Garry Trudeau: What a Long, Strange Strip It’s Been

The Doonesbury cartoonist talks about wounded soldiers and military blogs.

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[Editor’s note: Still bitingly funny after all these years, 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective collects the best of B.D., Zonker, and the gang’s 14,000-strip arc from early ’70s idealists to middle-aged boomers.]

Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” has been a daily staple at the breakfast table for the past 36 years, a regimen that has mostly kept the cartoonist tied to his studio. Yet he stepped out from behind the drawing board to research the latest war experiences of hardheaded character B.D., the former jock, Vietnam vet, Gulf War I reservist, and now Iraq War amputee. Trudeau has produced more than 220 strips about B.D.’s injury and its aftermath, resulting in two books. The latest, The War Within, traces B.D.’s struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder following his two tours in Iraq. Trudeau’s other new project, “The Sandbox,” is a digest of military blogs that he hopes will become a “Global War On Terror literary magazine.” Posts range from a “midterm exam for Combat Existentialism 101” written by a sergeant in Baghdad to a soldier’s haiku on mess hall food to a rifle platoon leader’s emotional account of rounding up a suspected insurgent.

Garry Trudeau: My research was mostly at the VA, and then Vet Centers, where I interviewed counselors. Later trips to VA facilities such as Walter Reed hospital included meeting with veterans. The B.D. story has been a sustained experiment in naturalism. I usually don’t tell stories with this much realistic detail, so most weeks there’s no need to leave my studio.

MJ: Did the reporting for the B.D. story change how you want to do your strip?

GT: It may have set the bar higher, but I can’t research every topic on a granular level. For example, I’ve already written weeks of strips about mit, which I’ve never laid eyes on.

MJ: What kind of reception have you gotten from the troops?

GT: At both readings I’ve done at the Pentagon, I signed over 400 books, so I can hardly ask for a better reception. I got one drive-by dis from a soldier, but it was over strips that pissed her off during Gulf War I.

MJ: The forewords of your two latest books are by Senator John McCain and General Richard Myers. Any reservations from them?

GT: If so, they went unvoiced. Both men knew where I stood on the war. But the B.D. story is politics-free; it just means to be a clear-eyed accounting of the sorts of sacrifices that thousands of our countrymen are making in our name.

MJ: “Doonesbury”‘s political barbs got you in hot water in the past. Do your strips still get pulled from papers periodically?

GT: Rarely, and it’s usually about language, not political content. I’ve gotten very little public push-back on the B.D. series. Politics is only a small part of what I do; the strip is mostly about the characters.

MJ: How did “The Sandbox” come about?

GT: I’m a reader of milblogs, but as with all blogs, the wheat/chaff ratio makes it a poor investment of time. So I decided to set up my own page, open it to everyone serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and post the best of what we receive. Our authors seem to be thrilled to be part of “The Sandbox,” because they had been laboring in near obscurity—writing milblogs that only family and friends saw.

MJ: B.D.’s psychiatrist tells him, “You’ve got to take your life back.” Yet B.D. wishes he were still in Baghdad. Did the soldiers you talked to miss being in Iraq?

GT: When they first arrive at Walter Reed, virtually all wounded soldiers say they want to return to their units in the field, as unrealistic a prospect as that is in most cases. Those feelings are driven by devotion to their comrades and, to a lesser degree, guilt at being out of harm’s way.

MJ: In the strip, Celeste, the VA receptionist, greets B.D. and all visitors with “Welcome home.” She says, “We don’t think vets can hear it often enough.” Can we do better at welcoming troops home?

GT: Actually, I think America’s doing a pretty good job. Returning troops in uniform are routinely applauded in restaurants and airports. But the readjustment process is largely in the hands of the individual soldier, who has to come to grips with the fact that since their families and friends weren’t there, they probably won’t understand what they’ve been through.

MJ: Ever since he was a quarterback in college 36 years ago, B.D. has been wearing a helmet. Now, since losing his leg, he is bareheaded. How has war changed him?

GT: His life has become about managing losses—his leg, his mind, his relationships—significant change for someone accustomed to being in control. But the helmet’s off for good. He has to reinvent himself.

MJ: What did the helmet mean to him?

GT: Who knows? Cartoon characters have no separate interior life.

MJ: When B.D. went to Vietnam, you treated it humorously. Why the more serious approach to B.D.’s time in Iraq?

GT: When I was writing about Vietnam, I was 22. Now I’m 58. I know more.

MJ: Is B.D. going to make it?

GT: That’s the plan. I’d like to have him return to Walter Reed as a peer visitor, so I can get into the subject of traumatic brain injury, the signature wound of this war.

MJ: Is it hard to put a character through all this? Or is that a dumb question, since after all, it’s a comic strip character?

GT: That’s what fiction writers do: create characters and do terrible things to them for the entertainment of others. If they feel guilty enough, they write happy endings.

INSIDE “The Sandbox”

The woman is looking at me expectantly, her dark eyes smiling as she plays with her child. She asks me something in Arabic and the girl behind her giggles.

“What did she say?”

“She wants to know if you want to take a picture with the baby.”

Caught off guard, I smile briefly down at her pleasant face, but then my smile begins to fade. The woman does not know that we have arrested her husband on suspicion of being an insurgent. He is currently out in one of the vehicles awaiting transport to a holding facility. With a sinking feeling, I try to shut out my emotions. I know that what we are doing is going to be bringing a lot of pain and suffering to this friendly, motherly woman and her delightful children. I tell myself that it is part of the job. Still, I don’t have to like it.

First Lieutenant Adam Tiffen shared this story from his milblog, “The Replacements,” which he wrote from Baghdad last year—posting so often that strangers would leave worried messages if he missed a day. Carrying his laptop on missions, he typed obsessively: posting 30 minutes after a mortar attack, or moments after an emotional home raid. “I felt obligated. People want to know what’s going on, and I’m not talking politics, that’s above my paygrade,” says the rifle platoon leader. “The soldier’s experience is human…there are people involved, families, lives.”

Still a member of the Maryland National Guard, Tiffen is now home and keeps in daily contact with his men, his “support network.” He says “The Sandbox” is an outlet for soldiers and can help people understand the military experience. His first post had 55 comments within a week.


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