Short Story Month: Private Zero, destroyer of worlds

Beetle Bailey (Short Story Month #2)

Is there a more per­fect satire of the Amer­i­can war machine than Bee­tle Bai­ley? Com­bin­ing the bru­tal­i­ty of Oliv­er Stone in his prime and the black-as-rot humour of Robert Altman’s  M*A*S*H*, the tra­vails of Bee­tle and his com­rades have, for decades now, served as proof of the innate insan­i­ty which under­lies our con­cept of “mil­i­tary intel­li­gence.”

Here, the ever-cor­pu­lent Sarge — or, rather, Sergeant 1st Class Orville P. Snorkel of “Kilo Com­pa­ny” 3rd Bat­tal­ion of the 9th Infantry Reg­i­ment (Unit­ed States), 13th Divi­sion; the car­toon embod­i­ment of wartime author­i­ty, futile­ly play­ing the roles of approach­able con­fi­dante and tyran­ni­cal despot yet for­ev­er impo­tent on every lev­el (whole text­books could be writ­ten on such a pathet­ic man’s place of lead­er­ship with­in the mil­i­tary hier­ar­chy) — reminds us of the sup­posed impor­tance of com­mand struc­ture as he dis­ci­plines one of the enlist­ed for an infrac­tion regard­ing the prop­er care of weapon­ry. A man of loose morals and mon­u­men­tal appetites, Sarge would have been right at home with­in the cel­lu­loid satire of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, per­haps serv­ing as a sec­ond to Gen­er­al Buck Turgid­son.

Unusu­al­ly, the sol­dier at present is not the epony­mous Irish trick­ster Bee­tle Bai­ley (no doubt off woo­ing the bux­om Miss Sheila Bux­ley, whose momen­tous mam­maries rep­re­sent the clos­est the car­toon page has ever got­ten to full-on pornog­ra­phy), but rather the hap­less Pri­vate Zero, that con­cep­tu­al real­iza­tion of the com­mon sol­dier as mind­less tool, obey­ing orders with­out ques­tion. Zero, lit­er­al to a fault, can­not be blamed for his igno­rance, for the indus­tri­al com­plex which under­writes all mil­i­tary oper­a­tions active­ly encour­ages such intel­lec­tu­al malaise. Sure­ly it is the Pri­vate Zero in us all who will ulti­mate­ly doom human­i­ty through our unwa­ver­ing faith in the right­ness of our gov­ern­ment and its choic­es.

When the end comes, it will be Pri­vate Zero’s fin­ger on the but­ton. Our only hope for sur­vival is that our nuclear arse­nal has been so poor­ly tend­ed to (as rep­re­sent­ed here by Zero’s M1917 Enfield) that its destruc­tive capac­i­ty has been ren­dered null. “The only thing that will save us is our inef­fec­tu­al­i­ty,” the car­toon­ist screams into the void, but we do not lis­ten, for we are all Pri­vate Zero. We are com­pla­cent fools. We deserve our deaths.