America used to love laughing at the military. When did it become so taboo?
War is not a funny topic, but military life used to be a bountiful source of comic inspiration. The grim reality of the battlefield prompts plenty of black humor and the rigid orthodoxies of modern military organizations have been ripe fodder for satire in the past. Given that the United States has been at war for two out of every three years since the end of the Cold War, you'd think there would be lots of dark comedy and irreverent commentary on military topics, and not just when some randy commander gets caught with his pants down.
Yet Americans no longer see the military as a worthy target for political satire. Instead, we treat the armed services in almost reverential terms: Politicians rarely say anything remotely critical of the troops or their bemedaled commanders and it is hard to think of any important plays, movies, or television shows that poke serious fun at the Pentagon. Congress, organized religion, Wall Street, Hollywood, doctors, lawyers, teachers, sports teams, and just about every other institution in America is ripe for ridicule these days, but not the American military.
It wasn't always this way. At the height of the Cold War, books, films, and TV shows frequently made fun of military institutions and used the horror of war as a backdrop for comedy. Think of Sgt. Bilko (with Phil Silvers as a larcenous NCO), McHale's Navy, No Time for Sergeants, or Gomer Pyle, USMC -- all popular plays or TV shows that exposed the foibles of military life to merciless scrutiny. Or consider Mister Roberts, the 1946 novel by Thomas Heggen that became a 1955 film starring Henry Fonda as the eponymous hero, James Cagney as a tyrannical ship's captain with a palm tree fetish, and Jack Lemmon as a randy and sophomoric ensign. Patriotism and sacrifice are central themes in Mister Roberts, but it also takes dead comic aim at the frustrations and follies of military life. (A 1964 sequel, Ensign Pulver, is even more farcical). You could add Hogan's Heroes (where the Nazis receive most of the comic treatment), F Troop (a sitcom about the U.S. cavalry, of all things) and especially the original book and movie version of M.A.S.H (1970). The heroes of M.A.S.H. (Hawkeye, Trapper John, and Duke) are all oddballs rebelling against the rigid idiocies of the regular Army (exemplified by Frank Burns, "Hot Lips" Houlihan, and other stuffy authority figures). You could also toss in Kelly's Heroes (1970), an amusing caper film set in World War II starring Clint Eastwood as the leader of a band of military renegades setting out to steal some hidden gold.
And then there were the deeper comic assaults on the military mindset: Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964) or Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (published in 1961). Both works sought to illuminate the horrors of war (and in the case of Strangelove, the lunacy of nuclear war), but they did so through darkly comic pictures of the military itself. Just look at how Kubrick portrays Gens. Jack D. Ripper and Buck Turgidson or recall Heller's Gen. Dreedle and Maj. Major Major, and you'll see comic genius being used to make a powerful political point.
Until the 1970s, books, plays, films, TV shows and comic strips like Beetle Bailey were not afraid to poke fun at the military as an institution, even if they also acknowledged the virtues of patriotism and the need for competent armed forces. Of course, there were also plenty of books, TV shows, and films that treated the military in highly respectful ways -- such as The Green Berets, Patton, or the 1960s TV show Combat! -- but the key point is that the military was not off-limits as a target for humor and even ridicule.The freedom to make fun of the military disappeared after the Vietnam War, and ever since, war and the U.S. military have usually been treated in a relentlessly serious fashion.
The sober approach took hold in a series of overtly anti-war works, including Coming Home, Born on the 4th of July, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket, all taking an openly critical view of the U.S. role in Vietnam. Though the TV version of M.A.S.H. (which ran from 1972 to 1983) was set in Korea, Vietnam provided the obvious context for much of the series, which evolved into more of a critique of war itself than a satire on the military establishment. A subsequent TV series set in Vietnam -- China Beach (1988-1991) -- was a drama and offered hardly any comedic moments at all. The Rambo movies (1992, 1995, 1988, 2008), which starred Sylvester Stallone as alienated but highly competent killing machine, belong here too, insofar as they blame failure on feckless civilians, treat soldiers as victims or heroes, and make no attempt to be funny.
Since the early 1980s, in fact, mass-market treatments of war and the military have become increasingly respectful, even adulatory. This trend begins with An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), followed by Top Gun, a 1986 film starring the F-14 Tomcat; A Few Good Men (1992); Saving Private Ryan (1998); Independence Day (1996), where the villains are evil space aliens and a sniveling civilian secretary of defense; Black Hawk Down, a 1999 book by Mark Bowden and 2001 film; the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2008); and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. You could toss in Lone Survivor, Shooter, Under Siege, Tour of Duty, Call to Glory, JAG, and Band of Brothers -- the moral of the story wouldn't change much. Some of these works include conniving politicians or less-than-admirable commanders, but the core institutions and the troops themselves are portrayed in a consistently positive light. Today, only Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury is still willing to crack a few jokes at the military's expense, but his main military characters (B.D., Ray, Melissa, and Toggle) are all wounded or damaged in some fashion and the predominant tone is one of sympathy and support rather than satire.
I can think of only five partial exceptions to this pattern -- Private Benjamin (1980), Stripes (1981), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) and the two Hot Shots! parodies, but these works do not undermine my larger point. Although these films poke some gentle fun at the military (especially in Good Morning, Vietnam, where Robin Williams's character, Army disc jockey Adrian Cronauer, frequently clashes with his stick-in-the-mud superiors), the broader lesson in each film is a positive one. In Stripes and Private Benjamin, for example, the lead characters ultimately gain wisdom from their military experience and become better people. And Good Morning, Vietnam becomes less funny as the film proceeds, as Cronauer confronts the realities of the war and discovers a Viet Cong agent has duped him. Hot Shots! (1991, 1993) doesn't really count, as these films are really spoofs of pro-military genre films (especially Top Gun) rather than of the military itself.
So why can't we make jokes about the military anymore? I'm not entirely sure. I suspect it is due in part to the creation of the all-volunteer force, which means most Americans don't serve in uniform anymore. Ten million Americans served in World War II, and they knew first-hand about heroism and sacrifice but also about military lunacy. They could laugh at the absurd aspects of military life without having their patriotism questioned. Today's civilians don't feel comfortable laughing at institutions in which they have not served and don't intend to. Instead, pious respect for our men and women in uniform rules the day.
The post-9/11 "war on terror" magnifies this reticence, because it is harder to poke fun at the military when soldiers are actually fighting and dying in distant lands and when the public at large has been repeatedly told that these wars are necessary to protect them from the shadowy danger of "international terrorism." Plus, the only way to get Americans to keep volunteering for these wars is to convince them that they are performing a heroic mission, and that means keeping jokes out of the newspapers and off the screen. It’s true that FOX is challenging this taboo with its new series Enlisted, but its comedy is pretty bloodless, very respectful of the military itself, and it remains to be seen if the series will catch on or not.
Add to that the fact that politicians from both parties now compete to display their own patriotism by offering rhetorical support for "the troops." Ever since George McGovern ran for president in 1972 on an anti-war platform, the GOP has tried to paint the Democratic Party as unpatriotic and "soft on defense." Ronald Reagan perfected this line of attack, and the Democrats' only response was to try to sound as hawkish and pro-military as their Republican counterparts. As a result, you don't see any William Proxmires railing about gold-plated military excesses or making fun of the Pentagon's peccadilloes.
Unfortunately, losing our ability to laugh at the military comes with a price. No human institution is perfect, and none should be given a free pass by the rest of society. Humor and ridicule are potent weapons when trying to keep powerful institutions under control, and giving them up makes it harder to keep those institutions on the straight and narrow. Capable armed forces are a regrettable necessity, but treating them with excessive deference and declining to joke about their foibles makes it more likely they will be indulged rather than improved.
Don't forget: The U.S. military hasn't done all that well in its recent wars, it has a serious problem with sexual violence and misconduct, the service academies have endured repeated cheating scandals, and we recently discovered that the custodians of the U.S. ICBM force were cooking the books on their readiness exams. These and other concerns are no laughing matter, but a bit of humor might go a long way toward mobilizing public concern and convincing the brass that they need to shape up.
I'm not calling for a full-blown comic assault on the military, the arms industry, or even the CIA, but at this point some Strangelove-quality satire might be just what we need.
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