22 The Warrior Archetype

Episode Twenty-Two: “for We’ll All Be Sharing Dinner in Hell.”

Spartan men (and women) were encouraged from an early age to develop a very specific style of humor–short, punchy quips, often with a dark fatalistic bite.

In today’s episode, we’ll examine two examples, both true-historical and both from Thermopylae.

Let’s see if we can figure out why this style of humor perfectly fit warriors about to undergo a trial of death.

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7 Comments

  1. Brian Nelson on October 29, 2020 at 7:36 am

    Steve,
    I have never laughed as hard and as frequently as my year in Afghanistan. It is hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been in such austere conditions, but there is almost a lightness of being that may stem from this degree of deprivation, uncertainty, and fear.

    Well before my time in combat, I was a young NCO in the MI (military intelligence, but we jokingly said ‘mostly inside’ or ‘mostly indifferent’) community. In 1996, our entire battalion was supporting a Corps Warfighter exercise. Essentially computer war-games, but the Soldiers in support roles (like MI) act out the conditions of battle. This means we work in 12 hour shifts, dig foxholes, stay in tents…set up, exercise, and tear down is usually about 10 days.

    I was stationed at Fort Lewis, in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. Most people only think of rain up here, but the summers reveal the most beautiful real estate on the planet. We put up with the rain for the short 60-75 day window of summer.

    Of course, this particular exercise was in the middle of summer. An unusually beautiful and hot summer. I was a squad leader, and my team had the night shift. Another squad leader said, “We need to have the ‘suck contest’.”
    “WTF is a suck contest?” I asked.

    “Well, we know this entire exercise is going to suck. The only way to make it better is to have a contest about for whom is sucks more. (us MI geeks use correct grammar…) I’m pretty sure my team will have it worse than yours…”

    So it was on. We each told our squads what was going on and how at the end, no matter the outcome of the exercise, what really mattered was which squad won the suck contest.

    Since my squad had the night shift, it meant we had to sleep in tents in the middle of the day. No AC of course so you stared wide awake sweating on your cot, and most of the exercise happened during the day–noisy, constant interruptions–we barely slept. GREAT! Big points in suck contest.

    What tipped it for us, was that during the day, we had to improve the fighting positions of our day-shift rivals. So, after being up all night doing our intel work, we had to dig fighting positions with those evil, miserable little E-Tools in the blazing heat instead of trying to get some shut eye. Those bastards never worked on their own foxholes!

    We won the suck contest. My company commander came up to me at the end of the exercise, with mirth in his eyes, “SSG Nelson.”
    “Yes Sir.”
    “I heard you won the suck contest.” This was pretty bad actually, because the suck contest was NCO business–and it was a bit of a violation for the commander to mention it.
    “Yes Sir, we did. It was those damn fighting positions that tipped it for us.”
    “Well done.” he answered.

    So…my rival squad leader immediately rushes over to me. “I heard the CO said you won the suck contest. That really sucks for my team…so (wait for it), now we win the suck contest because the CO thinks you guys are better than us.”

    And we was right. He stole the victory right out from under us.

    Admittedly, not the highest degree of humor–but, I think a perfect example of continually making light of the shitty circumstances in which we live. There are 1000s of examples in my life as a Soldier.

    I think this gallows humor continues to give me strength and calms my nerves outside of the military.

    There is a great story about Joe Montana pointing out John Candy in the stands to the 49ers during a huddle. This was, as the story goes, the first thing he said in the huddle with 2 min left, and 80+ yards to go to win. Same thing. Joe would have been a terrific Soldier.

    Great stuff as always, and thank you.
    bsn

  2. Andrew+Lubin on October 29, 2020 at 8:06 am

    A good rah-rah speech lasts for about 5 minutes. Then as you’re walking away, you think ‘do I really want to walk into that Sanguin minefield?”

    Fortunately humor lasts longer. I’d get a lot of grief for my age when I rolled onto a new COP. “Hey Sir, you’re may dad’s age! No my granddad’s” and similar. My stock reply was ‘your mama had no complaints about my age, and neither did your sister!” Perhaps not an ice-breaker suitable for a Princeton cocktail party (I was asked to leave), but perfect for a dusty post in Ramadi or the Helmand River Valley.

    Like Brian’s ‘Suck’ contest, humor can be repeated and a good one-liner lasts a long time. From sophmoric to toilet to old ‘your mama’, humor is necessary to help relieve both the boredom and quiet fears between the TIC’s. After all, we’re brothers in arms, and laughing together is the best way to reinforce it.

    Hey Brian – did you hear the one about the 2 soldiers trying to catch that 3-legged sheep…?

    • Brian Nelson on October 29, 2020 at 5:02 pm

      Andrew,
      I laughed, literally out loud in my car, while reading your post. Humor is very cohesive glue. As anyone in uniform, I have 1000s of examples–most better resemble your ‘your mama’ type of biting humor. The few that leapt to mind immediately were simply NSFW type comments. Funny for sure, but I’d likely be blocked from this site…

      No, I did not hear the one about the 2 soldiers trying to catch that 3-legged sheep…

      But here is a funny little retort between a Marine Officer and myself on the beach at the Hale Koa in Honolulu 10ish years ago.

      I was at a school in HI back in 2009. ILE, or Command & General Staff College. I belly-up to this bar on the beach next to another guy about my age. There are so many military at Hale Koa, you never know if people are on vacation or TDY or PCSing.
      I said, “What’s up man? You Army?”

      As he looks at me with disdain, he says “No, I play for the Varsity Team!”
      HA!!!!! I absolutely belly-laughed. Knew, immediately, what he meant. Turns out he was a logistics officer–in the Army the combat arms officers would call him a leaf-eater (as was I as an intelligence officer)–but it was so well played!
      bsn

      • Andrew lubin on October 29, 2020 at 5:45 pm

        Brian: Hooah & Semper fi!

  3. Keith Benoist on October 30, 2020 at 8:54 am

    Timing is everything. My best ever gallows humor one liner lacked an audience to appreciate it.

    I’d spent an agonizing night in ICU for a spider bite that laid me low with body aches indescribable. Following midnight emergency room admission the previous evening, for off-the-scale blood pressure, things had moderated somewhat when a sixtyish-something, blue-haired nurse’s assistant arrived to take my ‘breakfast order’.
    “What would you like?” she asked, gripping a pen and clipboard.
    I said, “I’ll have ‘curds and whey.”

    I never got her name or so much as a smile. I think she was having bad day.

  4. Joe on October 30, 2020 at 1:10 pm

    Humor exhibited in the assignment of call signs…

    Someone who’d only watched “Top Gun” might think all fighter pilots have call signs based on some virtuous or commendable martial quality. Like “Iceman” or “Maverick” or “Viper.”

    Call signs are in fact most always assigned against one’s will, and typically for some egregious failure, performance flaw, or distinguishing physical characteristic (say, an excessively hairy pilot may receive the call sign “Sasquatch”).

    My personal favorite was “ZEUS.” Sounds good, right? Must be powerful and even god-like, slinging lightning bolts from Mount Olympus. Nope. This particular “ZEUS” got his call sign based on the assessment that he gave:

    Zero
    Effort
    Unless
    Supervised

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