When nations go to
war you invariably hear this business about God being on one side or
the other. The more easily proven and therefore useful question should
be: "Is humor on your side?" If you're the invader and the jokes are at
your expense rather than at the expense of those you're trying to
defeat, you've already lost one of the most important battles of the
war, and will likely lose the rest.
week commemorates the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war. It's not a
joke-ridden occasion, although I'm not of the opinion that just because
something has been a catastrophic tragedy that has killed tens of
thousands of people, destroyed a nation and now risks precipitating a
regional war, it shouldn't be made fun of.
that were the case we'd never have had "Catch-22" and "M*A*S*H" and
"Slaughterhouse-Five," the great satirical novels of military absurdity
in World War II and the Korean War, or even "La Vita e bella" -- "Life
Is Beautiful" -- the great movie by the Italian Roberto Benigni, which
won four Oscars 10 years ago and managed to turn the horror of the
Holocaust on its head not by denying it, but by denying it the ability
to conquer a child's innocence and sense of joy.
can't laugh away an executioner. But humor can stand up to brutality by
demolishing its rationale, by showing it up for the perversion of
humanity that it is. Laughing in the face of the executioner is a more
powerful last rite than anything a priest could dish out. In that sense
humor is powerfully redeeming, but I think only if humor is on the side
of the good.
It wasn't on
America's side in March 2003. Looking back at the jokes that
accompanied the early days of the invasion and the occupation, we can
hear in retrospect the sickness at the heart of the justifications for
the war: the arrogance, the presumption, the ignorance that led the
Bush fraternity boys to launch a war of choice any college freshman
who's taken a survey course in Middle East history could have told them
they could not possibly win. (The 296 members of the House of
Representatives and 77 senators who voted for the war must've missed
that course.) Here's one: "Question: Who is an Iraqi hero? Answer: He's
the one that waited thirty seconds before he surrendered." It's
doubtful that too many people put Iraqis and surrender in the same
sentence anymore. "Question: What should Iraq get for its air defense
system? Answer: A refund." None of the soldiers and their comrades
involved in the five recent helicopter crashes in Iraq are telling that
sort of joke anymore.
Dennis Miller -- the intellectual's Ann Coulter -- on the Tonight Show
one month before the invasion: "I would call the French scumbags, but
that, of course, would be a disservice to bags filled with scum. I say
we invade Iraq, then invade Chirac." The triumphalists were firing off
these lines like it was their due to joke about Iraqis surrendering,
because it was America's due to invade Iraq and decide its fate. The
jokes weren't just a projection of presumed victories. They defined the
Bush doctrine by other means. We joke, therefore we conquer: It's the
essence of imperial humor. You can see now how far off the mark, how
stupid, the jokes were.
jokes that have the most bite were delivered at the time by the kind of
dissenters who weren't nearly so sure all the French-bashing and
hilarious warmongering on Iraqis was particularly wise. Here's Tina Fey
on Saturday Night Live, one week before the invasion: "In protest to
France's opposition to a U.S. war in Iraq, the U.S. Congress' cafeteria
has changed French fries and French toast to freedom fries and freedom
toast. Afterwards, the congressmen were so pleased with themselves,
they all started Freedom kissing each other. In a related story, in
France, American cheese is now referred to as idiot cheese." It
probably still is. Fey wasn't finished: "And don't think that by eating
Freedom fries that you're being patriotic and helping the war effort.
Use less gasoline, read a newspaper. You know what? How about we cool
it with the Freedom fries anyway, you fat asses. We are the fattest
country in the world. Have you ever walked around an American mall?
It's nothing but Chick-fil-As and Lane Bryant track suits busting at
Leave it to David
Letterman to sum up the entire Iraq war, past, present and future, in
one line. Here's how he joked right about the time of George W. Bush's
"Mission Accomplished" speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln, which was a
joke in itself: "We have defeated Saddam Hussein and Iraq. The good
news is, Iraq is ours. And the bad news is, Iraq is ours." Still
timeless after all these years.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his personal Web site at www.pierretristam.com .
© 2007 News-Journal Corporation