense of humanity. It’s not spoiling the book to sat that these incidents take a terrible toll on the man, and by the end of the story he is barely pulling himself out of a bottle after discharge.
This is a timely and tragic story that reflects the complicated world in which we live. We want to see ourselves in Dulak, imagine what we would do if we were in his place, consider the deeply tragic life of the solders we send (and forget) in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately the art and coloring by Per Darwin Berg prevent this book from reaching its full power. Berg’s art is just not a good fit for this story. In his loose, cartoonish, seemingly rushed artwork, readers get little sense of place and time, robbing the story of its obvious power. Simplistic artwork can often work well in war comics – in fact, the brilliant Harvey Kurtzman delivered some of the greatest war comics of all time while rendering characters with few lines. But Berg’s art lacks the small touches that make that work so memorable. His art, clearly drawn with a computer tablet, reuses images too much and doesn’t capture the fear and insanity of war.
Machete Squad is one of the first releases from Dead Reckoning, an imprint of the Naval Institute Press, and it serves a worthy purpose. This book might have been more compelling with a more empathetic artist, but as it is, Brent Dulak’s compelling memoir doesn’t receive the framing it deserves.