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.