combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2006

Bugle and Bell
musings on the soul of war

Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.
by Anne Sexton ["The Saints Come Marching In"]

I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy
Playfulness in the Warrior/Stud

One of the most important skills to have in life is the ability to know when to take things seriously and when to not take things too seriously. Nowhere is this more important than in war.

Wars are probably necessary, at times. Without the millenniums-ago stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae, Greeks today would likely be taking coursework in Persian to improve their self-esteem in conditions of economic and spiritual slavery. However, a number of wars are the result of persons who have taken themselves and/or their credos too seriously. Within wars – even noble and necessary wars – a number of battles are the result of persons who have taken themselves entirely too seriously. And there are wars that have not been fought, and battles that have not been fought – when they should have been fought – as the result of persons who have taken themselves much too seriously.

So does one take oneself seriously at all? Of course. If one is significant enough to merit the patronage of one's god or gods, one is a force to be reckoned with ... and, if one is lucky as well, an entity to be loved. Very lucky.

Where does this Laughing Buddha come from? Is this a god that we would even want to have the patronage of? Shouldn't a god take himself or herself or itself seriously? And what about the Fat Buddha in a world of privation? The world is going to hell in a hand basket (and/or a car rigged with bombs) ... and this god has nothing better to focus on than pigging-out on Hostess Twinkies?

Thinking ecumenically, what about the Hindu god Siva? This clown dances while the world burns. And Jesus let some groupie bathe his feet with expensive oils which – as some of his more-serious disciples pointed out – might better have been sold with the proceeds going to benefit the poor. Then there was Zeus, henpecked at home and playing around with nymphets while out on some divine cruise or lordly operation. Hey, even the somber and majestic ritual of Japan's Shinto is divinely infected from the culture's sleeping with the global village's consummate simpleton, Zen.

At first glance, the only major religion with a prophet who does not get loosey-goosey or weird or downright funky ... the only major religion with a prophet who comes off as Serious with a capital S ... is Islam. Doesn't that tell us something about the conflict festering at present in Iraq?

The spiritual heirs of Muhammad do not want our Wal-marts, our Donald Trump's Apprentice, our pornographic web sites, our (or maybe your) Britney Spears, or our McDonald's restaurants. So far they have a lot in common, therefore, with the spiritual heirs of Moses and Jesus. And it is worthy to note that there is nothing remotely funny about any of these cultural entities – except, perhaps, the utterly ludicrous Trump. Ronald McDonald, that spokesman in greasepaint for the Golden Arches more resembles a child molester than a genuine clown.

What Islam does not want or need is the examples that our neighboring culture gives of trying so hard to be funny that it's not funny. Cruelty is never funny.

The degrading photos that came out of the Abu Ghraib prison are not the innocent fraternity prank that some of their apologists have made them out to be. A lot of toilet humor that comes out of Hollywood is not funny ... albeit some toilet humor is funny. One of the most important skills to have in life is to know when to take things seriously, and when to not take things too seriously.

The real vulnerability that America and its allies risk in grappling with Islam – on the battlefield or otherwise – is the possibility of being bitten by the vampire while pursuing it. If we go to either extreme, in becoming humorless and vengeful in our rush to combat, or in becoming laughingly escapist and giddy in our rush from combat, we are screwed. Not funny screwed. Not sensual screwed. We will have raped ourselves. And we will have deceitfully implicated our Islamic brothers and sisters in doing so.

The non-Islamic world has a lot to offer Islam. And Islam has a lot to offer the non-Islamic world. From Islam, we who are not Islamic can receive a much-needed dose of temperance. From those of us who are not Islamic, Islam can receive a much-needed dose of intemperance.

We do not need to send the Peace Corps. We do not need to send the Agency for International Development nor the World Bank. We have already sent the best example of holy intemperance that our culture has to offer. We have sent our military.

The United States military establishment – in peace and especially in war – has historically provided to our culture, and to the world, an ongoing example of holy intemperance and divine irreverence. This is not a matter of being sacrilegious; it is a matter of life (and death) serving up lemons to the men and women in the ranks ... and the men and women in the ranks being able to concoct lemonade.

The written-in-stone jargon and acronyms of the military just invite nicknames and unofficial designations by those in the ranks. U.S.M.C. – the almost-holy initials designating our nation's Marines – can also have the unholy meaning, for the initiated, of Uncle Sam's Misguided Children and/or Unlimited Shit and Mass Confusion. During the Vietnam Era, those in the Corps affectionately referred to their branch of the armed forces as The Crotch – because, in it, you were always getting screwed. Not sensual screwed. Unless you were an officer or staff N.C.O. and found something sensual about career-enhancing shit storms.

Marines were not always the butts of their own jokes. Sailors referred to the flap on the front of their own trousers as the Marines' bib. Sailors referred to Marines as Seagoing Bellhops. Who knows who initiated the derisive term (in which Marines later took pride) – Jarheads?

Soldiers in the U.S. Army, during the Mexican War, referred to their foppish commander-in-chief, Winfield Scott, as Old Fuss n' Feathers. British prisoners-of-war in Korea in the 1950's, subjected to the brainwashing of their Chinese captors, took great delight in referring openly to the Communist leader as Mousey Dung – which only they, in a classic example of discriminatory reversal, knew was a reference to rodent shit.

Can adherents to Islam have room in their repertoire for an occasional joke about their imams – in the same fashion that Catholics can come up with gags about the pope? Or how about the example of the American military holding up their leadership to comic scrutiny?

Sad Sack and Beetle Bailey have been staples of the funny pages. The latter's Lieutenant Fuzz is a classic butter bar. Although these strips do not generally deal with combat but, rather, with life in base camp and training, strips like Sgt. Mike crop up in wartime and reflect the glorious absurdity of fighting for one's life under adverse conditions.

Bill Mauldin reported in cartoons the plight of the enlisted man in World War II while Ernie Pyle accomplished the same bittersweet irony in prose. The Reader's Digest has a regular feature of true anecdotes submitted by readers, Humor in Uniform. Bob Hope and Martha Ray have been institutions of the comic love affair between American troops and their country.

If the Islamic world can imitate the Western world by having its own version of the Red Cross – and it does, the Red Crescent – cannot it not also generate its own version of the U.S.O.?

"Who were those ladies I saw you with last night?"
"Those were no ladies. That was my harem."

Perhaps, before we of the West can easily work with our Islamic brothers and sisters in shaping a human world, we will need to learn how to play with our Islamic brothers and sisters. We of the West already know how to play with each other. We of the Western military especially know how to play with each other.

It is nothing that they taught us in boot camp nor in advanced infantry training. It is simply part of who we are as human beings – in both the most divine experiences of peace and the most hellish experiences of war. And one must suspect that it, playfulness, is part of what our Islamic brothers and sisters are as human beings also – even if they seemingly do a little better job of hiding it behind veils and headdresses.

It would serve us well to remember that, when President Nixon opened up the possibility of the United States developing a relationship with our longtime adversary, Red China, the first emissaries sent between the two nations were not diplomats but, rather, individuals who played table tennis. Maybe we need joint war games with Iran.

Just as a truly holy religion contains within it a constant seed of irreligion, of divine irreverence ... a truly adult person contains within himself or herself a constant seed of playfulness. This transcends East and West. This transcends war and peace. This paradoxically transcends duality while maintaining it.

Samuel Butler said, "A sense of humor keen enough to show a man his own absurdities, as well as those of other people, will keep him from the commission of all sins, or nearly all, save those that are worth committing."

War is a sin as such. So, sometimes, is the absence of war. We are seemingly damned if you do and damned if you don't! Therefore, pick your savior(s) carefully. And pray that yours has a sense of humor with which to guide you. The twinkle in God's eye is a reflection of the love in His heart.

The notion of a personal savior may be a bit difficult to grasp for adherents to the faith of Islam ... let alone for the spiritual Marx brothers of Zen. However, perhaps it is not too much for our allies and/or adversaries in the Near East to be able to conceive of a Laughing Muhammad or to perceive of a Fat Muhammad. Perhaps somewhere in the armies of Islam there is a writer who can walk the fine, holy line between what is genuinely divine and what is genuinely sacrilegious.

As Muhammad himself wrote: "The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr."

There will be no peace for that region nor for the world if there is not peace for the individual. And peace for the individual requires a capacity for non-derisive humor. It is not peacefulness which lays the foundation for the twinkle of humor; it is the twinkle of humor – even in the midst of war – which lays the foundation for peacefulness.

contributed by B. Keith Cossey

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