Sunday, July 18, 2010

"Good War" Nostalgia

Last night, Linda and I went to a play entitled The Daly News.  It's a musical revue loosely based upon the experiences of a single Wisconsin family (the Dalys) during World War II.  A paterfamilias in Milwaukee records  (and sings about) his wartime communications with four sons, all of whom are serving in some branch of the military in some theater of the war.  The play was given a standing ovation by an audience comprising about 200 sexagenarians and 5 youngsters of fewer than sixty years.  In other words, nearly everybody in the auditorium remembered a father (or perhaps an uncle) who had fought in, and told about, World War II.  And so, as these aging children of The Greatest Generation rose to their feet, it was more to honor their fathers than to applaud the quality of the production.

Because, truthfully, though the tunes were melodious and the actors talented, the play wasn't really particularly "good"--in a literary or artistic sense.  But it pleased the folks (often including me) for a couple of reasons, I guess:  1) because it reminded us of the fathers we are now mellow enough to love and regard as heroes; and 2) because it evoked in us a yearning for a communal experience--a great "cause" that would unite all Americans once again as a noble, purposeful, loving family.  In short, though we didn't nudge our neighbors and articulate our thought, as we sat there listening to those ditties about our dads eating Spam and getting shot at, we were secretly wishing (at least a bit) that WE, too, could have a nice little Good War.

We could all feel so "inspired" by a war in which OUR guys were clearly the GOOD guys.  And if we had to give up our nylons or our butter or even our lead pencils, what the heck?  We would be ennobled by the sacrifice.  It would be even warmer and fuzzier than donating canned goods to soup kitchens at Christmas.  Once again, we could fly the flag proudly, confident that all other "civilized" people would love and admire us.

Well, yes:  of course, there might be a price to pay.  Unlike the Dalys in the play, some Americans might have to die for the "cause" (whatever that might be--democracy, capitalism, Judeo-Christian values).

But we would all be so happy working together:  Rosie could rivet again; Uncle Sam could count on us again.  And we could all sing beautiful, sappy, melancholy songs about Apple Blossoms or Bluebirds.

To be fair, I should point out that The Daly News was also "about" something more than the national and familial solidarity generated by war.  It was also a slight but heart-tugging reminder that human beings, especially males, rarely allow themselves to feel deeply about (i.e., "love") other human beings except in times of crisis.  Males, especially fathers and sons, avoid such sissiness--unless a good war provides an excuse for bonding.

So in the end, last night's play--despite (or perhaps because of) all its facile sentimentality--left me feeling rather empty and gloomy.  Because even all the tuneful treacle couldn't disguise the underlying truth about men (and women, too, but mostly men):  we just HAVE to have wars.  Whether they are "good" or "bad," they seem to be a necessity for the self-actualization of the human male.  Couldn't we say that Vietnam and Iraq--though morally unjustifiable--were in some sense needed--at least by a great many of those who participated?

The nice thing about a "good" war, of course, is that--like World War II--it makes everyone feel noble, not only while it's going on but--best of all--long after it's over--when it still gets a standing ovation!

On the way home, we stopped at the Dairy Queen and had a chocolate malt.  Still more sugar, alas.  But afterwards I felt a lot less empty.

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