October 1, 2006  

Revenge of the staff weenie

Mining the military bureaucracy for nuggets of humor

If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, the long history of military humor proves that satire may well be the last refuge of the patriot. Perhaps the single best source for military humor is the “staff weenie” — the soldier who has been relegated to a staff position in support of a higher officer’s decision-making process.

Staff duty has always been a special punishment in the military: A soldier is removed from the environment in which he was trained to be most competent and inserted into a bureaucratic mechanism where his skills, morale and ambition are likely to erode in equal measure.

Fortunately, these soldiers have long done a second public service by maintaining a record of the dysfunctions of military leadership. Much military humor and anecdotes have come from the pens of staff officers, who have been present to see such historical episodes as Grand Marshal Berthier’s rabbit hunt, when Napoleon’s chief of staff accidentally procured several hundred tame rabbits instead of wild hares for the chase, leading to the emperor’s being forced off the field when the lapin army charged his hunting party in expectation of food.

The blogosphere has provided an especially fertile ground for sharing military humor. In addition to providing an opportunity for the soldiers to blow off some steam, blogs also provide great insight into what is — and what isn’t — working in the war.

For example, one of the notable fiascos of Operation Iraqi Freedom has been the Pentagon’s “Task Force Warrior,” an effort to train “Free Iraqi Forces” to participate in the U.S.-led invasion and provide the backbone of a reformed postwar Iraqi military. While the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency undermined Defense Department efforts to carry the program to fruition, the staffers at the Pentagon struggled to follow their orders.

A reading of the quotations on the “Staffer’s Hard Sayings Log” posted by “Bubblehead” at The Stupid Shall Be Punished (http://bubble heads.blogspot.com) indicates that the staff officers detailed to Task Force Warrior maintained an excellent record of the futility of their mission.

Reflecting that there were a mere 77 graduates of the program in time to join the war, one major observed: “Never in the history of the U.S. Armed Forces have so many done so much for so few.” Another officer commented that the Office of the Secretary of Defense “will continue to drive this cart into the ground long after the wheels have been sold on E-bay,” and compared the experience of supporting the effort to being “raped in prison: the best thing to do is just relax and enjoy it.” High morale, anyone?

One of the most widely read pieces of Iraq war humor so far is the “OIF Alphabet,” a 26-slide PowerPoint file. The original was followed by “OIF Alphabet Part 2.” Both can be downloaded from many milblogs. The original, for example, can be found at the Mudville Gazette’s milblog archives (http://www.mudvillegazette.com/milblogs/2006/06/06/#005447) and Part 2 is available at Castle Argghh! (http://www.thedonovan.com/archives/005883.html).

The author is a 4th Infantry Division operations officer, Maj. David Haugh, and his slides perfectly capture the comic frustration that many staff officers face in their jobs — but also some of the larger challenges in running the war on terrorism.

One of the best descriptions of division staff life is from the slide “C is for Cannon Fodder,” describing the fate of liaison officers who are sent to a higher headquarters with “a top hat, cane and enough information to get them shot in the face during briefings.” And all division staff members face the same challenge of dealing with the work schedule, according to “O is for OPTEMPO,” which “allows us to work 14-18 hour days in the pursuit of mission success. It also allows us to run smack dab into the middle of a wall at the 4-5 month mark.”

For service members who are not on division staff, the OIF Alphabet’s observations are just as stinging. “F is for Field Artillery” describes the former “band of ruffian stone hurlers feared by all. Now they need a job. They can be truck drivers, MPs, infantrymen or whatever you need.” While the field artillery adjusts to disuse, “B is for Band” notes that even though a soldier is “a piccolo player first class and she weighs 90 pounds with battle rattle, [her] weapon is loaded, is yours?”

And the usual class division between pilots and soldiers is as stark as ever, according to “A is for Air Force”: “They have cool names like Stabs, Chum, Snapper and Radar. They fly through the sky with the greatest of ease and talk about it later at Al Udeid over three real beers. Why did I join the f@•!#ing Army?”

One of the most interesting aspects of the American way of war touched on by the OIF Alphabet is the impact of private contractors on morale in the battlefield. The author carps on the detailed regulations — such as when to wear a reflective safety sash on base — in multiple places, but these requirements are notably absent for civilians. For example, in “U is for Uniforms”: “It is summer in Iraq and temperatures are running about 120 degrees. The man on the left is a contractor. His uniform consists of shorts, aloha shirt, sandals and a visor. He also makes a six figure salary. The man on the right is in the military. His uniform consists of ACUs, a kevlar helmet, vest with throat guard, pecker protector, shoulder protectors, ballistic plates, ammunition, knife, pistol, knee pads, ballistic glasses. He doesn’t make six figures. Who would you rather be? I’ll go with the left.”

The slide “S is for Sexual Harassment” is no more optimistic: “You see them everyday. Female civilians creating a hostile work environment. They wear their hip hugger jeans, middrift shirts, flowing brown hair, tan skin and a pistol on their hips … mmmmmm.” At one level this slide raises a long-standing question about whether women are discriminated against because men are not mature enough to work around them. At another level, it raises a more important question about whether the strict disciplinary environment that has facilitated the integration of women into the deployed military environment can be maintained in the context of civilian contractors.

This question is more disturbing when considered alongside the OIF Alphabet slide “G for Gym,” which points out that while most soldiers don’t have time to visit the gym while deployed, others “manage to pile on 75 lbs of ‘pure muscle’ in a matter of two months. … Steroids make your package shrink and the ladies love that. Not that people do that.”

It is not clear what disciplinary challenges the Army will face after the war in Iraq, but Haugh has raised some issues the service will need to address. In any case, the staff weenies have earned their modest laurels for sending home a warts-and-all view of the war. And they remind us of the countless number of problems that war planners face, from the fine-tuning of regulation to the missteps that can permanently harm morale.

Christopher griffin is a researcher in the Asian studies department of the American Enterprise Institute.