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Who killed Doonesbury

War is heck. Sometimes, it isn't even heck. It's silence. Especially when you're The Durham Herald-Sun and worry about how offensive it can be. No, no, no. Not war. Goodness no. Just strong language about war.

And apparently, war is also heck if you're the Bush administration, and have to worry about how offensive the truth might be--in terms of realistic casualty counts or pictures of coffins of dead soldiers.

So leave it to Gary Trudeau to use his comic, Doonesbury, to strip the silence away. And leave it to The Herald-Sun to restore silence. I've been kind of choked up all week as macho B.D., former football star and coach, veteran of two wars--Vietnam and Gulf I--suffers from the kind of grievous injury in Gulf II that we're hearing all too little about.

B.D., deployed in Iraq, now terribly wounded, without his helmet for the first time in his comic-strip existence and as vulnerable as Sampson was without his hair, realizes that his leg has been amputated. "Son of a bitch!" he yells. Spit flies. Well, yeah, no kidding. Should he have looked down at that empty space and said, "Oh, my goodness, where's the rest of me?" Boy, that would have been in character.

I'm sure that at least a few readers looked down at that empty space in The Herald-Sun Friday where the comic strip should have been, and said, "Oh my goodness, is there a pattern here?" Herald-Sun Executive Editor Bill Hawkins zapped Boondocks completely off its pages March of 2003 because of the strip's anti-war content during the invasion of Iraq.

The Herald-Sun, which already runs Doonesbury on its editorial page, ran this bland message Friday: "Because of a vulgarity in the cartoon, Doonesbury will not appear today. The strip will resume Saturday. Today's strip dealt with the continuing recuperation of the character B.D. after suffering a combat wound in Iraq." Yawn. That's a compelling summary.

Apparently, the paper wanted to avoid that common but awkward situation where some 7-year-old eager beaver grabs the paper from Mom and Dad, turns swiftly to its editorial pages for his daily fix of wisdom, and is instead shocked and repulsed. No, no, no. Not repulsed by amputation. But by reading those horrible words.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon reported Friday that 3,864 troops have been wounded in action since the war began in March 2003. Many credible war critics think those numbers are low-balling it. Some estimates go up to at least 15,000. The Pentagon has said it has made more than 18,000 "medical evacuations" over the past year. I expect that's not just for an occasional yeast infection.

The flights of personnel heading for Walter Reed Hospital often arrive at night at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. "The wounded are brought back after midnight, making sure the press does not see the planes coming in," U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said last October on the Senate floor. "These are not a broken wrist or scratched leg. These are terrible wounds: lost limbs, lost eyesight, lifetime disabilities."

The problem is that The Herald-Sun hasn't exactly jumped at every opportunity to show the administration's expert manipulation of the media in hiding the wounded and dead from this country's eyes. An American worker in Kuwait and her husband were fired last week after the Seattle Times printed one of the many photos she had taken of a cargo plane full of coffins draped in American flags. The Herald-Sun ran just one story on the matter, mostly featuring the White House's smarmy and hypocritical public relations statement about how the photo publication violated the privacy and sensitivities of soldiers' families. "White House decries coffin photo release." The story mentioned nothing about the fired worker and husband.

The News & Observer, on the other hand, ran the original story about the firing, as well as a powerful Barry Saunders' piece about the policy. It played the White House's damage control press release small and on an inside page, as was appropriate. The N&O also did a strong lead editorial Saturday about the coffin story: "Yes, wars are about death, about people who are answering their country's call and losing their limbs and their eyesight and their lives in the process. Trying to prevent Americans from seeing pictures of those heroes coming home for the final time won't change that."

And The N&O ran Doonesbury. You go, N&O. Five for one on this one.

Happily, The Herald-Sun was in the mediocre company of only a very few newspapers across the country. The Associated Press reported that only 10 newspapers called Universal Press with concerns about the expletive. The Anchorage Daily News published a note saying the comic "contained an unnecessary profanity." The Green Bay News-Chronicle in Wisconsin zapped the word, as did the Beacon Journal in Akron, Ohio, which runs Doonesbury on the comics page. Since I'm an aficionado of history, especially recent history, let us glance briefly back at mid-February, the last time Doonesbury was zapped out of The Herald-Sun.

At that point, Trudeau was again all about Iraq, and the missing strip had some pointed criticism of GWB and the missing WMDs. At that point, editorial page editor Bob Wilson said he was irritated at "the electronic screw-up," but it was nothing more than that.

"Anyone who pulls [Doonesbury] would be at risk of losing their job," he said.

So. Bob?

Nah. Just kidding. Besides, too many people have been losing jobs of late over issues of censorship.

But it would be nice for The Herald-Sun to remember that there are numerous meanings of "vulgarity" in the dictionary. "Morally crude" is one of those meanings.

In this case, the real moral crudeness is not that it's a son of a bitch to lose a leg. It's that this administration has been far too successful in enforcing a deadly silence about the real costs of this war.

And that is what I call vulgar.


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