War and culture

Steven Stark

February 14, 1991|By Steven Stark

YOU DON'T have to be a particularly astute observer of the culture to recognize that the American people are uneasy and confused about the gulf war. That perplexity is understandable, given both the nature of war and the strict censorship the government has imposed on military news.

The nation's anxiety is also being exacerbated by a phenomenon that has received only scant attention: Popular culture -- the national processor of experience -- is in a time lag, with the result that movies, television shows, and music are doing next to nothing to help us interpret the profound experience of war.

The average American watches about seven hours of television a day. Outside of CNN and the news, however, there is little on the tube today that even remotely refers to what the country is going through.

This circumstance is highly unusual. To be sure, the products of popular culture -- designed to capture the popular mood -- tend to lag a bit behind that mood. It takes anywhere from a month (in the case of a record) to years (in the case of a movie or TV series) to produce most of the products of popular culture. But because public sentiment tends to change slowly, the time lag seldom matters.

Now, because popular sentiment changed so radically after Jan. 15, the time lag means a lot. As in the weeks following the Kennedy assassination or Pearl Harbor, the products of popular culture, prepared long before this crisis, seem like irrelevant relics of a bygone age.

What follows is a strange dissonance between what people are feeling and what they are hearing and seeing every time they go to the movies, turn on the television set, or flip on the radio. The result is a nation out of sync.

How does popular culture help a nation process a war? It does so in two somewhat contradictory ways. First, it helps people to experience the conflict, albeit indirectly, and therefore to come to terms with what a war means. Vietnam-era songs like "The Ballad of the Green Berets" or "What's Goin' On," the World War I hit "Over There" and Civil War songs like "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground" may not be particularly profound. But they did help the nation experience and assimilate conflicts.

Similarly, Hollywood products such as "Casablanca" during World War II or "MASH" during Vietnam may not have been directly about our involvement in those conflicts, but they reflected a culture struggling to come to terms with war.

Second, in war, popular culture becomes more escapist than usual as it provides audiences with a needed respite from the fighting. World War II produced a string of mindless and wildly popular musicals, just as popular television offerings of the 1960s leaned heavily in the direction of sitcoms with little social relevance, such as "My Favorite Martian" and "I Dream of Jeannie."

When TV directly addressed war in the 1960s, it usually did so by showing what a gas it was on such shows as "F Troop," "Gomer Pyle," "McHale's Navy" and "Wackiest Ship in the Army."

Only a month into this conflict, tastes are already changing. Two movies with a possible connection to the gulf war -- Sally Field's "Not Without My Daughter," set in Iran, and the jingoistic "Flight of the Intruder" -- have done miserably at the box office, most likely because they strike too close to home.

Similarly, the TV ratings bomb of the month is the ABC miniseries about General Custer, "Son of the Morning Star." Apparently, viewers aren't in the mood for a drama about an American commander who underestimates a military foe and gets slaughtered on the battlefield.

To be sure, such television shows as "Major Dad" and songs such as Sean Lennon's remake of his father's hit "Give Peace a Chance" are beginning to reference the war. But golden oldies and "Major Dad" are unlikely to be the places that will provide the culture with either meaningful escape or explication. It will take time for popular culture to respond to the new mood.

In the meantime, what happens to Gary on "thirtysomething" or Kuzak on "LA Law" no longer absorbs the nation as it once did. Something is happening and we don't know what it is. That is, until popular culture helps us to figure it out or forget it ever happened.

Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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