Review: 'Weapons of Mass Diplomacy': Down and Dirty with Diplomacy

A comic review article by: John Yohe

Weapons of Mass Diplomacy is a fictionalized graphic novel memoir from the point of view of two French diplomats, concerning the political maneuvering that took place in the lead-up to the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2002. That time period may have faded in many people’s minds, but as a reminder, this was post 9/11, when Bush and the neo-cons were proclaiming the supposed War on Terror using it as a reason to invade Iraq—which they found in the supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction that Iraq was supposedly harboring.

I’m not sure if you’ll remember, but at the time, it was France who persuaded the U.S to first go through the United Nations Security Council for a resolution of action, if there was proof that Iraq was involved in terrorists activities. And, when that ‘proof’ was not convincing, the U.S. government declared that it would invade Iraq without the support of the UN, with its “Coalition of the Willing” (remember that lame term?) involving such military powerhouses as Poland and Spain, it was France that led most of the rest of the world in not going along with it. Which was huge. Generally, up to that point, what the U.S. wanted, the UN conceded. This book claims, and I believe it, that the French foreign minister sincerely disagreed with the invasion based on moral grounds. Thus was spawned the term “freedom fries.”

The main character, Arthur Vlaminick, is a stand-in for Weapons of Mass Diplomacy writer, Abel Lanzac, which is actually a nom-de-plume for Antonin Baudry, “a diplomat and former advisor to French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin,” according to the press release. Which is actually kind of amazing: a diplomat choosing to write his (fictionalized) memoir in graphic novel form! Which shows just how much the graphic novel is accepted in France (it’s considered an art form there). Imagine a speechwriter for Secretary of State Clinton or Kerry writing a graphic novel memoir.

But, the graphic novel art form works perfectly. Weapons of Mass Diplomacy, the French version of which came out in 2012, was made into a movie, in theatres earlier this year, which I haven’t seen yet, called The French Minister, but to my mind the artwork of Christophe Blain is vital to the story:

There are two main characters actually, and story threads. The first begins with Arthur, a PhD student who is invited to join the inner circle of the French foreign minister, Alexandre Taillard de Vorms (a stand-in for de Villepin) as de Vorms’s speechwriter. Arthur’s storyline involves him learning how to survive in his new cut-throat world of politics, while balancing (or not) his relationship with his fianceé.

But much of the book involves de Vorms—at first in Arthur’s interactions with him, but eventually involving scenes on his own, where readers see/read his thoughts as well. And how De Vorms is drawn is what makes the book: he’s a man constantly in motion, with motion lines waving behind him as he storms in and out of rooms, and doors slamming open and shut with block-letter DÖÖM’s. When he talks, and he constantly talks, dominating every conversation, his hands are waving and gesturing, drawn by Blain sometimes with multiple arms—arms upon arms. I just don’t see how you could capture that personality trait in either a regular book memoir, or a movie.

This type of caricature is, first of all, engaging—the book reads fast—as fast de Vorms talks—but also serves to cause we readers to wonder, as Arthur and the rest of the staff sometimes do, whether de Vorms is a genius, or batshit crazy. For example, sometimes he quotes Heraclitus, but other times, as an example of how he wants his speeches to be understood by the masses, he invokes comic books, like the French classic TinTin, and, to my amazed laughter, the old Marvel comic ROM. Madness? Or is de Vors on to something there? Is there not something about the language used in comics—plain, simple, short, phrases without a lot of jargon—that other politicians might take note of?

The pop culture references don’t stop there. Arthur’s cellphone ringtone is a Metallica song—every time someone calls it blares, ironically, “Seek and destroy!” And, as he’s sucked into the political world, there are panels of him imagining that he’s in Star Wars. On the side of the Empire.

The translation, by Edward Gauvin, is into British English, which is mostly not noticeable to this American reader, except with the character of Claude Maupas, the Chief of Staff, who is as calm as his boss de Vorms is frantic, and who always responds to any new political disaster with a calm, very British, “Mm, quite.” I love it.

I’m not sure how much graphic-novel-reading Americans care about the political machinations going on before the invasion of Iraq twelve years ago, but they should. They should care a lot. We’re still there. Thousands of American soldiers have died, perhaps tens of thousands suffer injuries and trauma. And at least 100,000 Iraqis died, probably double or triple that, not to mention those injured or displaced. And, the world is not at all safer—less so—though I’m sure some American corporations made money. It’s some fucked up shit. Weapons of Mass Diplomacy shows that diplomacy does work, was working, and could have worked even more in this situation. And that our politicians (because, they still answer to we the people, right?) could use it again to avoid future quagmires like Iraq. Yes, as the book shows, diplomacy isn’t pretty. But war is a whole lot more ugly.

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