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.”

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.

Vietnam, the Aftermath: Part I, the Refugees.

Grandpa pissed his pants again
He don’t give a damn
Brother Billy has both guns drawn
He ain’t been right since Vietnam
— Warren Zevon, “Play it All Night Long.”

On 30 April 1975, the last Americans and some of their South Vietnamese allies were evacuated from the United States embassy compound as Saigon – soon to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City – fell to forces of the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (the Viet Cong), ending America’s twenty-five-year involvement in Vietnam’s struggle to liberate itself from first French, and then American, imperialism.

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Introducing Kim. Doonesbury, 5 May 1975

The Vietnam War remains one of the Boomer generation’s defining moments. John McCain’s recent death reminded America of the divides caused by that horrific war: while some mourned a war hero who endured years of torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese, we were reminded that, like many from his class, President Trump used privilege and a weak medical excuse to avoid the war. In a recent column marking the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, E. J. Dionne wrote that the Democratic Party “never fully recovered from the wrenching schism opened by the Vietnam War.” No matter how one experienced it, much like the Civil War, Vietnam will continue to shape America’s culture, politics, and self-image for decades after the last veteran, the last privileged draft-dodger, and the last peacenik have left us. Moreover, what the Vietnamese people call “the American War” will continue to haunt them in a much more intense way.

Five days after the last chopper left the roof of the American embassy, Garry Trudeau began writing about America’s defeat. In the weeks and months following the end of the war, at least four separate Doonesbury storylines addressed the war’s aftermath from the points of view of the Vietnamese people who managed to escape victorious communist forces, American and Vietnamese soldiers who fought the war, and the political class that conceived and executed what was, until the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s worst foreign policy and military disaster. Well before Hollywood films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now began to dissect the Vietnam experience for moviegoers, Trudeau was using the funny pages to help America understand what Vietnam meant, and what it would mean going forward.

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Her, and the rest of the Vietnamese people. Doonesbury, 27 August 1975

On May 5, 1975, the last Vietnamese war orphan to be sent to the United States was flying across the Pacific Ocean to meet her adoptive parents, who would name her Kim. The first thing about baby Kim that must be noted is that she is, hands-down, the cutest character that GBT ever drew; Trudeau rarely does “cute,” but he nailed it here. Beyond her cuteness, Kim’s precocious self-awareness and political insight forced readers to confront the question of how to start understanding, and moving past, the tragedy of Vietnam.

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Kim understands her symbolic value… Doonesbury, 6 May 1975

First, Kim reminds us of the atrocities endured by the Vietnamese people during the American war. As a result of American aggression in Vietnam, children like Kim had “paid some pretty heavy dues.” After a life marked by “everything from malnutrition to mortar attacks,” it’s no wonder she was afraid that the raisins in her oatmeal were shrapnel. And as she reminds Americans of what the war cost the Vietnamese people, Kim also allows Americans to tell themselves that, by welcoming the people who suffered so much during the war, a degree of redemption was possible; as the nurse who accompanies Kim on her flight stateside tells Kim, she is “an important symbol of hope for the free world.” This gesture towards redemption competed, however, with a desire to consign the war and its victims to the past and move forward. While Kim embraces her symbolic value, her parents deny that there is any political significance in their decision to adopt her: it’s the “immediacy of her plight,” and not the fact that she is Vietnamese, that led the Rosenthals to adopt her. As much as it must pain the new parents, the question remains: have they adopted a Vietnamese baby as a means by which to “atone for our collective national guilt through individual action?” And while that question might be a “cynical” one, the reporter who asks it is not the only one to question the Rosenthal’s decision: Kim’s grandmother tells Kim’s mom that her presence will will “do nothing but remind you of the most grotesque war in our nation’s history.

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…but her grandmother has a different take on what that symbol means. Doonesbury, 15 May 1975.

It wasn’t just the motivations behind, or potential effects of, the presence of one orphaned baby that were brought into question following America’s defeat in Vietnam. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as Kim settles into her new digs, B.D. is upset that 100,000 people who “let themselves get beat” are being given refuge in America. Revealing how initially unpopular the idea of opening America’s doors to the people that the country had invaded, occupied, and ultimately failed, the normally reactionary B.D. had an unusual ally. Jerry Brown, the liberal governor of California, attempted to halt the arrival of Vietnamese refugees, citing both California’s unemployment rate and the fact that the state already had a large Hispanic population as reasons why the presence of Vietnamese people would have a negative effect on his state.

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Mike sees things differently. Doonesbury, 3 June 1975

And yet, while many Americans now celebrate the Vietnamese presence in the US as evidence of America’s ability to incorporate immigrants into the national fabric, in 1975 Garry Trudeau was not hopeful about the Vietnamese who had come to America. To be clear, he said nothing that reflected the nativism of Governor Brown and his supporters; rather, GBT could only see an insurmountable wall, caused by years of American lies and aggression, separating the Vietnamese refugees and their new compatriots. The gap is evident in the exchange between Mr. Duy, a Vietnamese refugee, and the American family who invites him over for drinks; awkward comments and equally awkward silences seem to show us that Trudeau had strong reservations regarding America’s ability to understand, and accept, these newcomers.

Trudeau’s treatment of the arrival of Vietnamese refugees in 1975 mirrors an previous arc he drew two years earlier, this one about Cambodian refugees. In 1973, Phred the Viet Cong terrorist took some well-deserved R&R in Cambodia. After visiting a camp for refugees fleeing America’s “secret bombing” of Cambodia, Phred brought some of them to Washington to testify in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Unlike the Vietnamese refugees who would arrive two years later, the Cambodians were warmly received in America, and housing a refugee became something of a status symbol among the DC upper crust. [29NOV73] On the other hand, like the Vietnamese refugees, the Cambodians found themselves sharing awkward silences with their American hosts, as the cultural differences between the two often seemed insurmountable. Like Mr. Duy with his American host, Lol Nol Tol finds himself in an uncomfortable social encounter with an American with whom he seems to share little common ground.

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Not a lot of common ground here. Doonesbury, 6 June 1975; 30 November 1973.

But while the Cambodians and the Vietnamese seem to have little in common with their American hosts, there was a possible bridge: a shared love of that great equalizer, American consumer culture. American culture – specifically culinary culture – was woven throughout the Cambodian refugee arc. The Cambodians were smuggled into the United States in empty Coca-Cola crates; Lol Nol Tol’s host is uncertain whether or not Minute Rice would be to his taste; a senator’s secretary treats 300 of the Cambodians to lunch at McDonalds’s. For people for whom food is a pressing concern, American plenty has its appeals.

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Hold the pickle. Doonesbury, 28 August 1975

It was consumer culture that paved the way for Kim’s eventual acceptance into American society. Her introduction to American patterns of consumption appalled her – her parents gave her a plate that held “enough … to feed all of Danang” – but she quickly embraced those patterns as the key to adapting to life in her new home. Her first words, much to her parents’ excitement, were “Big Mac,” and her love of corporate advertising became something of a running gag for Trudeau. When I first read these strips, I read them as a basic critique of the all-encompassing power of consumer culture and advertising, and I think that still holds true. On the other hand, it’s also possible see these strips as a nod at how that culture can make it easier for people from diverse backgrounds to find their way into a new setting. GBT might have issues with consumerism, but he also recognizes its basic appeal and the ways in which people can make their own meanings of it, as Kim did with her own brand of “free verse.”

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Kim’s free verse, Doonesbury, 5 October 1975

In a previous post, I argued that Phred humanized the Vietnamese people to comics page readers. His role as a someone who reminded Americans that those who were most affected by American war-making in south-east Asia was made explicit in the Cambodian arc: he brought the Cambodians to the United States to show Americans that they were “not just so many small yellow people, but rather we are human beings like themselves who only ask for a small chance at happiness.” Kim, also hoping for “a small chance at happiness,” joined the cast as a symbol of American failure and a desire to atone for a profound wrong. However, reactions to her presence, and that of other refugees, demonstrate that many Americans were eager to forget the whole sorry episode of Vietnam, and that the racism at the heart of the American war on Vietnam would continue to shape relations between the United States and the Vietnamese people. That said, Kim’s longer arc reveals Trudeau’s ultimate faith in America’s ability to live up to its stated values. Later strips showed that Kim’s road to acceptance in America did not always run smoothly; as a teenager, she was singled out for classroom and schoolyard abuse growing out of stereotypes about over-achieving Asian-American kids. However, her ultimate role as an anchor for Doonesbury’s titular character is a sign that, in the decades after what remains America’s most grotesque war, for some, a degree of healing was possible. 

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It’s pretty simple. Doonesbury, 8 December 1973

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.

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.

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.

TOTGB

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.

31

Doonesbury, 31 January 1972

2

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.

7

Doonesbury, 7 February 1972

8

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.

11

Doonesbury, 11 February 1972

14

Doonesbury 14 February 1972

15

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 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.

5December70.v01

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

1June71

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

2June71

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.

26July71

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.

1March71

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

29December70

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

17December70

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.

12June71

The truth. Doonesbury, 12 June 1971.

14June71

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.

16June71

It looks like fun. Doonesbury, 16 June 1971.

19June71

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

18June71

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.”

2August71

“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.