A brief history of military humor on the Internet.

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April 30 2010 12:31 PM

War Is Gaga

A brief history of soldiers posting ridiculous dance routines on the Internet.

One of the hottest viral videos at the moment shows a group of soldiers in Afghanistan performing an amazingly ornate lip-sync of Lady Gaga's "Telephone."  Gawker offered ironic praise for how "our men in Afghanistan swing their hips, snap their wrists, and twinkle their toes like pros." The three-minute-and-45-second video contains elaborate choreographed dance routines and soldiers dressed in drag, among other things.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

It's also safe to say that soldiers in drag dancing to Lady Gaga wasn't what the Pentagon expected when it recently revised its social media policies. In early March, the Pentagon reversed a ban on social media networks such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. The brass wanted to standardize a system of wildly divergent practices among the various armed services toward social media, and the policy appears to have worked somewhat. It also meant that life became much easier for the amateur military humorists of YouTube.

Military humor, of course, is as old as war itself. American troops, suddenly transplanted to the far end of the world, find themselves in a place that's alternately extremely boring and extremely stressful. Alcohol is officially banned in war zones, and cannabis is illegal. But there is humor. When the Internet connections are working, the troops send photographic and video proof of their pranks back home.

South Park is a favorite. Patches depicting South Park characters have popped up on shoulder bags and off-duty clothing in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the memorable "You Sent Me to Afghanistan? You Bastards!" Marines serving in Afghanistan's Helmand province founded Observation Post ManBearPig after the infamous episode of the same name. Following Saddam Hussein's capture, the former Iraqi leader was reportedly forced to watch South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut by his Marine security detail. Also, Trey Stone and Matt Parker allegedly received a personally autographed photo of Saddam as a gift from the Army's Fourth Infantry Division. In an ironic coda, Blackwater security contractors in Afghanistan are believed to have stolen hundreds of weapons meant for the Afghan national police by checking them out under the name "Eric Cartman." Parker and Stone decided to respond by turning the incident into a show promotional advertisement.

Soldiers remake Lady GaGa's "Telephone" video.
Soldiers remake Lady Gaga's "Telephone" video

YouTube is filled with tens of thousands of videos from service members that range from the inept to the nearly profound. In the latter category is an elaborate dance routine performed to Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" by a group of military police stationed in Iraq. Although some might blanch at the spectacle of MPs rushing in and out of Port-a-Potties and aiming unloaded rifles at one another, the effect is hypnotic. Fake music videos are a favorite of overseas troops. One prolific group of soldiers who call themselves the "Desert Dynamic Duo" released videos of, among others, Journey, N'Sync, and Europe. Other troops skip the music and perform elaborate sketch comedy pieces in uniform. There is also Beavis & Butthead-style destruction with hand grenades in abundance, with troops taking out their frustrations by blowing up automobiles and household appliances.

One of the most popular forms of military humor on YouTube, beyond the faux-music video, is the highlight reel. Dozens of 5-plus-minute videos cut and splice footage together for the home front. One service member who was deployed to Iraq created his own that includes massive sand storms, troops pranking one another, and humorous commentary on explosions. Others combine video and still images or serve as military blooper reels, showing troops tripping over themselves because of an artillery recoil or someone's rifle spontaneously breaking into pieces.

The copious amount of military humor on social networking Web sites has confounded the Pentagon. In previous conflicts, military humor was limited to published jokes and cartoons in controlled environments such as newspapers like Stars & Stripes * and visiting celebrities' USO shows. Service members' letters back home underwent censorship, and uncensored military jokes were spread in the United States by word of mouth—a relatively safe medium. For the Pentagon, there are very real concerns about intelligence, morale, public opinion, and possible overuse of network services that result from service members' use of YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Flickr. These concerns gain credence from incidents that were publicized in other countries: An Israeli military operation was scrapped after it made its way into a soldier's Facebook update, and the chief of British intelligence service MI6 had his home address and personal pictures posted on Facebook due to his wife's inexperience with the network's privacy settings.

The Department of Defense, despite its about-face on social networking and its Facebook fan page, is still deeply ambivalent about Internet sharing. The fact that it shut down its Twitter presence (although individual services still maintain Twitter accounts) testifies to that. Visitors to the Defense Department's Facebook page are presented with a "social media user agreement," and the Pentagon's decision to grant service members access to social media sites was due more to network-load considerations than to anything else. Throughout the Iraq war and the Afghanistan conflict, troops had quietly been using proxy servers to access forbidden sites. Rather than fight a losing battle for network resources, the Defense Department instead opted to open the door to YouTube and Facebook. Troops are restricted to "limited personal use when authorized" and are required to use "sound" security measures. Active-duty troops are still severely bound in what they can post to their blogs, with penalties varying among the various services. Even more punitive policies exist elsewhere: In 2009, Marines were banned from using social networking sites altogether.

Meanwhile, e-mail forwards are as prevalent in the military as they are in civilian workplaces. While most are religious, political, or sports-oriented in nature, a lot of them focus on humor. One recent compilation of pictures appeared at Vice magazine founder Gavin McInnes' new site, Street Carnage, thanks to a Marine reservist named Taeil Kim. The photos, collected from a variety of sources, range widely in tone. Some, such as a soldier and his dog and a real-life game of Minesweeper, are elaborate staged pieces. There are glimpses into troops goofing off during downtime, such as a bicycle jousting match and fake airplane races. Others simply show troops that miss home.

The creativity of troops is perhaps most on display in these e-mail forwards. One picture that was ported to Flickr expresses the displeasure of some Marines toward "French reporters." Airmen circulated a children's story for Osama Bin Laden. But a humorous guide on "How To Prepare for a Deployment to Iraq" offers the best insight into the psyche of troops there. Tip No. 24 helpfully suggests:

Wash only 15 items of laundry per week. Roll up the semi-wet clean clothes in a ball. Place them in a cloth sack in the corner of the garage where the cat pees. After a week, unroll them and without ironing or removing the mildew, proudly wear them to professional meetings and family gatherings. Pretend you don't know what you look or smell like. Enthusiastically repeat the process for another week.

Another e-mail forward gives a good idea of how troops in Afghanistan perceive their Islamist foes. A sample: "You maybe Taliban if … You refine heroin for a living, but you have a moral objection to beer" or "You have more wives than teeth." The coarser jokes reflect the mood among troops in wartime. As Marine reservist Kim put it: "A sense of humor is something you need out there, although the sense of humor we have amongst the military rubs off civilians wrong—especially liberals. Then again there's a lot of self-deprecating humor about the military you hear all the time because it comes from frustrations people have within the system let alone being in the warzone."

Of course, a darker side sometimes comes out as well. One widely circulated photo shows artillery with "Iraq Photo's (sic): Look Here, Smile, Wait for Flash" written on armor immediately below. A widely circulated video on YouTube shows troops jokingly threatening children with hand grenades. Another video, "Funny American Soldier fucking with Muslims Arabs," shows a soldier bellowing a profanity-riddled, Mohammed-insulting parody of the Muslim call to prayer into a megaphone. In 2005, a 26-minute video titled "Ramadi Madness" was created by members of a Florida National Guard unit that sparked suspicions of enemy prisoner abuse when not showing "two soldiers pretend to choke a third soldier with a plastic handcuff" and a "haji cat." Alternately, the argument has been made that some of the infamous Abu Ghraib photos were humorously intended.

However, these outliers are exceptions to the rule. The vast majority of military humor on the Internet is crude, goofy, and lowbrow—not criminal. It's hard for many of us to understand what's happening in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. For the price of watching a three-minute YouTube video or clicking through a Marine's Flickr gallery, we're able to briefly immerse ourselves in another world. The smell of gunfire and the sound of broken windows may not travel, but dirty jokes and homemade music videos certainly can.

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Clarification, May 10, 2010: Stars & Stripes is editorially independent of the U.S.
government and publishes without interference from the military or any outside organization. However,
Stars & Stripes' position as an organized newspaper with an editorial staff is what differentiates it from the comparatively uncontrolled environments of YouTube, Facebook, and other social networking sites. (Return to the original sentence.)

Neal Ungerleider is a New York-based journalist who has traveled extensively in the Middle East. He writes about the region for True/Slant.