Sunday, May 30, 2010

Memorial Day Part II

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.

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