Last month I noticed these two posters side by side, and was struck by how they’re related. One almost necessitates the other.
The first one is for a revival of the musical South Pacific, the Rodgers and Hammerstein show that, while being ahead of its time in examining racism, gives a portrayal of the Pacific theater of WWII as time spent in a tropical paradise, where yes, there’s some occasional combat, but for the most part problems had to do with deciding which fruit to “pick right off the tree” as you sang about missing the dames back home. The bloody combat of the Pacific theater, while part of the plot, is given far less attention than the romantic songs and storylines.
South Pacific is based on a book by James Michener, and a story is told of him meeting a Navy flight surgeon. The surgeon comments,”Mr. Michener, I fought in the South Pacific in World War II, but I never realized how much fun it had been until I read your book!” Michener replies, “I never realized how much fun it was either, until Rodgers and Hammerstein set it to music!” In terms of capturing the reality of what happened, it really misses the mark.
So why does this matter? After all, it’s just a musical, right? So what if it’s not accurate about what happened? What does it have to do with the other poster?
The second poster reads “It takes the courage and strength of a warrior to ask for help” and provides a hot line for war veterans who are having trouble coping with their life after active duty. Ad campaigns like this are needed because there is such a stigma about asking for help in coping with emotional trauma. Soldiers are expected to be tough, to be able to cope, to not show signs of weakness. While civilians sing and dance, veterans are suffering in ways we can’t understand. The South Pacific revival is just one of the ways we shield ourselves from taking an honest look at war can do to a person.
When we as a culture diminish or make light of how ugly and traumatizing war really is, we make it even harder for veterans to open up and talk about their experiences. Song and dance have their place, but if they become one of the ways we convince ourselves that war really isn’t all that bad, we’re less likely to put all of our efforts into stopping wars before they begin, or looking at alternatives to ending conflict and injustice. That’s not a good way to honor the troops.