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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Look! Rice Paddies!: Doonesbury Goes to War, Part II. Vietnam, 1972

In my last “Long Strange Trip” post, way back in October, I wrote about B.D.’s time in ROTC. Those strips made me reevaluate how I thought about how Garry Trudeau wrote about war. I had remembered GBT’s Vietnam-era strips as being lighthearted and goofy in comparison to the grittier and darker approach that he took to writing about the “War on Terror.” In fact, the arc about B.D.’s summer at ROTC was full of dark, disturbing satire that underscored the links between American patriotism and American violence. B.D., the personification of jingoistic American patriotism, thrives in ROTC, an environment where brutality and destruction are encouraged. It was only when B.D. arrived in Vietnam that Trudeau took a softer approach to satirizing American militarism, one that focused less on the brutality of military violence and more on how the first-hand experience affected B.D., setting the stage for him to later become GBT’s mouthpiece for addressing the complexities of American military policy.

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Moore and Kubert, Tales of the Green Beret, undated strip.

An explicitly anti-war comic strip was, and remains, a rarity in the funny pages. While Beetle Bailey’s depictions of military life are a mainstay of American comics, the strip never addresses the question of violence apart from Sgt. Snorkel’s routine pummeling of Beetle. During the Vietnam era, there was at least one comic strip that could be classified as pro-war. In the mid-1960s, Tales of the Green Beret, written by Robin Moore and drawn by Joe Kubert, brought the Vietnam war to America’s funny pages with adventure stories that celebrated American military values.* I’ve only read a few scattered examples of Tales of the Green Beret, but Mark James Estern, in A History of Underground Comics, points to the strip as a rare example of a strip with an explicitly political orientation that was published only because its views were in line with those of the media establishment. Doonesbury, of course, along with Pogo, was a critical exception to that rule, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a few years after Tales of the Green Beret’s run ended, growing discontent about Vietnam opened up space on the funny pages for comics artists to directly address the war in Vietnam through an explicitly anti-war lens.

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Doonesbury, 31 January 1972

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Doonesbury 1 February 1972

On January 31, 1972, B.D. announced that he was leaving Walden College to fight in Vietnam. B.D. is a fervent patriot, a strong anti-communist, and a committed ROTC trainee, but, notwithstanding the rationale he originally presented to his roommate he wants Mike to “grow up strong and happy in a great land free of communism and tyranny”— his reason for going to war was more practical than political: he needed to get out of writing a term paper. This bit of silliness signaled a shift in GBT’s approach to writing about war, allowing him to move away from the brutal approach he had taken in the ROTC arc and also opening the door to a more complex portrayal of the character at the centre of the story. B.D.’s experience in Vietnam were the first steps in his transformation from a John-Wayne-worshipping, Goldwater Republican jock to Trudeau’s principal voice for exposing the effects of American militarism on the bodies and minds of the men and women tasked with fighting America’s wars.

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Doonesbury, 7 February 1972

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Doonesbury 8 February 1972

The more light-hearted approach that Trudeau established with the term paper gag carried over into his treatment of B.D.’s combat experience. As B.D. gets closer to the war, the recruit who disemboweled a training dummy while screaming “KILL” at the top of his lungs takes on a childlike, gleeful anticipation. When he sees rice paddies from the plane, he points and yells like a little kid flying over Disneyland or Manhattan; on his first day of combat, he proudly writes to his parents to tell them that he has his “own bunker and machine gun,” sounding more like a kid showing off a new bike than a soldier. Once he arrives in the field, the violence that B.D. encounters – and dishes out –is cartoonish as compared to the bloodthirstiness that characterized the ROTC arc. After dinging him in the helmet with a round, an enemy sniper responds to B.D.’s ensuing curses by shooting him again – with a suction-cup arrow. A few days later, B.D. coolly shoots a Vietcong fighter who proceeds to lament his fate with a quote from Hamlet before he sneaks back into the bush, giggling. This sharp change in mood softens Trudeau’s message, but it’s arguably a necessary softening, as the logical extension of the ROTC “KILL” strip would have been for Trudeau to have B.D. reenact something akin to the My Lai massacre, something that surely would have led to the end of his career as a syndicated cartoonist.

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Doonesbury, 11 February 1972

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Doonesbury 14 February 1972

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Doonesbury 15 February 1972

The following strip does engage in a pointed critique of the American military, showing an officer blatantly falsifying an enemy body count. This strip might speak to an emerging gap in B.D.’s understanding of the war, a conflict between his ideological belief in the justice of the cause and the reality on Vietnamese soil. I think B.D.’s disgruntled look in the final panel can be read as a sign of his growing awareness that the war is far more more complicated than what his Manichean political outlook allowed for. And even if that’s not the case and I’m reading too much into a gag about routine military bullshit, what happened to B.D. over the next little while did force him to re-evaluate his core beliefs. On 16 February, a week after landing in Vietnam, B.D., separated from his unit and lost in the jungle, had a serendipitous encounter with a Viet Cong fighter who would, over time, play a key role in what is Trudeau’s best work as a writer: the transformation of B.D. from a dumb jock and a one-dimensional parody of American militaristic patriotism into the most complex character in Trudeau’s stable. It’s not a process that happened overnight; like in real life, B.D.’s understanding of the politics of American militarism shifted gradually and unevenly with new experiences, contexts, and insights. Next time, we’ll look at how that process began.
*I’ve seen the title of the strip rendered both as “Beret” and “Berets.”

“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.