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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Bring back the military spoof

    Justyn DillinghamEditor-in-Chief
    Justyn Dillingham
    Editor-in-Chief

    I’m not normally one to argue that pop culture is an infallible barometer by which to measure the state of our public life. But when a formerly ubiquitous element of that culture has completely dried up, it seems fair to ask why.

    I refer, of course, to the military spoof.

    Americans detest pomposity and love to see it deflated. Accordingly, they love to see even the things they cherish ridiculed. For the last century, we’ve loved to see our most cherished and valued establishment, the military, made fun of.

    As a rule, military spoofs rarely make explicit anti-war statements. (Since the decision to wage war does not reside with the military, this would make no sense anyway.) Joseph Heller’s “”Catch-22,”” the quintessential military spoof, takes place during World War II, the “”Good War,”” not Korea or Vietnam.

    “”Catch-22″” is indeed anti-war, but its primary point is the nonstop absurdity of military life. It set the tone for a century of good-natured parodies of our beloved armed forces.

    During World War II, the cinemas were flooded with hastily produced comedies in which Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello, or even the occasional straight man found themselves marching off to battle. The humor came from the fact that all of them behaved exactly as they always did, instead of being magically transformed into fearless soldiers.

    The films, ridiculous as they were, helped their audiences make sense of the great, terrifying war that had taken over all of their lives. If Lou Costello could come through the war unscathed, so could everyone else.

    As the century wore on and the wars kept building up, some military spoofs turned darker, while others became almost absurdly frivolous. On television, the spoofs piled up: “”M*A*S*H,”” “”Hogan’s Heroes,”” even “”Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.”” Americans couldn’t get enough of them.

    Now, they’re gone. You can go to the movies every week and you’ll never see so much as a trailer for a stupid Army comedy like “”Sgt. Bilko”” or even a smart one like “”Stripes.””

    You’ll see plenty of war movies, including some that call themselves anti-war – but if you think a lot of graphic violence will convince kids that war is bad, you haven’t noticed my generation’s rather alarming fixation on zombie movies.

    I was struck by this realization recently, when I happened to see a commercial for the U.S. Army. In the old days, the ads simply urged you to serve your country.

    Now, in a dramatic Hollywood-like montage, military life is presented as one nonstop adventure. It offers community: You are told that you’ll find “”brothers”” in the Army. A tempting bribe is dangled: Join up and you’ll get a free education. The whole thing is utterly seductive and utterly chilling.

    Obviously it’s not wrong to join the military. But you ought to know the consequences, and a culture filled with nothing but reverent, worshipful visions of a “”band of brothers”” charging off to everlasting glory will not tell you what they are.

    In a brilliant essay, George Orwell ran through a litany of things he disliked about his country, England. Finally, he found something to admire: Looking at the sinister goose-stepping march of the Nazis, he noted that British armies would never dream of marching like that. Why? Because they’d be laughed off the street.

    Obviously it’s not wrong to join the military. But you ought to know the consequences, and a culture filled with nothing but reverent, worshipful visions of a “”band of brothers”” charging off to everlasting glory will not tell you what they are.

    Something in the English soul rebelled at the notion of admiring vulgar nationalism for the sake of it. For all their pomposity, Orwell wrote, his countrymen retained something sane and sensible that resisted the bullying pull of fascism.

    Comedy is an inoculant against fascism. The basic fact of life in a fascist country is that the Nation, the Great Leader, like Thomas More’s devil, “”the proud spirit … cannot endure to be mocked.”” Hitler, a profoundly humorless man, would have wilted overnight had he ever been subjected to the personal ridicule he so richly deserved.

    We are a long way from fascism. But we take a step toward it when we regard our military as a noble thing in and of itself, and when we lose our good-natured, human and quintessentially American healthy disrespect for pomposity and nationalism. So bring on the spoofs.

    Justyn Dillingham is copy chief for the Arizona Daily Wildcat and is a junior majoring in political science and history. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu

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