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Four Years and A Weak Punch Line Later, The Joke's On Us
Published on Tuesday, March 20, 2007 by The Daytona Beach News-Journal (Florida)
Four Years and A Weak Punch Line Later, The Joke's On Us
by Pierre Tristam

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.

This 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.

If 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.

You 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.

Here's 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.

The 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 the seams."

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 or through his personal Web site at .

© 2007 News-Journal Corporation


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