An exploration of soldier humor
This blog post is part of the Experience of War conference, March 24, 2023, funded by the WARFUN project.
Are soldiers funny? On the face of it, military life does not appear to hold a lot of fun: soldiers relinquish civil liberties and accept the possibility of injury and death, hierarchy orders relations top-down, soldiers learn to control their body through drill exercises.
For Michel Foucault, the military is an institution that produces disciplinary power (Foucault 1979). Disciplinary power governs through creating ‘docile bodies’ that have incorporated a certain form of conduct as normal. Modern institutions like the military achieve this by subjecting individuals to constant surveillance, isolation, punishment, exercises and a specific arrangement of time and space. Thanks to these techniques, discipline foregoes the excessive use of force or coercion because ‘docile bodies’ govern themselves. In a similar way, Erving Goffman (1961) characterizes “total institutions”. Total institutions are largely cut off from the outside world, remove the separation between work and private life and manage its members according to a fixed set of rules oriented towards an overarching institutional purpose. These conditions straitjacket individuals in a public role and prevent them from developing their own identity. In light of both theoretical conceptions, soldiers face a regime of total control. Thus stripped of agency, how could soldiers nourish a sense of humor?
But in contrast to these preconceptions, humor forms an integral part of military culture. Soldiers find reasons for amusement not despite but because of the particularities of military life. Humor is essential for upholding military practice because it makes people stay. Three sayings discussed in this blog post will demonstrate how the particularities of military life shape the humor of German soldiers.
Humor arises from social interaction (Podilchak 1991, 137). Therefore, the examples provided here are an entry point into soldier culture. I will explore the lifeworld of soldiers through situating the sayings in the social situation in which they occur and the universe of meaning in which they make sense. The examples include a ‘classic’ handed down from generation to generation and sayings that respond to specific situations in soldier life.
„Wer nichts kann, kann Anzug“ – „Who knows nothing, knows dress code“
„Wer nichts kann, kann Anzug” is a classic comment on the competence of superiors. However, when soldiers utter that a superior knows dress code, it is not meant as a compliment for fashion consciousness. Instead, the soldier says figuratively: ‘The guy has no idea what he is talking about.’ Typically, the saying occurs when soldiers grapple with a superior who belongs to another branch of service than their own. In this situation, the superior faces a dilemma. On the one hand, he has the task to supervise the subordinates and provide feedback on their performance. Thus, he is supposed to say something. On the other hand, he lacks the expertise to say something meaningful. According to one interlocutor, only few superiors solve this dilemma through honesty, proclaiming: ‘Well done, lads! Looks good! I have no clue about what you’ve done but I assume it’s correct.’ Most superiors would compensate their lack of expertise for evaluating proper handling of weapons or execution of bodily movements through focusing on something that everybody knows: Even a halfwit can assess whether soldiers observe the military dress code. Are the boots polished? Are pockets closed? Do straps hang loose? Are trousers seams turned up neatly? Are faces well-shaved?
Although soldiers generally accept the rules that secure a uniform and well-groomed appearance, they sense when superiors misuse these rules for covering up own incompetence. Thus, by dropping ‘Wer nichts kann, kann Anzug’, soldiers express their disdain. Yet, they would not address the superior upfront but use the comment for “create[ing] a shared universe of meaning” (Ben-Ari and Sion 2005, 669) with their peers united in the experience of an incompetent, niggling superior.
With this saying, a soldier finds a humorous way to deal with the particularities of military life in lieu of anger or apathy: In the hierarchical order, soldiers are subject to the will of superiors and evaluations by superiors affect their future career. In addition, they learn to follow, not challenge given orders. Therefore, they abstain from open criticism. An interlocutor explained how humor provides room for agency in the hierarchical order:
“The human being needs an outlet to communicate his displeasure or ideas. Frank words – not allowed in the hierarchical system. Therefore, he seeks communication channels, such as irony. He says things that he dresses flowery, but where everybody comprehends what he wants to convey. But when put on trial, he could always claim: I have never said it that way. The soldier learns from the beginning how to express his position especially if he disagrees with the general mood or state of command. Thus, after thirty-five service years I am able to communicate to a general that I absolutely oppose his statements. Of course, I don’t tell that to his face. I smile at him and a classic statement I would utter is: ‘You can do it that way.’ This is the highest form of disapproval. Translated literally: ‘What you are doing is total nonsense.’ He knows exactly what I just told him, namely he is an ‘asshole’. But, of course, I could never call him ‘asshole’.”
As becomes clear, humor offers a safe mode for transmitting criticism to superiors that keeps the hierarchical order intact. The subordinate finds a way of expression that avoids the risk of sanctions. The superior saves face and could even – if warranted – take the subordinate’s suggestion into account.
“Schluss ist, wenn Schluss ist.” – “It’s not over till it’s over.”
The English translation “It’s not over till it’s over” conveys a different meaning than the use in German soldier life. The proverb points out that the final outcome cannot be assumed or determined before a given situation or activity like a football match or the vote count after an election is completely finished. Usually, the phrase is supposed to keep up hope that – in contrast to the current state – events will develop in the desired way. Instead, when my interlocutor used it for underlining that the present activity was unfinished, this was by no means a reason for hope. He replied “Schluss ist, wenn Schluss ist.” when subordinates moaned how long a strenuous exercise would take.
With this, the instructor socializes recruits into military discipline: The civilian organization of time is replaced by the military organization of time. This means that the aspiring soldier can neither rely on a schedule that predetermines when working hours end nor a task description that allows for planning the steps until its completion. Instead, duty ends when the mission is completed, respectively when the superior says it is. For instance, a soldier remembered an instructor’s counting method: When the trainees were supposed to do 50 push-ups, he would not count ‘1-2-3-…-50’, but for example ‘1-2-2-2-3-1-…’. Thus, the instructor suspended the – civilian – common-sensical manner of counting in favor of his unpredictable counting style. Similarly, the saying conveys that superiors’ commands supersede one’s own judgement.
Accordingly, the hierarchical order puts soldiers at the mercy of people who are higher up in the chain of command. Some superiors may enjoy exploiting their might and take sadistic pleasure from issuing arbitrary orders. However, a good superior instills in his subordinates that he can better assess a situation due to his experience. Thus, while soldiers lose familiar orientation frameworks, they learn to trust their superiors.
In the case of my interlocutor, his subordinates appropriated the saying ‘Schluss ist, wenn Schluss ist’ that he had employed as an educational measure. It turned into a running gag that the soldiers of his platoon used among each other and towards other units as a motivation mantra for holding out. In particular, the running gag served as a source of power in arduous or thorny situations during deployment abroad. Thereby, the example illustrates again the productive effect of humor for military performance: Starting out as a disciplining method, the saying later promoted self-motivation. Furthermore, it reflected how the relationship between superior and subordinates matured.
„Nach links wird geschossen und nach rechts kannste Bonbons verteilen.“ – „Shooting to the left and handing out candies to the right.”
An interlocutor made this remark in passing to underscore that soldier life holds a mix of emotions. In one moment, soldiers feel confident about mastering their bodies or weapons and enjoy the camaraderie of their peers. All of a sudden, when they detect an improvised explosive device (IED) or – even worse – if it explodes, they can tumble from feeling over the moon to a serious mood filled with anxiety and tension.
At first, the remark points out that the military profession generally distinguishes itself by the use of armed force. Apart from that, it captures a specific mission reality: the population-centric counterinsurgency approach that soldiers of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were supposed to adopt in Afghanistan. In conventional warfare, the military focuses on fighting the enemy – “shooting to the left”. However, counterinsurgency (COIN) strategies address tactical situations in which regular armed forces face irregular militant groups who use unconventional tactics like suicide attacks and improvised weapons (Mujahid 2016, 47–50). In addition, COIN strategy assumes that insurgents can count on the support of the civilian population. Accordingly, COIN practice in Afghanistan aimed at persuading civilians to defect from the insurgents commonly called Taliban. Therefore, foreign soldiers were instructed to promote the popularity of the international forces and loyalty towards the Afghan government. In other words, they had the task to win the hearts and minds of the people – “handing out candies to the right”.
With such remarks, soldiers prove their ability to put the complexity of a situation in a nutshell. In addition, the ironic tone with which this summary of ‘our daily life’ was delivered creates a “feeling of distance” to the experience (Beck and Spencer 2020, 70). Presumably, the emotional detachment helped soldiers deployed to Afghanistan cope with the contrasting roles they were tasked to carry out as both fighters and development aides (cf. Daxner 2018, 99).
Do soldiers display a special sense of humor? Certainly, humor is equally important for organizations and group processes as in civilian domains. However, the examples presented here show that the particularities of military life shape how humor is used and what humor achieves. Among the specific conditions of military life is the hierarchical order that exposes soldiers to the will of superiors and prevents them from uttering criticism openly. Furthermore, the military structuring of time and space replaces the familiar civilian framework of orientation. Civilians become soldiers through disciplinary methods that entail interminable repetitions. At the same time, military life offers the safety of comradeship and trust in respected leaders.
Humor provides a way to live with the conditions of military life. The humorous mode functions as a safe way for expressing criticism, an option for coping with ambivalent feelings, a didactical approach and a source for self-motivation. Although humor opens room for soldier agency, this ultimately stabilizes the military institution because it makes people stay. While possible, I suggest that it is less successful to run a military organization and discipline soldiers solely in the serious mode. Or, to put it simply: no laughter, no war.
Beck, Daniel, and Alexander Spencer. 2020. “Just a Bit of Fun: The Camouflaging and Defending Functions of Humour in Recruitment Videos of the British and Swedish Armed Forces.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 34 (1): 65–84.
Ben-Ari, Eyal, and Liora Sion. 2005. “‘Hungry, Weary and Horny’: Joking and Jesting Among Israel’s Combat Reserves.” Israel Affairs 11 (4): 655–71.
Daxner, Michael. 2018. “Competing with the Dead Hero: Ther German Particular Way.” In Conflict Veterans: Discourses and Living Contexts of an Emerging Social Group, edited by Michael Daxner, Marion Näser-Lather, and Silvia-Lucretia Nicola, 91–108. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.
Goffman, Erving. 1961. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Garden City, N.Y. Anchor Books.
Mujahid, Gulrukhsar. 2016. “Questioning the Counter-Insurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan.” Strategic Studies 36 (1): 46–58.
Podilchak, Walter. 1991. “Distinctions of Fun, Enjoyment and Leisure.” Leisure Studies 10 (2): 133–48.
 I selected these sayings from in-depth interviews and group discussions with more than 30 current or former members of the German armed forces conducted in 2022.
 I use the male pronoun throughout instead of a greater gender variety as that reflects that the military is still a male-dominated social sphere.
 Military tactics differ in the degree to which they grant subordinates freedom in the execution of tasks. In mission-type tactics, the military commander defines a clear objective and orders which forces are supposed to accomplish the objective in a given time frame. Then, subordinate leaders decide themselves how to achieve the objective. In contrast to tactics focused on executing a set of orders, mission-type tactics require that subordinates understand the intent of the order and are trained to act independently. In the German armed forces, mission-type tactics are the predominant style of command.
 ‘Kannste’ is a contraction of the words ‘kannst du’/‘you can’ that I kept for preserving the ironic tone of my interlocutor.