Monday, February 25, 2008

Exclusive: On Eve of Coe College Lecture, Trudeau on 'Doonesbury' and War

For the past 37 years, Garry Trudeau has communicated primarily through his Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strip, “Doonesbury.” However, the war in Iraq has indirectly prompted him to speak out on war-related issues, bringing the war home to readers through the experiences and perspective of B.D., a veteran of the wars in Vietnam, Gulf War I and Iraq. And now, as part of Coe College’s annual Contemporary Issues Forum, Trudeau will share his insights with Iowans Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in Cedar Rapids.

For many Doonesbury readers, the war in Iraq hit home in April 2003, when Trudeau decided to blow up B.D’s leg while B.D. was serving in Iraq. B.D.’s leg had to be amputated and his injury, coupled by the psychological effects of his experiences, helped inspire more than 220 strips. It also resulted in two books: “The Long Road Home” chronicles B.D.’s journey home and transition into the civilian world, while “The War Within” captures B.D.’s internal struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition to bringing the war home through “Doonesbury,” Trudeau has helped capture the day-to-day experiences of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan through his milblog (military-blog), “The Sandbox.” Lightly edited by longtime editor David Stanford, The Sandbox features dispatches from milbloggers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, who share their observations, comments, and anecdotes with readers at home.

The Sandbox was conceived in October 2007, after Trudeau had spent a great deal of time interacting with soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital and reading milblogs online. During a telephone interview, Stanford stressed to the Iowa Independent that The Sandbox’s focus is nonpartisan and nonpolitical and that it provides an outlet for soldiers to share the details of their experiences, minus any classified information, of course.

(Be sure to click on to the new widget for "The Sandbox" on the right-hand column.)

Iowa Independent also conducted an e-mail interview with Trudeau, and here are his responses:

Iowa Independent: Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said writers need to be sadistic, meaning they had to do terrible things to their characters to see what they are made of. I gather the same holds true for cartoonists. That said, when B.D was wounded in the Iraq War and had to have his leg amputated, what did you discover B.D. was made of through your own creative process?

Trudeau: I think you've framed that question just right -- it has been a journey of discovery, albeit one that was hastily planned and with no preconceived notions about the outcome. I rarely think more than a week or two out in writing the strip -- I just commit to an idea and see where it leads me. When B.D. was wounded several years ago, there was a fourth-panel reveal in which the reader discovered that he had lost a leg. Equally shocking to some was that B.D. was not wearing his helmet -- for the first time in over three decades. What that signified was that life thereafter would never be the same, that for the first time, B.D. was no longer in control. So that's what I had to build on -- the expectation of profound change -- but where it would take him was initially unknown to me.

Only later, after I learned a lot more about real wounded warriors, was I able to weigh plausible possible outcomes -- including a path out of bitterness towards empathy for peers who had also endured the ravages of war. B.D., it turns out, isn't as self-contained as everyone, including himself, had always assumed.

Iowa Independent: B.D.’s experiences parallel those soldiers who have been physically and/or mentally wounded while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet, as the war comes home in staggered stages, we’re just beginning to see some of the problems our troops are facing in the short and long term. What do you perceive to be some of the biggest challenges for our troops in the future and what role will B.D play, if any, in this process?

Trudeau: I have no idea what role B.D. might play (see above). And I don't imagine the challenges facing returning troops will differ greatly from those who've returned from past wars. In some respects, those difficulties will be mitigated by greater public awareness -- as well as significant advances in rehabilitation, both physical and emotional. (For instance, PTSD wasn't even formally recognized as a medical condition until well after the Vietnam War.) The biggest problem now is one of resources; there's just not enough infrastructure in place to manage the huge array of readjustment issues our troops face when they get home.

Iowa Independent: “The Sandbox” provides soldiers an opportunity to share their experiences and insights by connecting with other soldiers, family members, friends and civilians. After World War II and Vietnam, when soldiers returned to their civilian lives, there was a “gulf” of experiences between soldiers and civilians that led to a number of psychological disconnects and ensuing problems. What role do you see The Sandbox playing in regard to bridging the psychological gulfs of experience between Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their civilian counterparts in America?

Trudeau: It'd be a little grandiose for us to think of The Sandbox in those terms. I don't think any one blog can have the kind of impact you're suggesting, but we do hope that by posting stories of real-time, everyday soldier experiences, we are providing a small window into what it's like to be downrange. At the end of the day, though, if you haven't experienced combat firsthand, you're probably never really going to grasp what it's like. For that reason, soldiers will usually prefer to talk about war in the company of their peers.

Iowa Independent: As the end of the Bush reign closes in, you will have to let go of a certain degree of familiarity, stemming back to your days at Yale with George Bush. Do you see, or feel, a sense of creative rebirth with the next presidency?

Trudeau: Well, not exactly. The dismal truth of my profession is that what's bad for the country is great for satirists -- and vice versa. It will be extraordinarily difficulty for any succeeding administration to fail as spectacularly as the Bushies have. All of us are sad to see them go.

Originally Posted on "Iowa Independent"

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