Beetle Bailey surprises me

Beetle Bailey is a long running comic strip that began in 1950 about an army base where the soldiers are never actually called upon to fight in any wars. Its title character is a private who is a total slacker and tries to shirk his duties whenever he can. The rest of his troop also consists of misfits who have no interest in fighting and for whom the army seems to be a sinecure. The camp is overseen by an alcoholic general whose main interest is playing golf.

The strip is mildly funny and never controversial, though one can imagine that the military is not too keen at the way it portrays them as inept and lacking zeal. One thing you never see in the strip are the soldiers actually fighting in a war. The closest you get to it are war games and the only real violence consists of fist fights between Beetle and his exasperated sergeant.

The strip is never deep so it was with some surprise that I read yesterday’s Sunday strip. Take a look.

Beetle Bailey

This is a very subversive anti-war strip and I am curious to see what the reaction will be among the jingoists who revere military people who kill without compunction.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    I don’t think it’s controversial with most people who have actually fought in wars. Not those I’ve talked to, anyway. I suspect the sentiment at the end of John McCutcheon’s song “Christmas in the Trenches” is fairly common;

    Each Christmas come since World War One I’ve learned it’s lessons well. That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame
    and on each end of the rifle we’re the same.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Back somewhat over 30 years ago, during Reagan’s military spending spree, I saw a BB Sunday edition which started with the general complaining how the schools and libraries were getting spending cuts and the money going to the Pentagon. A lower officer asks why he would say that, and he looks out the window at Camp Swampy where the troops are, as usual, colliding jeeps, mispainting signs, burning food, tangling themselves in fencing, getting beaten up by the sergeant, etc, etc, and says something to the effect that “more money couldn’t help them, but schools and libraries might.”

    Maybe I’ve missed some others in the same vein and overestimate the interval length, but at least I can hope that sometime in the 2040s this same outburst of conscience/crazy uncle in the attic will emerge again.

  3. Ollie Nanyes says

    There was one strip several years ago. The troops were firing at targets on a range and one of them (Rocky) kills a bunny. The Sergeant gets onto to him for killing “that bunny which never hurt anyone” and reminded him “these rifles are for killing PEOPLE, not animals”. It was clear that strip was intended to make a point.

  4. johnhodges says

    Actually, back in the 1980’s I was active in a local antiwar group, energized by Reagan’s comments to the effect that he “could see an exchange of nuclear weapons in the field without it leading to either side pushing the button.” A friend and I made a display to be ON display in a glass case in the local campus Student Union, by collecting all the comic strips we could find that dealt with war, the arms race, the military, “strategic thinkers”, and so forth. There were a lot of relevant Beetle Bailey strips, my friend commented that “you don’t usually think of him as an antiwar strip”.

  5. Trickster Goddess says

    I posted a real life anecdote similar to this strip in a different thread just last week:

    One of my ancestors was conscripted into the army during the Civil War. He was a religious pacifist, but there was no conscientious objector clause in those times. So he declared up front that he would march with the troops, he would carry a gun and he would even fire the gun — but he would never point it at anyone. The story goes that they eventually realized he was true to his word and he was reassigned to menial labor for the rest of the war.

  6. Nick Gotts says

    Trickster Goddess@5

    I remember seeing an interview with Harry Patch shortly before his death. Patch was the last surviving combat veteran of WW1. He said that he, and many of his comrades, never shot to kill: even when enemy troops were charging at them, they aimed for the lower legs. Normal human beings generally find it very difficult to kill another. Military training aims at removing this inhibition -- and even that doesn’t always work.

  7. bryanfeir says

    Nick Gotts@6:
    I remember seeing some talk about this in, of all things, a tabletop role-playing game. The game (called Godlike) was basically a WWII with superheroes world background, but which tried to be fairly accurate to the actual history and times aside from the obvious changes in giving people superpowers. The first book had a month-by-month history of the war, with marks as to which was real history and which was modified in the game. And it started the history when the war actually started, as opposed to when the U.S. officially joined in, so it covered the Lend-Lease program pretty heavily.

    The first supplemental book had an entire section on history, battlefield psychology, and the fact that in WWI more bullets were likely fired into the air and away from people than at people. And the fact that all the major powers spent a great deal of time and effort in the twenty years between WWI and WWII figuring out ways to de-humanize the enemy so they could get their soldiers to actually kill more reliably. That was basically the start of modern propaganda.

    (As a side note, all the superpowers in this game were psychic in nature, which resulted in the most powerful people also being the ones most disconnected from reality in other ways. Stalin’s attempts at creating his own ‘Talents’ tended to backfire pretty spectacularly…)

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