and laughter in wartime
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
War is no laughing matter. In the midst of the
"shock and awe" campaign, with images of historical explosions and
destructions in front of us everyday, it is hard for me to write
about humor and laughter. It feels sacrilegious to make fun of the
Iraqi war, because war is always deadly serious.
Then, all of a sudden, I have this picture
of Saddam Hussein in my mind:
Sitting alone in his bunker amidst constant
bombardment, and surrounded by piles of American dollars, Saddam
speaks to the microphone: "God is great, God is great, Allah will
defeat the infidels! My courageous Iraqi people, pick up your pistols
and knifes to shock and awe the American invaders! If you don't
want to fight for your country, then fight for the almighty dollar.
I will offer everyone $2,000 US for killing a Coalition soldier,
and $4,000 for capturing a live one. Allah is great. Victory belongs
There is something so incongruent and absurd
in this cartoon-like image to the point of being comical. Yet, there
is also something terribly tragic and pathetic about Saddam's desperate,
doomed effort to take on the Super Power!
The imbalance between Saddam and the overwhelming
superiority of the Coalition Forces is so huge that the outcome
of this armed conflict is never in doubt. But why didn't he avoid
the war by fully complying with the United Nation's Resolutions?
Why didn't he seek exile and enjoy the rest of his life with his
billions of American dollars?
Is it because Saddam wants to die for his beloved
country? Alternatively, is it because he really believes that Nebuchadnessar's
ghostly armies will come to his aid? Is Saddam Hussein a tragic
hero or is he a comic protagonist? What makes the Iraqi war tragic
and comical at the same time?
Well, it all depends on how one looks it. Charlie
Chaplin once said: "Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but
a comedy in long-shot."
The same can be said about war. Almost all wars
stem from human follies and failures; in light of historical judgment,
they could have been avoided only if a cool head had prevailed.
In his book The Pity of War, historian Niall
Ferguson describes the First World War "the war to end war", as
"the greatest error in modern history". How will history judge the
current war to end Saddam's weapon of mass destruction?
The black comedy of war
In his satire against fascism, the great Czech
writer Karel Capek once wrote: "That we don't want war is proved
by the fact that we are fighting without declaring war." To him,
the tragedy of war is a farce about the politics of the absurd.
The same can be said about most wars. Deranged
dictators with a God-complex, narcissistic leaders gifted in manipulation,
self-righteous and arrogant political elites, ambitious commanders,
and rigid religious leaders, plus a supporting cast of jokers, gamblers,
and traitors, can really put on a good show, full of violence, intrigue
and dark humor. Even for a few moments on the center stage of the
world, these assorted characters can destroy the lives of countless
individuals. When their parts in the play are over and the curtain
comes down, the stage is full of blood and the dead can never rise
Most people equate war with Rambo-type
action movies, or dramas such as Saving
Private Ryan and We
Were Soldiers. However, if we look at war against a cosmic backdrop
and view it from an existential perspective, then war makes good
There is no greater absurdity than the sacrifice
of millions of lives to satisfy the ambition of a few fools. There
is no greater grief than to mourn the young men who die horribly
for a silly reason. There is no greater tragedy than to repeat the
same deadly mistake over and over again without learning from history.
The terror and pain are so great that one can only burst out laughing
and crying at the same time.
War can also be viewed as a demonic comedy,
in which cruel ironies abound. Just visualize the following scenarios
and see how you feel:
- President Bush has dropped the Mother of
All Bombs in Baghdad just to teach Saddam a lesson on the meaning
of the Mother of All Wars.
- American soldiers show kindness to surrendering
Iraqi soldiers, who return kindness with a friendly smile and
- Hundreds of starving Iraqis chant: "We love
Saddam, we love Saddam", while lining up for the American and
British soldiers to deliver them from hunger and thirst.
- Saddam and his two sons are watching CNN
and having a pleasant family hour in their bunker right below
the Mosque, while huge explosions destroy all the surrounding
- The most advanced and lethal weapons of mass
destruction are being used against Iraq on a daily basis in order
to uncover some evidence that Saddam possesses WMD.
Humor as a way of coping
Regardless of one's stance on war in general,
or the current war against Iraq in particular, most people would
agree that humor helps get us through the horrors of war and the
anxieties war invariably brings.
Just listen to Jay Leno, David Letterman and
other stand-up comedians. There they are, day after day, lacing
their show with Bin Laden jokes, Saddam Hussein jokes and political
jokes according to the latest news cycle. Comedians, sitcoms, jokes
are always in demand, especially in difficult times, because they
provide much-needed comic relief.
Humor, especially dark humor, can help us cope
with bad situations by being detached from it and laughing at circumstances
and laughing at ourselves.
In treating anxiety, Viktor Frankl often used
a technique called paradoxical intention. Basically, Frankl challenged
his patients to confront their fear in the worst imaginable situations.
In fact, the feared object was so exaggerated that it became ludicrous
and laughable rather than arousing anxiety.
Laughter helps release pent-up emotions and
nervous tensions. When we learn to look at the humorous side of
a tragic situation, such as the current war in Iraq, we can gain
a better perspective and rebound with optimism.
Humor also allows one to move from rigidity
to openness, from despair to hope, and from fear to the celebration
of life. With humor and laughter, we not only cope better, but also
become healthier and happier.
Norman Cousins,winner of the Peace Medal from
the United Nations for his global peace-making efforts, discovered
the magic of laugher. After his diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis,
a life-threatening degenerative disease, he watched comedy videos
in his hospital room and literally laughed himself to health. His
experience was recorded in his seminar publication Anatomy of Illness.
What is so funny about that?
But, some people may remain unconvinced. They
may ask: What is so funny about war? How could one laugh when real
people are dying in Iraq? They believe that to treat it as some
kind of comedy is to trivialize it.
Exactly the same criticism has been directed
at Robert Benigni, director and actor of Life
is Beautiful, a concentration camp comedy. He won an Oscar as
the Best Actor for this film. Of course, the Holocaust is a huge
tragedy, he would reply. To him, the film is a tragic one. He claims
that "The point where comedy and tragedy meet, when you laugh and
cry at the same time, is almost God-like," because it touches one's
Indeed, there is nothing funny about war and
suffering, but if we laugh at some aspects of the horrors of war,
we regain a new perspective of human existence.
Typically, people laugh when something is incongruent,
nonsensical or outrageous. Actions that are downright silly or bizarre
can also trigger laughter. The British may prefer more subtle kind
of humor based on satire or play on words. But all forms of humor
convey a little bit of truth about who we are.
Ultimately, what is funny depends on culture
and individual perspectives. For example, most people's jokes go
right over my head. When I ask: "What is so funny about that?" My
questioning invariably leads to another round of laugher. Many of
my students laugh when I am trying to say something serious. It's
difficult to know what can tickle one's funny bone.
Let's consider the gospel as recorded in the
Bible. It is really serious stuff, because it has to do with sin,
death, sacrificial love and redemption. Yet, the gospel may also
be viewed as a divine comedy.
Frederick Buechner, a gifted Christian novelist,
has suggested that the gospel is a record of the tragedy of human
failure, the comedy of God's dying love for a fallen humanity, and
the fairy tale of transformation through that love.
Perhaps, we can adopt the same positive view
towards the war in Iraq. Personally, I believe that out of all the
absurdity, sufferings and deaths of this war, eventually many will
find new hope, meaning and transformation.