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‘Battle Born’ Is a Marine’s Tribute to the Futility of the Forever War in Afghanistan

Max Uriarte, creator of the world’s most popular military comic strip, talks about life in the Marine infantry, the inanity of war and what inspired his newest graphic novel

Battle Born unfolds in a snowy valley of Badakhshan Province, tucked away in the northeastern corner of Afghanistan, where the jagged Hindu Kush mountains converge into an endless tapestry of granite and shadow. 

The first face we see is that of a young woman, framed in a scarf of blue yarn. She is peering out her window, holding a brilliant blue stone in one hand and a carving knife in the other. A young boy in earthen orange kicks a soccer ball to no one in particular. His mother yells at him in Dari, but his attention is stolen by his ball rolling down the road. 

Then, like a bad apparition, we see silhouettes of many men on horseback. They don’t want to kill — they want that gleaming, inky-blue gem flecked in gold accents. By the time you turn the page and see helicopters flying across the mountains in the purple light of dawn, it becomes clear: There will be a fight in this snowy valley, even if nobody knows it yet. 

Battle Born: Lapis Lazuli is the newest graphic novel from Maximilian Uriarte, a Marine who served in Iraq, artist and author of Terminal Lance, the world’s most popular military comic strip, and The White Donkey, his debut graphic novel that won acclaim for its earnest, existential and humorous look at life in Iraq. However, while The White Donkey is broadly autobiographical, Battle Born stretches out of Uriarte’s comfort zone. It’s the story of a soft-spoken Marine leader, Sergeant King, grappling with decisions in a land 7,000 miles from his own. 

In telling not just his story, but that of the people around him, Uriarte reflects on the reasons why people go to war — and the moral questions that always underlie the operational ones. King’s struggle interrogates how honor and agency warp when you’re a part of a much bigger machine, but the stories of the people around him, including the Afghan villagers, ring just as loudly.  

Beautifully rendered with kinetic illustration, cinematic pacing and bold color, Battle Born is an exceptional look at a little-known conflict. I recently sat down with Uriarte on a video call this week to discuss why he created the book, the realities of infantry life in the Middle East and why the Forever War in Afghanistan seemingly has no end. 

Battle Born is about a Marine and an operation against the Taliban, but it really feels like a collection of emotional moments rather than firefights. How did you begin crafting the narrative? 

Military stories tend to get really stuffy with a bunch of military stuff, and so, I don’t like to focus on any of that. It’s a military setting, but the story is very human. 

It’s a sort of unrequited love story between King and this girl he meets, Shenaz. I wanted to build themes that reached across language and cultural barriers — just two people meeting for the first time, who sense a connection with each other. It reflects those moments in war that you just don’t have an answer to — fleeting glances, greetings, the curiosity. 

I’m fascinated by those passionate, human moments between people. I’m not going to say something like that specifically happened during my deployments. Battle Born is a story about a platoon that’s embedded in a village, so it’s different from my actual interactions with people, which were a bit more detached.

With that said, we did go out all the time and meet people. We had this one kid in Iraq, we all loved him — we called him English Bob. Because he was the only one who could speak English between the 20 kids that would come running up to us whenever we went to this village.

Often, we’d ask English Bob to come over and we’d give him candies or something to pass out, and we’d always tell him, “Make sure the girls get some,” because the girls aren’t always treated so well over there. And he’d go and pass them out. It was our routine, and these little relationships you develop with locals that are really just… nice and normal. In those moments, we’re all just people, trying to figure it out. 

The book unpacks some of the thornier issues around race, gender and class — for starters, the protagonist is a Black sergeant. Why was this important to you, and how did you develop who King was? 

I had actually come up with this character years before, but I started writing it in 2018, during a lot of attention around the Black Lives Matter movement. I wanted to tell the story of a Black lead, because they always say “make the art you want to see,” and I’d never seen a military story with a Black lead who touched on the subjects in Battle Born. It was intimidating, because I didn’t want to do the wrong thing as a Jewish-Hispanic white guy. The Black experience isn’t mine, and it’s not something I have enough insight into to really focus on it. 

But at the same time, Battle Born isn’t about the Black experience — it’s a Black character that exists in a fictional story. I sat and visualized a lot to imagine the story through his eyes. I didn’t want the plot to be about his Blackness, but obviously, as I was writing it, I couldn’t separate his life from his worldview. It taught me a lot. It was impossible to write his story without thinking about the background of oppression. So those themes got worked into the story, and I tried to be as respectful as I could. 

One of the main tensions in the story is how even King, the squad leader, has to deal with racism, and all the ways this can boil over — especially with Forrest, the good ol’ boy who wears a Confederate patch and openly uses anti-Black slurs. I was surprised that this relationship has a real redemption arc to it, even without apologizing for how disgusting the racism is. 

Forrest is really representative of a lot of guys that I knew in the military — an amalgamation of different racist white Southern boys that I never encountered while growing up in a liberal part of Oregon. You just meet all kinds of people in the military, and they can have abhorrent views or be, essentially, extremely poorly educated. But they can be lovable in a way, too. You may get along with them, and have conversations with them, go drinking with them, and it’s weird, because they have to separate their Marine Corps identity from the crazy tribalism that awaits at home. 

Of course, it blows up sometimes, too. We had a straight up neo-Nazi in my company, who had no shame about it. He had a poster of Hitler on his wall while we were in Iraq. I’m a Jew, right? And everybody knew I was a Jew, it wasn’t a secret. So he hated me, for no reason other than just me being a Jew, and a buddy of mine ended up getting into a fist fight with him over me. I wasn’t even there! This is one of my best friends who just ends up punching him in the mouth, and they had to be pulled apart. 

But then you see him later, and it’s like, “Hey, you’re a piece of shit.” “Yeah, you too.” Then you still end up working together. It’s just a bizarre dynamic that you get used to.

To be fair, I ran into racism and discrimination on a surface level, and I speak from a place of privilege because I’m a tall white guy who fit into a hypermasculine environment where if you fight, you fight. But I think that for its flaws, and for the racism, and sexism and everything negative that does exist in the military, there’s also something special about it. There’s nowhere else in the world where all these people from different parts of the country, and different lots of life, and different backgrounds and ethnicities are just forced together into these units that have to work together for the greater good.

And that’s kind of a beautiful thing. I like to view the military as the ultimate cross-sampling of America. And to that point, a lot of people don’t realize how diverse the military is. You always see the typical white patriot story about the military, but I wanted to capture the diversity I encountered. 

What compelled you to join the Marines in the first place? 

I was 19, and I knew I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to make movies, write books, be a storyteller. But I grew up as a poor kid in Oregon, and I felt like I wanted to experience more in my life. I wanted to experience something… insane. And knowing the war in Iraq was raging on, back in 2006, well, I was the right age, gender and fitness level to join the military and get to a war zone. And that’s really what inspired The White Donkey, which is much more autobiographical than Battle Born. I figured being in the Marine Corps infantry would get me to Iraq as quickly as possible. 

The funny part is that when I went to the recruiting station and took my ASVAB test — basically like a placement test — I scored super high. And I remember talking to my recruiter, and he’s like, “Well, what do you want to do?” And when I told him I wanted infantry, he looked at me and said, “You don’t have to do that, if you don’t want to.” From my point of view, though, I didn’t see the point of joining if it wasn’t going to be an intense, soul-enriching experience.

Everyone has their own reason for enlisting. Paying for college was in the back of my head, and some people aim for a practical occupation so they can plan to, I dunno, fix cars when they get out of the Corps. But for me, I craved something that would inform my character. So I ended up in infantry, which was maybe a dumb idea, but ended up working out. I think. 

What did you correctly predict about your first experience at war in Iraq, and what did you get completely wrong while anticipating the deployment? 

I think what I correctly predicted was that I was going to be miserable. What I incorrectly predicted was that I was going to enjoy that. [Laughs

Before you do it, you think, “Oh, yeah, it’s going to be hard, and it’s going to suck, and that’s what I want.” Then you get there, and it’s hard, and it sucks, and you’re like, “This sucks.” There’s nothing fun about it. I also, like most people, imagined that Iraq was going to be more kinetic, more action-packed. It certainly was not. It was very monotonous, very confusing, so emotionally strained. You just don’t know what to expect, and then you get there, and it’s even stranger than you think. You’re just there, living a routine

We’re driving around every day and doing our thing, working with Iraqis, finding IEDs every once in a while, and taking sniper shots every once in a while too. I mean, landing in Al Zaidan was scary in 2007, because [the battalion] we were replacing had just endured such a rough deployment. They spent the whole time living out in farmland, and it was scary. One of my first missions was to go out to this house called Barakat. The tribal leader lived out there, but it was turned into an Iraqi police station, and we were supposed to stay for a few days to train. 

I was terrified. We were about to be left out there alone. And I just didn’t know what we were supposed to do. All the training told us to be suspicious of IEDs along the road. But Iraq has trash, craters, all kinds of shit all over the roads. On our first patrol, I just realized, “How would I know if something is an IED?” 

Then day by day, nothing happens. Weeks pass. You get used to it, and it’s the new normal. By my second deployment, my role was a bit different; at that point, I was a Senior Lance Corporal and the salty one compared to the guys I was with, who had mostly never deployed before and were scared. 

There’s definitely a lot of that anxiety and energy captured in Terminal Lance and The White Donkey. When did you feel the inspiration to begin creating art around your experiences in the Marines? How did this career unfold? 

I started developing the comic strip, Terminal Lance, right after my first deployment in 2008. That was when the first ideations came around, like the logo and the style and stuff like that. I was a big fan of webcomics like Penny Arcade, and I knew I was pretty good at drawing and could use Photoshop. But I had to really sit down and plan it out and do it, and it just never happened. 

It was when I came back home for the second time, and leaving the Marine Corps for good when I thought, “I may as well start it now, because what are they gonna do — kick me out?” There weren’t really any other comic strips at the time that had captured the Marine Corps experience in the way that I knew it. The content out there was very family-friendly and very ooorah, go-Marines kind of stuff. Very masturbatory, in a way, and I didn’t like it, because my experience as a Marine was so different. 

Everybody — myself and all the other lance corporals that I went to Iraq with — they hated it. Everybody was like, “God, I can’t wait to get out,” we’re all just counting down the days, and it was just miserable. That was what I wanted to capture with Terminal Lance. And as for The White Donkey, which is a much more serious project, I’d say I started thinking about it from the beginning, too. Just wanting to capture the feeling of some of these moments. Like the actual white donkey — I saw it during my first deployment, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. 

In Battle Born, I really enjoyed the fact that, as part of the immersion, you included a lot of dialogue in the Dari language, untranslated. I actually had to use an app to get a little insight into the conversations. 

The themes of the story really relate to colonialism, imperialism and the history of Afghanistan. The country has been the center of a power play between the British, America and Russia for the last 200 years. So the reason Dari in the book is untranslated is that I wanted to respect the language, in a sense. Like, if you don’t know it, you’re not entitled to know what they’re saying. They’re speaking their own beautiful language. 

It’s just assumed that you should know what they’re saying, and it’s like, maybe you don’t. There are a couple scenes where I cheated a little bit, where I want the audience to know what they’re saying. But for casual dialogue, even an execution, it’s left untranslated. The idea was to not cater to a presumably American-English speaking audience, which gets everything catered to them. I’m not sure if it was a great idea, but I think it worked.

Do you feel like you discovered the soul-enriching experience you wanted when you enlisted all those years ago?

I don’t know. That’s the big question in The White Donkey: Did you find what you’re looking for in this experience? Abe, the protagonist, does know the answer by the end of that story. For me, personally, I don’t know. Maybe that was the point — that there isn’t an answer to the question. That there just isn’t a specific thing to discover. Each moment was valuable for me in some way. Even terrifying moments of pointing a rifle at somebody, having to decide in three seconds whether you’re going to pull the trigger. That’s an experience I’ll never forget. And there are other powerful moments where you don’t have a chance to think about it as you’re in it. 

Then, years later, you get to reflect and wonder, “What did I gain?” I’d like to think I gained not just the Terminal Lance comic and military training but something emotional and spiritual, I guess. 

It’s staggering to think that, after all those years, we’ve lived through two decades of war in Afghanistan. How do you feel about it now?

It’s tough, because I didn’t go to Afghanistan, but I went to Iraq twice, and I have a lot of friends that did go to Afghanistan. And everyone I know, myself included, we all just want to leave it alone.

When I researched Battle Born, I became very fascinated by the history of Afghanistan — of this colonial situation that, like I said, has been going on for 200 years. To me, the war becomes an extension of that. People don’t like to think of it that way, or maybe even realize, but you look at the Anglo-Afghan wars with the British, the Russian invasion in the 1980s, the American CIA secretly funding mujahideen fighters, to today.  

This has been going on for a long time, to the point where we need to just leave it alone. Afghanistan is a beautiful country. The moral dilemmas become messy: What if they get taken over by the Taliban, all that. But how long can America stay there? I don’t think there’s an easy answer, because we’ve entangled ourselves into an impossible situation. 

The cycles are clear to see — how mistakes and even well-intentioned, positive interactions can lead to more violence. It’s a common theme in art about war, but something that seems especially heightened today when, say, Marines embed in a village. 

That’s all real stuff. I mean, counter-insurgency, they call it COIN, that’s the name of the game over there. In a way, it’s marketing, it’s public affairs and it’s understanding the people and trying to do things that don’t push them to the other side. They call it information operations, and it’s a constant push and pull of trying to get people to like you, and not like the Taliban. It’s extremely tricky. 

The Marine infantryman is a lot smarter than people give them credit for. And at the end of the day, everybody I knew, even the worst of them, they understood that Iraqis were people just like them, and were most of the time very kind, very accommodating. We loved going to the village, talking to kids, sitting down with local leaders to drink chai. But I also think infantrymen are put in missions that just aren’t suitable; they shouldn’t be there in the first place. And that’s, I think, the bigger problem. 

As we gaze upon another year of the Forever War, what do you hope for? 

I just wish the best for the Afghan people. The Taliban aren’t good guys, but I really feel for the people caught in this powerless struggle, as superpowers like America, Russia and China play geopolitical tug-of-war. I hope and pray the country has better things on the way.