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Commentary: War is no laughing matter

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 7, 2010 - Readers of a certain age will no doubt remember "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In." The program was the cutting edge of televised comedy in the late '60s and early '70s, operating on the premise that if you threw five to six jokes a minute at the audience, somebody was bound to laugh at something. And indeed they did.

Legend has it that Richard Nixon's cameo appearance on the show during the '68 presidential campaign provided his narrow margin of victory in the subsequent election. His opponent, Hubert Humphrey, declined an offer of equal time because he felt it was beneath the dignity of the office he sought. He later rued that decision.

The close of each episode found the glib, unflappable Dan Rowan standing on stage beside his dim-witted partner, Dick Martin. Rowan would toss him a straight line that would invariably evoke an off-the-wall reply, after which Rowan would shake his head in bemused resignation and instruct his co-host to "Say goodnight, Dick." The smiling Martin would dutifully wave to the audience and say, "Goodnight, Dick!"

Thus did the phrase, "Say goodnight, Dick," become the preferred way to express the notion that it was time to leave for an entire generation of Americans. And, of course, that generation came of age during the Vietnam War.

"Laugh-In" had an undeniably counter-cultural appeal, featuring psychedelic graphics and guest appearances by the Hollywood-hip and the radical-chic. But given the social upheaval taking place at the time, its actual content was remarkably tame. Perhaps mindful of the censorship issues encountered by the Smothers Brothers, an occasional anti-war joke or a veiled reference to marijuana was as far as its writers dared to go.

As the country endured race riots, peace protests that occasionally turned into riots, and random assassinations, its most radical media offering "bet its bippy" that it could "sock it to" the man with gags about "walnettos." Today, the situation is reversed -- the entertainers have grown more radical while their audiences have trended more conservative, or at least more complacent.

After Watergate and the less-than-successful conclusion of the Vietnam War, it became fashionable for the media to question authority. Sacred cows suddenly became fair game for serious reporters and entertainers alike. Previously sacrosanct institutions from the Army to the Office of the Presidency came under attack as Cold War conformity yielded to political irreverence.

Further, the advent of cable TV made the sexual double entendre of the "Laugh-In" era seem quaint by comparison. Tongue-in-cheek puns were replaced by graphic language and visuals. Sex and obscenity were now available in the comfort of your living room.

But while tolerance for formerly unthinkable material waxed, the appetite for political radicalism waned. If anything, the modern audience is generally indifferent to matters that don't have a direct impact on its members' lives. One such neglected issue is that of war, which is now largely viewed more as a spectator sport than as a vital national commitment.

We invaded Afghanistan nine years ago this month. Given the length of time we've had troops deployed in that forlorn region, it's not surprising that mission creep has set in. Not only has our rationale for being there morphed over time, but we've managed to switch enemies as well.

The original purpose of the incursion was clear-cut: destroy the al-Qaeda cell operating in-country that was thought to have planned the 9/11 attacks, and kill or capture its leader, Osama bin Laden. You will recall that the men who attacked us on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. These are Arab nations, and al-Qaeda is an Arab terrorist movement.

The Taliban regime in Afghanistan was comprised of Pashtun tribesmen intent on imposing a strict version of Islamic law called Sharia on its citizenry. These people are not Arabs and had no direct involvement in 9/11. Our only concern with the Taliban was that its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had granted bin Laden and company safe haven within his borders.

Flash forward to today and we find al-Qaeda long gone from the area and ourselves at war with a once-deposed, now-rejuvenated Taliban movement over who should rule in Kabul. Admittedly, the dictates of Sharia can be harsh. Women convicted of adultery, for instance, are stoned to death. While such sanctions seem extreme to Western sensibilities, it's unclear why American boys should die so that Afghan women can cheat on their husbands.

Barack Obama, who came onto the national scene as a peace candidate, has tripled the American military presence in the theater and has expanded combat operations into neighboring Pakistan — a nominal ally — where Taliban elements are presently attacking NATO supply convoys.

Henry Kissinger predicted that ending the draft would sever the peace movement from its grass roots. He believed that some protesters were motivated by altruism but most simply didn't want themselves or their loved ones conscripted into warfare. The present situation indicates that Mr. Kissinger's cynical observation was also correct.

When was the last time you heard of a peace march or a war protest? Where are all the "concerned students"? What ever happened to sit-ins?

Although the news media dutifully report developments in the war zone, the economy and Lady Gaga's latest misadventure are the big news. And with the exception of Bill Maher, I can't think of a single entertainer who has made mention of the conflict other than a fleeting acknowledgment of the heroism and sacrifice of the troops.

Last month, the president declared an end to combat operations in Iraq. Also last month, the Associated Press reported a series of car bombings in Baghdad and Fallujah at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The AP further advises that although the 50,000 or so U.S. troops remaining in the country are there to train and assist Iraqi forces, ... they have continued to engage militants since the official end of combat."

The man credited with the "victory" in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, has been given command of the campaign in Afghanistan by the president, who fired his two immediate predecessors. Petraeus literally wrote the book on counter-insurgency -- a tactic that, incidentally, has never been successfully employed anywhere. He will now try to replicate the "miracle" he wrought in Iraq despite, by his own estimate, having less than one-third of the troops necessary to do so.

As Dan Rowan might have put it, "Say goodnight, Dave."

M.W.Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. 

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M.W. Guzy