The springs of Springfield

If the origin of his lost appendage were unknown, most viewers would assume that Herman, the one-armed owner of Herman’s Military Antiques, is a war veteran. Since the ages of characters on The Simpsons seem to matter little, considering Bart’s 20-year stint in fourth grade, Herman could easily be a veteran of Vietnam or the Gulf War. He’d be the ideal spokesman for post-traumatic stress disorder, or what the British papers in World War One would have called “fatigue.” He’d be the typical jaded, haunted vet, like someone from a deleted scene of The Deer Hunter. But he is not.

In Bart the General, Herman tells Bart “next time your teacher tells you to keep your arm inside the bus window, you do it!” This indicates that Herman lost his arm in a school bus accident when he was a boy. If this is true, he never would have been eligible for military service, and thus his strung-out Lieutenant Dan demeanor has nothing to do with combat.

We’ve all encountered these people — the ones who absorb military culture, wishing they could be part of it. But all the while they remain on the outside looking in, never having entered into military service — Gareth from Ricky Gervais’ The Office (Tim: “So you could take a man from behind?” Gareth: “Yeah”); Eddie Sherman, the mail-guy turned clothing catalogue writer in Seinfeld (“It’s hard to keep your feet dry, when you’re kicking in a skull”); the dorks who play Call of Duty (“I’m 1337”); the kids in fatigues at paintball sites (“Hey idiot with fogged-up glasses. Cover me”). All dream of being all they can be by being macho violent men, but something holds them back. Perhaps their desire for the combat experience comes from a desire for an excuse for their already psychotic behaviour.

And Herman is certainly a little out there. He holds Chief Wiggum and Snake prisoner in a bizarre Pulp Fiction-esque near-rape scene, owns a miniature nuclear bomb that was designed by the United States government for dropping on beatniks, and even tries to sell counterfeit jeans, which he tries to use as a zipline (“Ahh, foiled by my own shoddy merchandise!”). Herman has issues, but not from the military.

While the other examples of military wannabe-ism mentioned earlier come off as pathetic and funny, Herman actually seems to have genuine knowledge. He sells military antiques, or things he passes off as military antiques, and he seems to know about military history. He also has strategic knowledge, since he helps Bart plan a diabolical water balloon attack on Nelson in Bart the General. He helps Bart draft a declaration of war and later, an armistice. He also lets Bart in on Springfield’s secret. He says “The key to Springfield has always been Elm Street. The Greeks knew it. The Carthaginians knew it. Now you know it.”

Despite never being in the military, Herman clearly knows something about it. Of course he wishes that he could live the soldier’s life, but it seems he has carved out his niche in Springfield. Other characters come to him if they need weapons or strategic advice, and he doesn’t seem particularly unhappy. Like Tom Clancy, who also never made it into the military, Herman has done alright for himself, craziness and all.