Doonesbury Goes to War, Part V: Traded to Laos.

When we last checked in with Phred the Viet Cong terrorist, we saw how, after B.D.’s time in Vietnam, Garry Trudeau used Phred’s experience of the war to comment on some of the conflict’s most horrific dimensions, notably the slaughter of civilians from the relative safety of thirty thousand feet. We also have seen how Phred acted on his anger and sorrow by bringing Cambodian refugees to Washington to testify to the Senate about the “secret bombings” that had destroyed their homes and livelihoods.

And yet, as Phred was a mouthpiece for the millions of people in southeast Asia who died or were wounded and displaced by a long, senseless war, he also, after so much time witnessing and perpetuating horror, lost much of his passion and became less and less committed to the ideological foundations of his peoples’ struggle and more and more likely to treat the war as a workaday gig.

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Phred takes pride in his work. Doonesbury, 29 March 1973

On 27 January 1973, representatives from North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the United States signed the Paris Peace Accords, putting a short-lived cease-fire into place and effectively ending America’s commitment to fighting on the ground in Vietnam. During the cease-fire, Phred made a play at civilian life, running a souvenir stand in the Mekong Delta. Phred’s skill at making friends with the enemy serves him well in his new enterprise; his clientele includes former American soldiers revisiting their old stomping grounds. (Later, Phred would end up in Cambodia and Laos, and his time in both countries would involve his playing the role of war-zone tourist, foreshadowing GBT’s later commentary on war tourism and the commercialization of the Boomers’ memory of Vietnam, a topic we’ll cover later.)

But the war is never far away, and Phred’s souvenir stand is destroyed during a firefight that disrupts the cease-fire. Phred’s rage at the soldiers who are responsible for ruining his livelihood reveals how he is weary of the violence that his defined his entire life, and his disenchantment would shape much of his approach to his job as he was inevitably dragged back into the field.

A few months after opening his shop, Phred received the telegram that young American men had been dreading for years: “Greetings.” While Phred accepts his obligation to rejoin the Vietnamese people’s struggle, his heart is no longer in it: when a peasant reminds Phred that he is fighting because “the true Vietnamese people’s government is responding to the aggression of the running dogs,” he is momentarily taken aback by the revolutionary dogma, forgetting that “we talked like that.” After the failure of the cease-fire, Phred would see the struggle to liberate south-east Asia as more of a gig, and less as a deeply-held commitment to an ideological cause. To reflect this change in Phred’s outlook, GBT re-purposed a trope that had been a central element of the early Doonesbury strips: writing about real-life events through the language and lens of sports commentary.

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It’s kind of like grad school. Doonesbury, 15 May 1973

Even without the hundreds of strips set in a football huddle, sports has always been part of Doonesbury’s DNA. The historian Gary Wills, in his introduction to The Doonesbury Chronicles, the first hardcover compilation of the strip, discusses how, by having characters comment on their actions in the style of a play-by-play announcer, Trudeau “opens up a space in which [their] personality can grow.” Similarly, Trudeau’s use of themes drawn from the world of professional sport in Phred’s story gives readers a glimpse into how Phred’s motivation for fighting was shifting from ideological commitment to personal advancement. As Phred was being pulled back into the war, the world of professional sports was in the earliest stages of a critical change which saw athletes begin to demand a more equitable slice of their sports’ revenue pies. In 1971, Bobby Orr signed the first million-dollar contract in National Hockey League history; a year later, Bobby Hull inked a deal worth nearly three times that much for the rival World Hockey Association.

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It’s all part of the game. Doonesbury, 17 May 1973.

When Phred reports to his new posting, he, like a superstar athlete, negotiates a deal that reflects his abilities, telling his superior that as “the top terrorist in the whole province” that he is “deserving of better terms.” But, as is the world of elite professional sports, the world of international communist terrorism is driven by the bottom line, and Phred learns, to his dismay, that the Viet Cong have placed him on waivers before trading him to Laos. When he joins the Pathet Lao, Phred’s commander introduces him as though he was a new member of a baseball team’s bullpen, telling his comrades that Phred has “the kind of expertise we need to give this unit some real depth.” As happens with many veteran players brought in to plug a hole in a team’s line-up, Phred’s time in Laos ended after a single season when the Pathet Lao “failed to renew [his] option

And yet, while Phred brings a degree of star power to his new gig, he remains dissatisfied with the terrorism business. After blowing up a train, Phred writes to B.D. and reflects on how the operation was uninspiring and left him feeling “kind of empty.” After years spent terrorizing people, Phred has “serious ethical questions.” He makes peace with the moral conflict caused by engaging in terrorism much in the same way that many people who make a living while causing human suffering do: terrorism becomes just a gig. Like the men who run the corporations that sell bombs or poison our planet, Phred justifies his role in a corrupt and evil system by looking at a lucrative bottom line. As the war heads into its final phase, GBT re-frames it as a corporate endeavour. As he settles into his new job, Phred, like a junior executive who needs some work-appropriate threads, visits one of my favourite incidental Doonesbury characters, Mort the Tailor, who’s been “outfitting [Phred’s] family for armed combat for over thirty years.”

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I’ve always loved Mort. Doonesbury, 12 September 1974

Nineteen-seventy-four was a year marked by a sharp economic downturn, and, as it did for the rest of the corporate world, the crisis had profound effects on the Viet Cong’s ability to get the financing they needed to grow their enterprise. Phred reads the business section of the newspaper and frets about the increasing prices of arms and ammunition, which are forcing some “local insurgents” to “[cancel] their plans for the spring offensive”and question their ability to commit massacres, which are “traditionally a great cost-cutter.” Lacking the resources he needs to continue his terrorizing, Phred is forced to look for outside funding , only to be told by his banker that “money’s too tight” to invest in his dream of restoring the “human dignity” of the Vietnamese people. With no other options, Phred turns to the world of grants and fellowships, and gets money from, of course, the Phord Foundation to fund his year-long project, in which he will ostensibly research “The Visceral Response of the Agrarian South-East Asian to the Introduction of Sustained Automatic Weapons Fire.

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Awesome news for Phred. Doonesbury, 26 May 1975.

After Phred secured his Phord fellowship, the war largely disappeared from Doonesbury until the end of the conflict finally came. On 30 April 1975, Saigon fell. A month later, Phred’s post-war leave is interrupted by a new assignment: he’s assigned to be an aide-de-camp to a united Vietnam’s Deputy Chief of Staff. While Phred, in earlier days, might have embraced the opportunity to contribute to the building of the nation that he and his people had struggled for for over thirty years, he’s more interested in the paycheck that comes with his new gig, excitedly informing his mother that he’s now “in fat city.”

Phred’s war was over, but he would continue to play an important part in Doonesbury, providing GBT with a voice with which to comment on the politics of post-reunification communist Vietnam, the Third World at the United Nations, and the ultimate triumph of American capitalism over Vietnamese communism. But his most important role was that of being a simple human being immersed in a deeply horrible situation.

Dehumanizing the enemy is a central element of wartime state propaganda. But during Vietnam, the American media was, in an unprecedented and unrepeated way able to show the people back home the effects of American war-making on the people from the other side: one need only recall Eddie Adams’ photograph of the summary execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém or Nic Ut’s photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing a napalm attack. In a similar vein, Phred allowed Garry Trudeau to do something that was perhaps unique in the history of mainstream American newspaper comics: show a person from a nation and a people with whom America was at war as someone who was as complicated a human being as was “we” were. Phred made friends, loved his mom, her rice soup, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, got angry at human suffering, and was, like all of us to one extent or another, motivated by the desire to make a few bucks. To slightly re-purpose the words of Walt Kelley’s Pogo, when we met Phred,  “we met the enemy, and he was us.”