War Jokes: No Laughing Matter

Colonel: What is that you’ve got written on your helmet?

Pvt. Joker: Born to Kill, sir.

Colonel: You write “Born to Kill” on your helmet and you wear a peace button.  What’s that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?!

Pvt. Joker: No, sir.

          Gustav Hasford, Michael Herr, Stanley Kubrick: Full Metal Jacket


Friend Tony Swindell thought it a good idea, so a display ad appeared in Army Times: “Widely published Nam vets seek your best combat jokes to teach civilians the grim, raw truth of war.  Any war, any branch of service.”

We assumed the gallows humor would roll in. Tony, in Vietnam a combat correspondent with Americal, and also in psyops- in civilian life a reporter-felt a book could be written on jokes told by soldiers under extreme conditions.

We didn’t want the feel good gags trotted out in Humor in Uniform, a monthly Readers Digest column. We refused to pin a smiley face on war or its aftermath. Instead, we sought tasteless, obscene, unforgivable, lawless jokes whose wit and irony strip combat of its mythic bones, look death full in the face, and somehow make it comical.

Vets who answered the call struggled with the concept of combat humor. Most sent in cute vignettes, sanitized anecdotes, or clean cut bits on inter-service rivalry. In the end we received less than a half dozen items that conveyed how war numbs the soul and how humor consoles the spirit. With so little material we abandoned the book but kept the jokes, wondering why we found them funny.

Larry Heinemann, Nam combat vet, teacher, and author of Pacos Story, Close Quarters, and Black Virgin Mountain, sent this inspiring gem:

A colonel and his sergeant major chopper out to a landing zone to see for themselves the aftermath of a large and bloody firefight. There was heavy fighting, and many casualties on both sides. When they arrive the American KIAs are lined up shoulder to shoulder in back of the makeshift aid station, covered with ponchos and waiting for the choppers to come fetch them. There are many, many bodies. The colonel and the sergeant major slowly make their way down the line, lifting the flaps of the ponchos to view the faces. The colonel looks more and more troubled the farther down the line he goes, and is truly upset. Finally he looks over to the sergeant major and says,“All so young. What a pity. What a waste. Sergeant Major, how old do you think these boys are?” The sergeant major looks at the colonel, and says,“ They’re all dead, Colonel. That’s as old as you get.”

What propels the punch line? The colonels sorrow, upended by the Sergeant Majors blunt ironic clarity.

Former Lieutenant Fred Tomasello Jr., author of Walking Wounded: Memoir of a Combat Veteran, mailed in, “I never thought anyone would want to hear this,” then fired off this outrageous tale:

On February 1, 1968, my Marines responded to an attack on the Cam Lo District Headquarters near the Demilitirized Zone. My platoon was tasked with counting the dead and wounded. I assigned the job to Frenchy’s fire team. Artillery had butchered the enemy bodies.

Heads, many still wearing helmets, were separated from torsos. Arms and legs were scattered all over the battlefield. The NVA had dug shallow trenches under the barbed wire and used sand to try to cover their dead.

“Goddamn, they’re all fucked up,” one of Frenchy’s men complains. “They’re probably booby trapped too. I ain’t touching any dead gooks.”

Frenchy shoves him in the chest and yells, “What the fuck’s wrong with you? You chicken-shit or something? Here! Here’s how you do it.”

Frenchy grabs an ankle sticking up from a shallow trench and tugs as hard as he can. The soldiers body jerks out of the ditch, his other leg flops behind him and the leg that Frenchy’s holding snaps from the body. Frenchy holds the leg up at me and smiles.

“Hey, Lieutenant, he says, “Lets grab one leg each and make a wish!”

What makes this cruel anecdote hilarious? Combat has bled all mercy and fear from Frenchy. He is numb to god, immune to devils. For him, counting corpses is plain hard work. By invoking superstition, he hopes the lieutenant will get the gag that mocks the horror he must fulfill.

“Mental survival depended on the ability to view life as a black comedy,” said holocaust survivor Thomas Retjo, author of The Reluctant Adventurer. Or as former Lieutenant Tomasello, Jr wrote, “If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.”

Vietnam combat vet Tommy Skiens, author of Buffgrunt, Memoir of a Tree Vet, and an RTO with Americal’s 4/3 Light Infantry Brigade, one of several units at My Lai, sent the following knee slapper:

Little Bobby and his 6th grade class were given the assignment of writing a fairy tale with a moral ending. The next day, the teacher first called on Susie, who wrote about not counting your chickens before they’re hatched. Then came Mary, whose story involved not crying wolf. Then, it was Little Bobby’s turn. “My Uncle Bill was in Vietnam and one time he went on a combat assault,” he said. “On the way,he drank a case of beer, then jumped off the helicopter and killed one hundred Viet Cong. He killed the first eighty with his rifle, ten with his pistol and clubbed the other ten to death. After that, he took a knife and a pair of pliers and yanked out all the gold teeth from the dead Viet Cong.” The teacher was aghast and blurted out, “Bobby that’s horrible! What possible moral can you get from that awful story?” Little Bobby shrugged and said: “Don’t fuck with my Uncle Bill when he’s been drinking!”

What immoral engine drives this jest? Two naive adolescent girls set the stage for their prudish teacher, duly alarmed by the impish braggart’s obscene war tale. Little Bobby’s deft reply to her ego outrage arrives like a Zen masters awakening face slap.

Brandeis anthropology professor Janet McIntosh, while researching vets, war and language, supplied this motivational poster, and quoted these splendid lines: A reporter asked a Marine, “Where do you stand on terrorists?’ He replied, ‘Well, the windpipe usually does the trick.'”

Finally, in 1972 Michael Casey wrote Obscenities, a collection of war poems that won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. The twenty-six stark lines of “A Bummer” depict an encounter between a column of tracks (mechanized vehicles), a peasant farmer, and the TC (track commander). The poem’s last mordant lines, and final barbed flourish could have been written yesterday, today, tomorrow.

A Bummer

We were going single file
Through his rice paddies
And the farmer
Started hitting the lead track
With a rake
He wouldn’t stop
The TC went to talk to him
And the farmer
Tried to hit him too
So the tracks went sideways
Side by side
Through the guys fields
Instead of single file
Hard On, Proud Mary
Bummer, Wallace, Rosemary’s Baby
The Rutgers Road Runner
And Go Get Em–Done Got Em
Went side by side
Through the fields
If you have a farm in Vietnam
And a house in hell
Sell the farm
And go home

Wherever war next rears its ugly head, soldiers and civilians, caught in the crossfire, once again will find grim comfort in pitch black humor. And that’s no joke at all.


track: a tracked vehicle, i.e., a tank or APC.

TC: track commander

(poem used by permission)

Walking Wounded: Memoir of a Combat Vet
(Former Marine lieutenant Fred Tomasello’s excellent book)