The cable network FXX is currently re-running every single episode of “The Simpsons” over a 12-day marathon. It’s an ideal spirit-raiser during a season of pestilence, atrocity, and conflict — although the Simpsons, which has satirized, deconstructed, or just plain sledge-hammered nearly every aspect of American life over its quarter-century on the air, hasn’t shied away from those topics either.
Indeed, The Simpsons has taken an interest in war, peace, and its deeper meanings even since the beginning of its run. Here are five of the best episodes that dealt with military and national security-related themes.
“Bart the General” (season 1, episode 5): In this episode, Bart learns that he can’t just go it alone against Nelson, the school bully — he needs to gather a coalition of the willing, adjust his strategy to his opponent’s weaknesses, and then dispense with the illusion of absolute victory by signing a long-term non-aggression pact and then eating cupcakes with his once-enemy.
No, this episode isn’t a perfect parallel to America’s experience in the post-9/11 period, even though there have been moments where the U.S. has built coalitions, shifted its approach, altered its expectations and goals, and even broken bread, so to speak, with its former battlefield opponents.
Still, it’s sort of remarkable that this was made all the way back in early 1990.
“The Secret War of Lisa Simpson” (season 8, episode 25): Lisa becomes the only girl at Rommelwood military academy, where she endures the harassment of her classmates and eventually proves that women can be the equal to their male counterparts.
Things are trending in Lisa’s direction — longstanding exclusions on women serving in combat roles in the U.S. military are in the process of being lifted. But the episode is most memorable for the Rommelwood commandant’s graduation address, which accurately predicts the next decade and a half of battlefield trends — with some embellishment, of course:
“The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots.”
“The Principal and the Pauper” (season 9, episode 2): Seymour Skinner is the refreshing inverse of negative stereotypes about Vietnam veterans, as well as one of the more complex Vietnam vets in American pop culture. The principal of Springfield Elementary isn’t a traumatized psychopath or anR. Lee Ermey-type disciplinarian. He’s the show’s embodiment of blandness and conformity — as well as the eccentricies and insecurities that always lurk behind them, just slightly out of sight.
When you get past the episode’s preposterous and still-controversial premise — it turns out Skinner isn’t even Skinner’s real name and that he assumed the identity of a comrade he believed had died in Vietnam — it’s really about an angry street kid who finds a sense of purpose and discipline in the military, and settles in to a quietly dignified life of public service (albeit incompetently rendered, most of the time) once he returns from war.
Skinner is often a mess of a human being, never more so than in this episode. But this 22 minutes shows how he’s both less caricatured and truer to the actual experience of millions of American military veterans than scores of other similar, lesser characters.
“Simpson Tide”(season 9, episode 19): Homer joins the Navy, and then assumes command of a nuclear submarine after accidentally firing his commanding officer out of a torpedo chute. At that point, the international incident that caps the episode is all but inevitable.
Narrative-wise the episode is kind of a mess, although it does show how a cascade of geopolitical misunderstandings, fuelled by a lack of basic trust and assumptions of bad faith, can rapidly bring the world’s powers to the brink of all-out war.
And this now-classic clip, in which the U.S. exposes its total ignorance of the ambitions and very nature of Russian foreign policy — leading to a near-instantaneous breakdown of a relationship vital to global security — seems downright prophetic these days.
“New Kids on the Blech” (season 12, episode 14): A record producer recruits Bart, Nelson, Ralph and Milhouse to form a boy band — but the new pop stars don’t realise that their music contains subliminal recruitment messages for the U.S. Navy.
This episode premiered in February of 2001, and the idea that a peacetime volunteer U.S. military would have to resort to this sort of subterfuge to attract volunteers would seem outdated within a few months of its premier.
But it’s endured as a favourite, perhaps because of its appeal to an anxiety, validated for some by the Edward Snowden NSA disclosures, that the national security apparatus has penetrated the most seemingly-random or banal aspects of life.
This episode also includes the uncanny appearance of what looks like the flag of Syria’s secular opposition, over a decade before the conflict in Syria began.
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