Wednesday, November 9, 2016

USO — For the Troops (PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Monday night, just before a rerun of the Frontline documentary comparing Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and depicting their backgrounds, PBS made one of the most unusual programming decisions I can think of: they ran an hour-long documentary called USO — For the Troops about the famous agency that provides entertainment to U.S. servicemembers stationed overseas. Contrary to common belief the “US” in the name “USO” does not stand for “United States.” The group’s full name is “United Service Organization” and it was created by executive order by President Franklin Roosevelt in February 1941. Before that each of the branches of the U.S. military had its own service organization, and Roosevelt reasoned that in the upcoming U.S. involvement in World War II (he had already pushed a conscription bill through Congress in October 1940 — the first, but regrettably not the last, in U.S. history — and as much as he was trying to play lip service to America’s official isolationist policy he was looking for as many creative ways to help the Allied war effort even before the Pearl Harbor attack officially brought the U.S. into the war) they should be merged into one so they could recruit bigger stars and provide higher-quality entertainment. Of course no depiction of the USO would be complete without its greatest star, Bob Hope, though I was surprised the filmmakers (they were unidentified on the PBS Web page for this production and the film isn’t listed on at all) didn’t tell the marvelous story of how Hope got involved in “entertaining the troops” in the first place. The U.S. put out a call to the major movie studios to make films about the new draft law, and Paramount, Universal and 20th Century-Fox all rose to the bait and made comedies about unlikely soldiers finding themselves in the service and having to learn what military service was about in a hurry.

Universal made Buck Privates, which made overnight movie stars of its leads, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. 20th Century-Fox, having just lured Laurel and Hardy away from their long-time contract with Hal Roach, put them in a script called Great Guns which was a knockoff of Buck Privates. Paramount put Bob Hope into a service comedy called Caught in the Draft, and as part of the promotion for the film they booked Hope to perform live at two military bases, including Fort Ord near Monterey, California. As things turned out, Hope enjoyed performing for servicemembers at military bases so much, he wanted to do more of it — and the fledgling USO was all too glad to recruit him. Hope would literally entertain the troops in every war the U.S. fought until the end of his life — his last stand was in Kuwait performing for the troops of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. There are brief, tantalizing clips of the World War II-era USO shows, including one of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra together — Bing is shown with a strikingly receding hairline; he developed male pattern baldness relatively early but wore a toupee for his stateside appearances, though when he went on tour with the USO he showed up with his hair au naturel — and one we’d seen before of Hope joking that the Nazis were finding out “Crimea doesn’t pay” (a joke someone could probably use now about President-Elect Trump’s good buddy, Russian President Vladimir Putin!). President Harry Truman mothballed the USO in 1947 but brought it back to life three years later when the U.S. got involved in the Korean War, and there are some tantalizing clips of the Hope troupe performing in that conflict, including shots of Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield and Hope giving one of his best lines for the USO: “There’s so much mud here it’s the first time the ground has put in for a transfer.”

Then there was the U.S. war in Viet Nam, the insane escalation, the sense that nobody involved in the war — including the “grunts” themselves — knew what it was all about or why they were there, and (one of the most shameful pages of the antiwar movement) the attacks on returning servicemembers when they got back, including spitting on them, calling them baby-killers and otherwise turning our dissatisfaction with the policy on the poor grunts who’d carried it out. The USO — For the Troops documentary claims that Hope carefully avoided any lines in his routine that seemed either to endorse or condemn the war or the protesters against it, but that’s not true; watching the Bob Hope Military Christmas Special from 1967, filmed at his Viet Nam tour that year and featuring Raquel Welch, Barbara McNair, Elaine Dunn, Madeleine Hartog-Bell (Miss World, from Peru), Phil Crosby (one of Bing’s sons), Earl Wilson, and Les Brown and his Band of Renown, I wrote, “[W]hat’s most fascinating about it is the extent to which it dramatizes the unspoken (and sometimes quite loudly spoken) conflict between the mainstream culture and the counter-culture of the time — between the so-called ‘silent majority’ who still believed in Viet Nam and the fight against the implacable global enemy, Godless Communism … and the hippies, the free-lovers and the political activists who were marching in the streets against the war and trying to figure out how to stop the juggernaut of American capitalist imperialism in a war that, even by its own standards, was silly. … The contrast between the two wings of American society in the 1960’s couldn’t be more obvious in the Bob Hope Military Christmas Special, less from the few nasty jokes about ‘peaceniks’ than simply from the clean, well-scrubbed (or as well-scrubbed as possible given that they were watching these shows in between battles), short-haired, clean-shaven faces in Hope’s audience and the shaggy, long-haired, colorfully dressed hippies and protesters back home; the version of Viet Nam we see here is emphatically not the nightmare of films like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, with its soldiers growing out their hair, partaking of the plentifully available local marijuana and heroin and listening to the Doors at their most apocalyptic!” (The show was formerly available on but appears to be off the site now.)

t’s also amusing to note that the service crowds seen in the Hope specials are almost all male and almost all white —though Hope, despite his conservatism in other areas, was anti-racist before anti-racism was cool and made sure to include talented Black performers in his shows (one, a quite good tap dancer, is interviewed here). Participation in the USO during the Viet Nam era itself became seen as a public statement of support for the war — “You wouldn’t have seen Bob Dylan or Joan Baez,” the show’s narrator said — and indeed Jane Fonda and her then-partner Donald Sutherland organized their own shows for the troops, FTA (which was variously said to stand for “Free the Army” or “Fuck the Army”), which were held off bases and offered troops a considerably edgier and more openly anti-war entertainment than the USO. This documentary mixes the historical footage with a modern-day USO tour headlined by country singer Craig Morgan, a former servicemember who remembers being at the receiving end of USO shows himself before he left the military, established a career as a country singer and volunteered to head a USO tour. The show also depicts how much more the USO does these days than just give shows, including helping servicemembers adjust to civilian life and offering services to servicemembers’ kids (including a Sesame Street-themed show for them). On the USO Web site,, Morgan offered a video for a song called “I’ll Be Home Soon” that he recorded and released on an album called A Whole Lot More to Me just before he went on his USO tour, and though it may seem a bit tacky that he timed his USO tour to promote his album, he plays the song at the end of USO — For the Troops and it’s actually quite good, and appropriate fare for a bunch of guys (and, this being today’s all-volunteer all-gender all-colors Army, not all guys either!) off fighting a war in a benighted slice of desert with little or no idea of why they’re there or when (or even if) they might be coming home.