09 April 2014

Vietnam to Today, 'Doonesbury' Tells Soldiers' Stories

During Operation Desert Storm—when I was a young lad going to school for my country—I carried in my cargo pocket a laminated Doonesbury comic strip, clipped out of a newspaper. (I've mentioned this in a blog-post before.) Doonesbury is written and drawn by Garry Trudeau. In my Desert Storm favorite, a Vietnam veteran was telling war stories to new soldiers. One of the soldiers asks, "Really, you shot your own officers?"

"Just the dumb ones," replies the character B.D. "Lieutenants mostly."

For me, who was then himself studying to be a young Army leader, the Doonesbury comic was the equivalent to that quote from "Patton" (1970). In that movie, the famous general tells of the ancient Roman practice of reminding its heroes that "all glory is fleeting."

Earlier this year, the 65-year-old Trudeau announced the daily strip would be going on extended hiatus, so that he could focus on other projects—including the successful Internet-TV series "Alpha House."

Parallel to that announcement came news that "The Sandbox," a Doonesbury-sponsored digest of first-person military writing about Iraq and Afghanistan, would soon cease publication of new content. The digest started in October 2006, when the practice of mil-blogging was just gaining recognition and popularity.

Even though new content will soon cease, plans call for The Sandbox to remain on-line indefinitely as an archive of veterans' perspectives of Iraq and Afghanistan. (A 2007 print collection, "Doonesbury.com's The Sandbox: Dispatches from Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan," continues to be available via booksellers.)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Trudeau has long used comics to communicate stories to provoke and educate non-military audiences about the realities of war, service, and deployment. His character B.D. started out in the Vietnam War, served in the Gulf War, and lost a leg in the Iraq War. The more-recent character Leo "Toggle" DeLuca was injured in an ambush in Iraq, where he lost an eye and now has difficulty speaking. B.D.'s close friend Ray Hightower was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.). Melissa "Mel" Wheeler is an Army sergeant and a survivor of Military Sexual Trauma (M.S.T.). Her best friend is Roz, a soldier who happens to be gay.

Vietnam War-era Doonesbury comics are being re-run on weekdays 
during Garry Trudeau's extended hiatus. Many resonate with readers
given present-day situations.
In a time- and mind-bending twist, during the extended hiatus, the daily Doonesbury strip now features classic runs from the 1970s. Last week, the strip told the story of B.D.'s arrival in Vietnam. "I arrived in Vietnam yesterday and I must say, I love it," B.D. writes home. "I'm stationed at Firebase Bundy in the Delta and I've got my own bunker and machine gun!!" Suddenly, a heck of a firefight opens up overhead. "Well, have to run now. Much love, B.D."

That reminded me of mil-blogging.

It doesn't take much to see other parallels there, of writing letters from downrange, of communicating truths through humor, of finding yourself and your country stuck in a foreign place, uncomfortable and under fire.

I hope Trudeau keeps telling his stories as long as he can. Our democracy and soldiers are well-served by truth-tellers, even those armed with a sense of snark. I can also hope, however, that my daughter and son will one day read Doonesbury—whether those from Vietnam or the Gulf War or Iraq—and maybe not understand as many of the jokes as I did.

Before and after Afghanistan, my buddy Archer and I used to continually quote the 2004 Battlestar Galactica TV series, which was itself a nod to the concept of eternal return: "All this has happened before, and all this will happen again." What does it say that we recognize ourselves and our wars in some funny pages first published more than four decades ago?

While I no longer wear a uniform, I now keep that favorite Doonesbury strip in my journalist go-bag. It reminds me of the good old days, and keeps me humble. Even though history may not repeat itself, after all, it sure does rhyme upon occasion.

All this has happened before.

And all glory is fleeting.

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