Sunday, May 30, 2010
It is interesting how the image of the military has changed in American popular culture and the entertainment media. Serving in the military was a common rite of passage for American youths starting in WWII and ending in 1972. It was probably the most egalitarian institution this country ever had and a positive influence on many an American kid whose life would otherwise have gone downhill fast. Universal service had another effect on our society: the average American recognized the absurdity of the military while at the same time respecting its role in our society. And how did America express its view of the military: humor. Here is a short list of TV sitcoms about the military that aired from 1955 to about 1968:
1. Sergeant Bilko
2. Hogan's Heroes
3. McHale's Navy
4. Gomer Pyle
There are probably more but the morning coffee has yet to erase the effects of last night's scotch. I guess you can give Get Smart an honorable mention in the above list and include MASH and Catch 22. The theme of each show was basically the same: a stuffed shirt and conformist bureaucracy unable to stifle the humor and spirit of the average American man. The shows were hilarious and in retrospect, irreverent in a way that is unimaginable today. Let's start with McHale's Navy. Ernest Borgnine as McHale had a rag tag group of enlisted men under the watchful eye of Captain Binghampton. McHale even secreted a Japanese stowaway as a cook. They spent their time breaking the rules and making a fool of Binghampton. Now fast forward to 2010. Can you imagine a sitcom now portraying a group of lackadaisical goofballs stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan thumbing their noses at the brass while hiding an Al Qaeda member to cook their dinner? Their would be howls of protest from every sector of polite society. Today, the military is not a subject for humor and ridicule but is looked upon as professional group of elite warriors for whom humor is not on the menu, especially if the laughs come from entertainment industry. But the humor of yesterday was never meant to denigrate the military or the men who fought. I am sure the above shows were quite popular in VFW and American Legion halls across the country. There was a recognition that the military was serious business but was, by necessity, bound by a set of rules that, to the enlisted man, was so absurd as to be comical. And what better way to expose it than by making people laugh. This was all made possible because military service effected every strata of our society. The 18 year old auto mechanic from Canarsie all of a sudden found himself sitting in boot camp with kids from Texas and Ohio whom he would otherwise never have met. And vice versa. And you can bet there were many mornings at 5 am when some idiot drill sergeant made them run laps through the mud for no other reason than that the Army manual said it was necessary. These were experiences shared by an entire generation of Americans. So when the absurdity made it to the TV screen, it struck a chord in a big way. This shared national experience has vanished. The military is a profession, which is a good thing. The American military has done a phenomenal job of reducing battlefield casualties through technology and better training. But the effect of this policy is that the military is now a cloistered society separate from the country it defends. The average person has no clue what military service is like or what the average soldier experiences. The opposite is also true. The average soldier is cut off from regular life. The GI of today probably has more in common with the Spartans of ancient times than he does with average kid who spends his spare time listening to an ipod while skateboarding down Ocean Drive. Which is why you will never see Hollywood make another sitcom about the military.
Saturday, May 29, 2010
Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background, the countless minor scenes and interiors of the secession war; and it is best they should not. The real war will never get in the books. -Walt Whitman
As I approach the gates of heaven;
St. Peter I will tell;
One more soldier reporting sir;
I've served my time in hell.
-Mark Anthony Gresswell
Memorial Day is when the living pay homage to the dead, at least those died in war while in uniform. But what is true of funerals is equally apt for this holiday: it is all window dressing for the living and does nothing for the dead. The act of paying respects to those men and women who died while in battle is by necessity an emotion laden ritual that ignores a lot of reality that is as unpleasant as it is real. As with any notable holiday, there must be a compelling narrative. And from what I can gather, the narrative is as much fiction, historical amnesia, and selective memory as an accurate account of the heroics of the deceased soldiers who took the fall for their country. The American narrative can be summed up thusly: We are a freedom loving people and the cost of preserving freedom can be high. Many men have given up their lives so we can enjoy the liberties we have. It is to these gallant warriors that we pay tribute without whose ultimate sacrifice we would not be living the life we enjoy today. Thus, we see a causal connection between combat and liberty: the latter would not exist without the former. In other words, we can freely move about and criticize our government today because an 18 year old kid was murdered in 1942 when a Japanese madman sliced his head off during the Bataan Death March. As narrative goes, it can be very powerful. We ascribe the highest motives to our own soldiers and assign the worst motives to our enemies. To question the premise is to impugn the moral fabric of America and call into question one’s own patriotism in the eyes of one’s fellow citizens. This state of affairs is truly unfortunate for it blinds us to the reality of war and cloaks an historical inevitability, war, around a noble purpose and simplistic patriotic symbolism that serves no function other than creating a false sense of moral superiority where it does not belong. I do not mean to impugn the suffering or sacrifice of any soldier but what I believe is a grotesque farce is the attempted link between the death of any soldier and the morality of the government that sent him to do battle. More often than not, battlefield deaths are due more to the stupidity and incompetence of the government than they are to the actions of one’s enemy who is supposedly fighting to destroy American liberty. I spent last night skimming through three books by Paul Fussell, the noted English professor and WWII infantryman: The Great War and Modern Memory, The Boys’ Crusade, and Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. I had read all three two times over during the past ten years but always read over selected passages at least twice a year. Fussell highlights the tragic absurdity of war and every government’s attempt to assure that the rhetoric at home does not interfere with the reality of the battlefield as the two are almost always diametrically opposed. In fact, governments are as much complicit in the deaths of their own soldiers as are the enemies they are fighting. Fussell has no ideological ax to grind. His books do not fit into any ideological spectrum. One story stands out: an American general is killed during WWII along with hundred of his soldiers. It is reported that he died under enemy fire in a gallant effort to fight the mighty German army. The truth? He was killed by his own troops who mistakenly dropped bombs on him and his men when they failed to take into account the heavy winds they were dropping bombs into. During the first year of the Pacific war, American casualties were as likely to come from friendly fire as Japanese soldiers. I was dumbfounded at the criminal negligence of the American government as they sent countless young men to die senseless deaths in campaigns that they had to have known would fail. War brings home the old adage that history can be defined as one damn lie after another. Three thousand Americans died in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Did they sacrifice their lives for democracy or did they die because the their government was too stupid to not take action to fortify the base against a foreseeable attack? And what about the GI’s sent to fight the Kaiser in WWI. How was American democracy affected there? It may have been very charming to send our young doughboys to Europe under the banner of making the world safe for democracy while singing this George M. Cohan melody:
I am sure this song provided warm comfort as many a twenty year old infantrymen sat freezing to death in a foxhole in France while watching his fellow men bleed to death in an orgy of blood and flesh. But no worry. You may be dying a horrible death for reasons that you now realize are a pack of lies but at least the folks back home will feel good remembering you as one who died so they could live the good life. And if you are not going to die, fear not. Your children will be back in twenty years when the French government for whom you are fighting screws everything up (again).
So this Memorial Day, folks, do the right thing: say a prayer for the all of our soldiers who died in battle. Theirs was a death that was most likely unnecessary. They are honorable men and women for having given service to their country. But whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of confusing the heroism of the individual soldier with the pretension that there was a noble purpose for which he was fighting. One has nothing to do with the other.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
I was reading the Wall Street Journal's Law Blog yesterday. There was a piece on US News & World Report's ranking of law schools. I look upon these rankings the way I look upon Page Six of the New York Post: very titillating but it does not affect me one iota. But what really got me thinking was the outrageous cost of a legal education nowadays. Regardless of what school you attend, tuition is between 30 and 40 thousand a year. Add room and board and you end up shelling out almost 60k a year. I know what I make a year and what most every day lawyers you see in the courthouse make and when you factor in the number of hours you spend pulling your hair out and paying bills, it just is not worth it. And then I started recalling my last two years in law school. Other than the naive undergrads I was able to date and the excessive drinking I did while dating them, the time spent there was by and large wasted. I learned everything I needed to know in the first year. Let's face it. Legal education is a racket that benefits one group of pompous frauds: professors. I despised all of them. In the late 70's and early 80's, you could spot them a mile away. Longish hair that was starting to gray or recede, earth shoes, and a sort of walk and attitude that was meant to advertise their pedigree: Ivy League or some equivalent degree combined with a position on law review and post graduate work with a federal or state supreme court judge and/or one year at a top notch law firm. They were all radical chic type leftists who I suspected adopted the mantra more to get laid than anything else. I also suspected that that one or two year stint in private practice was not a stepping stone to a teaching career but a disastrous attempt to cash in on their newly minted status only to be shown the exit for thinking their shit did not stink. In any event, it is these supercilious popinjays who suck on the tit of legal education. But it need not be that way. The entire law school curriculum should consist of the following courses:
2. Criminal law/procedure
4. Civil Procedure/federal jurisdiction
5. Legal writing
6. Appellate advocacy
7. Real estate transactions
8. Corporations/Business entities.
This program could be completed in one calendar year. Once you graduate, you would have to take a state bar exam that would require a detailed knowledge of state law and procedure. Thus in Florida, you would have to know how to do a real estate closing, file a lawsuit, draft a contract, and write a brief. These courses could be taken on line so long as you demonstrated a proficiency through a written examination afterwards. Once you pass the bar, you are on your own. You can set up your own shop, work for whoever wants to hire you, or do nothing. Law schools would be one year and out institutions that trained lawyers to be, well, lawyers. The losers? The legal education establishment. There would be no such thing as Law Review. But so what and who cares? Law review articles are unreadable compilations of legal mumbo jumbo that are written to perpetuate the careers of intellectual dullards who could not tell the difference between a courtroom and the men's room. The beneficiaries would be the lawyers who could get licensed at a fraction of the cost and the public for whom prices would decline substantially. I doubt very much that the quality of lawyering would decline at all. I doubt there is one lawyer in the country who can credit his success to the fact that he learned anything worthwhile in years 2 and 3. People would be free, as they are now, to select their own lawyer. I just think we need to recognize that three years of law school is a needless expense. The cost and requirements have no relation to being a good lawyer.
Friday, May 14, 2010
I did a post a few months ago on the constitutionality of the new health care law. The gist of the argument was that if the government can force you to buy insurance, it can force you to buy just about anything. If you expand the meaning of the commerce clause from allowing government to regulate economic activity that people choose to engage in to forcing people to participate in commercial activity that the government chooses to regulate, we are on a very slippery slope to totalitarianism or at least to emulating some 15th century religious fiefdom. Once the government assumes an obligation to pay for everyone's health care costs, it assumes a responsibility to make sure that everyone stays healthy so it can afford what it undertakes. This fact is no different from someone buying a house or car and making sure the carpet is clean or the tires are safe. So what is the most effective way for the government to control health spending? Despite having spent hundreds of millions of dollars searching for some social science style answer to this question, the solution is remarkably simple: pass a law that mandates that every American from 3 to 75 exercise every morning and evening, eat three balanced meals a day, outlaw processed sugar, alcohol, and cigarettes, and if you refuse to buckle under to this ascetic lifestyle, you go to a re-education camp and live like a Gregorian monk until you get the message. Sound far fetched? Of course. But the point is that if you accept the notion that there is no restriction on the government's power to force you to purchase a product you don't want, it can force you to do anything, including controlling your budget. In addition to laying out $500 a month to Aetna or Humana, you will make a weekly trek to some government sponsored health food vomitorium and buy your weekly allotment of bran, fruit, nuts, fresh vegetables, and tree bark. You will also purchase a government mandated membership in a neighborhood exercise cooperative where a government worker will knock on your door every morning at 7 and lead the neighborhood in an exercise routine reminiscent of your freshman gym class in high school. To those of you like me who spend a disproportionate share of your money on alcohol, tobacco, and other fleshly pleasures, your life will be forever changed. But fret not, you will be in the hands of a wise and all knowing government that knows far better than you what your best interests are. So put down that scotch and cigar, pick up a glass of skim milk and water chestnuts, and start doing those jumping jacks!