During the Second World War, Major General Lucian K. Truscott, the Commander of the United States Army’s Third Infantry Division, adopted one of the military’s most famous songs, “The Dogface Soldier,” to use as his division’s theme. Written by Cpl. Bert Gold and Lt. Ken Hart in 1942, the song has all the trappings of a street-smart rap, and to this day the song is still sung with pride. One way this pride is bolstered is by taking pot shots at other branches of the military like the Marines and the Navy:
“I wouldn’t give a bean/
To be a fancy pants Marine (Or trade in Old Army O.D.’s for Navy Dungarees)/
I’d rather be a dogface soldier like I am.”
But these pot shots are also, arguably, directed toward the Army soldiers themselves, particularly as calling oneself “just a dogfaced soldier” is a complex, if not darkly humorous, form of self-effacement. True, these dogfaces are, as the song says, “the walking pride of Uncle Sam,” but nobody, I contend, claims they are “just a dogface” without the grim recognition that in the military they may be expected to behave and obey like one.
In what follows, I want to explore this ”dogface” expression in relation to a particular brand of cynicism called ”kynicism,” which traces its etymological roots to the Greek word ”kynos” or ”dog.” This linkage of cynicism to kynicism, through a number of grassroots-style music videos that military men and women have been posting to YouTube, potentially allows for a new portrait of the dogface soldier to emerge. These “new tricks” from our “dogfaces” should be of special interest to those studying postmodern war. Unlike past wars, where we received our news mostly from reporters embedded in a military unit or from newsreel footage that rolled once a week from the local cinema, today’s soldiers are producing grassroots-style videos themselves which are being sent directly to our home computers. Although spreading a grassroots movement through music may initially seem unfit for the rocky terrains of both Iraq and Afghanistan, the fact that soldiers are waging humor in a public commons like YouTube shows the extent to which traditional wartime angst has been transfigured by technology. For Kairos readers, this shift from frontline postcards to participatory, digital postcards only underscores how video is shaping the way we communicate with loved ones, and how such communication may be changing how we deal with issues like the pressure and cynicism of war.
In many ways, even before the deployment videos we will explore, songs like “The Dogface Soldier,” particularly as it appeared in Hollywood movies like To Hell and Back (Rosenberg & Hibbs, 1955), already marked a shift in how soldiers started to share and think about their wartime experiences. World War II, more than any other war before or since, has been portrayed in multiple and numerous formats, particularly from the soldier’s standpoint. To Hell and Back, for example, is a film that was based on the autobiography of Audie Murphy and also starred Audie Murphy, a move that perhaps anticipates the hyperreal sensibility that Jean Baudrillard (1995) explored when he melded the facts and fictions of war. Perhaps the aura of authenticity that surrounded Murphy’s autobiography, combined with his appearance in the film, helped account for the popularity of “The Dogface Soldier.” The song sold over 300,000 copies in 1955, and in a sense heralds the viral video hits that often emerge from YouTube. The song is used to introduce Murphy’s character to his compatriots in a bawdy dance hall sequence in Casablanca before he heads off to war. The song reveals the camaraderie of his soldiers, of Murphy’s naivety, and sets up a counterpoint to the movie’s overall message that war is hell. As joyous as this sequence is, perhaps we can understand the song’s success by recognizing that it is also the harbinger of war and as a result is tinged with the cynicism that soldiers going off to war understand better than anyone. In the music videos that we will explore momentarily, there is something playful, but also serious, that is communicated. It’s a brand of cynicism-cum-kynicism that just might ameliorate—or, as I will reveal in the conclusion, ”Amarillo-ate”—some of the debilitating effects of war like the shell shock that Murphy once suffered and that we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD). For as silly as some of the videos may initially appear, seen from a soldier’s perspective, perhaps it’s the hyper-fiction of play that is necessary to offset the stark reality of war.