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
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,
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
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) –
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
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
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
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