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Jewish World Review June 3, 2004 / 14 Sivan, 5764

James Lileks

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Tales at the intersection of war and popular culture | To understand the way popular culture approaches this war, you must study three absolutely essential phenomena: Donald Duck, Madonna and "Star Trek." First, the excitable waterfowl.

Disney just released "On the Front Lines," (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) a DVD set of World War II era propaganda cartoons, training films and educational materials. Donald Duck appeared to be best suited to the lighter offering of the wartime years; no one wanted to see Mickey get shot at, Goofy was too dim to trust with an important job, and Daisy was apparently busy at the munitions plant.

Suddenly Donald was quintessentially American — headstrong, brave, quick to fight. In "Donald Duck Drafted," he receives his greetings with unbounded cheer, convinced that the Army is his ticket to glory. Recruitment placards outside the induction center promise he'll be sought by shapely women, and that appeals as well — he may be a duck, but he's only human.

The reality? A demeaning physical exam, uniforms that don't fit, a tough drill instructor, and petty, annoying basic training, culminating in the great WWII cliche: Kitchen Patrol. A million potatoes in need of peeling. Donald carves out a word with potato skin shavings: PHOOEY.

It takes a confident culture to take the average gripes of the enlisted man and put them front and center. But that confidence came from unity. Watching the cartoons, you sense how the war affected nearly every facet of public life, from the color of cigarette packs to ads in the magazines to the draft status of cantankerous ducks. Did it construct consensus or reflect a united people? A little of the former, you suspect, and a good deal more of the latter.

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Now art is pressed into service of a higher kind: reminding us that war is horrid. Never mind what you're fighting for; fighting is bad, period. It's better to live on your knees, and who better to remind us than Madonna?

About the time the Disney DVD hit the stores, Madonna launched a new tour. Exciting highlights: She's wearing a blue burqa — and when she whips it off she's wearing an Army uniform! Oh, the irony. Meanwhile, the portentously titled "American Life" grinds on; the audience sees a video in which stuff explodes, children cry, and look-alikes of George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein cuddle together. Because, see, they're really the same. They're both, you know, in charge of guns and stuff. Brave stuff! Brilliant and unexpected. Next perhaps she'll tackle religious hypocrisy! No one's done that since Voltaire retired.

You wonder why people have the occasional twinge of nostalgia for the past. After Pearl Harbor, most people understood that war wasn't the enemy. The enemy was the enemy.

So are there any pop-culture products historians will someday plumb in the same way we study wartime cartoons? Sure. There's "Star Trek: Enterprise."

As much as it might pain the show's writers to realize this, they appear to be working through the themes of modern times. "Enterprise" takes place in the near future, many decades before the cheesy William Shatner-centric show everyone remembers. In this iteration, Earth has survived great wars and entered its cosmic cowboy phase: We have zippy ships that can travel faster than light, which has earned us the attention of the French — er, the Vulcans, a much older species that seeks to moderate our headstrong ways. For two years it was a fun little space opera.

Then came Sept. 11.

The 2002 season began with a sneak attack on Earth that killed millions. The attackers resided in a mysterious realm called the Middle East — er, the Expanse — a place where the twisted fabric of space itself drove even the Vulcans mad. Enterprise had to enter the Expanse and confront the threat — in particular, fight the Wahhabists — sorry, the transdimensional creatures — who were poisoning and distorting the realm they shared with others.

Coincidence? Perhaps.

Madonna canceled her tour of Israel, incidentally. Terrorism fears. "Enterprise" has been renewed for an additional season. According to the cliffhanger, they have a new enemy as well. Believe it or not, next season they're fighting Nazis. The odds look good. Even without Donald.

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JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2003, James Lileks