What about now? What motivates you to keep doing it after so many years?
In the beginning, I was floundering. I wasn't quite sure what the strip was meant to be. It revealed itself to me over time — the strip is an eyewitness to a generation as it comes of age and as it defines itself. That is so inherently interesting, no matter what generation it is, that now, 40 years later, I have 73 or 75 characters, because I'm also trying to pay attention to the subsequent generations and how they all interact. As the times demanded, I created new characters to reflect them.
Many of the original characters who started off as kids now have kids of their own.
In 1983, I moved the characters out of this time warp they'd all been in and moved them into real time, so that they started to age. They would intermarry and have children, so it became necessary to think about what the subsequent generations were going to be like and what the forces were that were molding them. Alex Doonesbury, Mike's daughter, has actually become the animating force in the strip now, way beyond what her father is. When I go to him, I go to him as the Everyman. He's utterly predictable; we know basically how he's going to respond to almost anything that happens. His daughter is still in the act of becoming, she's still evolving.
How old is she now?
She was born — in the strip — in 1987, so she's 23, and she's a grad student now.
In terms of research, is there somebody you turn to to find out what's on a 23-year-old's mind today?
I occasionally check in with my three kids, but mostly I just try to pay attention to them, to their friends, to younger colleagues. I don't expect other people to do the anthropology for me. I just try to stay alert to the world, to read widely. That actually constitutes about 80 percent of what I do, simply front-loading. Now that my kids are gone, it's a lot easier for me to get out into the world. They moved off to college just as I got involved with the issue of wounded warriors, which required a lot of travel and research. That wouldn't have been possible when they were still at home. So I've gone back out into the world in a way I haven't been able to since the Seventies.
What drew you to the issue of wounded soldiers?
What primed me for it was the first Gulf War. A commander of a tank brigade, Col. Bill Nash, invited me over to Kuwait and took me on a tour of a battlefield that was still smoldering. He said, "Here's the deal: You can go out to all the places where we saw action, you can have the run of the camp, you can play with our toys, you can go check out the Humvees and the M1A tanks and drive them if you want, get a feel for the physical culture. But then I want you to go talk to my guys — that's the deal."
That was a fabulous deal. Because Desert Shield had lasted so long — and they'd been stuck in the desert for something like six months before the war began — the troops didn't have much to do other than stay fit and hydrated. They had a lot of downtime, and they read Stars and Stripes, which was one of my first clients, so they were familiar with all the strips I'd been writing about the war. They had a lot to say to me, both good and bad.
Stars and Stripes was one of the first subscribers to Doonesbury?
I don't know their reasoning.
Weren't you the antithesis of what they were looking for?
I frankly haven't a clue, but I was thrilled when they bought the strip. Later on, in the mid-Seventies, there was a movement to get rid of it, but by then it had become entrenched and the soldiers liked it.
As I gathered from talking to Vietnam vets years later, it wasn't that I got it right. How could I? I was 21 years old, I was a hippie college student, and I created in the strip this kind of fantasia in which the Viet Cong, represented by Phred, and the U.S. soldiers, represented by B.D., came together in a counterculture sensibility: "Can't we all get along?" Obviously, that had nothing to do, whatsoever, with the reality of the American GI in Vietnam. I think the soldiers were drawn to it because it was evidence that somebody was thinking about them, that they were on somebody's radar screen, and it was appreciated. Many Vietnam vets have told me that. It baffles me, because it didn't really reflect their experience, but at the same time I'm delighted that it made an impact.
And now the Pentagon brass has embraced the work you're doing on injured soldiers.
When I made the decision during the Battle of Fallujah that B.D. was going to suffer this grievous wound, some old friends at the Pentagon called up and invited me to Walter Reed hospital. They wanted to make sure I got it right, and everyone was enormously helpful. It is odd for an old peacenik like me to have so many people with "colonel" and "brigadier general" in front of their names in my Rolodex.
I think of you, in some ways, as our generation's Bill Mauldin — the cartoonist who chronicled World War II from the soldier's point of view. The military has so much to do with the strip, and you're entirely sympathetic.
While at the same time not trying to obscure my views of the war and why they're there. I've tried to keep the politics pretty much out of the strips about the wounded warriors in any direct fashion. My only agenda is to encourage people to think about the responsibility that this country owes not just its fallen warriors but all of its veterans and soldiers. I've seen far too many Vietnam veterans still in treatment for the psychological wounds they received in Vietnam, and we owe them better. There's a real disconnect in this country between most of the population and its military culture.
More so than in the 1960s?
Yes, because in the Sixties, everybody theoretically had skin in the game — anybody, theoretically, could be drafted. Now we've emotionally outsourced the war. We've asked the warrior class to fight a war that many people have just put out of their minds. No leaders have asked us to make any sacrifice, other than budgetary.
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