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Genesis of a Fatal War, pt. 2
The Joke Is On Us

Actually, what happens in iraq returns in pieces.

The fourth anniversary of the Iraq war isn’t 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 was 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 è 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 (with the kind of slapstick humor you might have expected of John Belushi or Bill Murray) the ability to conquer a child’s innocence and sense of joy (see an excerpt here). You can’t laugh away an executioner. But humor stands 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: Humor is the weapon of the powerless or the virtuous. In the hands of the powerful it’s not humor but cruelty.

When nations go to war you invariably hear this business about “God is on our side.” The more easily proven and therefore useful question should be: “Is humor on your side?” In the Iraq invasion, it wasn't on America's 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.

Looking back a little at the jokes that accompanied the early days of the invasion and the occupation, we can see the sickness behind the jokes, the kind of 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. I went on The Internets, as our Lord and Savior president likes to put it, and looked up a few military jokes from the period. Here’s one: Question: Who is an Iraqi Hero? Answer: He’s the one that waited thirty seconds before he surrendered. Well, no one puts Iraqis and surrender in the same sentence anymore. Question: What should Iraq get for its air defense system? Answer: A refund. I can tell you now that none of the soldiers involved in the five recent helicopter crashes in Iraq are telling that sort of joke anymore.

Here’s one from Dennis Miller 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.” These jokes of course were all told with the assumption that fighting the war and victory were never in question. They’re the essence of imperial humor. We joke, therefore we conquer. The triumphalists were telling them like it was their due. The jokes weren’t just a projection of wishful thinking or presumed victories. They defined the Bush doctrine by other means.

You can see now how far off the mark the jokes were, how stupid they were really. You can just as clearly see that the jokes that have the most bite now are the jokes made at the time by those who weren’t nearly so sure all the French-bashing and hilarious warmongering on Iraqi surrender monkeys 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. She 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 though 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 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.”

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