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Why Is War So Damn Funny?

Last week, Michael C asked me, "Why On Violence isn’t funnier?" It sparked a monologue on a problem I’ve been having recently: we’ve had success writing humorous pieces in the past, and we’ve been selling jokes to comedians here in Los Angeles. So the question stands: why isn’t On Violence funnier?

But to answer this question, I have to answer another question: why is war so damn funny?

A couple months ago, I read a tweet by someone that made the point, “AFGwar. war = no joke.” (Hey, it’s twitter, space is limited.) This question is insane, because war is hilarious.

We’ve been laughing at war since war began. Exhibit A: Falstaff, Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph from the Henry the IV plays, or Fluellen from Henry the V, serious plays about war, but rife with comic characters. We’ve seen good TV show comedies--M.A.S.H.--and bad TV show comedies--Hogan’s Heroes. There have been comic war novels, with Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five as the two shining examples. There have been more movies than I can count: M.A.S.H. (the film) Stripes, Duck Soap, To Be or Not To Be (both the Jack Benny and the Mel Brooks versions), etc. (I won’t even get into Jessica Simpson or Pauly Shore “movies” about war.)

Most of all, we should look at Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Herr’s memoir is a sublimely serious work that paints war as the ultimate evil. It is also hilarious. Take these examples:

“...the joke went “What you do is, you load all the friendlies onto ships and take them out to the south Sea. Then you bomb the country flat. Then you sink the ships.” (59)

“What’s the difference between the Marine Corps and the Boy Scouts?” “The Boy Scouts have adult leadership.” (101)

“There was a special Air force outfit that flew defoliation missions. They were called Ranch Hands, and their motto was, “Only We Can Prevent Forests.” (154)

“There was a standard question you could use to open a conversation with troops, and Fouhy tried it. “How long you been in-country?” he asked.

    The kid half lifted his head; that question count not be serious. The weight was really on him, and the words came slowly.
    “All     fuckin’    day,” he said. (179)

“A sucking chest wound is nature’s way of telling you that you’ve been in a firefight.” (226)

Herr also points out that war correspondents collected these anecdotes, stories and jokes, as if they were macabre anthropologists.

But here’s the thing: war isn’t funny. To go to the old cliche, we only laugh to keep ourselves from crying. The jokes are only funny because they are so fatalistic, so depressing. Take this joke, from The Things They Carried:

Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it's a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, "The fuck you do that for?" and the jumper says, "Story of my life, man," and the other guy starts to smile but he's dead.

It’s funny, except for that haunting last line, “the other guy starts to smile but he's dead.”

As O’Brien describes that joke, “That's a true story that never happened.” The reason we can laugh at war is that the jokes reveal a truth: war sucks. It sucks long and hard. And we can’t forget it. That’s why we laugh.

But sometimes we aren’t ready to laugh yet. A few weeks ago, I told someone that I’d just heard about a reporter who died in Libya. He asked, “From what, food poisoning?” It’s macabre, it’s fatalistic, and it speaks to an ugly truth about war. Except it was a joke about Tim Hetherington. And Tim Hetherington is a real person, who actually died. And anyone who knew him, or knew of him--we didn’t personally know him, but the point stands--knows this joke isn’t funny.

So why isn’t On Violence funnier? Because, while war is funny, I’m not ready to laugh yet; not when we have people and friends who are still over there.

seven comments

If the writing team of Michael and Eric C’s ever write a novel, the fatalistic humor of warfare will definitely make it in. Every deployment was filled with quite a bit of humor, not all appropriate.

I’m reading Shelby Foote’s trilogy on the civil war, its full of funny anecdotes.

Yeah, like part of what Eric C said, war has been full of humourous anecdotes since its beginning. I know sitting in a Humvee/MRAP for hours just begs for humour.

I remember the humor of Catch 22. The first 2/3 was laugh out loud funny. But then, at the end, as you began to understand the characters and what motivated and spawned their actions, it wasn’t funny anymore. It was tragic.

@ Matt That’s why i loved Catch-22

Catch 22 is laugh out loud funny, both the.book and the movie.

My mother was recently deployed to Afghanistan. When she got back she had countless stories about the locals in the mountains constantly attacking the base- but they had terrible aim and were miles off target. It was hilarious, but terribly not funny, because they were being bombed. I thought this fit pretty well with the topic- finding humor in war, a very dark subject.