Doonesbury Goes to War, Part III: Phred.

In previous posts, I’ve written about how Garry Trudeau framed the Vietnam war and American militarism more generally in the early years of Doonesbury, culminating in B.D.’s decision to enlist and fight in Vietnam. In those posts, I noted a shift in how GBT wrote about war and the military in the strip’s early years, moving from dark satire to an approach that focused more on surreal and silly humour. While B.D. was in ROTC training, he expressed a passion for violence that was shocking in its intensity; when he got to Vietnam, the enemy taunted him by shooting at him with suction-cup arrows. As Doonesbury’s narrative got closer to real violence, it seems, Trudeau was less willing to shock comics page readers’ sensibilities. Sometimes the hardest questions call for a softer approach, and by 1972, few questions were as hard as the question of what to do about a long, brutal and increasingly unpopular war.
In this post, I’m going to conclude my look at B.D.’s service in Vietnam by examining another shift that Trudeau made in terms of how he addressed the war, allowing a key character and readers alike to better understand the humanity of an enemy. On February 16, 1972, B.D., lost in the jungle, had a chance encounter that would profoundly affect him, helping him gain a better understanding of the perspectives and lived realities of those who suffered most during the American war in Vietnam: the Vietnamese people.

16Feb72.png
Introducing Phred, Doonesbury, 16 February 1972

Separated from his unit in unfriendly territory, B.D. doubles down on his belief that the Vietnam war is a just cause. He faces his impending doom squarely, with no regrets about the cause for which he may die: he may be “destined to die in this cursed jungle,” but the war he’s fighting is “right, honorable, and a credit to America.” B.D.’s soliloquy is interrupted when someone hidden in the grass points a rifle at his head and asks him how he feels about the “POW issue,” a reference to the question of captured American soldiers – while the US wanted prisoners released as a precondition for peace talks, North Vietnam was only willing to release them as part of a general peace settlement. Our hidden speaker is Phred, a Vietcong terrorist. (While the word “terrorist” is laden with particular associations, when he first meets B.D., Phred refers to himself as a “terrorist,” and continues to let B.D. refer to him as such, so that’s the term I will use here.)
Phred was a revolutionary addition to Doonesbury’s cast, and he went on to become one of the most important secondary characters in the Doonesbury pantheon. Notwithstanding GBT’s unfortunate decision to deal in stereotypes of Asian speech patterns in his first appearance (“vely nice”), Phred was a rare example of a sympathetic portrayal of an enemy soldier appearing in wartime American popular culture. If Vietnam went largely ignored by mainstream comic strips, the viewpoints of Vietnamese people – no matter what side of the conflict they took – were, before Phred showed up, something that no mainstream comics artists wrote about. Phred gave a voice to the Vietnamese people as they withstood the effects of American war-making, and after the war ended, he continued to speak for the people of the Third World as Vietnam’s ambassador to the United Nations.

22Feb72

It’s not just B.D. that feels this way. It’s America. Doonesbury, 22 February 1972

A few days after they meet, Phred is sleeping in the grass and B.D. ponders his situation: he may be “hungry, tired, disgraced, and humiliated,” but at least, he muses, his new friend is “in the right country.” It’s tempting to read B.D.’s reading of his predicament as a commentary on the American presence in Vietnam in microcosm. Like B.D., America has been disgraced and humiliated in a country where it has no real business. B.D. decides that, given his situation, it might be “worthwhile and inspirational” to get to know a “commie.” Yet before B.D. gets to know Phred, there’s something he has to say, something that reveals an ugly part of his character. B.D.’s unease about Phred is not only ideological, it’s racial. Phred encourages B.D. to say the word he’s been dying to say since they first met. B.D. screams at his new companion, calling him a “lousy commie gook!” in a moment of catharsis. With that unpleasantness out of the way, the two adversaries begin what becomes a lifelong friendship.

25Feb72

Not a proud moment for B.D. Doonesbury, 25 February 1972

As part of their bonding experience, Phred fills B.D. in on basic facts about the war and its effects on Vietnam from a Vietnamese perspective, focusing on just how long the Vietnamese people had been fighting to liberate themselves from foreign occupation. The American “running dogs been occupying [Vietnam] for fifteen years, and Phred learned the terrorist trade from his father, who “used to do quite a job on the local French outposts.” There is a political lesson to be learned from this history, one the Americans should have learned years earlier: the Vietnamese people were fiercely committed to attaining and protecting their national sovereignty. Phred and his comrades are prepared to fight this latest occupation as long as it takes: after all, Phred has a ten-year contract.

21Feb72

Americans never really understood the longer historical context of the Vietnam war. Doonesbury, 21 February 1972

But it’s not lessons on history and politics that turn these two enemies into friends; it’s bonding over simple shared human pleasures like playing cards and getting drunk (an activity that would eventually earn B.D. a Purple Heart) and sharing a love of music. These experiences have a profound effect on B.D., forcing him to question some of the core the beliefs that inspired him to sign up in the first place. Phred is “unlike other commies”: he’s “a good guy.” But it’s not just about one good guy – it turns out, much to B.D.’s surprise, that commies have mothers too.

23Feb 2

Commies have mothers too. Doonesbury, 23 February 1972

B.D.’s experience meeting a flesh-and-blood communist was revelatory, but it was not immediately transformative. Trudeau respects his readers too much to give them a fairytale ending in which B.D.’s militarism and casual racism disappear after meeting an actual Vietnamese person. B.D.’s encounter with Phred doesn’t make him doubt the rightness of the American cause in south-east Asia; it leads him to a more complicated place, where he is able to recognize the humanity of his ideological enemy while still believing that inflicting massive violence upon the Vietnamese people is the correct thing to do. B.D. lives with the contradictions and finds ways to rationalize them. Even as he keeps in touch with Phred after being rescued, B.D. remains committed to the war. When a military plane flies over on a “protective reaction raid,” he expresses his admiration for the aircraft, oblivious to what the bombs it drops will do to people just like Phred and his mother. With the right rationalization, bombing villages becomes a “protective reaction strike,” and, B.D. argues, that means “not having to say you’re sorry.” When he learns he’s being shipped out, he gets upset at having to quit fighting a war that “had such promise.” And as he says goodbye to Phred, B.D. he makes it clear that the idea of fighting a racialized, dehumanized ideological opponent – in this case the “Krauts” on the other side of the Berlin Wall – still has enormous appeal.

5MAY72
B.D. is still basically B.D. Doonesbury, 5 May 1972

If we zoom out and look at Doonesbury’s long history, it’s clear that B.D.’s encounter with Phred played a role in his evolution from a reactionary, misogynist, racist stereotype of a Goldwater youth wing member to the insightful, sensitive and wise man he has become, but it was not a sufficient condition. In future posts, I will have way more to say about that development. B.D.’s emotional growth is arguably the single most narrative arc in the strip. B.D. was the first character to appear in Doonesbury, he endured a type of trauma rarely seen in the medium of the daily comic strip, losing a leg in Iraq, and he has come to represent a social cause that Trudeau has lent an enormous amount of support to, namely that of the struggles of America’s soldiers and veterans.

Comics Review: Sarah Glidden’s Rolling Blackouts

Every now and again, I take a break from writing about Doonesbury to review comics that I like. If you’re a creator of web- or print-based comics and you’d like me to write about your work, drop a line on Twitter (@readdoonesbury) or through my contact page.
1

I don’t like you, but I will tell you my story.

A woman wearing a headscarf faces us directly and says “I never liked you … I not like your government, I not like EVERYBODY … [but] I will talk about my story.” It’s 2010, and the woman is an Iraqi refugee living in Syria. She is a refugee because of the instability that gripped her country following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Her story, the stories of many people who share a fate similar to hers, and the challenges faced by journalists who try to tell her story to American readers, are the subject of Rolling Blackouts, an outstanding work of comics journalism by Sarah Glidden, published by Drawn and Quarterly Press (shout-out to my hometown of Montreal!!). In 2010, independent journalists Sarah Stuteville and Alex Stonehill travelled to Turkey, Iraq, and Syria to document the situation facing Iraqis whose lives were upturned by the war and subsequent unrest. Glidden accompanied them so that she could “make a comic book about how journalism works.” More than a look at the inner workings of reporting, Rolling Blackouts explores the disconnect between the severity of the tragedy experienced by the Iraqi people following the invasion and Americans’ fundamental disconnect from, and ignorance of, that tragedy. Stuteville’s generation’s understanding of the Middle East “has been defined by the conflict of the past ten years,” but as the war receded from the headlines Americans began “looking inwards” and not paying attention to the lasting consequences of the invasion: for those left behind, notably the Iraqi refugees in Syria that are the main focus of the second half of the book, the situation endures.

Screenshot at 2018-04-06 13:19:57

The disconnect between Iraq’s central place in American foreign policy and its virtual absence from American public consciousness is revealed in Glidden’s sense of distance from military life. Before going to Iraq, Glidden’s only real connection to the war was marching in opposition to it. That said, for all Americans, a particular dimension of the war is part of the background noise of daily life as an unquestioned ethos of “supporting the troops” has become a cultural touchstone, one acted out in quotidian settings such as airports and sporting events. Yet, Glidden notes, she has “never had much contact with the troops. They were always far away.” Glidden’s alienation from a defining aspect of American identity, the military, is evident in the first stage of the group’s trip. Also on the trip is Dan O’Brien, an Iraq war vet; Stuteville hopes to write about how O’Brien can come to terms with his experience in Iraq. Glidden waits at the airport, sitting under a sign that reads SUPPORT THE TROOPS and acknowledges that Dan’s military experience makes him something of a novelty to her. As she observes Dan, Glidden confesses that she “[…didn’t] know what [she] was expecting an ex-Marine to be like in the first place.”

Many Americans have little connection with the men and women who fight their wars, but at least the media make it a point to tell soldiers’ stories. Yet while the media regularly remind Americans of the bravery of, and sacrifices made by, those men and women, Iraqis are rarely granted their basic humanity in American reporting. Stuteville, Stonehill and Glidden set out to show us how the Iraqi people live lives that are “steeped in politics and difficulty.”

As these people’s lives are “steeped in politics and difficulty,” the are also steeped in history, a dynamic that does not figure strongly in how Glidden and her companions engage with, understand, and tell the stories of the people they encounter. The narrative arc of the book begins, essentially, with the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003: absent is virtually any mention of how, dating back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, Western powers (first Britain, then the United States) used political pressure and mass violence to maintain access to the one thing that makes Iraq relevant to them: oil. There is one moment where the book hints at that long and horrible history. As Glidden and her companions drive through Iraqi Kurdistan, Dan notes that ultimately, Iraq is simply “a piece of land with borders someone drew on a map.” I read Rolling Blackouts alongside a collection of essays by the radical historian Mike Davis. In “The Ungrateful Volcano,” Davis details exactly how bloody the process of drawing those lines on a map was for the Iraqi people. As the British took responsibility for the Mandate of Iraq, they, like the Americans a century later, believed that they would be warmly greeted as “liberators,” freeing Iraqis not from Saddam Hussein, but from the Ottomans. A general uprising against British rule put the lie to those beliefs. The British response is shocking in its brutality. Winston Churchill, the Colonial Secretary, deployed ground troops, poison gas, and aerial bombardments of civilian populations to quell the anti-colonial rebellion. British administrators hanged political prisoners while RAF planes “machine-gunned women and children as they fled from their homes.”

The Iraqi people understand their situation in terms of that longer history, but it is largely from Rolling Blackouts. This observation is not meant as a criticism of Glidden’s work: she did not set out to write a comics history of the region. Rather, I see the absence of a deep engagement with the region’s history as something that underlines one of the book’s key themes: everyday Americans, the soldiers they send to fight their wars, and the journalists who report on those wars have a severely limited understanding of a place where America and its allies have inflicted, and continue to inflict, massive levels of violence. Dan’s experience as a veteran is central to this dynamic. He’s an educated man who spent substantial time in Iraq, but he seems to have no real understanding of the people, their histories, or their cultures, saying that he doesn’t “have much of an idea of who they are, what they’re like.” The system he was part of, of course, made it unlikely that he would have been able to come to a better understanding of the region and its people. America’s disengagement from Iraqi history and politics is inseparable from its failure to bring peace, stability and and prosperity to the country. As Dan notes, he and his fellow soldiers were clueless about the effects of their actions on Iraqis, and they never had the chance to learn more. “If any of our actions negatively affected Iraqis, and I’m sure they did,” he notes, “we didn’t stick around long enough to see it.”

This sense of detachment from the larger political and historic dynamics that shape the daily realities of the people they set out to write about is shared by Dan’s companions. On the drive to Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, the group notices what “must be the Kurdish flag”; their uncertainty about basic facts about the region is made apparent. A few pages later, a long and complicated history of two peoples sharing a political space is condensed into an uncertain analysis: “Arabs and Kurds don’t get along, apparently.” It’s crucial to note, however, that Glidden fully understands that she doesn’t know enough about Iraq and its people. She is embarrassed because she quotes an article about Iraq that she had read on the flight as though she was an expert; she later admits, after an interview session, that “the history of the Kurd’s displacement is still a knot of confusion” for her.

If Americans are so disengaged from the people whose lives are so profoundly and painfully impacted by American military aggression, it’s in part because contemporary journalistic practices and institutions make it very difficult to get the kind of stories that might change things out into the public sphere. As Glidden draws our attention to America’s failure to care about, understand, or even acknowledge the existence of the people whose lives were torn apart by the invasion of Iraq, she also reveals the challenges faced by the well-intentioned journalists who are working to bring those people’s stories back to American readers.

2

Stuteville’s struggles with the complexities of her industry are a key theme of the book.

Stuteville and Stonehill are often racked with self-doubt and frustration as they seek to find a balance point between their desire to tell stories that could make a difference and the economies of attention and money that determine which stories get published and read: As Stuteville notes, she sees her role as being “to get people excited about journalism and then show them how conflicted and shitty it is.” As compelling as the stories of the Iraqi people may be, and as much as they might change how Americans understand the Iraqi people, they will be competing with an unprecedented amount of journalistic output clamouring for readers’ time. As Stuteville asks, how can a reporter ensure that her story is the one thing that a potential reader dedicates to the little free time they have available? This dynamic goes a long way in determining what stories end up getting told, because “people are looking for things they can already relate to.” In other words, we don’t, as readers, don’t have the time to embark on a learning curve that challenges our received wisdom about a complex situation on the other side of the planet. Moreover, the economic realities of contemporary journalism mean that the stories that most need to be told – the ones that would force Americans to more directly confront some of the worst consequences of their country’s policies – go unpublished because publishers “don’t want to overwhelm their audience with too depressing a story.”

At one point, Glidden shows herself transcribing interviews and musing that her methodology for this comics journalism project is different from her usual work creating comics memoir. Rolling Blackouts actually straddles the two genres. On the one hand, it brilliantly documents a number of interconnected stories about war, its effects on people, and how we understand those effects. On the other hand, Glidden often centres her own reflections on her experiences in ways that help us better understand the person telling these stories. By sometimes making herself the subject, even with short comment in a caption, Glidden helps the reader better understand how challenging it is to make sense of a situation like post-invasion Iraq.

It’s impossible to read this account of a trip to Syria without thinking about the ongoing Syrian civil war and its associated humanitarian dimensions. While Rolling Blackouts is set before the outbreak of the current conflict, Glidden foreshadows the possibility of its emergence. As their trip begins, she notes that they are in a region that is “absorbing refugees and struggling with new resource conflicts. (As Jackie Roche and Audrey Quinn reveal in their comic about the origins of the Syrian civil war, climate change and access to water were central to the outbreak of hostilities.) The book ends with Glidden watching news of the uprising; she believes that, to a certain extent, the work she had put in researching Rolling Blackouts has been overtaken by events; she writes that her “original question seems far less important than all of this.” In future posts I’ll be looking at works of comics journalism that take more recent events in the Middle East head-on. But while the Syrian civil war created refugee flows and human tragedies that may seem to dwarf the situations that Glidden writes about, the experiences of the people who suffer most in the conflict to be understood in the larger context of the humanitarian costs of post-9/11 American aggression in the Middle East. Moreover, we need to think about how the media that we trust to keep us informed about the region grapples with substantial challenges as reporters try to get us to understand the human costs of American policy. America is going to continue relying on violence as a primary means of shaping outcomes in the Middle East, and the media is going to continue to struggle to make Westerners understand how that affects the human beings who live there. For these reasons, as well as for being a beautifully-drawn and written, and deeply thoughtful and moving book, Rolling Blackouts is a must-read.

This Week in Doonesbury: “We’re Not Going Anywhere.”

This week’s Doonesbury is a powerful comment on a contemporary political movement, the emergence of which over the last few weeks was both long overdue and largely unexpected. Gun-control activism has attracted the energy and attention of America’s youth in the wake of the Parkland shootings. This movement was long overdue because the stakes are so high: accounts of American mass shootings blur together as greedy politicians and lobbyists and firearms manufacturers profit from an insane domestic arms race. It was unexpected because until Parkland, it really seemed as if those Americans who understand the importance of the “well-regulated” part of the Second Amendment had resigned themselves to the fact that, given the political strength of their opposition, they were fighting a lost cause. If twenty dead children and their teachers at Sandy Hook weren’t going to change the country’s moral calculus, many seemed to reason, nothing could.

Then Parkland happened and the people with the most at stake in the gun debate – the kids who go to school every day wondering if it might be their turn to die at the hands of an overarmed, enraged young man – took charge, and told their teachers, principals and parents and the politicians, lobbyists and gun nuts that they’d had enough. Their hashtag, #NeverAgain, has joined #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter as an online reflection of grassroots movements that are presenting a profound challenge to American structures of power.

Beyond recognizing the importance of the movement sparked by the Parkland students, the 1 April strip plays on a theme that has been central to Trudeau’s work for decades – his generation’s reckoning with its history, especially the question of how the Boomers failed to follow through on, and ultimately lost, the ideals that had driven them to challenge the establishment in their youth.

I have an ambivalent relationship with the Boomers. I’m a student of Boomer-era history (I wrote my dissertation on 1960s radicalism) and a I’m lifelong consumer of Boomer culture. Their generation made huge strides towards of creating new political, social and cultural freedoms. At the same time, as someone living in a world where so much of the 1968 generation’s vision of a better day has yet to be realized, I have a healthy dose of resentment towards a generation that, like their forebears, will not relax their stranglehold on political and cultural power, and will not make room for a younger generation with new energy and new ideas. This week’s strip takes that tension head-on.

Sunday’s strip begins with Mark prepping for an interview with one of the Parkland activists. As the interview is wrapping up, Mark asks a question that is completely dismissive of the dedication the young man and and his peers have shown as they have fought the political establishment: “[Having] seen how Washington really works, are you kids ready to call it quits?” Mark’s guest replies that, regardless of the patronizing attitudes that Mark has just demonstrated, these kids “are in this for good, [and] won’t stop fighting until there’s real change!” At that moment, a transformation occurs: Mark sees his past self in the young man sitting in front of him, and is forced to confront his, and his generation’s, failure to follow through on the values they embraced decades ago. That penultimate panel, with present-day Mark looking into the eyes of his enraged younger self, wondering how he lost the passion that drives the Parkland kids, ranks among the most moving moments in Doonesbury history.

1APR18

Mark confronts his past. Doonesbury, 1 April 2018

This is the second time in recent months that Mark’s studio has been the setting for a flashback that puts the politics of today in dialogue with those of Trudeau’s youth: on 22 October 2017, Trudeau linked the behaviour of the current occupant of the White House to that of a previously-disgraced president by revisiting one of Doonesbury’s most iconic panels (Here’s the post I wrote about that strip). Yet while GBT might be feeling a little sentimental in our troubled times, his generation’s understanding of its past has been a Doonesbury touchstone for decades. One Doonesbury staple that lets readers trace the Boomers coming to terms with their history is the periodic decade revival parties hosted at Walden. I’ll be looking at later fin-de-decade shindigs later, but it’s the first of two sixties revival parties, held in March 1974 (the second was in 1977), that I want to focus on here. The arc balanced silly fun and black humour: the president of Walden College arrived dressed as himself from five years earlier, ready to negotiate with student protestors occupying his office; other guests showed up as wounded Vietnam vets and Charles Manson, reminding us, contrary to the images of “the Summer of Love” and naked flower children dancing in the mud at Woodstock, the sixties were a fundamentally dark time.

10DEC74

At the Walden sixties revival party, Nicole is appalled at some of the costume choices. Doonesbury, 10 December 1974.

11DEC74

…meanwhile, President King relives the glory days of the sixties. Doonesbury, 11 December 1974.

But it’s a moment between Mike and Mark that foreshadows the sense of generational self-disillusionment that Trudeau addressed in this week’s strip. Mark is dressed as his activist self – black armband, his head bandaged after being beaten by the pigs – and Mike, the ultimate middle-of-the-road liberal, is one of “the Best and the Brightest,” John F. Kennedy’s team of intellectuals whose policy recommendations help lead America into the Vietnam quagmire. At Mark’s request, Mike recites his paraphrased version of Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech (the actual passage reads: “The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”). The two young men laugh warmly at the passage, fondly recalling the youthful optimism it encapsulates. Their laughter, however, quickly gives way to a grim understanding: in 1974, with Nixon embroiled in a scandal that would politically disillusion a generation and the war in Vietnam an unmitigated and still-unresolved disaster, it was clear that a generation charged with making their nation and the world a better place had failed to meet the challenge and had lost something vital in the process. Forty-four years later, in an NPR studio, facing a new generation determined to leave the world a better place than what they inherited, the bitter taste of failure still haunts Mark, and it still haunts Garry Trudeau.

12DEC74

“The Best and the Brightest.” Doonesbury, 12 December 1974.

13DEC74

“What’s happened to us?” Doonesbury, 13 December 1974.

And yet, as always, another generation is ready to do what has to be done – push the old folks out of the way and work towards necessary change. In The Wretched of the Earth, the Martinican philosopher Frantz Fanon, discussing the generation that comes to power when colonialism gives way to independence, wrote that “each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” Trudeau may well be bitter about his generation’s betrayals of their youthful ideals and mission, especially in these dark times. But more importantly, he hasn’t lost his faith in the energy and vision of youth: the Parkland kids may have come out of nowhere, but they’ve discovered their mission, and they aren’t going anywhere.