May 2nd marks the 10-year anniversary of Operation Neptune Spear, the famous mission that killed Osama bin Laden, the founder of the terrorist group al-Qaeda and the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Many movies, books, and even a music video have been made about the raid, which turned Navy SEAL Team Six into a household name and set up several of the SEALs involved for a lucrative publishing career.
Now, the latest Great Work in America’s continuing struggle to reconcile with the Global War on Terror has emerged and it is, um … looney.
That’s right, the watercolor and ink painting “Killing of Roadrunner,” created this year by songwriter, artist, and composer Chris Farren recasts one of the most famous images of the Global War on Terror in Looney Tunes technicolor. The original image, taken by White House photographer Pete Souza the night of Operation Neptune Spear, depicts President Barack Obama and his national security team watching the mission’s progress via live feed from the White House Situation Room.
Only instead of Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, it’s Wile E. Coyote, Elmer Fudd and Pepé Le Pew. What the hell?
The artist, Chris Farren, declined to comment on the artwork for Task & Purpose, so we don’t know what inspired him to create it or what guided his choice of Looney Tunes to represent certain national security officials. Alas, we must embrace “Death of the Author” and come up with our own interpretations. Believe it or not, recasting this famous image with characters from a 91-year-old slapstick comedy cartoon actually makes a lot of sense and can teach us some surprising lessons about America’s never-ending war against global terrorism. So take a big bite of your favorite carrot, because here we go:
The original photograph, called Situation Room, was noted for capturing the tense expressions of Obama, then-Vice President Joe Biden and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The image was also compelling because it doesn’t show what the officials are looking at. In doing so, viewers, like the American people in the war on terror, are left in the dark wondering what the hell is going on.
“Rarely has a photo revealed so little while evoking so much,” wrote Ken Johnson for the New York Times, shortly after the original photo was published. “It shows an intent President Obama and other officials in the White House Situation Room, but tells little about what exactly the situation is, except that they are watching something off to the left.”
As such, the image conveys “the elusiveness of truth in a democracy’s fraught struggle with terror,” Johnson added.
And now, ten years later, the American public still has little knowledge about what the U.S. objectives are in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Niger or any of the other countries where the Global War on Terror has been fought. And no matter how many ‘bad guys’ American special operators and Reaper drones seem to kill, the point of it all is as elusive as Elmer Fudd’s wabbits. Pretty looney indeed.
Of note, the painting also includes realistic details from the original photograph, including empty coffee cups; a tangle of wires between a huddle of laptops; Clinton’s blue and white binders; a Warner Bros logo in lieu of the seal of the president of the United States; and images of Roadrunner on the table instead of the blurred-out images that appeared in the original photograph. We can only assume that the strike team being monitored flew in on a parasol and carried sticks of dynamite supplied by the Acme Corporation.
Because I took too many humanities classes in college (and because I was middling in all of them), here are some last thoughts before I go:
1. Chasing ghost roadrunners: One possible route of interpretation is that, if Osama bin Laden represents the objectives of our war on terror, and if bin Laden is Roadrunner, and since Roadrunner is never caught in Looney Tunes, then can the U.S. ever achieve the goals we set out for when we first embarked on this war on terror? Perhaps Wile E. Coyote is using the wrong methods (hammers, dynamite, sabotage) and ignoring the human terrain to capture the elusive Roadrunner?
2. Escalation: Emily VanDerWerff writes in a 2020 article for Vox that part of the appeal of Looney Tunes is its “assorted running gags that kept escalating.” Later, she describes how, in every cartoon short, “there’s a sense of barely restrained anarchy, of wild and glorious violence about to burst forth from every corner.”
Escalation and violence about to burst forth from every corner could describe our world today, where the U.S. military has drones ready to drop bombs and special operators ready to kick in doors in in over a dozen countries. At the same time, terrorist attacks are still unfolding around the world. This is one messed-up episode of Tom and Jerry.
3. Caricatures: The other thing that characterizes Looney Tunes is their incredibly consistent style, which is exhibited in the bright colors and solid linework of this painting. The Looney Tunes characters, like the skits they find themselves in, are static and unchanging over the years, which is why they are so recognizable. This is where we and the painting might part ways. Unlike the characters in Looney Tunes, we don’t have to chase terrorists for eternity. There could be other ways of pursuing our goal to help preserve a peaceful world. The very act of caricaturing this famous image opens up other avenues for how we can react to it.
But enough exegesis of some dude’s painting. Here is the who’s who you’ve been waiting for. From left to right:
Elmer Fudd – Vice President Joe Biden
Wile E. Coyote – President Barack Obama
Pepé Le Pew – Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen
Marvin the Martian – Brig. Gen. Marshall B. “Brad” Webb, assistant commanding general of the Joint Special Operations Command
Foghorn Leghorn – Tom Donilon, Assistant to the president for national security affairs
Sylvester the Cat – William M. Daley, White House Chief of Staff
Bugs Bunny – Denis McDonough, deputy national security advisor
Tweety – Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
Yosemite Sam – Tony Blinken, National Security Advisor to the Vice President
Daffy Duck – either Audrey Tomason, director for counterterrorism for the National Security Council or John O. Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism.
Porky Pig – Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
… that’s all, folks!