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A Novel Approach  
So his semi-autobiographical, self-indulgent first novel didn’t find its audience. But does that give the Navy the right to openly mock our columnist?  

    April 16, 2001 —  Which of the following would best motivate you to serve your country: The promise of great wealth, the satisfaction of a job well done or the sense that you are a hopeless loser who is going nowhere?  

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  THE U.S. NAVY is banking on the latter.
        The same branch of the armed services best known recently for 24 spy plane crew members sitting around a no-star Chinese hotel for 11 days has unveiled a new ad campaign that presents the Navy as an exhilarating career opportunity for people whose current lives are, how shall we put it?, lame-o.
        The new ads feature the typical scenes of buff guys and gals diving into churning surf, landing on hostile beaches, motoring in some expensive machinery (all to the pulsing beat of the heavy-metal band Godsmack). But if the standard armed forces appeal to machismo is not reason enough to get you to sign away the next two years of your life, a voiceover tries to guilt you into it:
“If someone wrote a book about your life would anyone want to read it?”

       “If someone wrote a book about your life,” the narrator intones, “would anyone want to read it?”
        As someone who actually did write a book about my life that no one wanted to read, I was so offended by the ad that the first time I saw it, I nearly dropped the donut I was eating and fell off the couch. Just because my semi-autobiographical, self-indulgent first novel didn’t find its audience, what gives the Navy the right to openly mock me?
        Maybe I’m just a little sensitive, but why does advertising have to make us feel bad about ourselves anyway? It’s bad enough that ads for health clubs show people with muscles in places where I don’t even have places and generally make me feel like a garden slug because I can’t run a mile in less than four minutes. But now seemingly every new ad is designed to make you feel that if you lack the energy to bike 50 miles to work, you’re just a big leech on the body of America.

       Most men, Thoreau told us, lead lives of quiet desperation. That doesn’t make them—or, more important, me—bad people, does it?
        I admit that the failure of my semi-autobiographical, self-indulgent first novel was perhaps coloring my journalistic integrity, so I called Bill Ewald, whose ad agency, Campbell-Ewald, devised the new Navy spots.
        While not sympathizing with my novel’s commercial failure (why should he—no one else did!), Ewald confessed that the Navy’s new campaign is not designed for self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical (and, hey, we might as well add “dumpy” while we’re at it) adults like me. It’s designed for impressionable teens who are embarking on their first major life decision. You know: “Should I become a rapper, a tattoo artist or just devote myself to snowboarding full-time?”
        Ewald said the ads were the result of “extensive” “research” that showed that today’s kids are actually as patriotic as the so-called “greatest generation,” the heroes of WWII. “That’s why we call them ‘The Next Greatest Generation,’” Ewald said, utterly without irony. He did, however, admit that today’s kids possess a brand of patriotism would be almost unrecognizable to Tom Brokaw’s beloved Nazi fighters.
        “Their patriotism is rooted in a belief that America is great because of things like rock, snowboarding, Dennis Rodman with his tattoos and the CEO of Napster,” Ewald said. “He’s one of their heroes because he’s sticking it to big business and the government so they can all get their free rock ‘n’ roll.”
        (Let me get this straight: Members of the “Next Greatest Generation” like to steal copyrighted music? Maybe the next Navy ad should ask, “If you wrote a book about your life, would you just allow people to download it for free?!”)
        Anyway, Ewald did a good job of convincing me that the younger generation needs in-your-face ads tailored to their uniquely American, MTV-stoked, anti-hero form of patriotism—but he dodged my question about whether my semi-autobiographical, self-indulgent first novel really would’ve been dramatically improved had I served a tour of duty on, say, a Navy spy plane sitting in China for 11 days.
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       Imagine the exciting book those guys will write: Chapter 1: We’re on a boring routine spying mission. Chapter 2: Whoa, what the hell was that? A Chinese fighter plane just hit us. Let’s land on that island down there. Chapter 3: Whew, that was close. Now we’re sitting here waiting for the Chinese to let us go home. Chapter 4: Still waiting. Chapter 5: Still waiting. Chapter 6: Still waiting. Man, it’s hot. Chapter 7: Still waiting. This is the worst Chinese food I’ve ever had. Chapter 8: Oh, they’re letting us go home now.
        Granted, you might want to read Chapter 2, but that’s about it. Still unconvinced, I called the Navy for some writing tips and was hooked up with Commander Steve Lowry, who’s been a sailor for 25 years, most recently as a recruiting officer.
        Lowry laid out his life story for me to judge its readability: He joined the Navy as a musician and became teacher with the armed forces’ tri-service school for military musicians. After that “tour” of “duty,” Lowry found civilian life so unsatisfying that he re-upped.
        “I’ve had some adventures,” Lowry said modestly, including serving on ships visiting war-torn Scandinavia, the always dangerous Caribbean, the hair-trigger Mediterranean and the enemy-held North Atlantic.
       Lowry did describe one almost-exhilarating experience when an enemy mortar shell landed near his barracks during a visit to Lebanon.
        “It nearly threw me right out of my cot,” Lowry said.
        Hmm, sounds to me like a chapter—and a short one, to boot. But then again, what do I know? The book about my life couldn’t even make it to the remainder bin.

In addition to his semi-autobiographical, self-indulgent first novel, Gersh Kuntzman is also the author of “HAIR! Mankind’s Historic Quest to End Baldness” (Random House, April 2001). E-mail him through his website at http://www.gersh.tv/

       © 2002 Newsweek, Inc.
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