Communication Currents

How Doonesbury Cartoons Bring Combat Trauma Closer To Home

June 1, 2015
Political Communication

The publicity of combat trauma is crucial for a democratic society in which both the meaning and the means of war are—or at least should be—chief among the primary concerns of a free citizenry. Unfortunately, in matters of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by armed conflict, returning soldiers are regularly talked about and portrayed as victims of an “inner war.” Such representations make symbolic interactions with troops as familiar as they are strange. In J.L. Wall’s words, they render a soldier a symbol unto themselves, embodying the stereotypical “hero, victim, charmer,” and, most upsetting, “object of pity.” Garry Trudeau, longtime author of the famed comic strip Doonesbury, recently has been sending a different message: If we continue to insist that others return from fighting only to be embroiled in another fight against “enemies within,” then all of us must come to terms with the influence of war in our public culture.

Trudeau received the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning, largely for his depictions of the United States’ role in the Vietnam War. Lately, he has taken on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in general and the particular stresses of returning soldiers. In a recent article in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, we engage some of these current strips, which are collected as a trilogy in The Long Road Home: One Step at a Time (2005), The War Within: One More Step at a Time (2006), andSignature Wound: Rocking TBI (2010). We argue, specifically, that Trudeau tempers the spectacle of combat by breaking up narratives that separate returning soldiers from the general public. In mocking piteous portrayals, Trudeau’s war trilogy shifts attention to compassion, situating the pain of war as a public problem. This is particularly significant for contemporary communications about our combat troops given how Trudeau recasts relationships between citizens and soldiers by accounting for those fighting solitary wars on our home front without ignoring the collective responsibility for warfare.

Since the Vietnam War, major media outlets have characterized (and celebrated) returning soldiers as heroes at the same time they have pitied them as victims. Our study, like Trudeau’s trilogy, is therefore predicated upon the circulation of combat imagery and its propagation of pity as what one Marine dubbed “an increasingly common reaction” to returning soldiers. One of our underlying assumptions is that pity constrains the body politic when it enables citizens to feel sorry for soldiers, and then again to imagine their return home as a private campaign. Too often in the United States, men and women of war are cast simultaneously in a pair of prevailing storylines. On the one hand, they are forced to suffer alone through physical and emotional struggles (i.e., hypervigilance, nightmares, medical treatments, and more) even as their “hidden wounds” are subjected to public scrutiny. On the other hand, returning soldiers fall prey to voyeurism insofar as others see their pain from a distance. Consider some of the common chronicles that perpetuate these viewpoints.

For years, military affairs journalist James Dao has tracked the embattled transition of returning soldiers from combat to civic life. Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent David Wood’s documentaryBeyond the Battlefield: From a Decade of War, An Endless Struggle for the Severely Wounded, does similar work with its slew of pictures, videos, blog posts, and more. In 2012, Craig F. Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for “Welcome Home: The Story of Scott Ostrom,” a photo essay that encapsulated PTSD as a private encumbrance to be overcome by brave “warriors” who remain haunted by war. Then, of course, there is the reappearance of combat coverage in popular cultural representations like the Showtime seriesHomeland in which protagonist Carrie Mathison is the only character who, according to Mike Hogan of Vanity Fair, looks upon war injuries without “a mixture of pity, horror, and amusement.” And, of course, there are other widely recognized war heroes (and victims) like James Blake Miller (better known as the “Marlboro Marine”) or Jessica Lynch (the controversial iconic military heroine). Put simply, returning soldiers over and again are valorized as remarkable “casualties” of war, reborn as pitiful citizens who have failed to achieve a “beautiful death.” In this regard, pity is ever and always someone else’s sufferance.

Trudeau’s war cartoons provide a much more active public identification between returning soldiers and citizens. They do so by picturing the promise of compassion as a vehicle for communities to suffer together. Moreover, Trudeau suggests just how ordinary it is for soldiers to lose their senses of selfhood along with, say, their limbs. For instance, after the central character, B.D., returns from combat after losing a leg when a rocket-propelled grenade hits his Humvee, he has the hardest time shedding his helmet. After all, B.D. is known for wearing helmets, like when he was a football coach, a third-string pro quarterback, a highway-patrol officer, and, finally, a reactivated reservist. They define him.

Similarly, Trudeau tackles conditions like aphasia, or the loss of language capability, to demonstrate how citizens and soldiers are discouraged from “speaking the same language” when it comes to sharing the wounds of war. The point is that Trudeau travesties combat trauma as a private phenomenon, showing it instead for its social and political consequences. In strip after strip, B.D.’s struggles goad us to see ourselves through the suffering of those who bear the biggest burdens of citizenship. That he does so through the humor of comic strips reveals how some “low” arts can capture big deals. In this case, the challenge of dealing with combat trauma is remade as a civic rather than a soldierly duty.

A major implication in our work is that an ethic that implores us to “support the troops” is not only insufficient for converting soldier returns into roads to recovery, but also harmful to the possibility for more compassionate responses within a contemporary war culture that seems to accept traumatic injuries as ordinary costs of freedom. Trudeau’s humor does not heal physical or psychological war wounds per se. In fact, it occasionally adds insult to injuries. Nevertheless, his war trilogy provides a valuable resource for citizens to foster new relations to U.S. militarization by challenging the conventional wisdom that urges soldiers to pull themselves up by their bootstraps even when they are least at home in their civic bodies—and in the public eye.

Ultimately, Trudeau laughs at the very idea that combat trauma could ever constitute an “inner war,” let alone an “invisible wound.” These and other monikers are just comfortable ways of seeing the fallout from armed conflict as unwelcome in our body politic. Doonesbury at war, then, works through personal battles with warfare by making what Donna Haraway calls the hard “work of paying attention” to suffering more proximate. Combat trauma is therefore more accessible to those of us who only know war at a distance. Furthermore, because Trudeau’s war trilogy turns compassion into a means for what Haraway characterizes as cultivating “action and respect without resolution,” it underscores the idea that war hits home when it is conceived as a presence in all of our everyday lives. More’s the pity for those who acknowledge soldier sufferance for the sake of others. And more’s the pity for those of us who overlook war itself as the new normal when we mistake the magnitude of combat trauma for its mundaneness.  

About the author (s)

Christopher J. Gilbert

Butler University

Future Faculty Teaching Fellow

John L. Lucaites

Indiana University

Associate Dean