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.

Comics Review: Sarah Glidden’s Rolling Blackouts

Every now and again, I take a break from writing about Doonesbury to review comics that I like. If you’re a creator of web- or print-based comics and you’d like me to write about your work, drop a line on Twitter (@readdoonesbury) or through my contact page.
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I don’t like you, but I will tell you my story.

A woman wearing a headscarf faces us directly and says “I never liked you … I not like your government, I not like EVERYBODY … [but] I will talk about my story.” It’s 2010, and the woman is an Iraqi refugee living in Syria. She is a refugee because of the instability that gripped her country following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Her story, the stories of many people who share a fate similar to hers, and the challenges faced by journalists who try to tell her story to American readers, are the subject of Rolling Blackouts, an outstanding work of comics journalism by Sarah Glidden, published by Drawn and Quarterly Press (shout-out to my hometown of Montreal!!). In 2010, independent journalists Sarah Stuteville and Alex Stonehill travelled to Turkey, Iraq, and Syria to document the situation facing Iraqis whose lives were upturned by the war and subsequent unrest. Glidden accompanied them so that she could “make a comic book about how journalism works.” More than a look at the inner workings of reporting, Rolling Blackouts explores the disconnect between the severity of the tragedy experienced by the Iraqi people following the invasion and Americans’ fundamental disconnect from, and ignorance of, that tragedy. Stuteville’s generation’s understanding of the Middle East “has been defined by the conflict of the past ten years,” but as the war receded from the headlines Americans began “looking inwards” and not paying attention to the lasting consequences of the invasion: for those left behind, notably the Iraqi refugees in Syria that are the main focus of the second half of the book, the situation endures.

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The disconnect between Iraq’s central place in American foreign policy and its virtual absence from American public consciousness is revealed in Glidden’s sense of distance from military life. Before going to Iraq, Glidden’s only real connection to the war was marching in opposition to it. That said, for all Americans, a particular dimension of the war is part of the background noise of daily life as an unquestioned ethos of “supporting the troops” has become a cultural touchstone, one acted out in quotidian settings such as airports and sporting events. Yet, Glidden notes, she has “never had much contact with the troops. They were always far away.” Glidden’s alienation from a defining aspect of American identity, the military, is evident in the first stage of the group’s trip. Also on the trip is Dan O’Brien, an Iraq war vet; Stuteville hopes to write about how O’Brien can come to terms with his experience in Iraq. Glidden waits at the airport, sitting under a sign that reads SUPPORT THE TROOPS and acknowledges that Dan’s military experience makes him something of a novelty to her. As she observes Dan, Glidden confesses that she “[…didn’t] know what [she] was expecting an ex-Marine to be like in the first place.”

Many Americans have little connection with the men and women who fight their wars, but at least the media make it a point to tell soldiers’ stories. Yet while the media regularly remind Americans of the bravery of, and sacrifices made by, those men and women, Iraqis are rarely granted their basic humanity in American reporting. Stuteville, Stonehill and Glidden set out to show us how the Iraqi people live lives that are “steeped in politics and difficulty.”

As these people’s lives are “steeped in politics and difficulty,” the are also steeped in history, a dynamic that does not figure strongly in how Glidden and her companions engage with, understand, and tell the stories of the people they encounter. The narrative arc of the book begins, essentially, with the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003: absent is virtually any mention of how, dating back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, Western powers (first Britain, then the United States) used political pressure and mass violence to maintain access to the one thing that makes Iraq relevant to them: oil. There is one moment where the book hints at that long and horrible history. As Glidden and her companions drive through Iraqi Kurdistan, Dan notes that ultimately, Iraq is simply “a piece of land with borders someone drew on a map.” I read Rolling Blackouts alongside a collection of essays by the radical historian Mike Davis. In “The Ungrateful Volcano,” Davis details exactly how bloody the process of drawing those lines on a map was for the Iraqi people. As the British took responsibility for the Mandate of Iraq, they, like the Americans a century later, believed that they would be warmly greeted as “liberators,” freeing Iraqis not from Saddam Hussein, but from the Ottomans. A general uprising against British rule put the lie to those beliefs. The British response is shocking in its brutality. Winston Churchill, the Colonial Secretary, deployed ground troops, poison gas, and aerial bombardments of civilian populations to quell the anti-colonial rebellion. British administrators hanged political prisoners while RAF planes “machine-gunned women and children as they fled from their homes.”

The Iraqi people understand their situation in terms of that longer history, but it is largely from Rolling Blackouts. This observation is not meant as a criticism of Glidden’s work: she did not set out to write a comics history of the region. Rather, I see the absence of a deep engagement with the region’s history as something that underlines one of the book’s key themes: everyday Americans, the soldiers they send to fight their wars, and the journalists who report on those wars have a severely limited understanding of a place where America and its allies have inflicted, and continue to inflict, massive levels of violence. Dan’s experience as a veteran is central to this dynamic. He’s an educated man who spent substantial time in Iraq, but he seems to have no real understanding of the people, their histories, or their cultures, saying that he doesn’t “have much of an idea of who they are, what they’re like.” The system he was part of, of course, made it unlikely that he would have been able to come to a better understanding of the region and its people. America’s disengagement from Iraqi history and politics is inseparable from its failure to bring peace, stability and and prosperity to the country. As Dan notes, he and his fellow soldiers were clueless about the effects of their actions on Iraqis, and they never had the chance to learn more. “If any of our actions negatively affected Iraqis, and I’m sure they did,” he notes, “we didn’t stick around long enough to see it.”

This sense of detachment from the larger political and historic dynamics that shape the daily realities of the people they set out to write about is shared by Dan’s companions. On the drive to Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, the group notices what “must be the Kurdish flag”; their uncertainty about basic facts about the region is made apparent. A few pages later, a long and complicated history of two peoples sharing a political space is condensed into an uncertain analysis: “Arabs and Kurds don’t get along, apparently.” It’s crucial to note, however, that Glidden fully understands that she doesn’t know enough about Iraq and its people. She is embarrassed because she quotes an article about Iraq that she had read on the flight as though she was an expert; she later admits, after an interview session, that “the history of the Kurd’s displacement is still a knot of confusion” for her.

If Americans are so disengaged from the people whose lives are so profoundly and painfully impacted by American military aggression, it’s in part because contemporary journalistic practices and institutions make it very difficult to get the kind of stories that might change things out into the public sphere. As Glidden draws our attention to America’s failure to care about, understand, or even acknowledge the existence of the people whose lives were torn apart by the invasion of Iraq, she also reveals the challenges faced by the well-intentioned journalists who are working to bring those people’s stories back to American readers.

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Stuteville’s struggles with the complexities of her industry are a key theme of the book.

Stuteville and Stonehill are often racked with self-doubt and frustration as they seek to find a balance point between their desire to tell stories that could make a difference and the economies of attention and money that determine which stories get published and read: As Stuteville notes, she sees her role as being “to get people excited about journalism and then show them how conflicted and shitty it is.” As compelling as the stories of the Iraqi people may be, and as much as they might change how Americans understand the Iraqi people, they will be competing with an unprecedented amount of journalistic output clamouring for readers’ time. As Stuteville asks, how can a reporter ensure that her story is the one thing that a potential reader dedicates to the little free time they have available? This dynamic goes a long way in determining what stories end up getting told, because “people are looking for things they can already relate to.” In other words, we don’t, as readers, don’t have the time to embark on a learning curve that challenges our received wisdom about a complex situation on the other side of the planet. Moreover, the economic realities of contemporary journalism mean that the stories that most need to be told – the ones that would force Americans to more directly confront some of the worst consequences of their country’s policies – go unpublished because publishers “don’t want to overwhelm their audience with too depressing a story.”

At one point, Glidden shows herself transcribing interviews and musing that her methodology for this comics journalism project is different from her usual work creating comics memoir. Rolling Blackouts actually straddles the two genres. On the one hand, it brilliantly documents a number of interconnected stories about war, its effects on people, and how we understand those effects. On the other hand, Glidden often centres her own reflections on her experiences in ways that help us better understand the person telling these stories. By sometimes making herself the subject, even with short comment in a caption, Glidden helps the reader better understand how challenging it is to make sense of a situation like post-invasion Iraq.

It’s impossible to read this account of a trip to Syria without thinking about the ongoing Syrian civil war and its associated humanitarian dimensions. While Rolling Blackouts is set before the outbreak of the current conflict, Glidden foreshadows the possibility of its emergence. As their trip begins, she notes that they are in a region that is “absorbing refugees and struggling with new resource conflicts. (As Jackie Roche and Audrey Quinn reveal in their comic about the origins of the Syrian civil war, climate change and access to water were central to the outbreak of hostilities.) The book ends with Glidden watching news of the uprising; she believes that, to a certain extent, the work she had put in researching Rolling Blackouts has been overtaken by events; she writes that her “original question seems far less important than all of this.” In future posts I’ll be looking at works of comics journalism that take more recent events in the Middle East head-on. But while the Syrian civil war created refugee flows and human tragedies that may seem to dwarf the situations that Glidden writes about, the experiences of the people who suffer most in the conflict to be understood in the larger context of the humanitarian costs of post-9/11 American aggression in the Middle East. Moreover, we need to think about how the media that we trust to keep us informed about the region grapples with substantial challenges as reporters try to get us to understand the human costs of American policy. America is going to continue relying on violence as a primary means of shaping outcomes in the Middle East, and the media is going to continue to struggle to make Westerners understand how that affects the human beings who live there. For these reasons, as well as for being a beautifully-drawn and written, and deeply thoughtful and moving book, Rolling Blackouts is a must-read.

This Week in Doonesbury: #MeToo Runs for Office.

On Sunday, March 4, Garry Trudeau began a storyline that brings together three themes that have been central to Doonesbury for many years: feminism and the political empowerment of women; the challenges facing American soldiers and veterans; and electoral politics.

Melissa Wheeler, a former army helicopter mechanic, asks Joanie Caucus for help with her political campaign. Melissa is running for office (exactly what she’s running for is left unsaid, but I’m assuming she’s gunning for a seat in the House of Representatives). Her platform is veterans’ issues: she wants to “make sure our our country does right by them.” One issue that is of particular interest to both Melissa and GBT is sexual assault in the armed services.

Melissa was introduced to readers in March 2007 as a fellow client at the veteran’s centre where B.D. sees his counsellor. Melissa allowed Trudeau to explore the ramifications of a phenomenon that goes largely unrecognized in the public sphere, let alone the comics page: she is a survivor of command rape – sexual assault at the hands of a superior officer. Trudeau’s sensitive and powerful recounting of Melissa’s story gave readers a glimpse of the systemic nature of rape culture in the military, and the ways in which the structures of military life facilitate sexual assault. Melissa’s experience shows us how the chain of command and the structures of military justice work to give men the opportunity to sexually abuse the soldiers under their command and to protect them from facing any consequences for their actions. Her commander gave her a choice between having sex with him or losing her position as a mechanic in favour of sentry duty; he then wrote her up for an infraction in order to make it look like any report she might make was an act of retaliation on her part; when she eventually decided to go to a superior, that officer talked her out of making a report by making her feel guilty about the implications for other soldiers if her assailant was removed from duty. Every step of the way, military structures worked to facilitate her being assaulted and to protect her assaulter.

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Doonesbury, 20 July 2007

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Doonesbury, 19 July 2007. She never had a chance.

In recent years, according to some reports, survivors of sexual assault in the military have been better able to report offences. Nonetheless, sexual assault in the military remains a serious issue: a quarter of all women in the service are sexually assaulted. That said, despite – or perhaps because of – the central role that the military plays in America’s self-image, sexual assault in the military has not been an area of principle focus in our #MeToo/#TimesUp moment, or at least, not to the extent that the entertainment, sports, media, and political spheres have.

The prevalence of sexual assault by powerful men has come to light in no small part because of the election of a self-declared serial sexual predator to the presidency. In response to Trump’s egregious crimes in specific and the abuses of powerful men more generally, the movement against rape culture is taking an increasingly political form. This political movement announced itself with mass protests by women following Trump’s inauguration (…and again on its one-year anniversary); it is now taking the form of a sharp increase in the number of women seeking political office at all levels, starting with the upcoming 2018 midterm elections.

And so, in keeping with the times, GBT has thrown Melissa’s hat into the ring. This isn’t the first time that he’s written about a woman’s political campaign. In 1976, Joanie cut her political teeth managing Ginny Slade’s campaign for a seat in Congress, a race that Ginny lost to Lacey Davenport. In 1980, Joanie went to work for Lacey’s reelection campaign. Ginny’s 1976 bid was feminist at its core: in her campaign launch speech, she pointed to “an insensitivity at the highest levels of government to the needs and rights of half of the citizens of this country – women” as a key reason for running. Forty-two years later, a political campaign focused on issues of critical importance to women is set to become part of GBT’s history of bringing feminist politics to the funny pages. Given the different contexts in which each character is rooted – the fact that Melissa was an army helicopter mechanic is due in no small part to the struggles of Joanie’s generation of feminist activists – the campaign could be interesting ground for Trudeau to explore the points of agreement, differing assumptions, and tensions within and between successive generations of feminist activists.

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Ginny announces her run. Doonesbury, 24 March 1976

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Joanie’s second campaign. Doonesbury, 1 September 1982

My only disappointment with this development is the fact that, if Trudeau has permanently abandoned daily strips, this arc won’t get nearly the attention it deserves. Women stepping up to challenge a fundamentally anti-woman system and a fundamentally anti-woman president represents a critical development in American politics; I would be thrilled to see GBT chronicle that in a more extended manner.

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Rick knows what buttons to push. Doonesbury, 4 March 2018

A quick note about one the presence of one of my favourite Doonesbury characters in the strip. We begin with Joanie putting her partner Rick in his place by telling him that B.D.’s friend who will be dropping by is an “army helicopter mechanic,” and not the “campus snowflake” that Rick had assumed was coming by. Rick redeems himself by the end of the strip. He observes Joanie’s conversation with Melissa with a look that says that he’s impressed by the younger woman. When Joanie attempts to beg off helping on the campaign because she believes she’s too old to undertake the commitment, Rick’s strategically-delivered smart-ass comment gets Joanie to overcome her reticence and do the right thing.

This November, if there’s one on your ballot, please vote for a woman who’s committed to using political power to challenge systems that foster and protect sexual abusers.

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.