President's Column

Humor and Laughter in Wartime

Paul T. P. Wong
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
Trent University

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 to Allah!”

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 up again.

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 black comedy!

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 deadly fire.
  • 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 buildings.
  • 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 soul.

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.