By 1945 the world had been hammered flat and smeared with offal. Our guys, our kids, had sprinted up beaches and into a spirit-breaking enfilade of artillery and machine-gun fire, ducked behind the toppled smoldering ruins of smashed European capitals, crept in abject, piss-yourself terror through cratered S. Pacific jungles, and fallen screaming from skies pockmarked with flak. Our Flying Fortresses were riveted together by our wives and girlfriends. It was a time. Kids from farms and towns and cities were hastily trained and awoke to find themselves running through flame. Major players of the period included Judy Garland, Erwin Rommel, Greer Garson, Tojo, Audie Murphy, Fred Astaire. All that instructive madness has long-since been shellacked in numbing amber. That WWII really happened, and just day before yesterday, is completely batshit, but not so’s you’d notice. Our public schools, per the contract, have sufficiently pasteurized the subject to transfigure it into lecture pablum delivered half-heartedly at a chalkboard, the dazed descendants of our once and future crusaders struggling to stay awake for the telling, doodling in their notebooks as the Normandy Invasion is sleepily explicated in the minutes before recess and the excited iPhone-comparing ritual.
WWII was also a refiner’s fire that resulted in the inadvertent shedding of Our National Shyness and lifted us to the largely unpopular pinnacle of power on Earth, to the utter chagrin of most, including our present allies. William Manchester, in his haunting and poetic memoir Goodbye Darkness, writes painfully and movingly of the way his terrified final wartime ascent up the blasted slope of Okinawa’s Sugar Loaf Hill is entangled inextricably with his own elegiac farewell to a U.S. he’d known as a kid, and which somehow the War put to bed for good.
Needless to say, all that fighting and confusion bred a jingoism here at home that spread like a toxic rash. Sinatra, 4F’d out of war service by dint of his forceps-torn eardrum and thus often greeted in his performances of the time by flying vegetables and invective, was advised to perform in an ameliorating Public Service Announcement wherein he schools a gang of Jew-hating bowery boys on the finer points of the American Mission Statement. It’s a scripted, otherwise exalting soliloquy on inclusivity and the Brotherhood of Man in which Frank yet manages to villify ‘Japs’ , setting them aside for the moment from the aforementioned Brotherhood and lauding them instead as targets of our airborne ire. It’s as sloppy a hymn to Freedom as one expects from a lumbering, puppy-crushing Lenny like the U.S. and our beloved blue-eyed bipolar jackass and National Symbol. Frank. A name and, from sea to shining sea, our collective adjective. I am powerfully endeared to the idea of the United States as a well-meaning, often murderous moron. Some of my friends blanch at this. Understandably.
I’ve always said that the penultimate wordless portrait of the USA is Gene Kelly’s swinging, choreography-free spin with the umbrella in Singin’ in the Rain. This flawed Sinatra PSA is of a like species. The picture above links to the vid. It’s a handful.