The Magazine

War Is No Joke

A West Point baccalaureate address.

May 31, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 35 • By RUTH R. WISSE
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West Point

War Is No Joke

I feel exceptionally privileged to address the graduates at this West Point Jewish Baccalaureate Service. 

Our society generally tries to spare its young, and prolongs adolescence beyond anything imagined by previous generations. Colleges increasingly act in the role of parents to protect students from conflict, and to keep them from harming themselves. We adults often prefer to sacrifice ourselves rather than to ask help from our children. But soldiering in the defense of the country is a service that only youth can perform. Any society that expects to remain strong and purposeful must have a viable defense, which depends on the young who train for that purpose. Consequently, there are no graduates whom we, as a society, respect more than those prepared to take the lead in protecting our freedoms. Coming as I do from a school where only a handful among several thousand undergraduates join the Reserve Officers Training Corps, I am honored to address graduates who take on military leadership as a matter of choice. 

My appreciation also has a personal component. I teach Yiddish, the language and culture of European Jews and their descendants—the language and culture of people who had no independent means of self-defense. Yiddish was created and flourished before the rise of the State of Israel. Although by the end of the 19th century, thousands of Jews were serving in the armies of their respective countries, Yiddish expressed the predicament of Jews who lacked the means to fight on their own behalf. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on a character that embodies this dilemma, “The Schlemiel as Modern Hero.” It begins with a joke: 

The Battle of Tannenberg was fought at the start of World War I between the armies of Germany and Russia. The battle is at its height when a czarist officer announces to his company: “The moment has come! We’re going to charge the enemy. It’ll be man against man in hand-to-hand combat.” A Jewish soldier in the company pipes up: “Please, sir. Show me my man! Maybe I can come to an understanding with him.” 

The soldier in this joke is a schlemiel—a man so naïve that he doesn’t understand the premise of the fight into which he has been conscripted. The comedy pokes fun at his inexperience, but it also makes light of warfare that expects a man to fight. Such humor appeals to the child in us that doesn’t want to engage in grown-up conflicts. Schlemiel jokes laugh away the threat that is otherwise real. 

Here’s another: Sometime during World War I, a Jew loses his way along the frontier. He is suddenly stopped by a border guard who shouts: “Halt, or I’ll shoot!” The Jew blinks into the beam of the searchlight and says: “What the matter with you? Are you crazy? Zest nit az do geyt a mentsh? Can’t you see that this is a human being?” 

Hilarious in Yiddish, this joke hardly works in English, which has trouble imagining someone so unworldly that he cannot grasp that a man may be shot just for stepping on the wrong side of a border. The joke may likewise fall flat because we now know what happened to the people who created those jokes. They were slaughtered in the millions. What we call the Holocaust targeted precisely the population that created schlemiel comedy. We learned from that episode that sweetness was no laughing matter and that joking—which momentarily releases tension—offered no defense against real belligerents. The schlemiel who initially made us laugh also taught us to raise our guard. 

When I wrote about the schlemiel in the 1960s, I had in mind the culture of Jews, but nowadays, we Americans similarly confront enemies who intend to destroy our way of life. Like the Jews of Europe, we are tempted to ignore them. We enjoy getting along with the rest of the world. We have no passion for war, favoring peace and prosperity. Like the schlemiel, some among us think that warfare is a ridiculous pursuit. So we may be tickled when an NCO asks: “Men, why do we soldier for our country?” and Private Katsenstein responds, “You’re right, Sergeant, why do we?”

Those of you here who are graduating today know why we do. Yours is the doubled legacy of Jews and Americans who may appreciate better than anyone else the privileges of citizenship, and the training that is necessary for its protection. Thankfully, the Jews of today are able to defend themselves, and though we may laugh at the absurdities of war, most of us realize that until others stop nursing grievance and promoting violence we will have to confront their enmity. 

America is free thanks to those who won its independence. It has come to represent the ideal of freedom only thanks to those who were prepared in body and spirit to champion that ideal. That means you, and those who came before you, and those who will follow your example. Builders must be stronger, wiser, and more creative than their would-be destroyers if they intend to keep even a fragile peace. This truth that Jews have learned at great cost is something Americans have always known. 

That is why, in this season of convocation, we your relatives, friends, and well-wishers honor you who have trained for the armed forces, acting on the knowledge that radical innocence is no match for radical evil.

Ruth R. Wisse is Martin Peretz professor ofYiddish literature and professor of comparative literature at Harvard University. This article is adapted from her address on May 20 to 13 Jewish cadets graduating from West Point—whose inaugural class of 1802 had two students, one of them a Jew.

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