When the curtain falls on Doonesbury, the ensuing retrospectives are bound to focus on Garry Trudeau’s chronicling of the War on Terror and its effects on the men and women who were asked to put their lives and their well-being at risk for a fundamentally flawed set of foreign policies. GBT has used the experiences of characters like B.D., Toggle, Ray Hightower, and Melissa Wheeler to promote awareness of the physical, psychological, and social challenges facing a generation asked to fight a poorly-conceived war in Afghanistan and a criminal war in Iraq. Beyond chronicling the effects of war on two generations of Americans, GBT has taken on an activist role, supporting veterans and giving them a space where they can make their voices heard on the issues that affect them.
Trudeau has written about virtually every war America has fought since the strip began in 1970 (and even a few that it hasn’t, such as when Duke, as governor of American Samoa, called on the Marines to invade the territory). Before re-reading the strip, my memory told me that the War on Terror led Trudeau to inject a dark tone in his writing about the military that had largely been absent in his previous work. The arc in which B.D. lost a leg in Iraq was arguably the most chilling thing ever to appear on the funny pages. Melissa’s experience with sexual assault in Afghanistan reveals ugly truths about the armed services that many Americans are uncomfortable acknowledging. Compare those horrors to B.D.’s experience in Vietnam: he joined up in order to get out of writing a term paper, and the highlight of his time in-country was a series of comic misadventures with Phred the VC terrorist leading to him earning his first Purple Heart, not for being wounded under enemy fire, but for cutting his hand on a beer can.
However, re-reading Doonesbury’s first years, I’m seeing how, when Trudeau took an unflinching look at the human costs of the War on Terror, he was building on a longer history of writing critically about the effects of war on American society and on the people that were at the receiving end of American power. Trudeau did use B.D.’s Vietnam experience to have a little fun writing about the war in a more lighthearted way. But, more importantly, he focused a satirical gaze on the violence inherent in American culture and demonstrated how American violence had tragic results for both the American and the Vietnamese people. Vietnam was, for Trudeau, as it was for the generation he belonged to and wrote about, an episode that revealed ugly truths about the country he loves. Trudeau spent decades trying to understand and come to terms with Vietnam. Nearly half a century on, Vietnam still resonates in Doonesbury’s America; one of the central characters for the past twenty-five years, Kim Doonesbury, formerly Kim Rosenthal, was the last orphan to be airlifted from Vietnam at the end of the war.
Over the next little while, I’m going to look at how Trudeau wrote about Vietnam. From the strip’s first days, Trudeau used his privileged position as a widely-syndicated newspaper comics artist as a way to bring a strong anti-war message to a key part of American mass culture, the funny pages.
Trudeau’s first mention of the Vietnam war came about six weeks into syndication. Mark Slackmeyer, suspended from Walden College after occupying the university’s president’s office, is planning to enjoy some downtime, but his hopes are dashed by the appearance of a “Greetings” letter from the draft board. The dreaded draft board letter made another appearance six months later; in the intervening time, the “beautiful cats” at the Selective Service had gotten remarkably hipper.
While these two strips hint at an important dynamic in how the Vietnam war was experienced by young Americans – the ever-present anxiety among those fortunate enough to attend university and thereby avoid the draft that they might lose that status – Trudeau, surprisingly, largely overlooked the draft. Instead, as he thought about students being shipped off to war, Trudeau focused on a key link between American militarism and higher education, the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC). For Trudeau, ROTC revealed, and fostered, the violence deeply woven into the American character, a theme he would return to when he began writing directly about Southeast Asia.
The summer after his freshman year, B.D. began his ROTC training. ROTC was always in the cards for B.D. Alongside resonating with his pro-military/anti-Red ideological outlook, ROTC was probably the only way he could afford to attend a liberal arts college like Walden. After all, he’s the son of a working-class immigrant family (his parents emigrated from Poland) whose father is chronically unemployed. Trudeau later turned Walden into the butt of numerous jokes about for-profit “diploma mills” that trade meaningless degrees for crippling debt, but in 1971, B.D. was exchanging service to his country for a shot at social mobility his parents didn’t have.
H. Rap Brown of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee famously pointed out that “violence is as American as cherry pie.” B.D. may have seen ROTC, at least in part, as a chance at a life that would otherwise be unattainable for him, but Trudeau used B.D.’s ROTC training to comment on how violence, especially in its militaristic form, was central to American identity. B.D. represents that subset of American youth who did not buy into the counterculture or New Left politics. He’s a straight-arrow, all-American quarterback, a Republican, and a patriot’s patriot, who has no sympathy for the anti-war left B.D. rejects Mark’s New Left radicalism, but he lives his politics as much as his ideological opposite. With B.D., the huddle becomes a forum for the politics of Nixon’s “Silent Majority.” He will interrupt a huddle to allow his team to acknowledge an Air Force plane flying overhead, and once called for a beating to be delivered to a dissenting protestor. B.D.’s love of military violence is America’s love for military violence.
B.D. began his ROTC training on and Trudeau spared no time in engaging in some of the darkest satire imaginable in a mainstream newspaper comic strip. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and M*A*S*H* satirized the insanity of military life and the basic incompetence of Army bureaucracy; Doonesbury focused on portraying the military, and thereby American culture, as sadistically violent. We learn that ROTC is not really about imbuing young men with values of “leadership”and “discipline,” but teaching them “to be methodical machines of destruction and ruin.” This is exactly what B.D. was looking for; he proudly writes his parents to tell them that he has already learned how to “shoot, lacerate, knife, blow up, detonate, and liquidate” as required.
B.D. takes to military life, and the accompanying opportunities for acts of heroic violence, much as he takes to the opportunities for controlled mayhem presented on Saturday afternoons on the college gridiron. In fact, one officer is concerned that B.D. might be a little too eager to put his training to practical use.
By the end of the summer, however, the commanders put aside their fears that B.D. might be just a little bit too enthusiastic, and, in a nod to the spectacular aspects of America’s favourite pastime, give him the equivalent of an Oscar for the “Best Performance as a Gung-Ho G.I,” an award our hero turns down because – in an early appearance of the normalization of violent militarism as an occupation like any other – he’s “just trying to do his job.”
Over the next little while, I’ll talk more about how Trudeau showed his readers just how nasty a job that could be.