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Jewish World Review Nov. 21, 2001 / 6 Kislev, 5762

Bob Greene

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Be grateful for the
songs not being sung -- IT may be time for Americans to pause for a moment, and pat themselves on the back. There is something to be sort of proud of:


Restraint in warfare is not always a good thing. Restraint on the homefront, though, is worthy of self-congratulation.

President Bush, almost immediately after the attacks on New York and Washington, made it clear that insulting remarks, much less violence, against Muslim people, or people of Arab descent, will be considered un-American. Americans seemed to understand that he meant it.

Let's go back 60 years or so -- to World War II. For the details you are about to read, I am indebted to historian Richard R. Lingeman's meticulous and illuminating research on the World War II era.

The following will be deeply offensive to many readers. That's the point -- what is offensive now was considered mainstream when we were at war in the 1940s.

After Pearl Harbor, according to Lingeman, there was a rush by U.S. composers to write "the Great American War Song." A congressman named J. Parnell Thomas proclaimed: "What America needs today is a good five-cent war song . . . a good, peppy marching song, something with plenty of zip, ginger and fire."

What America's composers came up with, though . . .

Well, even today's radio shock jocks would be reluctant to go near these songs. And the songs weren't meant as parodies -- they were intended to be taken straight.

The fastest song written, according to Lingeman, was introduced in a nightclub by Burt Wheeler on the night of Dec. 7, 1941. The song was called "We'll Knock the Japs Right Into the Laps of the Nazis," and included the line: "Chins up, Yankees, let's see it through, and show them there's no yellow in the red, white and blue. . . ."

Following in quick order were the following songs: "Goodbye, Momma, I'm Off to Yokohama"; "The Japs Haven't Got a Chinaman's Chance"; "They're Going to Be Playing Taps on the Japs"; "We Are the Sons of the Rising Guns"; "Oh, You Little Son of an Oriental"; "Slap the Jap Right Off the Map"; "To Be Specific, It's Our Pacific"; and "When Those Little Yellow Bellies Meet the Cohens and the Kelleys." There were songs directed at the Axis powers in Europe, too, but they did not contain quite the racial vitriol that the songs about Japan did. Some songs about America's enemies in Europe were: "Let's Put the Axe to the Axis" and "Let's Knock the Hit Out of Hitler."

But it was the songs about the war in the Pacific that, today, still have the power to astonish. Clearly, once war was declared, anything was considered fair game. From a song introduced by Eddie Cantor on his network radio show: "Take the nip out of the Nipponese and chase 'em back to their cherry trees. . . ." From the song "You're a Sap, Mr. Jap," which was written and copyrighted three hours before Congress even declared war: "You're a sap, Mr. Jap, to make a Yankee cranky . . . Uncle Sam is gonna spanky. . . ."

None of these songs lasted long; they were more like a national shout of anger. But they were out there in the mainstream, and they were not particularly controversial. Soon enough, songs like "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," "A Boy in Khaki, a Girl in Lace," and "When the Lights Go On Again All Over the World" replaced the ones with the more inflammatory titles and lyrics, and were accepted by the public.

But now, as we find ourselves in a new century and a new kind of war, with the attacks on the American mainland claiming more casualties than at Pearl Harbor, we are not being presented with those kinds of songs, revised to be aimed at different nationalities and ethnic groups. It would be tempting to say that this is because the U.S. has become more civil and genteel since the days of World War II -- but the opposite is true. The U.S. has become coarser, more vulgar.

So maybe the credit for the current restraint really should go to President Bush, for setting the tone early.

Before we get too carried away praising ourselves, though, we probably should remember something else the president said:

This is going to be a very long war.

At some point, chances are that all bets will be off. When they are, we may have to redefine ugly.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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