Fruit Salad

Sergeant George Baker’s cartoon character‚ the Sad Sack of World War II, put a new lower-case noun into the language and became a main attraction of Yank, the army weekly. Baker’s stylized characters were all remarkable‚ his sergeants especially so for their ogreish canine teeth, thrusting upward outside the upper lip. The sergeants were also paunchily overweight (through leaving it all to the lower ranks), and all general officers sported so many ribbons and decorations as to require an annex, a sort of panel extending down midway on the left thigh, to accommodate them. All characters, for some reason quite effective but never explained, had three fingers and a thumb instead of four.

Baker’s high brass come to mind from time to time on TV, when military spokesmen appear with ribbons so profuse as to reach very nearly to some point of annexation. No one need doubt their honorable title to all that they are showing, nor the relevance of the service underlying it. There is no suggestion that these medals, as Elmer Davis said of the late Senator McCarthy’s, are “self-inflicted.” The point is, merely, at this stage of international affairs we remain a nation of civilians in spite of ourselves and the world: instead of all the ribbons, so many more than a shorter span of service could possibly produce, why not display just a few of the hottest? The man with the ribbons may feel suitably turned out for a formal occasion, but the TV camera converts the same occasion into an individual confrontation with the householder, at home. Does the full assortment help the “image” which TV and its practitioners seem to take so seriously?

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman includes a memorable photograph: an elderly, bulging, and unsuccessful general of the Czar’s army, who seems all but completely sheathed in stars, crosses, bars, and miscellaneous sunbursts — about the equivalent of what a Boston dowager would fetch out of her safedeposit box for the occasion of her annual attendance at the opera. The general’s aide, in the same photograph, was too young to have accumulated so many insignia, but he was nonetheless a showpiece in his own right, managing to look very much like a chorus boy in a Shubert production of The Student Prince.

Royalty in real life has always been fond of decorating itself and swapping honors with its relatives. Carol of Rumania, even as a young crown prince, had picked up a whole facade of grand crosses and sacred orders, most of which, one suspects, were bestowed on him by his mother. Crown princes in general seem to gain their laurels early, and considerable military rank into the bargain, just by staying alive.

Our own military men of high rank are certainly more plausible in appearance; in fact, one might imagine that a certain kind of physiognomy is a requirement, among others, for the upper crust: impassive‚ sober, and straightforward in expression, very regular features — in short, an uncommonly goodlooking man, mature, but young enough to be reassuringly active. It helps, too, if he is wrinkle-free and well turned out, which reminds us of Geoffrey Household’s autobiographical solution of his worries over his own imaginary incapacity as a “retread” British officer in World War II. “If you preserve a smart, alert and intelligent bearing,” he wrote in Against the Wind, “you will have ample time later to find out what the devil your superiors or subordinates are talking about.”

A heavily beribboned military figure, sufficiently famous to be entertaining dreams of the presidency, turned up in Boston some years ago, and an old friend of mine proved to be traveling with him as a sort of political adviser. They were an improbable pair for any such joint effort. My friend was a newspaperman, easygoing, careless of his appearance, with a vast aggregate of friends and acquaintances throughout the land. He was in no wise at a dead end when we met, but he was beginning to tire of it all, even though the general’s prospects at the moment seemed fairly promising. (They did not materialize.) The general could have stepped straight into a Hollywood film: classically handsome, immaculate‚ ruddy, his thick, snowy hair sleeky combed, an altogether impressive sight. “Funny thing,” my friend remarked in a moment of privacy. “He looks all right, he talks all right, but after you are with him for a while you get the feeling that here’s something that ought to be on casters.”