Saturday, April 26, 2008

Garry Trudeau and John McCain

Remember Mark Slackmeyer, aka “Megaphone Mark”? He was part of the original Doonesbury gang, the 60s slacker/activist who has ended up working for NPR, where he and his politically conservative life partner debate each other on the air. Around where I lived, Slackmeyer was a familiar type. (In fact, it was rumored that a local alternative newspaper journalist, a classmate of Garry Trudeau’s at Yale, was the original model for Megaphone Mark.)

We recognized many of the Doonesbury gang in our own circle. It was fascinating watching them grow up, because, unlike other comic strip characters, they did grow up. Like us, only somewhat more slowly. They left their communes behind, got married, had kids, got divorced, went to law school, got jobs on Capitol Hill, got fired, went into rehab. Ups and downs. Like the rest of us.

But in the last several years, Garry Trudeau has thrown something much tougher at one of the old gang. B.D., Michael Doonsbury’s college roommate, has lost a leg in a grenade attack in Iraq. Since his injury, the football coach and former college jock has turned into a moody alcoholic, now undergoing therapy for post-traumatic stress at Walter Reed Hospital.
This new storyline has won Trudeau admiration and awards in some surprising quarters, including the Pentagon and the Disabled Americans Veterans. Even John McCain has done an about face. In 1995, he went on record as saying he held the liberal cartoonist in “utter contempt.” This past year McCain wrote an introduction to Trudeau's The Long Road Home , a collection of his strips about B.D.'s injury and recovery. (The proceeds will go to a veterans’ charity.)

Doonesbury has always been topical, and often controversial. During the Vietnam War Trudeau’s anti-war cartoons were part of a larger protest movement. Because of the draft, that war was central to our generation’s experience. After it was over, many of those who opposed the war came to regard the veterans as victims, not perpetrators.

In the war in Iraq, decades later, Trudeau’s has directed his focus and sympathy to the soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to writing about their issues, he’s a frequent visitor to the injury ward at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and at gatherings of wounded troops.

On his website, Trudeau has also created a virtual community for soldiers – a sort of "Global War On Terror literary magazine,” as he has written. "The Sandbox," is a digest of military blogs, open to soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Posts on The Sandbox include a list of 63 items every Iraq-bound soldier should pack (baby wipes, webcam) and attempts to compare real combat with the way it’s portrayed in the movies. (Movies are more interesting,” wrote one soldier. “It’s sort of the banality of being shot at.”)

In providing this forum for active duty soldiers, and in writing about disabled soldiers in Doonesbury, the humorist underlines and important truth as effectively in the era of Bush as in the era of Nixon and Johnson.

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