Thank You, Private Snafu

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Rhino, a terrific outfit in Santa Monica, dedicates itself to picking scraps off America’s endlessly bounteous cultural table. Recently it issued Private S.N.A.F.U. , a videotape collection of fourteen cartoons made by Warner Brothers between 1942 and 1945. Snafu , it used to be explained to credulous postwar children like me, was a military acronym for “situation normal, all fouled [sic] up,” and Warner’s private is indeed fouled up. He whines about any job he’s given to do; he gets drunk in a bar and tells a Beautiful Blonde with a stenograph on her lap where his division is headed; bored with manning a Pacific outpost, he overlooks the significance of an empty ration can of “rice and fish eyes” and nearly lets a Japanese task force slip by. Licentious, lazy, envious of every duty but his own, a shirker, he is the Warner animation department’s idea of the American fighting man in his larval form.

And he is apparently the U.S. Army’s too, for it was the Army that paid Warner to make these cartoons. Short, punchy, innocent of credits, and narrated in catchy verse—very catchy, since no less a rhymesmith than Dr. Seuss wrote them—they were shown to men who were soon to go up against the forces of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Watching them with a mixture of surprise (they’re far racier than any cartoons Warner made for commercial distribution) and amusement (they’re still funny), I was ambushed by another emotion. I found myself becoming increasingly moved.

Surely the soldiers who tried to keep Private Snafu’s audience out of the Hürtgen Forest or off the slopes of Iwo Jima had not been exposed to training films that portrayed them as feckless twerps. And yet the Private Snafus took Hürtgen from them, raised the flag on Mount Suribachi, pushed those thoroughgoing professionals all the way to the rubble of Berlin and the ashes of Tokyo.

Americans have a reputation for braggadocio that goes back to frontier days: Davy Crockett, Mike Fink, all the ebullient loudmouths of our westering folklore. And yet, when we actually do triumph, we tend not to be triumphalists. Abraham Lincoln, getting news of Appomattox, asks the band to play “Dixie”: It’s a good tune, and he hasn’t been able to hear it for a long time. Captain Philip of the Texas , watching the Spanish fleet hammered into scrap in Santiago Harbor, says, “Don’t cheer, boys, the poor devils are dying.” Dwight D. Eisenhower sends the telegram on the opposite page.

The tradition is with us fifty years after what might plausibly be seen as the signal triumph of this century: the destruction of voraciously expansionist military dictatorships that five years earlier had seemed impregnable. This lack of martial infatuation is evident in the arguments that now surround America’s dropping of the atomic bomb, and if there is any pleasure to be taken in this rather grotesque discourse, it might lie in imagining the likelihood of its going on today in either of the two Axis nations that were trying to build nuclear weapons had they succeeded and won the war.

And so it is with this issue of the magazine. In assembling it, the editors made no conscious choice to seek a theme of reflection and reconciliation, yet that has emerged as the tone. Frank Clark reaches out to the German cities he bombed; James Field cultivates new friendships amid the level wastes of Tokyo; DeRonda Elliott in the green-and-white silence of the Normandy cemeteries speaks the word Daddy for the first time in her memory, the great energies of the war years echo dimly in a scattering of unheeded relics . . .

It is not the worst thing about Americans that given the choice, they will tend to be more like Private Snafu than like those gorgeous young conquerors on the Strength Through Joy posters. In the early 1940s they didn’t have the choice. The world we live in today is, for better or worse—and, I think, immeasurably for the better—the legacy of what Private Snafu can do when the chips are down.

Richard F. Snow