My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

September 14, 2022: War is Hella Funny: Dr. Strangelove

[50 years ago this coming weekend, the pilot episode of M*A*S*H aired. So in honor of that ground-breaking sitcom, this week I’ll AmericanStudy wartime comedies in various media, leading up to a special post on M*A*S*H!]

On how a film can sometimes offer more historical clarity than, y’know, history.

Obviously this is a very competitive category, but I think President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address has to be on the short list of the most under-remembered 20th century speeches. I wrote at some length in that hyperlinked post about that speech and its crucial coinage of the phrase and concept “military-industrial complex,” so will ask you to check out that post and then come on back here for today’s thoughts if you would.

Welcome back! While of course Eisenhower’s phrase has certainly endured in our collective conversations, I don’t know that the specifics of his concerns and critiques have stayed with us in the same ways—and I certainly would argue that far too few Americans know of (much less are concerned about) the absolutely stunning growth of that military-industrial complex in the six decades since Eisenhower’s speech. There are various reasons for that, including the often much too sanctified way that we approach the military in our conversations about government, spending, priorities, and policies. But without question one reason is that the topic can seem dry and boring (as illustrated by the very phrase itself—nothing with either a hyphen or the word “complex” is likely to grab our attention), a discussion of budgets and allocations and contractors and lobbyists and so on. And as much as I value Eisenhower’s speech, I think it’s fair to say that a presidential address is not generally the kind of compelling cultural text that’s going to cut through such dryness and boringness.

Or, at the very least, speeches and other more overtly “historical” texts can and should be complemented by more pop cultural ones (that is the AmericanStudier’s Credo, after all). And when it comes to the Cold War-era growth of the military-industrial complex, I don’t know any pop culture texts that have more to offer than Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The film’s most famous quote, and one of the single most famous quotes in 20th century American film overall, is “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!,” a funny and telling moment that nicely sums up not just the wartime absurdities I discussed in Monday’s Catch-22 post, but also the very contradictions inherent in the phrase military-industrial complex. But I would argue that an even more telling detail is the fact that Kubrick cast the actor and comic genius Peter Sellers to play both the U.S. President and the title character (an ex-Nazi turned military expert/advisor to the government, itself a key Cold War historical element). The question of how deeply intertwined the military-industrial complex has become with our government is a thorny yet vital one—and one a black comic film can cut through pitch-perfectly with one inspired casting choice.

Next wartime comedy tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other wartime comedies you’d highlight?