By Garry Trudeau
For me, the process of creating a comic strip is mostly preparation. That's where I put in the most time by far, after which the actual writing and drawing are done in a short burst of frenzy.
If I feel prepared -- if I feel there's been enough collecting, enough churn, enough marination -- it gives me the confidence to know I can sit down and do a credible job of turning what is sometimes a grim or contentious subject into a story that will entertain a significant part of a general readership.
A comic-strip artist has to believe that preparation and experience will carry him through, even when it turns out it's not true, or he hasn't a prayer of making a deadline, week after week, year after year.
It's a trick we play on ourselves, which is why so many of us don't like to think about process too much, like the climber who avoids vertigo by not looking down. As E.B. White told us, you can dissect humor, like a frog, but also like the frog, it tends to die in the process.
So what I do is simply follow my curiosity, and hope that what I find gives me enough traction to propel me into a story. Often that's just a question of bouncing off the news, casting the strip with the appropriate characters, and cranking out strips sometimes so ephemeral that even I have forgotten them within a few months.
But with the longer, more developed story lines, the ones that ultimately matter the most to readers, the time line is longer and the research process more intimate or nuanced.
For instance, I recently spent the day in Silver Spring, Md., at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post and a vet center, talking to two veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom who are about to leave the service and make their way back into civilian life.
Both have grievous wounds. One is an amputee, the other has metal plates in his back and a head full of brutal memories.
There was the day he was sent out to lead a patrol with poorly armored vehicles, no intel briefing, no maps, no communication systems, and just two magazines of ammunition -- one with only tracers. It was a misbegotten mission that got one of his men killed, and he'll never forget it.
Both soldiers, with the help of incredibly dedicated counselors, are trying to figure out how to live with their emotional wounds as they make the transition out of a military culture that still stigmatizes post-traumatic stress syndrome, and then into a civilian population that can't possibly understand what they've been through.
The reason that I've been listening to their stories is that my character B.D. is now at that precise point in his own life, and I need to learn about what that must feel like before I can write about it.
When and if I finally do, I have to do another terrible thing: I have to make it funny. And I have to find a way of doing so without contributing to the suffering that these young veterans are enduring.
And that, I think, is why the military has given me such access to wounded warriors and their caregivers. There are so many ways I could get it wrong, they figured, I could use all the help I could get.
Some people are surprised the Pentagon would help me in trying to tell the story of critically wounded veterans of the Iraqi war. Their assumption is that a longtime critic of the administration's policies in Iraq would be unwelcome on the wards of Walter Reed.
But longtime readers of the strip know that while I also bitterly opposed the Vietnam War, the strip has never been particularly anti-military.
During B.D.'s tour of duty as a grunt in Vietnam, certainly my peacenik sympathies were in ample evidence, but it never occurred to me to mock the individual soldier for fulfilling his sworn duty to country, particularly since so many were there unwillingly.
During the first Gulf War, when I returned B.D. to active duty as a sergeant in the National Guard, I tried to keep the politics mostly separate from the foibles of everyday life in the expeditionary force assembling in the desert.
In the time-honored custom of military humor, the jokes were at the expense of upper echelons and other, often absurd, forces over which soldiers have no control.
Initially, this made me no friends at the command level, and during the buildup in the fall of 1990, there was enough Pentagon suspicion over my motives that my requests to the Defense Department to go to Kuwait were denied.
That all changed that December, when Gen. Gordon Sullivan, the then newly appointed Army chief of staff, began to hear that enlisted personnel were reading the strip in Stars and Stripes, apparently unaware of how detrimental it was to their morale.
So Sullivan wrote and asked me to produce a traveling show of the original strips that the Army could send on tour to our bases in the war zone. That request seem to neutralize any hostility toward me within the Pentagon, and I found my media application suddenly approved.
But then, as I prepared to travel to Riyadh, I hit another snag -- one of my own making. I had just finished writing a week of strips about how rich young Saudi men were sitting out the war that American troops were preparing to fight on their behalf.
So naturally, when my application for a visa arrived at the Saudi consulate, it was immediately flagged for special treatment. Hundreds of reporters had been routinely granted permission to enter the country, but with my visa, it was explained, there were problems.
Two months of non-processing went by, and then out of the blue, I received a call from Col. Bill Nash, the commander of a tank brigade billeted just outside Kuwait City. He told me that he'd read I was having problems getting in-country, but if I'd just jump on a plane to Riyadh, he'd take it from there.
Two days later, I arrived at Riyadh, at 1 a.m. with no visa. This was something of a calculated risk -- the lack of a visa was almost sure to get me stuck in a holding tank and then put on the next flight home.
I waited in the customs line, and just as I was about to face the inspector, two young American officers suddenly appeared at either elbow, lifted me up, whisked me through a side door into the waiting hands of an Army escort.
Before long I found myself in a Blackhawk, on my way to a forward operating base in Kuwait. I had just entered and left a sovereign nation without any trace of evidence I had ever been there.
When I reached Camp Thunder Rock in Kuwait City, I was greeted by Nash on the landing zone. Shouting over the chopper wash, he informed me that before I settled in, it was time to tour the battlefield.
So I climbed into another chopper, and within minutes was flying over the devastation, including the infamous Highway of Death, while Nash pointed out with some pride where his forces had clashed with the Republican Guard.
We flew over burning oil wells with their long evil plumes of greasy smoke -- a strange kind of tourism, but Nash's intention was to make real what had happened before I met his soldiers.
And that was the deal. He'd show me what war looked like, but then I had to spend time with his guys.
It seemed important to him that I understand what they'd been through, what they'd endured, to see their pride and their toughness, but also to see that the professional volunteer army he'd led into battle in Kuwait was very different from the platoon of mismatched conscripts he'd had to wrangle and motivate as a young second lieutenant in Vietnam -- where, he told me, he'd first read Stars and Stripes and had become intrigued by that comic strip that presumed to describe the war he was living.
So here I'd been doing it again, trying to convey something I hadn't directly experienced, and Nash figured that if this time I got it right, maybe something useful could come from it, from telling the story of his war in the unique, incremental, unfurling structure of a comic strip.
So we would sit up all night talking about politics and war and the culture he knew and loved, and he did his best to hide me from the generals, until he found out that the boss of them all, Gordon Sullivan, had signed off on my work, and then he visibly relaxed and took me to see his men.
His men sat with me in their Bradleys and tanks and told me stories notable for their lack of triumphalism. They struck me as committed professionals who had seen awful things and had the humility to know that, yes, their training and equipment had helped keep them alive, but so had providence.
As I continued to write about the experiences of B.D. and his friends in southwest Asia, I had this to draw on, and years later, when I once again sent him off to war, I felt somewhat better prepared.
There are many striking differences between the two Gulf conflicts -- one of which is I don't have to negotiate Saudi customs to have real-time e-mail conversations with soldiers who have just returned from patrol.
But my past relationship with the Pentagon was helpful in opening doors this time around, even though it's not a secret that I deeply oppose our current conflict.
When I began the sequence of strips depicting B.D.'s wound from a rocket attack near Fallujah, I was contacted by the Defense Department almost immediately with offers to help tell his story.
Before they had a clue where I was going with it, caregivers and patients all along the chain of medical treatment -- from Landsthul to Walter Reed to the outpatient facilities Mologne and Fisher House to the Vet Centers -- all generously met with me and walked me through the radically changed personal and social environment that amputees and post-traumatic stress patients must negotiate.
The fortitude and heart of the individual soldiers takes your breath away. The very first soldier I talked to at the hospital -- a beautiful young MP who had lost her hand and part of her forearm -- told me of being sent up to defend the roof of an Iraqi police station, only to have two rockets rip through her position, the second of which tore off her hand and buried her under broken sand bags.
Her squad mates rushed to the roof, carried her downstairs and placed her on the hood of a humvee, where the team medic frantically worked to stop her bleeding.
But her most vivid memory is of her sergeant and another platoon mate, returning to the roof against orders, digging through the sand, finding her severed hand, removing her wedding band, carrying it downstairs and placing it in her remaining hand.
"I know it's just a thing," she told me. "I could have bought another ring. But it meant the world to me that my guys would do that." And then she smiled -- it was a tale of gratitude, not bitterness.
When you meet these torn-up kids, with horrible wounds and missing parts, legs stitched together with skin and bones from other parts of the body, held in place with pins and placed in elaborate cages, you imagine at first you'll turn away, that you won't know what to say, that you'll project your own fears onto them.
But it doesn't work out that way. Their attitude is so positive -- most of them, unrealistically, want nothing more than to return to their units -- and the military culture is so can-do -- that most visitors come away from Walter Reed inspired, not horrified.
At one of the dinners that a local steakhouse throws every Friday for outpatients, one soldier told me of how he nearly killed an Arab American taxi driver, his rage triggered by a completely trivial incident.
"I know that's crazy. He's another American, one of my countrymen," the soldier told me, but the driver had resembled the people who only months earlier had been trying to kill him, and so he almost snapped.
But the mere fact he could share such a story, that he acknowledged suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and needed help, is remarkable in a military culture in which these invisible wounds are still to some degree stigmatized.
Understanding that has inspired me to make post-traumatic stress disorder one of several challenges B.D. is facing as he struggles to readjust to civilian life.
Just as a classic therapy for trauma victims is to get them to revisit tormenting events until they lose their power, it seems important that the media be part of an effort to detoxify combat stress disorder by increasing public awareness of it.
We have asked a lot of the young men and women sent to fight in our name for a cause that is in dispute. They deserve our compassion and respect upon their return, no matter what side we stand on along this terrible divide that seems to have opened up in this country.
Years ago, when I was first starting out, the pre-religious Johnny Hart wrote a B.C. strip in which his little caveman hero, courting a pretty girl, is told to "go to heck."
He walks off despondently, clutching the flower he tried to give her, and then looks at the reader and asks, "Where the hell is heck?" Even though the word was verboten in 1970, what editor could reasonably pull that strip?
And as far as I know no one did -- which had a profound effect on me. Keep it truthful, I learned. If you knit it into the context with care, editors may cut you some slack.
So, when B.D. wakes up and finds he's missing his leg and shouts out, "Son of a bitch!" a few editors shut the strip down for the day, but I think most concluded, as one editor wrote, "If I woke up and found I was missing a leg, that's the mildest thing I would have said." The context was everything.
The words, while not something you want to see on your comics page every day, were embedded in the emotion and pain of the moment.
I do appreciate the wide latitude I've been given through the years. And I hope difficult subjects can be treated in Doonesbury without unduly upsetting the nation's small children, because small children have no interest in Doonesbury.
It's discretionary reading, and why would they read something they don't understand? When they are old enough to understand, maybe it's time for their parents to discuss more challenging issues with them.
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski