Frank Burns Lives!
What happens when you mix fundamentalism and the military?
© Bryan Zepp Jamieson
Back in the 70s and 80s, like many people, I watched an old TV show alled "M*A*S*H." It was a sitcom – or at least started out as a sitcom – about some army doctors stationed in a mobile army surgical hospital (hence the acronym) near the front in the Korean war. It was based on the gritty, brilliant and wonderfully funny Robert Altman movie, but was closer to the original Richard Hooker book, which was perky, cartoonish, and didn't delve into the underlying motives and emotions of the characters.
But the subtext was there. If you want to write a play about a stand up comedian at Auschwitz, eventually the comedian has to become aware of, and react to, his surroundings, or it's just empty farce (and despite what every 15 year old wannabee dramatist thinks, tasteless farce, at that). You've got characters who are at least intelligent and compassionate enough to be doctors, and you've forced them to work in a killing field. You can only spend so many episodes having them occupied with nothing more than the taste of the powdered eggs, or boffing the nurses. Then the viewers, sometimes without even realizing why, will get bored.
So the show matured, and the characters grew into three-dimensional people who dealt with the horror with humor and denial. By the end of the second season, it stood on the brink of becoming a great television series.
But there was a problem with one of the central characters. Major Frank Burns was prudish, priggish, overly fond of rules and regulation, and even fonder of inflicting them on others. He wasn't a particularly original character, and his creator borrowed heavily from Colonel Blimp and the aptly named Lieutenant Schiesskopff. The character was played by Robert Duvall in the movie, and by the late Larry Linville in the series. Linville reportedly said that he based Frank's character on "every idiot I've ever known."
The show grew, but Frank didn't. He remained a cartoonish character in a ever more rounded drama, and eventually the writers sent him home to Indiana. He was replaced by the intelligent and sometimes malevolent Charles, played beautifully by David Ogden Stiers. Human and intelligent, he made a much more suitable foil for the rest of the hospital team.
One problem the Frank Burns character had in the TV series is that CBS chickened out and downplayed the main motivation behind the character, which was that he was a fundamentalist. Like many such, he sublimated his obsessive compulsive patterns into religious mania, and the Robert Duvall character gyrated wildly in the movie between damp, furtive sinning and bursts of obsessive prayer and flagellation of others for
his shortcomings. Eventually the character is humiliated into an emotional implosion and is hauled off in a strait jacket.
Serial television shows were just beginning to play with the notion of character development and continuity, beginning with M*A*S*H, but neither Linville nor the writers had a clue what to do about Frank. Without the fundamentalist elements, Frank was just a cartoon. And the network didn't dare say, in effect, "He's a loathsome whack because he prays a lot." In fact, they didn't even dare say that he prayed a lot because he was a loathsome whack. The public, in the eyes of CBS, wasn't ready to accept people who embraced religion because of personal failings and inadequacies. If they had, they could have opened up all sorts of plot and character development possibilities. Eventually Larry Linville, fearing that the deeply flawed role would destroy his career, requested he be written out of the series.
Fundamentalists are drawn to religion both because of the sense of security it offers (all the mysteries and uncertainties of the entire universe are explained in one little book!) and because it allows them both to grovel under authority and inflict their version of authority upon others. In religion, no questions need be asked, and none need be answered.
Of course, it isn't just religion that attracts fundamentalists. Any authoritarian outfit in which they are offered a set place on the pecking order where they can give and receive directives will attract them. So much so that many police departments use their psych test to screen out, among other borderline types, fundamentalists. You don't want to be pulled over by a cop who is sweating, shaking, pointing a gun at you with both hands and screaming that you are defying the will of
The military, with lower admittance standards, particularly in times of war, winds up with a lot of Frank Burnses. And because the officers' corps is much more rigid about chain of command and unwavering discipline than are the grunts, a disproportionate number of fundamentalists infest the officers' corps. Now mind you, this isn't just M*A*S*H or Catch-22. This is real life.
Over the past twenty years, fundamentalists have taken control of much of the officer corps in the American military. Given that fundamentalists quite frequently combine sanctimony with an appalling lack of introspection, this results in an officer corps that is willing to excuse even the vilest behavior, so long as it's done by "good Christian soldiers."
There have been numerous complaints in the military, some getting out into the public arena, of forced religious indoctrination, prejudice against non-Christians and non-believers, and a conspiracy of silence to protect the crimes of those acting, in the views of the officers, on behalf of their notion of Christian principles.
An example the other day was that of one Specialist Jeremy Hall , who was sent home from Iraq because he was an atheist. I had to consider for a moment, since my initial reaction was that they were sending the brights safely home while leaving fundamentalists to face hostile fire from their counterparts in the middle east. I had to look for the down side.
The downside is that the fundamentalist personality is authoritarian, and is constantly seeking to increase the range and scope of control it can have over others. This doesn't just make life miserable for the enlisted men; it results in poor discipline and shabby ethics among the officers (Abu Ghraib, anyone?) and, if allowed to grow unchallenged, eventually results in a military officer cadre that will feel morally compelled to attack the civilian authority of the United States in order to save those dissolute and irresolute civilians from themselves, and deliver them unto the harsh and loving authority of our lord Jesus, Amen.
What you have is a military controlled with Frank Burns with a motive. They won't be competent, they won't have the introspection needed to ask themselves if anyone who doesn't share their particular mania might not share their notions of right and wrong.
And they are heavily armed, and deeply antipathetic to the uncertainties of democracies with free speech and individual freedom, and anxious to protect us from themselves.
The present administration won't be any help. One reason Putsch has been such a terrible president is that he is a fundamentalist himself. But the next dministration is going to have to take the courageous stand that Jesus was not an American general, and just because he prayed a lot, Frank Burns was not a hero.
Politics is like driving. To go backwards, put it in R. To go forward, put it in D.
Sunday, April 27, 2008
Let's put it in D!
A friend who keeps me posted on the state of the state sent this. I feel compelled to repeat it here.