Doonesbury Goes to War, Part IV: Phred, B.D. and the Heartless Air Pirates.

Welcome back.

Last time out, I began writing about how Garry Trudeau addressed the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam war, looking at the experience of Kim and other refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia. The second part of that series is going to look at the ways in which two soldiers, Phred and B.D., adjusted to post-war world; the third is going to look at American foreign and military policy in the immediate post-Vietnam era.

But as I started to write that second post, sketching out some ideas about Phred’s post-war career as a re-education officer in a united, communist Vietnam, I realized that there were important parts of his story that I hadn’t looked at, and that I needed to finish telling the story of his war, and the story of the war more generally, before moving on.

Upon assuming office in 1969, Richard Nixon began implementing a policy known as “Vietnamization,” which involved cutting the number of American soldiers in Vietnam while building up South Vietnam’s ability to attain its military objectives. By 1972 – the year when B.D. served – the United States had withdrawn some 400,000 troops from Vietnam. As America pulled back from its commitment to fighting in Vietnam, Garry Trudeau shifted much of his attention away from the experiences of American soldiers to provide a running commentary on the war through the eyes of those who suffered the most during the conflict: the people of south-east Asia. His principal Vietnamese character, Phred the Viet Cong terrorist, was transformed from a sidekick to a spokesperson for a region that, even as the American presence was starting to shrink, was still suffering under massive aerial bombardment (in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) in order to advance American foreign policy objectives.

GBT’s strips about the bombings marked a second major shift in how he covered the war in southeast Asia. When he started writing about the war, Trudeau used dark satire to underline the brutal nature of American militarism. When B.D. arrived in Vietnam, dark satire gave way to goofy humour that took a softer approach dealing with violence. The arrival of Phred showed readers that, despite the fundamentally dehumanizing nature of much of American discourse about the Vietnamese people (…a set of ideas that made war crimes such as the My Lai massacre possible) they were actually human beings with the full range of human emotions. And mothers.

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Phred’s reality. Doonesbury, 29 October 1972

Starting in October 1972, GBT stopped pulling his punches about the suffering caused by American aggression in south-east Asia. The Sunday, 29 October strip finds Phred in the jungle, writing to B.D. Using language that rarely appeared in the funny pages, Phred describes the “horror and agony of war”: “bombs rain daily” and his parents have again become refugees because his “hamlet was levelled.” While the strip ends on an uplifting note – Phred’s love of rock and roll helps “chase them naughty blues away” – it is fundamentally disturbing when compared to GBT’s previous Vietnam material. Death is no longer an abstraction: a familiar character is confronting it in a way that is much more real than we had previously seen. No softening, and no satirical exaggeration: people who, like us, love Elvis Presley records, are dying, and their homes are being destroyed.

Trudeau sometimes couched his increasingly pointed critiques of American actions n humour that played on the personalities of his characters. After Phred writes that letter to B.D., Boopsie interrupts B.D.’s huddle with the news that casualties from a recent American rocket attack on North Vietnam included cows, sheep, chickens and, worst of all, baby ducks. The punch-line is in Boopsie and Zonker’s reactions; two usually apolitical characters are shocked into understanding how horrible the war is because of some dead birds. A few days after this interlude, however, GBT gets real again. Zonker wants to talk with B.D. about how America has been bombing “schools and hospitals and defenceless hamlets.” Again, Trudeau is determined to use his voice to expose, in frank, clear, unambiguous language that was unique among syndicated comic strips, the horrors that were being done in the name of the American people.

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Baby ducks. Doonesbury, 30 October 1972

Shortly after the “baby ducks” strip, B.D. headed back to Vietnam – this time, not as a soldier, but as a tourist. His return visit allowed Trudeau to confront his readers with the helpless rage that the Vietnamese people must have felt as the American war dragged on with no end in sight. Foreshadowing Donald Trump’s vision of another communist Asian nation becoming a hot tourist destination, Phred invited B.D. to come see Vietnam before it was “spoiled” by the “tourists, resorts and hotels” that would come with the “impending threat of peace.” In fact, this was as much a planned exercise in consciousness-raising as it was a reunion of two war buddies.

Admittedly, the story of B.D.’s Vietnamese vacation was marked by the the goofy buddy humour that dominated his stint as a GI, much of which deliberately minimized the horror of the war: Phred admits to blowing up a man’s bicycle because he supported the Thieu regime, and he rejoices at finding his old desk in the bombed-out wreckage of his former school. We also get the incongruous images of B.D. and Phred getting drunk and singing Christmas carols and enjoying a gourmet meal in the middle of a war zone.

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Phred’s having a bad day. Doonesbury, 21 December 1972

But these moments of lightness stand in sharp contrast to what we learn about the horrors of the war as it was experienced by Phred and his people. Phred takes B.D. to visit his mother at a refugee camp; there is “destitution as far as the eye can see.” A few days later, B.D. and Phred get caught in an artillery attack. When B.D. suggests they help a wounded man, Phred lashes out, screaming that the man is “just ONE of the millions of civilians who have been wounded or killed” since the war began, a statistic that’s repeated in a strip that ran a week later. Trudeau wanted his readers to understand just how tragic the war was for the Vietnamese people. He also wanted them to understand something about the logic that drove their suffering.

As B.D.’s trip was winding down, Trudeau introduced two characters who, although they never directly interacted with Phred, represented the power that was systematically destroying his people’s lives and livelihoods. After an American airstrike forces B.D. and Phred to take shelter, Phred impotently screams his rage at the “heartless air pirates” who dropped the bombs: “I hope you can live with all the destruction and carnage you’ve brought to my little country!!” Meanwhile, the Heartless Air Pirates, several thousand feet above, are insulated from, and seemingly oblivious to, what is happening below them.

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Introducing the Heartless Air Pirates, Doonesbury, 29 December 1972

The appearance of the Heartless Air Pirates made GBT’s writing about Vietnam even more surrealist. War is a fundamentally insane endeavour, and the only way for the people tasked with executing it is to embrace the cognitive dissonance that defines existence in a war zone. Trudeau had already hinted at the insanity of the logic of American bombing in two throwaway panels earlier in 1972. Zonker reads that the Pentagon planned to drop 50,000,000 tons of bombs on Vietnam. The only rationale provided for this radical act of violence came from an official who justified it by reminding Americans that the lives of Vietnamese people were of exactly zero consequence: “Well, why not? You know? I mean, what the heck.” The Heartless Air Pirates allowed Trudeau articulate the gap between that bizarre logic and the ability of the people who had to operate within it to maintain their sanity. For America, the Vietnamese people were human beings of a lesser order, and their lives were secondary to strategic and geopolitical priorities: “In order to save the village, we had to destroy it.” The only way for the perpetrators to live within that logic is to do whatever they can to insulate themselves from it; but that’s only a stopgap measure. The inherent contradictions ultimately reinforce the systemic insanity. This was a key theme in 1960s and 1970s anti-war culture, as seen in popular novels and films like Catch-22 and M*A*S*H. Like Milo Minderbinder and Hawkeye Pierce, the Heartless Air Pirates know they are living with insanity, but as they attempt to make peace with that insanity, its depths are made all the more apparent because the contradiction is just too big.

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He was just askin’…Doonesbury, 30 December 1972

High above the carnage they cause, the Heartless Air Pirates have a perspective on the war that in no way reflects the reality below. One of them is touched by a recent gift he received: a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Two ideas about flight that were central to the culture of the era – the well-meaning, if somewhat empty-headed hippie idealism of Richard Bach’s poetic novel and a B-52 dropping tons of ordinance on peaceful villagers – are forced into the same frame, revealing the insanity of the times in sharp contrast. In their last appearance, the Heartless Air Pirates take “one last spin over the Delta,” because “it’s a beautiful day” to look at “some kinda country.” How that country looks, of course, depends on where you look at it from. The Heartless Air Pirates watch in awe as the bombs they drop “[catch] the sunlight as they [disappear] into the clouds,” leading something akin to a Fourth of July celebration; however, as one of them notes, things probably “looked different from the other end.” Phred’s impotent rage at the Heartless Air Pirates gives us a hint at how things looked from the other end. I have yet to find another widely-syndicated newspaper comic strip that did so much to force American readers to reckon with the human costs of what their government was doing in their name.

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Probably it did. Doonesbury, 4 February 1973

B.D., however, was not ready to reckon with what his country had done to the Vietnamese people; in the months following his Vietnamese vacation, he continued to wholeheartedly support the American war. The beginning of his reckoning with Vietnam would start when the last helicopters brought the last Americans off of the roof of the American embassy in Saigon, and the process would take decades; it’s still unfolding. Stay tuned.

Comics Review: First Year Out, a Transition Story

A while back, I reviewed Julia Kaye’s Super Late Bloomer, a comics journal chronicling the author’s early days in transition. On the heels of Kaye’s book, Vancouver’s Sabrina Symington has published First Year Out: A Transition Story, a comic about a woman’s experience with the process of gender transition. Like Kaye’s story, the story that Symington tells is one in which elation and heartbreak come at the heroine – and at the reader – in rapid alternation in response to the myriad victories, challenges and setbacks that are inherent to such a life-changing experience.

Sabrina Symington is a Vancouver, BC comics creator; her webcomic is Life of Bria. First Year Out, Symington’s first book, follows our heroine, Lily, as she as she adapts to living her life as a woman; the book is based on the experiences of Symington and her friends. From unwanted facial hair and other body issues that alienate Lily from her physical self to episodes of misgendering, rejection, and aggression from friends, family and strangers, Symington’s narrative reveals how, even in our comparatively enlightened times, trans people struggle daily with challenges that those who live in bodies that “match” our gendered identities will find difficult to truly appreciate. At the same time that she details the challenges and struggles that are inherent to the transition process, Symington also chronicles the rewards of Lily’s experience, notably the acceptance she gets from others and, most importantly, from herself. For all of the pain we see Lily experience, this is a story about human strength and perseverance and about the meaning of unconditional acceptance and love.

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Aside from being a profoundly moving story, First Year Out is a valuable text because it answers questions about the process of transition that both trans people first coming to terms with their own identity and the friends and families of trans women may have. Transition is a profoundly personal experience, and answering questions about it, even from well-intentioned loved ones, may not be comfortable for someone living it. From how tucking works to voice training to the effects of hormones to the recovery process following gender-reassignment surgery, Symington effectively educates her readers about the both the daily routines and the landmark moments that define Lily’s journey to living as the woman she is. Beyond that, much of First Year Out details Lily’s experiences with people whose hatred of trans women poses a genuine threat to the physical and emotional well being of people like her, including garden-variety bigots, TERfs, and chasers.

Transphobia is pervasive, as can be seen, for example, in our obsession with where people go to the bathroom. Yet while everyone who reads the news is familiar with that debate, the worst dimensions of transphobia too often go unmentioned. Trans people face a one-in-ten chance of being the target of violence every year, and nearly half of all trans people have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. In one sequence, Symington reveals the psychological toll that living with the persistent threat of violence has on Lily. She can rarely afford to let her guard down, which has a significant impact on her ability to simply go about her day; she is conditioned to expect any encounter with a stranger to end in a confrontational or aggressive manner. Lily’s defensiveness is necessary for survival’s sake, but living like this prevents her from fully participating in her own community. In one scene, Lily steels herself for a torrent of abuse from a passing man, and is thereby prevented from accepting or reciprocating his friendly “Good afternoon,” instead assuring herself that the man must have been at least “probably thought something nasty.” This sort of social alienation is just part of the price paid by many members of marginalized communities, arguably none more so than trans people.

Everyday transphobia has been given a political and theoretical sheen by a subsection of self-described radical feminists whose concept of womanhood is inextricably linked to a narrow biological definition of who counts as a woman: these are the trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERfs (This a term that TERf’s consider to be a slur, though it accurately describes their ideology. Out of respect for Symington’s stated preference, I use a lower-case “f” here to represent how TERfs are, feminists in name only…). Lily’s mother struggles to accept her daughter for who she is in part because, by growing up as a boy, Lily has not had the experiences that are part of being a “real” woman. Lily’s mom is an old-school feminist who argues that Lily, having grown up “being conditioned by male privilege to have male thoughts … cannot actually ever understand what it’s like to be a woman.” Accused by her daughter of harbouring TERf ideas, Lily’s mom explores some of the discourse produced by the movement and is shocked to learn that people are accusing women like her daughter of being deviants, pedophiles and rapists. The come-to-Jesus moment that is sparked by this encounter with vile hate speech directed at trans women is a major landmark on Lily’s mom coming to a fuller understanding of who her daughter is.

Alongside TERfs, there is a community of men who also approach women like Lily with a fundamentally dehumanizing agenda. These are the chasers, men who fetishize women who have a penis (…or, perhaps more to the point, fetishize penises that are attached to women). Lily’s encounters with chasers reveal a tendency among men in that community to completely objectify trans women by reducing them to nothing more than what’s between their legs. Eager to find romantic companionship, Lily takes out an account at a website that caters to men who are attracted to trans women, but her inbox is soon overflowing with messages from men who are not interested in her, but only in one part of her body. This is particularly demoralizing for Lily, we learn, because that part of her body serves largely to underline her sense of alienation from her own body. When Lily finally does find intimacy with a man who is interested in her whole being, she asks him not to touch her between her legs because it “kills the mood instantly.” Perhaps one of the sharpest insights of the book is this exploration of what its like for Lily to live in a body that reminds her, at her most intimate and vulnerable moments, that it does not represent her real self.

Lily tries online dating after seeing a man who, although initially seemingly completely at ease with Lily’s identity, dumps her because he ultimately cannot accept the idea of dating a trans woman. As one friend of Lily’s puts it, like many men, the man’s own internalized homophobia prevents him from being able to allow himself to be involved with a trans woman, even as he likes her very much. Perhaps the most profound concept that Symington addresses is the complex relationship between the bodies we inhabit and the types of bodies we typically desire. Lily’s newly-found acceptance of her attraction to men in the light of having exclusively dated women when she lived as man is fascinating for how it captures the intensely complex nature of desire outside of a hyper-simplified model of two genders operating within a limited framework of orientations. For Lily, the question is less about who she wants to go to bed with as it is who she wants to go to bed as. Before reading those words, I had never really thought about sexual orientation as having as much to do with a person’s relationship with their own body as it does with the types of bodies they desire.

This insight is but one example of how Symington excels at teaching her audience about complicated ideas in a clear and accessible manner. The struggle for trans acceptance, both in terms of society’s ability to accept trans people and trans people’s ability to accept themselves, touches on profound social, political, sexual and personal questions. Symington addresses these questions in a clear, lively and direct manner. You should read this book.