Private Snafu’s Hidden War:
Historical Survey and Analytical Perspective
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, clever, 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 admitted to by the German soldier. Since American know-how built these weapons, the German soldier’s admission concerning the superiority of American weapons further grants to the U.S. serviceman an intellectual as well as physical superiority. The enemy is, thus, inferior to the “can-do, know-how” 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 a moral 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”).
The Technical Fairy not only wields 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. 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. 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 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.