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Private Snafu's Hidden War
A Historical Survey and Analytical Perspective
by Christopher Dow
Propaganda, the methodical swaying of public opinion toward certain attitudes, opinions, or procedures, is probably as old as public speaking. The concept was refined in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV, who convened the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, a group of cardinals in charge of foreign missions. Gregory’s contribution to propaganda, aside from the word itself, was to add to the idea of persuasion the condition that the persuasion should be of large groups of people beyond the purview of immediate authority—possible only since the invention of mechanized printing a century and a half before Gregory’s time.
The early twentieth-century development of electronic mass communication further extended the scope and immediacy of propaganda. By the end of World War I, radio and film had been refined to a high degree, and the beginning of World War II saw the rise of nationalist film propaganda with Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi production, Triumph of the Will. The United States was not far behind, producing the film series, Why We Fight. But when the United States Army began showing a series of cartoons featuring a bumbling infantryman named Private Snafu, it proved that indoctrination could be fun as well as functional.
Private Snafu was named after the popular military acronym: Situation Normal, All Fouled (or Fucked) Up. “Warner Bros. cartoon studio produced twenty-six ‘Private Snafu’ cartoons for the U.S. Army Signal Corps” (1) between 1943 and 1945. “They were used as part of the Army–Navy Screen Magazine, a film series shown at military bases around the world.” (2) The settings of the cartoons reflected this global presence of the U.S. fighting man, and Snafu finds himself in Europe, the South Pacific, and Africa as well as the United States. Snafu, himself, personifies the universal nature of the U.S. fighting forces by portraying the everyman soldier. Snafu is the little guy, the common army grunt caught up in a global conflict that is beyond his understanding and, seemingly, beyond his power to cope with. As the narrator of “Coming Snafu,” the first Snafu cartoon, says, “He is a patriotic, conscientious guy.”
But Snafu is much more, or less, than that. Although he is described as “conscientious,” he is, in fact, “the worst soldier in the army, the one who does everything wrong.” (3) Snafu’s plebeian nature, powerlessness, and mediocrity are all symbolized by his homeliness and his diminutive stature. Snafu is only half as tall as all the other characters, women included, with the exception of Japanese characters, who are occasionally even shorter than Snafu. But despite his shortness and mediocrity, Snafu was a big idea with a substantial history.
Private Snafu’s earliest genesis can be found in U.S. government studies of the propaganda potential of comic strips and film.
On June 13, 1942, an executive order signed by President Roosevelt established the Office of War Information [(OWI)] … [whose mandate was to] formulate and carry out, through the use of press, radio, motion pictures and other facilities the development of an informed and intelligent understanding, at home and abroad, of the status and progress of the war effort and of the war policies, activities, and aims of the government. (4)
One of the earliest OWI studies examined comic strips. “The appeal of comic strips as potential instruments for propaganda was a function of their popularity with readers.” (5) In the end, however, OWI abandoned attempts to use comic strips for propaganda purposes. The strips inclined toward hackneyed portrayals of patriotic ideals and overly stereotyped characterizations of the enemy as stupid and incompetent, and these depictions tended to lull viewers into complacency rather than prompting them toward greater effort on behalf of the war. (6)
More importantly, however,
comic strips in newspapers and magazines did not lend themselves to control or manipulation…. Actual government production of comics did not appear to be an answer, either…. OWI ultimately decided to leave comics alone for the remainder of the war, ironically after demonstrating the considerable power of the cartoon images and their undeniable hold on the American public. (7)
OWI’s attempts to use comic strips as propaganda ceased in November 1942, but other branches of the government had not lost interest.
Within the American Army, acceptance of social science research techniques and heavy reliance on media technology suggests that generals can sometimes be True Believers…. Military enthusiasm for social science research and media technology relates to the concept of Social Engineering, an outgrowth of behavioral psychology arguing that human behavior can be manipulated towards socially desirable goals. (8)
The Army’s Information and Education Division was headed by Brigadier General Frederick H. Osborn, a noncareer officer who, before the war, had been an active social science researcher and an important member of the Social Science Research Council. Osborn’s interest in using film as a means to educate and indoctrinate helped turn General George C. Marshall, army chief of staff, into “a zealous proponent of educational film.” (9)
Although OWI had found itself unable to adequately control and manipulate comic strips in magazines and newspapers and incapable of producing its own, the United States Army was in a different position. It could produce its own vehicles of propaganda—films—the content of which could be fully controlled, and it could then disseminate these vehicles to a captive audience of servicemen. The main thrust of the army’s effort was to produce the Why We Fight film series under the direct supervision of Frank Capra. This series “became mandatory viewing for all military personnel in 1942.” (10) Official U.S. film propaganda was under way.
The Why We Fight series was a sort of overview of the seriousness of the war and the importance of sincere efforts to win it. Why We Fight, however, was primarily indoctrination, and General Marshall expressed his “intense dissatisfaction with existing methods of troop indoctrination,” which generally consisted of lectures. (11) Part of the problem was that lectures were not on a large enough scale, and although the film series may have dramatically boosted the numbers of the lecture audience, it was still missing one vital element—the element of instruction.
The massive scale of the war demanded a proportionally larger scale of instruction, for the army needed an efficient and economical way to train the enormous number of raw recruits flooding through basic training camps. “The uses and maintenance of new and intricate weapons and equipment presented an awesome problem. The nation was faced with the need to convert hundreds of thousands of civilians into military specialists.” (12) Thus, Marshall and others displayed a growing interest in using film in more specific and intensive ways by combining indoctrination and instruction into a single, concerted effort. But despite the overarching presence of the Why We Fight films, there was a void of instructional materials and methods.
Into that void stepped Eric Knight, who had provided important input into the Why We Fight scripts. He “argued that ‘positive assertion of your beliefs and aims’ was more effective than ‘refutation of enemy assertions.’” (13) To this idea of education, Knight added an important element—animation. “Knight had long been interested in animation. He was assigned to work at the Disney Studio in July 1942, to work out the extraordinary animated inserts for the first four [Why We Fight] films.” (14) Knight wedded the use of film for indoctrination and education to the idea of using animation to provide specific instructional material. Private Snafu was only a few marching steps away.
Those steps were taken by several one-shot cartoons that graphically demonstrated proper and improper military behavior. One of these was “Flat-Hatting,” by John Hubley.
Flat-Hatting”….was a huge success. Flat-hatting was air force slang for the custom of putting a plane into a screaming dive at some innocuous target, animal, architectural, or civilian, sometimes with fatal results.… Hubley’s picture showed, in a series of very funny gags, just how stupid and useless this form of braggadocio really was…. It totally demolished the image of flat-hatting as an admirable feat of derring-do. (15)
Films like Hubley’s proved the ability of cartoons to positively affect behavior through a combination of graphic representation and humor. The Private Snafu series quickly emerged to take up the banner in a more consistent, controlled, and continuous manner.
The first Private Snafu cartoon, “Coming Snafu,” appeared in June 1943. Despite Disney’s involvement in the Why We Fight films and Hubley’s success with “Flat-Hatting,” their contributions to Private Snafu were nil. Instead, Warner Bros. and Leon Schlesinger contracted to produce the entire series. They were among the last cartoons produced by Schlesinger before he sold out to Warner in July 1944. (16) According to animator/director Chuck Jones, the films were produced “on a cost-plus basis.” (17) Twenty-six Private Snafu cartoons were made between June 1943 and October 1945, including two that remained unreleased by the end of the war. One of these, “Coming Home,” remained on the shelf due to its depiction of a super bomb that was to be used against Japan. This reference to the top-secret atomic bomb was a little too informational to pass army censorship.
The choice of Warner Bros. to produce the Snafu series undoubtedly was influenced by several factors. First, the Warner directors, animators, and writers, whose stable of characters included Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweetie Pie, Porky Pig, and Elmer Fudd, had already demonstrated a superlative knack for investing their animated characters with real personality. This was an important consideration since, without proper (or improper!) personality, Snafu would not have the intended effect. Secondly, the Warner staff had clearly displayed in their civilian fare the ability to combine unpretentious humor and surface narrative with adult-oriented double-entendres and subtexts. Such a combination is ideal for propaganda films intending to deliver hidden messages as well as more obvious ones. Simply put, Warner Bros. made the best cartoons around, and they were cartoons with all the right characteristics. But there was another, perhaps more significant point in Warner’s favor. The studio had been the first American studio to jump zealously into war propaganda, and it had done so at its own expense well before anti-Nazi and anti-Japanese sentiment became a Hollywood bandwagon.
As early as 1938, Warner Bros. had sent a script titled Storm Over America to the Breen Office, then the federal watchdog of Hollywood modesty and appropriateness. The script “pulled no punches in identifying Nazi Germany as a threat to American security.” (18) More anti-Nazi films by Warner Bros. followed, but Warner’s ideas were not shared by other studios. “Warner Brothers’ boldness spread apprehension among other studios. The foreign department of Paramount thought Warner was making a grave mistake.” (19) Among Warner’s foremost critics was Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota, who decried the pro-interventionist stance depicted in Warner productions. But “Harry Warner, whom Nye had accused of producing more propaganda films than any other, proudly announced his opposition to Hitler. Nazism was ‘an evil force,’ he said, and ‘the world struggle for freedom was in its final stage.’” (20)
The combination of Warner Bros.’s staunch anti-Nazi sentiment, its prior independent efforts to sway public opinion toward support of the war, and the excellence of its cartoon department’s productions made it the ideal studio to produce the Snafu series. For two years, Private Snafu was as much a member of the Warner family as were Bugs, Daffy, Elmer, and the rest of the gang.
The Private Snafu cartoons were Warner Bros. products in every respect. “Each cartoon is approximately three minutes long and in black-and-white. The cartoons utilized all of Warner’s cartoon directors and voice artists [Mel Blanc as Snafu and Robert C. Bruce as the narrator] and Carl Stalling’s music.” (21) They were “written by [Theodore] Geisel, a cartoonist already famous in civilian life under the nom de plume of ‘Dr. Seuss,’ and Phil Eastman, who later wrote most of the Magoo pictures at UPA.” (22) W. Munro Leaf, who wrote Ferdinand the Bull, also had a hand in at least one episode. The series had the two-fold purpose of instructing and indoctrinating enlisted men serving in the army, and each installment presented specific instructional material in a surface story, under which lay the indoctrination subtext.
In a sense, the Snafu cartoons are modern military fables, presenting a character who makes behavioral decisions and lives or dies as a result of his actions, leaving a practical moral as denouement. In each cartoon, “Snafu would commit a blunder or infraction, then learn the consequences of such errors.” (23) The instructional material was always presented in simple, straightforward terms so that the message could be understood by any soldier, whatever his level of education. Commenting on the effectiveness of the films as teaching tools, Mel Blanc says,
One picture was an aerial gunnery picture with Snafu telling what to do. He would always tell them wrong, and they would correct him. I remember there were three guys who had never taken any lessons in aerial gunnery but just saw this picture three or four times. They went up in a plane and they scored three ‘positives’ and one ‘possible’ on their first flight, just from looking at the cartoon pictures. So that shows you how important the cartoons were. (24)
As Blanc’s statement indicates, the primary instructional function of the cartoons was, to some extent, successful.
But the cartoons went beyond instructional specifics to encompass a plethora of aspects of military life and the war. For example, in “Fighting Tools,” Snafu has the most advanced and powerful weapons and equipment the military world has ever seen, yet he constantly mistreats them, and his lack of maintenance has turned them into junk. In the end he is blown up by a German who, though initially frightened by Snafu’s arsenal, is contemptuous of Snafu’s lax care of it. Thus the cartoon demonstrates the importance of equipment and weapon maintenance.
Personal health and hygiene are the concern of “Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike.” Mike is a mosquito who guzzles malaria out of a hip-flask, and Snafu is the foolish soldier who ignores all military instruction on prevention of malaria and winds up with his head mounted as a trophy on Mike’s wall. Self-defense was an equally important topic. “Gas” showed the vital necessity of maintaining defensive equipment like gas masks, and “Booby Traps” demonstrated that alertness for dangers far more subtle than bullets but equally deadly could mean the difference between living and dying.
Some of the instructional messages had more to do with proper attitude than with equipment or behavior. For example, in “The Goldbrick,” Snafu constantly pursues easy, but incorrect, methods of training, and when he arrives at the scene of real combat, his slackness results in his death. “Infantry Blues” is another good example of instilling proper attitude. In this film, Snafu is a dogface slogging through rough terrain, and he fantasizes that the other branches of the military have an easier, better, and safer time of it than does the infantry: Tank corpsmen get to ride in style, navy personnel are aboard what amount to cruise ships, and air force pilots fly above the fray. Presto, here comes the Technical Fairy First Class to grant Snafu his wish. In quick succession, Snafu experiences the unpleasant aspects of being tankmen, sailors, and pilots, and he discovers firsthand the dangers they face. When he finally returns to his infantry persona, Snafu is content with his place in the war effort.
It is when they emphasize attitude that the Snafu cartoons begin to drift from instruction into indoctrination, and the drift is most pronounced in the several Snafu cartoons that feature the “loose lips sink ships” syndrome. This syndrome can take an obvious form, as in “Spies,” an admonitory tale warning against carelessly blurting military secrets, or it can take a more inverted form, as in “Rumors,” which decries disreputable gossip. The former shows how misused information directly aids the enemy, and the latter demonstrates how misinformation demoralizes and damages U.S. troops. Both show that information improperly used is detrimental to the war effort.
“Snafuperman” takes the idea of information in yet a third direction. Snafu, changed into Snafuperman by the Technical Fairy First Class, does his best to use his super powers to wreak havoc on the Germans, but he only succeeds in blundering in where, given greater tactical insight and military knowledge, he should fear to tread. Instead of aiding the Allied war effort, he does it great harm. The message is that physical might and superiority without information or knowledge of how to properly use and direct that might is as harmful as misused information or misinformation. The emphasis on information contained in these entries becomes a subtle reminder to heed the hidden messages of these cartoons as closely as the surface instructional material.
Indoctrination continues to play a more important role than does instruction when the Snafu cartoons depict the enemy. The enemy is fearsome, dangerous, brutal, sly, and ubiquitous. This cautionary portrayal is a direct descendant of OWI’s belief that popular propaganda should not minimize the dangers posed by the enemy by portraying the enemy simply “as ‘evil, stupid and abnormal.’” (25) OWI had urged that the Germans and Japanese be considered formidable foes, and the Snafu cartoons treated them as such. In “Spies,” enemy agents are everywhere—in stores, at newsstands, in restaurants, and even in the boudoir. The German soldier who confronts Snafu in “Fighting Tools” is a huge, beefy brute at least four times bigger than Snafu. Worse, he is very determined to kill Snafu. The fearsome quality of the war in the South Pacific is vividly shown in “The Goldbrick,” and “A Lecture on Camouflage” demonstrates the cleverness of enemy soldiers as they hide in trees, bushes, and rocks.
But OWI did not understand that comic strips, and by extension cartoons, must rely on stereotypes, and that the exigencies of war and propaganda demand that stereotypes be utilized and that the enemy be portrayed negatively in ways aside from the direct threat he represented. So, although the enemy in Snafu cartoons is dangerous, his danger arises from insidious cleverness rather than from real intelligence, from his bullying size rather than from real courage.
The Germans, even the spies, although big, are also uniformly fat and somewhat dull-witted. The Japanese are always runty and a little simple-minded. The assertion in “Fighting Tools” that the U.S. has the most sophisticated and powerful weaponry is tacitly acknowledged by the German soldier. Since American know-how built these weapons, the German soldier’s admission concerning their superiority further grants to the U.S. serviceman an intellectual as well as physical superiority. The enemy is, thus, inferior to the “know-how, can-do” American, and he is inferior in other important ways. The craven cowering of that same German when he is faced by the much smaller Snafu, even when both are armed, indicates that the enemy has a fatal, internal weakness that debilitates him despite his apparently impressive physical might. The enemy is internally weak, denoting in him moral failing and spiritual inferiority.
But even these stereotypes contain a message. Because the enemy is inferior, he can be defeated as long as the American soldier retains the proper attitudes and behaviors. The dangers to the GI are deadly—bullets, bombs, gas, tanks, and so on, all delivered by an enemy driven by determined aggression—but deadliest of all are unpreparedness and lack of common sense. Intelligence and superior moral ground are as indispensable as brawn or the desire to fight and win.
Another important indoctrinational element of the Snafu cartoons is that they promote confidence in the chain of command. Officers do not often appear in Snafu cartoons, but the chain of command is amply represented by the only other recurring character aside from Snafu: the Technical Fairy First Class. The Technical Fairy is a rugged and tough-looking brute—if one doesn’t take into account his somewhat dainty wings! He has broad shoulders, a slender waist, and a jutting square jaw, and he exudes the competent confidence of the seasoned warrior.
The Technical Fairy’s rank—sergeant—is important, for as a noncommissioned officer he has risen to his position from the ranks of the enlisted men, the raw recruits—Snafu’s own lowly position. Noncom officers are less intimidating to servicemen of low rank than are commissioned officers, and they are personally closer to the troops, both important devices to gain the trust of the common serviceman. Furthermore, although he is tough and rugged, the Technical Fairy is never overbearing or brutal, even though he does wield the power of the entire chain of command symbolized through his ability to grant reality to Snafu’s daydreams. As if embodying all officers, the Technical Fairy has the power to let Snafu do or be anything. With a flick of his wand, the Technical Fairy changes Snafu’s branch of the service (“The Infantry Blues”), increases his awareness (“The Home Front”) and personal power (“Snafuperman”), and even grants promotion in rank (“Gripes”).
Not only does the Technical Fairy wield the power of the chain of command, he promotes confidence in superior officers and the chain of command in an important way, for the Technical Fairy is the epitome of wisdom. If Snafu has a self-serving fantasy or a problem that inhibits proper military functioning, the Technical Fairy demonstrates by personal, direct, and immediate example why and how Snafu’s wrong thinking and attitude are dangerous and self-defeating. The Technical Fairy is always right, and he always has good, practical reasons to support his position.
Equally significant, he is ready and willing to impart his knowledge for Snafu’s benefit. And his knowledge does more than help Snafu to function efficiently. In a sense, the Technical Fairy promotes the “sarge” as the soldier’s fairy godfather, his guardian angel whose advice and wisdom are important not only for victory but for personal survival. Further, the Technical Fairy’s competency and knowledge extend by inference to officers of higher rank on the chain of command. No wonder Snafu shakes with mute fear in “Snafuperman,” despite his superhuman strength and invulnerability, when he encounters an American general. If the Technical Fairy, even at his nominally low rank, is so competent and knowing, a general must approach the omnipotent and omniscient.
The surface levels of the Private Snafu cartoons are always simple enough to understand—keep your weapon clean, don’t blab military secrets, maintain personal hygiene, perform your duties correctly and with care—making them ideal training tools. The Snafu information and morals could be understood by every soldier, no matter what his educational level. But for the films to be effective, they first had to attract the attention of the serviceman and then had to present the material in such a way that the serviceman would accept the recommendations of the cartoons and act upon them. Army brass
soon found that any picture that tried to ‘sell’ the army audience with a suave, unctuous approach was quickly rejected. Any hint of talking down to the troops with high-flown hyperbole was promptly greeted with catcalls and Bronx cheers. In some instances, especially in the war zones, rocks were thrown at the screens. (26)
As the producers of military instructional films quickly learned, attention and acceptance cannot be begged or even blatantly demanded. But animators had long practiced the art of willing attention and acceptance, and the writers and directors of the Private Snafu cartoons followed John Hubley’s lead in using a variety of more subtle means to beguile their viewers into compliance.
Probably the most obvious means the filmmakers used to gain attention and acceptance was the entertainment value of the cartoons. The cartoons were funny, and humor is an effective way to gain the attention and relaxed confidence of an audience by opening them up, without intimidation or restraint, to new and shared experience. The single most important humorous device in the Snafu series is Snafu himself. Snafu is a diminutive, weak, lazy, careless, ugly bumpkin. He also is an amusingly inept soldier. Even his name indicates the bawdy, irreverent tone which these cartoons take.
But the humor of Snafu’s character hides a useful message. Snafu is not only the worst soldier in the army, he is a blatant fool. In at least three numbers—“Coming Home,” “Spies,” and “Fighting Tools”—Snafu is literally depicted as a “horse’s ass.” Snafu is an excellent teaching tool because no viewer would consider himself as stupid as Snafu and so would not want to commit the kinds of blunders that Snafu makes, for doing so would define him as being equally stupid in his own eyes and in the eyes of his fellow soldiers. No one would want to pull a Snafu. Thus, Snafu is a cautionary reminder not to be the one who fouled up, because such behavior could bring not only disaster but public ridicule and censure.
Other humorous devices include Geisel, Eastman, and Leaf’s funny dialogue. The scripts, often written in comical verse, are rife with gags and provide plenty of inherent opportunities for humor. Equally important, Snafu’s voice invokes a subliminal relationship to all incompetent, somewhat pitiful blunderers by sounding just like Porky Pig. These are the only two voice characterizations done by Mel Blanc that sounded alike. “I thought, Porky’s voice will be kind of crazy for Snafu because he’s a little sad character,” Blanc commented. “And that’s the reason I did Snafu practically the same way I did Porky.” (27)
Beyond these relatively typical cartoon attention-getting devices, the Snafu series delved into areas that cartoons for the general public could not. The adult, all-male composition of the audience allowed the animators to utilize material that would have been considered risqué, or even taboo, for general release.
Because it was important to establish an honest rapport with the soldiers, the SNAFU [sic] films went far beyond traditional Hollywood propriety in the use of four-letter words, broad sexual imagery, and mild scatological humor. (28)
The relative mildness of the profanity by today’s standards—words like hell and damn—did not detract from its risqué quality at the time. After all, general audiences had gasped in shock only four years earlier at Rhett Butler’s “damn” in Gone With the Wind.
Nudity was another naughty subject of humor. Certainly there was a lot of cheesecake in the Snafu series, but Snafu himself was often, quite literally, the butt of the nude joke. In “Fighting Tools,” Snafu winds up naked as a German prisoner of war—not simply a dangerous situation but a humiliating one as well. The scatological humor is even bolder in “Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike.” While Snafu is skinny dipping, the camera zooms in on his bare buttocks until they fill three quarters of the screen. There they remain for a prolonged scene as Mike lands, peers at these gigantic hemispheres of the type of flesh unknown on any mainstream movie screen, and dryly comments, “Why, it’s Snafu. I never forget a face.” Then Mike pokes and pinches one cheek, sending out huge jiggling ripples, before launching himself into the air to dive bomb this brave new world.
Female anatomy and sexual innuendo are, perhaps the most powerful and consistent motifs in the Private Snafu series. Interest in sex and women was a natural device to put the GI audience at ease and gain its attention, considering that the audience was composed of young males with high testosterone levels who were deprived of female company for long periods of time and who were facing the terrors of combat and possible death. Except for Snafu’s mother, all the women are young, buxom babes who wear scanty, clinging clothing or, in a subtle shot or two, like the one of the women in the harem in “Booby Traps,” absolutely nothing at all.
This portrait of all women as highly developed and desirable physical specimens might be completely unrealistic and, from a latter-day perspective, sexist, but the portrait was probably extremely flattering to the egos of young soldiers who thought these luscious babes wanted nothing more than to entertain and bed them. After all, pinups, whatever the source, tend toward idealized form, and eventual concerns of propriety and sexism were probably of little importance to the army, to the filmmakers, or to the hundreds of thousands of horny, lonely, and frightened young servicemen hungry for female companionship.
The behavioral portrait of women fares little better than the physical portrait but is, again, in keeping with the desires of the audience and the tenor of the times. In “Coming Home,” the “good” girls back in the U.S. spend most of their time smooching with soldiers under bushes, in cars, hanging out of windows, and just about everywhere else conceivable. Snafu’s jitterbugging girlfriend even swings the lucky private beneath her skirts. Subliminally, these views promise every soldier that a loving and enthusiastic beauty was just waiting to lift her skirts for hime when he returned home from the war—a sure-fire unconscious stimulus for the soldiers to fight harder so they can end the war as quickly as possible and attain their sexual rewards.
This stimulus–response is directly displayed in “A Lecture on Camouflage” when, at the end of the picture, the Technical Fairy’s expert knowledge and actions afford him the privilege of cradling a buxom and very topless mermaid in each arm. The Technical Fairy, beaming broadly, says, “So gentlemen, remember. If you want to fool ’em, you gotta get into the picture.” It becomes problematic if the “they” he refers to are the enemy or women, for the implication is that proper performance of duty is what women look for in a man and that beautiful women are the reward for services well performed.
But the avoidance of public ridicule and censure and the promise of sexual rewards are only parts of the psychological picture of the Private Snafu series. Equally important is that Snafu is a lone character. It seems that most of his personal contacts are with the officers who give him orders and the enemy he fights, both of whom cause consternation and hardship. He is swamped with duties, overwhelmed by his small stature, and in constant danger of losing his life. Snafu not only represents the abstract everyman soldier but the concrete reality of every individual soldier watching the films, for his smallness and confused and overwhelmed outlook access the personal loneliness and fear haunting each of them.
Because of this, the Private Snafu series had to be nonthreatening and sympathetic to the fears, desires, and problems of enlisted men. Some of this emerges, as has been discussed, in the Technical Fairy and his nonthreatening, godfatherly relationship to Snafu, but other elements contribute to demonstrating a sympathetic kinship with the soldier in order to put him at ease and achieve a commiserate resonance with him.
Foremost among these elements is the semi-realistic ambiance of the cartoons. When weapons and other military equipment are displayed, they are depicted in a realistic fashion. “Fighting Tools” even opens with a visual catalogue of infantry weapons, all drawn in photo-realistic detail. But the realism of the cartoons extends beyond the physical details into the difficulties the servicemen faced daily. Such problems were never minor for them but were pervasive facts of life.
The boredom and dirtiness of unpleasant duties, such as KP, are dealt with in numbers like “Gripes,” where Snafu learns that these duties have a purpose in maintaining discipline as well as enabling the military machine to function on a practical level. The pain and rigors of basic training are depicted in “The Goldbrick,” where Snafu learns that the hardships imposed on him during training have the twin purposes of winning the war and keeping him alive. “Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike,” “A Lecture on Camouflage,” and “Gas” contain a similar message plus a demonstration that the need to follow orders predicates personal survival.
And underlying almost every Snafu cartoon is an injunction for alertness and exactness of personal behavior, without which the war will be lost and Snafu killed. These themes come across most strongly in “Spies,” “Coming Snafu,” “Rumors,” and “Snafuperman.” In “Spies” and “Coming Home,” Snafu’s lack of alertness and exactness results in mass destruction of American forces, and in “Rumors” they destroy not only Snafu’s personal will to fight, but the internal cohesion of the army itself. “Snafuperman” demonstrates that even superhuman powers are ineffective without awareness, training, and intelligence.
But the most important point here, at least with respect to gaining the confidence of the GI viewer, is that Snafu, just like any soldier, is always uncomfortable and overburdened with dirty, boring, exhausting, exacting, and fearful work. The sympathetic resonance that the common soldier had to feel for Snafu would lead that soldier into a mutual bond with Snafu—a bond that would encourage the soldier to accept and act on the behaviors that Snafu comes to accept and that keep him alive and to shun the behaviors that result in Snafu’s death. And here, with the subject of death, the psychology of the Snafu series takes a turn into grimmer territory.
Since combat and death were constant threats to the soldier, they serve an important function in the Snafu series. Death in these cartoons is unlike death in any other cartoon of the time. In all other cartoons, at least until the pseudo-realistic cartoon adventures and artistic animations pioneered in the 1960s, death was simply not a fact of cartoon life. Elmer Fudd or Daffy Duck or any other civilian cartoon character can get shot or smashed or blown up ad infinitum and still find instantaneous resurrection. Snafu, on the other hand, does not find resurrection so readily. He may reappear alive in the next installment, or, rarely, his death occurs in a dream from which he awakes; most often, however, if Snafu dies in one cartoon, he stays dead in that cartoon.
And die he does, with great frequency. Out of the first thirteen Snafu cartoons, Snafu dies at the end of six. In one more he ends up as a German prisoner of war, in another in a military jail, and in yet another as an inmate in a psycho ward. In each case, Snafu is killed or imprisoned due to faulty behavior. Thus, to promote positive military attitude and action, these cartoons use a psychology whose message is clear—either Snafu understands that the promoted behavior is truly appropriate and acts accordingly, or Snafu dies or undergoes unpleasant, humiliating, and possibly permanent confinement. The rapport between Snafu and the GI would not have to be as strong as it probably was for this reality to be frighteningly clear to the soldier.
An important adjunct to this grim reality of death also functions psychologically in these cartoons in the depiction of carnal desires, which include the desires for sex, alcohol, tobacco, and recreation. As noted before, sex is a major motif in the Snafu series. The surface message of “Coming Home” is that when you get home after a successful war there will be a sexy, buxom babe waiting for you with open arms. And for even more immediate gratification, it is strongly hinted that the soldier who knows and performs his duty will be rewarded with the sexual favors of women, just as the Technical Fairy is rewarded with his brace of nubile mermaids in “A Lecture on Camouflage.” In “Gripes,” a newly promoted Snafu gives all his fellow GIs two women each, while he enjoys the attentions of three women dressed in scanty harem attire. Indeed, sexy, buxom women are everywhere—at home, in the dance hall, in the cinema, and often in the bushes—and are usually being willingly groped by Snafu or some other soldier.
Except for Snafu’s mother and his girlfriend in “The Home Front,” who becomes a WAC, the sole asset these women contribute to the war is their sexuality. Their purpose is to please the soldiers, and although this innuendo could not have been displeasing to the legions of lonely young men watching these cartoons, the other side of the issue constantly lurks in the background, as demonstrated in “The Home Front.” In this cartoon, Snafu imagines his girlfriend succumbing to the ministrations of a suave lothario. The implication is that all the beautiful babes back home are making love, but not necessarily to lonely soldiers. Thus, even the supposedly faithful girl back home is a potential whore.
Woman as whore is, in fact, the predominant image of women in the Snafu series. The Snafu cartoon that does not have a pinup prominently displayed is rare. Some of these pinups, although partially clothed, are all too ready to remove their clothing for the GI, as seen by the pinup whose dress billows up in rhythm to Snafu’s snoring breath in “The Goldbrick.” The symbolic stripper defrocking for the GI in this cartoon is more explicitly portrayed in “Coming Snafu” and “The Home Front.” In the former, a stage stripper gyrates sexily before letting her clinging gown slip down to her hips. The “Restricted” signs that appear over her breasts and navel only serve to allow imagination to embellish the image that the clinging gown and sexy gyrations have already revealed almost completely. In the second cartoon, a stripper writhes explicitly before taking it all off as the camera angle drops for a shot downward from mid-thigh. Again, the suggestion is more powerful than the actual image, and in case the viewer didn’t get the idea, the stripper is followed by a trio of high-stepping female dancers in fringed g-strings and strapless brassieres.
Doubtless, the soldier watching the strippers in the Snafu cartoon was too busy whistling and pounding his chair or dreaming of a buxom babe of his own waiting back home to worry about the social implications of demeaning sexist images. And just as likely, he also consciously missed the implication of events surrounding Snafu’s attention to women. This implication is aptly demonstrated at the very outset in the first Snafu cartoon, “Coming Snafu.” Snafu, walking by a sexy pinup, turns and whistles and promptly falls into a hole. The message was made a little more obvious in “Spies” when Snafu, bragging to his girlfriend, a seductive sexpot spy with microphones hidden in her brassiere, unwittingly discloses vital military secrets. The trend continues in “Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike.” Snafu gets jabbed by Mike because he exposes his bare ass while kissing a pinup. And in “Gripes,” the sexual license of Snafu and his troops results in defeat by the Germans. In the event that some soldiers still had not understood the message, one entire cartoon was devoted to expounding on the hidden but definite dangers posed by women.
This cartoon is “Booby Traps,” set in North Africa. The name is not, at first, the dead give-away that it probably ought to be, for the piece ostensibly deals with the need to be aware of the dangers of hidden explosive devices designed to kill careless soldiers. Snafu finds one such explosive device integrated into a shower, but his next encounter paves the way for the real booby traps of which he should be aware. In this scene, Snafu comes upon a camel with a bulging udder. A sign reads, “Free milk.” Snafu grabs a teat before realizing the udder is really a mine strapped to the camel’s belly. If this was the only reference linking booby to breast as well as explosive danger, it might be innocent enough, but Snafu next finds himself in a harem full of booby traps that are definitely of a human variety.
In the harem, Snafu rushes through the midst of some of the most pulchritudinous images ever seen in a cartoon before Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat (1972) and Heavy Traffic (1973). A score of shapely chiffon and bikini-clad beauties lounges around, and the camera pans across the shadowed but extremely explicit and pneumatically lifelike figure of a totally nude woman who almost completely fills the screen. Just to make certain the viewer did not miss her the first time, the camera pans across her again as Snafu makes his way toward a piano. If his immediate interest is the piano, booby trapped with explosives, he quickly turns his attention to a nearby buxom babe. Snafu slips his hand around her waist to cup her butt, and he marvels at the firm gluteal roundness. But the audience sees that she is a dummy with twin bombs for buttocks. A second later, her flowered bra, toned in such a way as to resemble bare breasts, falls off, revealing another pair of bombs. Even a booby like Snafu now gets the message that booby traps are not only explosive devices but women, too.
The most self-revealing note on lust in the Snafu series occurs in “A Lecture on Camouflage.” Although the Technical Fairy, who does everything right, gains his buxom sexual reward, it is a pair of mermaids, or, women without vaginas—with camouflaged vaginas. What becomes evident is that underlying the pandering to carnal desire and the promise of sexual reward, there is a deeper level that indicates that lust, although a useful spur to prod the soldier into action and compliance, is a gratification at best impossible to achieve and at worst deadly and thus futile to pursue.
Women in the Snafu series are dangerous. Even if they are not outright seductive spies trading sex for death and destruction, they invariably cause fatal inattention, leading to the same devastating results. This message extends to the other pleasures in which Snafu engages. Alcohol leads to drunkenness which leads to divulging military secrets, as is shown in “Spies.” Recreation does the same, demonstrated also in “Spies” when Snafu is a dancing fool blurting out things he should not to his dance partner. The desire for recreation also leads, as shown in “The Goldbrick,” to laziness, laxness, and inevitably, death. And in “A Lecture on Camouflage,” Snafu’s yen for a smoke causes him to be so totally unaware of his surroundings that he does not realize that the tree he is leaning against contains a German.
The subtexts of the Snafu cartoons emphasize that soldiers are, or should be, a brotherhood of dedicated, directed, and determined men who have banded together to do work that is necessary but dirty and potentially deadly. The devices that the filmmakers use to make these points are specifically engineered to gain the attention of their viewers and to lull them into complacency through humor, sympathy, and pandering to common vices. Just as clearly, however, the cartoons also psychologically reverse the imagery that they use to depict these apparently positive themes and elements. Humor becomes intimidation, for laughing at Snafu—the common soldier—quickly translates into fear of being held up to public ridicule. Sympathy for the plight of the soldier transforms into fear of death, for sympathy brings weakness and lack of attention, and these are fatal. And apparently innocent and innocuous desires, like those for sex, alcohol, tobacco, and even friendship, likewise seduce attention, foster weakness, and bring about death and destruction—an idea that blatantly trades pleasure for paranoia.
Thus, the Private Snafu cartoons wield a double-edged sword that not only incised indoctrinational and informational material but attempted to excise any attachments the soldier might have that could impair his single-minded attention to fighting and winning the war. The informational success of the series may be judged by Mel Blanc’s anecdote about the aerial gunners quoted above, but more, the army must have felt that the Snafu series also was serving its indoctrinational purposes, because a new Snafu cartoon appeared about once a month until the end of the war.
If, as often has been noted, extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary means, the Private Snafu cartoons certainly provide a vivid example of extraordinary means. The kind of social engineering pioneered by the series has left a pervasive legacy in world culture by aptly demonstrating the effectiveness of social engineering that plays on those desires, drives, and fears that form the foundation of human thought and emotion. The same techniques pioneered in the Snafu cartoons form, in fact, the basis of modern media advertising. Unfortunately, even ostensibly beneficial manipulation and modification of thought and emotion require care and foresight to ensure that positive values are not trodden beneath self-destructive imagery. The Private Snafu cartoons should stand as a cautionary reminder of the arbitrary and often dark depths that social and behavioral conditioning can plumb beneath an apparently benign facade.
This article originally appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue 42 (www.brightlightsfilm.com).
1 Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons (New York: Holt, 1989) 379.
2 Beck and Friedwald 379.
3 Beck and Friedwald 379.
4 Steve M. Barkin, “Fighting the Cartoon War: Information Strategies in World War II,” Journal of American Culture, Spring/Summer 1984: 114.
5 Barkin 114.
6 Barkin 115.
7 Barkin 117.
8 David Culbert, “‘Why We Fight’: Social Engineering for a Democratic Society at War,” Film and Radio Propaganda in World War II, ed. K.R.M. Short (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1983) 173.
9 Culbert 175.
10 Culbert 177.
11 Culbert 175.
12 Shamus Culhane, Talking Animals and Other People (New York: St. Martins, 1986) 267.
13 Culbert 181.
14 Culbert 182.
15 Culhane 269.
16 Steve Schneider, That’s All Folks!: The Art of Warner Bros. Animation (New York: Holt, 1988) 88.
17 Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic (New York: Plume Books, 1980) 254.
18 Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War (New York: Free Press, 1987) 28.
19 Koppes and Black 28.
20 Koppes and Black 43.
21 Beck and Friedwald 379.
22 Culhane 270.
23 Danny Peary and Gerald Peary, The American Animated Cartoon (New York: Dutton, 1980) 165.
24 Schneider 87-88.
25 Barkin 115.
26 Culhane 268.
27 Peary and Peary 165.
28 Maltin 254.
Private Snafu: Complete and Uncensored. Compiled by Dave Butler. (Cudahy, WI: Bosko Video. Contains fourteen Private Snafu cartoons produced by Warner Bros.):
Barkin, Steve M. “Fighting the Cartoon War: Information Strategies in World War II.” Journal of American Culture Spring/Summer 1984: 113-117.
Beck, Jerry and Will Friedwald. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A complete Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons New York: Holt, 1989.
Culbert, David. “‘Why We Fight’: Social Engineering for a Democratic Society at War.” Film and Radio Propaganda in World War II. Ed. K.R.M. Short. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1983. 173-191.
Culhane, Shamus. Talking Animals and Other People. New York: St. Martins, 1986.
Koppes, Clayton R. and Gregory D. Black. Hollywood Goes to War. New York: Free Press, 1987.
Maltin, Leonard. Of Mice and Magic. New York: Plume Books, 1980.
Peary, Danny and Gerald Peary. The American Animated Cartoon. New York: Dutton, 1980.
Schneider, Steve. That’s All Folks!: The Art of Warner Bros. Animation. New York: Holt, 1988.
The Private Snafu Series
Produced by Leon Schlesinger
Music by: Carl W. Stalling
Voice characterizations: Mel Blanc
Narration: Robert C. Bruce
Writers: Theodore Geisel, Phil Eastman, and W. Munro Leaf
Titles (Date, Director)
“Coming Snafu” (June 1943, Chuck Jones)
“Gripes” (July 1943, Friz Freleng)
“Spies” (August 1943, Chuck Jones)
“The Goldbrick” (September 1943, Frank Tashlin)
“The Infantry Blues” (September 1943, Chuck Jones)
“Fighting Tools” (October 1943, Bob Clampett)
“The Home Front” (November 1943, Frank Tashlin)
“Rumors” (December 1943, Friz Freleng)
“Booby Traps” (January 1944) Bob Clampett)
“Snafuperman” (March 1944, Friz Freleng)
“Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike” (March 1944, Chuck Jones)
“A Lecture on Camouflage” (April 1944, Chuck Jones)
“Gas” (May 1944, Chuck Jones)
“The Chow Hound” (1944, Frank Tashlin)
“Censored” (1944, Frank Tashlin)
“Outpost” (1944, Chuck Jones)
“Pay Day” (1944, Friz Freleng)
“Target Snafu” (1944, Friz Freleng)
“The Three Brothers” (1944, Friz Freleng)
“In the Aleutians” (1945, Chuck Jones)
“It’s Murder She Says” (1945, Chuck Jones)
“Hot Spot” (1945, Friz Freleng)
“Operation Snafu” (1945, Friz Freleng)
“No Buddy Atoll” (1945, Chuck Jones)
“Coming Home” (unreleased, Chuck Jones)
“Secrets of the Caribbean” (unreleased, Chuck Jones)