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 By 1972 – the year when B.D. served – the United States had withdrawn some 400,000 troops from Vietnam.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.

This Week in Doonesbury: “We’re Not Going Anywhere.”

This week’s Doonesbury is a powerful comment on a contemporary political movement, the emergence of which over the last few weeks was both long overdue and largely unexpected. Gun-control activism has attracted the energy and attention of America’s youth in the wake of the Parkland shootings. This movement was long overdue because the stakes are so high: accounts of American mass shootings blur together as greedy politicians and lobbyists and firearms manufacturers profit from an insane domestic arms race. It was unexpected because until Parkland, it really seemed as if those Americans who understand the importance of the “well-regulated” part of the Second Amendment had resigned themselves to the fact that, given the political strength of their opposition, they were fighting a lost cause. If twenty dead children and their teachers at Sandy Hook weren’t going to change the country’s moral calculus, many seemed to reason, nothing could.

Then Parkland happened and the people with the most at stake in the gun debate – the kids who go to school every day wondering if it might be their turn to die at the hands of an overarmed, enraged young man – took charge, and told their teachers, principals and parents and the politicians, lobbyists and gun nuts that they’d had enough. Their hashtag, #NeverAgain, has joined #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter as an online reflection of grassroots movements that are presenting a profound challenge to American structures of power.

Beyond recognizing the importance of the movement sparked by the Parkland students, the 1 April strip plays on a theme that has been central to Trudeau’s work for decades – his generation’s reckoning with its history, especially the question of how the Boomers failed to follow through on, and ultimately lost, the ideals that had driven them to challenge the establishment in their youth.

I have an ambivalent relationship with the Boomers. I’m a student of Boomer-era history (I wrote my dissertation on 1960s radicalism) and a I’m lifelong consumer of Boomer culture. Their generation made huge strides towards of creating new political, social and cultural freedoms. At the same time, as someone living in a world where so much of the 1968 generation’s vision of a better day has yet to be realized, I have a healthy dose of resentment towards a generation that, like their forebears, will not relax their stranglehold on political and cultural power, and will not make room for a younger generation with new energy and new ideas. This week’s strip takes that tension head-on.

Sunday’s strip begins with Mark prepping for an interview with one of the Parkland activists. As the interview is wrapping up, Mark asks a question that is completely dismissive of the dedication the young man and and his peers have shown as they have fought the political establishment: “[Having] seen how Washington really works, are you kids ready to call it quits?” Mark’s guest replies that, regardless of the patronizing attitudes that Mark has just demonstrated, these kids “are in this for good, [and] won’t stop fighting until there’s real change!” At that moment, a transformation occurs: Mark sees his past self in the young man sitting in front of him, and is forced to confront his, and his generation’s, failure to follow through on the values they embraced decades ago. That penultimate panel, with present-day Mark looking into the eyes of his enraged younger self, wondering how he lost the passion that drives the Parkland kids, ranks among the most moving moments in Doonesbury history.

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Mark confronts his past. Doonesbury, 1 April 2018

This is the second time in recent months that Mark’s studio has been the setting for a flashback that puts the politics of today in dialogue with those of Trudeau’s youth: on 22 October 2017, Trudeau linked the behaviour of the current occupant of the White House to that of a previously-disgraced president by revisiting one of Doonesbury’s most iconic panels (Here’s the post I wrote about that strip). Yet while GBT might be feeling a little sentimental in our troubled times, his generation’s understanding of its past has been a Doonesbury touchstone for decades. One Doonesbury staple that lets readers trace the Boomers coming to terms with their history is the periodic decade revival parties hosted at Walden. I’ll be looking at later fin-de-decade shindigs later, but it’s the first of two sixties revival parties, held in March 1974 (the second was in 1977), that I want to focus on here. The arc balanced silly fun and black humour: the president of Walden College arrived dressed as himself from five years earlier, ready to negotiate with student protestors occupying his office; other guests showed up as wounded Vietnam vets and Charles Manson, reminding us, contrary to the images of “the Summer of Love” and naked flower children dancing in the mud at Woodstock, the sixties were a fundamentally dark time.

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At the Walden sixties revival party, Nicole is appalled at some of the costume choices. Doonesbury, 10 December 1974.

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…meanwhile, President King relives the glory days of the sixties. Doonesbury, 11 December 1974.

But it’s a moment between Mike and Mark that foreshadows the sense of generational self-disillusionment that Trudeau addressed in this week’s strip. Mark is dressed as his activist self – black armband, his head bandaged after being beaten by the pigs – and Mike, the ultimate middle-of-the-road liberal, is one of  “the Best and the Brightest,” John F. Kennedy’s team of intellectuals whose policy recommendations help lead America into the Vietnam quagmire. At Mark’s request, Mike recites his paraphrased version of Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech (the actual passage reads: “The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”). The two young men laugh warmly at the passage, fondly recalling the youthful optimism it encapsulates. Their laughter, however, quickly gives way to a grim understanding: in 1974, with Nixon embroiled in a scandal that would politically disillusion a generation and the war in Vietnam an unmitigated and still-unresolved disaster, it was clear that a generation charged with making their nation and the world a better place had failed to meet the challenge and had lost something vital in the process. Forty-four years later, in an NPR studio, facing a new generation determined to leave the world a better place than what they inherited, the bitter taste of failure still haunts Mark, and it still haunts Garry Trudeau.

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“The Best and the Brightest.” Doonesbury, 12 December 1974.

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“What’s happened to us?” Doonesbury, 13 December 1974.

And yet, as always, another generation is ready to do what has to be done – push the old folks out of the way and work towards necessary change. In The Wretched of the Earth, the Martinican philosopher Frantz Fanon, discussing the generation that comes to power when colonialism gives way to independence, wrote that “each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” Trudeau may well be bitter about his generation’s betrayals of their youthful ideals and mission, especially in these dark times. But more importantly, he hasn’t lost his faith in the energy and vision of youth: the Parkland kids may have come out of nowhere, but they’ve discovered their mission, and they aren’t going anywhere.