“Violence is as American as Cherry Pie”: Doonesbury Goes to War, Pt. I

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 one 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.

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Mark’s draft notice arrives. Doonesbury, 5 December 1970

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The beautiful cats at the draft board come after a Walden graduate. Doonesbury, 1 June 1971

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Unhappy days, indeed. Doonesbury, 2 June 1971.

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.

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B.D. was always army-bound. Doonesbury, 26 July 1971.

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.

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B.D. on the anti-war movement. Doonesbury, 1 March 1971

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B.D. doesn’t care for dissent on campus or on the field. Doonesbury, 29 December 1970.

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A patriotic huddle. Doonesbury, 17 December 1970.

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.

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The truth. Doonesbury, 12 June 1971.

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Skills training. Doonesbury, 14 June 1971.

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.

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It looks like fun. Doonesbury, 16 June 1971.

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B.D. develops a reputation. Doonesbury, 19 June 1971.

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Too much of a good thing. Doonesbury, 18 June 1971

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.”

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“Just trying to do his job.” Doonesbury, 2 August 1971.

Over the next little while, I’ll talk more about how Trudeau showed his readers just how nasty a job that could be.

“Even Revolutionaries Love Chocolate Chip Cookies”: Mark Slackmeyer and Radical Campus Politics.

When Garry Trudeau introduced readers to Nichole in September 1971, he seems to have largely shed the frat-boy misogyny that had dominated his writing about women and relationships between women and men in his early strips. [1] The introduction of a character who actively criticized and protested sexism and patriarchy not only marked a key shift in the strip’s portrayal of women, it marked the end of part of Trudeau’s “world-building” process. With the introduction of feminism as a regular thread, Trudeau finished assembling a set of themes that he would continue to explore over the next decades. Some of these themes would receive more or less attention over the years, and others would be introduced as real-world events warranted, but within the first year of Doonesbury’s existence, much of the thematic terrain Trudeau would go on to explore was sketched out. Alongside feminism, these themes include:

  • Radical politics
  • Education
  • War
  • Relationships between generations
  • Race
  • Electoral politics
  • Sports
  • Media
  • Drugs and countercultures

For the next little while, I’m going to be looking at how GBT introduced each of these ideas during the first year or so of Doonesbury’s run and set himself and his characters up to explore them. I’ll do my best to frame each theme around a particular character or set of characters. This week, radical campus politics through the eyes of Mark Slackmeyer.

But first, a quick diversion about the general political culture of Doonesbury’s first few years. Trudeau’s “Core Four” of B.D., Mike, Mark and Zonker each represent a distinct faction in Boomer political culture. From right to left: B.D. is a young Goldwater Republican; Mike (leaving aside the strong misogynistic tendencies he displayed in the early years) is a bleeding-heart liberal; and Mark represents the radical left. Fluttering about in no particular lane is Zonker, a head who has believes in neither the bullet nor the ballot. In later posts, then, I’ll come back to B.D.’s hyper-patriotic conservatism, Mike’s wishy-washy liberalism, and Zonker’s flying-of-the-freak-flag.

We first meet “Megaphone” Mark Slackmeyer on 19 November 1970, as he calls out Mike’s political spinelessness. Mark represents the New Left phase of the American revolutionary tradition – movements like the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground. Mark actively opposed the war in Vietnam, read Marx and hoped to see the end of capitalism, and was an active ally in struggles against racism and sexism.

Our first extended encounter with Mark follows him as he stages a one-man occupation of Walden College’s president’s house, one he narrates as a historical epic starring himself. Trudeau often had characters act as their own interior sportscaster, calling the play-by-play on whatever they were up to, much as a sandlot baseball player might “call” his or her on-field performance as they strive to emulate one of the game’s greats. Garry Wills, in his introduction to the first hardcover Doonesbury complication writes that this device allowed Trudeau to comment on how people understood their actions in terms of a larger ongoing narrative: Doonesbury’s characters are “watching each other watch themselves” as they play their ascribed roles. [2] As Mark watches himself play the role of the radical campus activist leader, Trudeau uses his experiences to satirize elements of the radical campus politics of the Vietnam era. Mark’s play-by-play on his solo occupation of Walden College’s president’s house, for instance, points at the egotism that seems all too common among political leaders, while hinting at some the darker elements of the political climate of the times.

Slackmeyer practices for his big moment, and reminds us that people were beaten and killed for contesting the system. 2 December 1970

Another element of radical politics that Trudeau explores through Mark is the gap between student activists – who often come from a comfortable backgrounds which give them the opportunity to immerse themselves in political theory – and the people on whose behalf they claim to be struggling. Mark may be out on the streets fighting capitalism, but he’s the son of a wealthy stockbroker, and his family has servants. This distance between students and workers is the theme of a long July 1971 arc in which Mark takes up a summer job on a construction site. He wants to connect with the working class and introduce them to revolutionary theory; instead, his self-superior attitude leads him to alienate his fellow workers. Instead of forging a student-worker alliance, he spends much of his time getting beaten up. Unable to get through to the workers, Mark talks down to them – and reveals something about how he actually feels about his ostensible allies in the working class. Of course, those working-class revolutionary allies often know their revolutionary theory better than the academic “experts,” as we see in what is one of my all-time favourite Doonesbury strips. The bricklayer represents what the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Grasmsci called an organic intellectual, a thinker who emerges from within the working class, and is thus better-positioned than a stockbroker’s son to help workers understand their circumstances and envision a road forward. 

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“The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between this profusion of matter and the stars, but that within this prison we can draw from ourselves images powerful enough to deny our nothingness.” — André Malraux. 17 July 1971.

As student activists are alienated from important elements of the society they hope to change, they are also often alienated from each other – and inept as a result. A long December 1971 arc featured Mark’s experience as the moderator at a radical campus activist congress reveals how sometimes, it seems as if activist movements can be their own worst enemies

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Anybody who has been involved in activist politics can relate to this. 8 December 1971

One strip from that sequence brings into focus an American tragedy that Trudeau commented on through Mark’s experience, that of the violence inflicted by the state on those who fought for a better world. The young women and men who struggled in the 1960s and 1970s for equal rights, equal opportunity and equal justice for African-Americans, migrants, women, and LGBT people, and who fought to end a brutal and unjust neo-colonial war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, fought a system that was built on violence and never shrank from using violence to maintain the social order. As we see above, Mark’s first campus occupation ends with the arrival of “baby-blue helmets,” striking visible fear into our previously-confident hero’s heart. A few weeks later, a Trudeau gives us a bit of dark humour on the use of surveillance and chemical weapons against protesters.

There were any number of atrocities committed by the American state against the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 70s; the Murder of Fred Hampton; Attica; Chicago ‘68. But one horror seems to have had special significance to a young Garry Trudeau. On 4 December 1971, a young man proposes the congress issue a statement calling for “an end to government-sanctioned violence.” When B.D. challenges the man on his right to talk about violence, we get one of the darkest punchlines Trudeau ever penned: he’s the delegate from Kent State. The May 4, 1970 murder of four students at Ohio’s Kent State University was the subject of at least three strips in the first fifteen months of Doonesbury’s run. On 28 November, things take a dark turn as Mike announces that he has moved on from being outraged over Kent State: if he were to stay angry about Kent State, he reasons, his “indignation over Attica would be compromised.” A few months later, we find Zonker reflectively issuing a bitter commentary on the anniversary of the massacre at Kent State; using the voice of a character who rarely follows current events to comment on the massacre two years on conveys the scope of the tragedy for Trudeau and his contemporaries. 

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This is the one of the most poignant strips in the early Doonesbury. 4 May 1972

Mark will remain a crucial voice for radical political ideas as the strip moves forward, even as he loses some of his edge with age. He allows us to see the political idealism of his era in terms of its triumphs and its defeats, whether those defeats were self-inflicted or the outcome of state violence. Mark shows us, above all, the human foibles that shape any political undertaking; after all, like all of us, revolutionaries are just regular people who want a better world, and love chocolate chip cookies.

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22 December 1970

[1] I say “seems to” because I’m still reading through the strip and can’t vouch for what I haven’t read yet. Also, there may very well be sexism/misogyny that I don’t see in the post-Nichole strips that I have read.

[2] Garry Wills, “Introduction,” in Garry B. Trudeau, Doonesbury Chronicles (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1975).