Treading Lightly to War WAR IN THE GULF


WASHINGTON --- Soldiers have been making jokes about their enemies ever since war began. Making light of what could mean death in the morning helps keep spirits up; dehumanizing the people across no-man's-land makes it easier to kill them.

Good home-front morale seems to demand such jokes, too. In the past, rough humor helped inspire citizens to turn out more tanks, and put up with rationing and other inconveniences such as bombs through the roof.

For America, this war is different. There are no inconveniences on the home front. There is no draft, no rationing, no increase of taxes, no pain -- except for people with relatives in the Persian Gulf.

There are jokes, but they and the reaction to them are confused, compared to the simple days when Germans were Boches or krauts or Nazis, and Japanese were Japs or gooks or slant-eyes. All Americans, including those who make up and pass on jokes, are not up to the subtleties of current geopolitics. In our complex and sensitive society, it is not safe to insult anybody lest somebody else take offense.

Somebody, I forget who, told me over the phone about the new Saudi national anthem: "Onward, Christian Soldiers." A week later, I heard it again, and soon it seemed to float by every hour -- with a difference: It was not the Saudi, but the Israeli, national anthem.

Which was the authorized version? The Saudi seemed to make more sense. After all, American troops are there defending their country and oil, and of course most Saudis are Muslims and most Americans are Christians.

True, the Israelis aren't fighting, but it's not because they are shy about such things. We have gone to great lengths to hold them back while we carry on. But some people cannot imagine a joke with religious connotations that doesn't sneer at Jews. I suspect this one originated as a dig at the Saudis, and was passed on by people who considered it more socially correct to take a dig at Israel.

Then there was the dinner-table conversation in which someone said the 7-11 stores had to close because all their employees had taken off when Mr. Bush called up the reserves. How's that again? As explained by the person who offered it, 7-11 people were likely to be working-class Americans, the kind who might have joined the reserves just for the extra paycheck.

Well, maybe so. But what's funny about that? The source, in this case, may have been one of the beautiful people to whom work less dignified than portfolio management is by nature amusing. My reaction was that the 7-11 joke would be less hilarious if we still had the draft, so the beautiful people could share both reserve and active duty.

But again, it seems there are two versions. Apparently Gen. Al Gray, commandant of the Marine Corps, said out loud that "convenience stores around Washington, D.C." might have to close because "their employees had been called back to Iraq by Saddam Hussein." That's what a short piece said in my very own newspaper.

But I, as an occasional customer of convenience stores, have never noticed that they are staffed exclusively, or even largely, by Iraqis. If the general had said all taxicab service in Washington had halted because Saddam Hussein had called up his reserves, I would have got it -- although that would not stop cab operations, because plenty of Iranians and Nigerians would still be hacking, along with a few native-born Americans.

As far as I know, General Gray's crack has not provoked a complaint from the convenience-store lobby. However, it is reported to have "infuriated Arab-Americans, who are demanding that the Pentagon apologize and discipline the general."

XTC This one, too, demands some study. Are Arab-Americans offended by the idea that Iraqis might work at convenience stores, or that they might be responsive to a call from Saddam Hussein? Why are Arab-Americans in general unhappy over a rather fuzzy joke about Iraqis in particular? Is a fancied slight to any Arab of any nationality an affront to all? If so, should all English-speakers everywhere be offended by a crack about any English-speaker anywhere?

Are "Arab-Americans," indeed, infuriated at all -- or is this popular demand for Al Gray's head raised by one touchy fellow with a letterhead and a fax machine?

There are those, perhaps including the commandant of the Marine Corps, who look back fondly on the days when Spike Jones's "Pffgh, pffgh, right in the Fuhrer's face" was a big hit record, and everybody laughed with a clean conscience.

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