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Apr 10, 2004 3:17 pm

Warfare and Humor

Laughing at our soldiers' reason for dying SPECIAL TO THE AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN Monday, April 5, 2004, p. A9

March 21, 2004, marked the anniversary of the first death of an American soldier in combat in Iraq. The death count is now 600 and getting higher. Fifty-nine British soldiers have been killed.

Three days after this solemn anniversary, President Bush attended the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association Dinner in Washington, D.C., as a guest, according to CBS News chief political writer David Paul Kuhn, of"the talking heads, the television powerful, the broadcast journalists." Our commander-in-chief there delivered a pre-scripted comedy routine, complete with slides, showing him looking outside White House windows and under a White House couch. He joked,"Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere." He got lots of laughs.

On the same day in my economical Bed & Breakfast near the building in London that George Orwell used as the model for his Ministry of Truth, I read some day-old news that got no laughs in Great Britain. The Daily Telegraph reported on its front page that 14 British soldiers had been wounded, three seriously, in street protests in Iraq. A large color photograph showed two British soldiers in riot gear, their helmeted heads and upper bodies aflame after being hit by petrol bombs.

The number of U.S. military wounded in Operation Iraqi freedom and its aftermath now approaches 3,500.

Given such human cost, it is not unreasonable that some people should be concerned about the lack of judgment the president and his advisers showed in dreaming up and delivering this WMD skit. Readers of the Statesman responded strongly with letters to the editor. The fact that these jokes were not"off-the-cuff," but instead planned and approved, gives us cause to wonder whether the president's insulated inner circle understands how ordinary people might feel.

Of even greater concern, in my opinion, is the subsequent politicizing of this episode and the further trivializing of the issue of WMDs as the main reason for launching a pre-emptive military attack against Iraq. You may think I am being a stodgy moralist here and dismiss this whole matter as"a silly controversy" and politically motivated" cheap advantage grabbing," as liberal talk-show host Harry Shearer has. So let me explain.

Corpses, maimed bodies and veterans with wounded psyches are not political matters. Dead men and women no longer have a political affiliation. What the loved ones of soldiers who have died in action and what soldiers who will bear physical or psychological scars for the rest of their lives have to believe is that their sacrifice was worth it.

In a profile of Iraqi-war amputee Michael Cain in the March 8 New Yorker magazine, Dan Baum reports that Cain told him he had no regrets and would serve his country again. But Cain vowed that he would never let his son join the army.

Most poignant, however, is what veteran Steve Reighard, another amputee at Walter Reed Hospital, says:"I believed in what we were doing. If we hadn't gone to war, eventually we'd see chemical arms and those kinds of munitions in our streets." Reighard believes the WMDs matter. Why? As he tells Baum,"You, know, we kind of have to think that. Otherwise, this (missing arm of mine) is in vain."

In this, Reighard and Cain -- and bereaved mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, sons and daughters -- are no different than their counterparts in previous wars. Those who fight are dead serious about the reasons for their great sacrifice.

When Siegfried Sassoon, the British officer and poet in World War I, sensed that his men were suffering and dying abominably for no clear purpose, he protested by publicly refusing to fight until the British government explained its objectives clearly and set a timetable for either achieving them or ending the war.

While in London on leave, Sassoon saw a civilian music review where the chorus sang"the Kaiser loves our dear old tanks."

His poetic response to such obtuse civilian jocularity was savage:"I'd like to see a Tank come down the stalls,/ Lurching to rag-time tunes, or 'Home sweet Home',/ And there'd be no more jokes in music-halls/ to mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume."

Next time the White House wants to tell a joke about non-existent weapons, it should try it out first among the wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital -- and only then take it on the road.

Palaima is Dickson Centennial Professor of Classics at UT-Austin and a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman.


I had the above published in the Austin American-Statesman; and, unlike my 80-some other pieces over the last 5 years, it has met with almost unanimously positive response, especially from two recent vets who agreed that, like Cain, they did not question their own decision to serve, but they would never allow their children to join the military. That says lots about how they view the reasons for fighting in Iraq or anywhere, especially given how military service is now determined here in the United States.

The one negative was from a former student of mine, a minister, who kept coming back again and again to the issue of humor. He argues, among other things, that the president as commander-in-chief should fall into the category of active soldiers who, as the rich history of war accounts proves, resort to forms of dark, often cynical humor to deal with the horrors and hardship of life in the combat zone.

What do others think of this?

My piece tries to make clear that I do not think this is a political issue, or at least should not be. I think it is an issue of reverence, as defined by my colleague Paul Woodruff in his fine book of the same name. See P. Woodruff, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). For a transcript of an interview with Bill Moyers, cf.

My op ed circles back to the White House, not for political reasons, but because the conscious decision of the president and his staff to devise and perform this skit reveals, in my opinion, an appalling lack of reverence for the dead and the maimed, physically and psychologically, in this war, which ironically is not an ‘official’ war and the active campaign portion of which has long been declared over. The White House are the primary agents in all these acts.

But the broadcasters in attendance are just as guilty. This is the point of my citing Sassoon, who had a deep and bitter hatred of politicians, privileged gentleman, women, the yellow pressmen, the clergy and the whole home crowd, who from their safe and ignorant positions could express humor, false patriotism, or ‘insights’ about the war and the soldiers who served.

The same kind of bitterness about the home front infuses the works of veteran and critic Paul Fussell, most recently his account of the American infantry experience in Europe in World War II, The Boys’ Crusade. And it is standard in Remarque, O’Brien, Hemingway. Pick a war and you find it.

But my minister friend argues that the event the president attended in Washington called for humor and the president was therefore just responding in kind and was doing what was called for by the occasion.

I feel very uneasy about that line of argument, because I essentially agree with Fussell and Sassoon. Some subjects should be taboo for humor except by the particular insiders who have the experience, aka have ‘paid their dues’, to merit commenting on the subjects in a humorous way. This applies to matters of race, gender, ethnicity, social status, religion and so on.

I then thought of the freedom of speech the ancient Athenian playwrights, tragic and comic, enjoyed in commenting on war. But given the universal male military service and constant experience of war in 5th-century Athens, the audience and the playwrights themselves were soldiers and formed an inner circle of just the sort I am talking about, a group that had the right to comment on their own experience with humor or satire.

The bitingly satirical jokes of Aristophanes about war and commanders or Aeschylus’ depictions of war in the Agamemnon or Seven Against Thebes is public therapeutic ‘insider’ humor. See Larry Tritle’s From Melos to My Lai and Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America for more on the setting for Athenian tragedy and comedy as a veterans' 'therapy'.

One last thing.

What Cain actually tells the New Yorker writer Baum about whether he (Cain) would allow his son to join the military is:"Fuck no. I'd tell him, 'I'll beat the shit out of you if you try it.'" That is quoted directly in New Yorker. I wanted that to be printed, and argued for it with the Statesman editorial staff, one of whom is a Vietnam vet, so I respect his opinion greatly. So it was edited out.

Still I cannot help feeling, more than thinking that this somehow proves Tim O'Brien's point that we civilians will never understand the experience of soldiers at war because we cannot deal with the word 'shit'.

Any comments?

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More Comments:

Thomas G. Palaima - 4/10/2004

I am not quick to rationalize this kind of behavior. f

For a person who has used his power to put men and women in a situation where they die or are maimed to even entertain joking like this is almost sociopathic behavior and certainly reflects a gross insensitivity towards what anyone connected with the Iraq theater right now is going through.

What it does perhaps reflect is proof that the original use of WMD's as a cause for war was a pretext.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/10/2004

I think you might be on to something. We are pretty quick to rationalize this behavior, but in the back of our minds there is still the possibility that he's an insensitive boor.

Ophelia Benson - 4/10/2004

Interesting. Reminds me strongly of that other joke that Bush has never quite lived down - the mimicry of Carla Faye Tucker's petition not to be executed: Bush saying in a high voice (to a journalist of all people) "Don't kill me! Don't kill me!" As a joke.

Weird. Defense mechanisms are one thing, but it's hard to believe that's what this sort of thing is.

Thomas G. Palaima - 4/10/2004

There is a Charles Pugsley Fischer "Thaddeus and Weez" cartoon in today's papr here that depicts two combat-dressed and helmeted GI's. The first panel has one of them commenting in his balloon: "'They' weren't going to be doing the fighting, so 'they' said Iraq would be a cakewalk. No need for massive ground troops."

Second panel shows the other soldier commenting, his balloon blank. Third panel has the first GI replying, his balloon blank. Fourth panel, the second GI replies, same thing.

At bottom of fourth panel a small sub-panel says "expletive deleted".

Sort of sums it all up right there. If Sassoon, Owen and others had been cartoonists.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/10/2004

Very thoughtful piece, Tom. Thanks for this. Somehow, it reminded me of an occasion when I was an undergraduate at Duke. As I was walking across the quad one day, someone committed suicide by leaping from the top of the chapel tower. After the immediate horror of witnessing the event and the rush of attention to it, I recall that some engineering students got out their slide rules to calculate the impact of the person's fall. That struck me as a terribly inhumane response. When I said that to one of my professors, he observed that people devise a remarkable range of defense mechanisms as ways of coping with tragedy.
Yet, I think that your piece is quite right. In the face of the horror of 9/11, I can't recall anyone here in the United States who dealt with it humorously. It's a travesty that no one in the administration could see that joking references to the search for WMDs were highly inappropriate. How can it be that the geographical distancing from suffering and death that we "achieved" by placing it in Iraq can cause us to respond so much differently now than we did after 9/11?

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