Two Chief Petty Officers Walk Into a Bar...

America used to love laughing at the military. When did it become so taboo?

War is not a funny topic, but military life used to be a bountiful source of comic inspiration. The grim reality of the battlefield prompts plenty of black humor and the rigid orthodoxies of modern military organizations have been ripe fodder for satire in the past. Given that the United States has been at war for two out of every three years since the end of the Cold War, you'd think there would be lots of dark comedy and irreverent commentary on military topics, and not just when some randy commander gets caught with his pants down.

Yet Americans no longer see the military as a worthy target for political satire. Instead, we treat the armed services in almost reverential terms: Politicians rarely say anything remotely critical of the troops or their bemedaled commanders and it is hard to think of any important plays, movies, or television shows that poke serious fun at the Pentagon. Congress, organized religion, Wall Street, Hollywood, doctors, lawyers, teachers, sports teams, and just about every other institution in America is ripe for ridicule these days, but not the American military.

It wasn't always this way. At the height of the Cold War, books, films, and TV shows frequently made fun of military institutions and used the horror of war as a backdrop for comedy. Think of Sgt. Bilko (with Phil Silvers as a larcenous NCO), McHale's Navy, No Time for Sergeants, or Gomer Pyle, USMC -- all popular plays or TV shows that exposed the foibles of military life to merciless scrutiny. Or consider Mister Roberts, the 1946 novel by Thomas Heggen that became a 1955 film starring Henry Fonda as the eponymous hero, James Cagney as a tyrannical ship's captain with a palm tree fetish, and Jack Lemmon as a randy and sophomoric ensign. Patriotism and sacrifice are central themes in Mister Roberts, but it also takes dead comic aim at the frustrations and follies of military life. (A 1964 sequel, Ensign Pulver, is even more farcical). You could add Hogan's Heroes (where the Nazis receive most of the comic treatment), F Troop (a sitcom about the U.S. cavalry, of all things) and especially the original book and movie version of M.A.S.H (1970). The heroes of M.A.S.H. (Hawkeye, Trapper John, and Duke) are all oddballs rebelling against the rigid idiocies of the regular Army (exemplified by Frank Burns, "Hot Lips" Houlihan, and other stuffy authority figures). You could also toss in Kelly's Heroes (1970), an amusing caper film set in World War II starring Clint Eastwood as the leader of a band of military renegades setting out to steal some hidden gold.

And then there were the deeper comic assaults on the military mindset: Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964) or Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (published in 1961). Both works sought to illuminate the horrors of war (and in the case of Strangelove, the lunacy of nuclear war), but they did so through darkly comic pictures of the military itself. Just look at how Kubrick portrays Gens. Jack D. Ripper and Buck Turgidson or recall Heller's Gen. Dreedle and Maj. Major Major, and you'll see comic genius being used to make a powerful political point.

Until the 1970s, books, plays, films, TV shows and comic strips like Beetle Bailey were not afraid to poke fun at the military as an institution, even if they also acknowledged the virtues of patriotism and the need for competent armed forces. Of course, there were also plenty of books, TV shows, and films that treated the military in highly respectful ways -- such as The Green Berets, Patton, or the 1960s TV show Combat! -- but the key point is that the military was not off-limits as a target for humor and even ridicule.

The freedom to make fun of the military disappeared after the Vietnam War, and ever since, war and the U.S. military have usually been treated in a relentlessly serious fashion.


The sober approach took hold in a series of overtly anti-war works, including Coming Home, Born on the 4th of July, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket, all taking an openly critical view of the U.S. role in Vietnam. Though the TV version of M.A.S.H. (which ran from 1972 to 1983) was set in Korea, Vietnam provided the obvious context for much of the series, which evolved into more of a critique of war itself than a satire on the military establishment. A subsequent TV series set in Vietnam -- China Beach (1988-1991) -- was a drama and offered hardly any comedic moments at all. The Rambo movies (1992, 1995, 1988, 2008), which starred Sylvester Stallone as alienated but highly competent killing machine, belong here too, insofar as they blame failure on feckless civilians, treat soldiers as victims or heroes, and make no attempt to be funny.

Since the early 1980s, in fact, mass-market treatments of war and the military have become increasingly respectful, even adulatory. This trend begins with An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), followed by Top Gun, a 1986 film starring the F-14 Tomcat; A Few Good Men (1992); Saving Private Ryan (1998); Independence Day (1996), where the villains are evil space aliens and a sniveling civilian secretary of defense; Black Hawk Down, a 1999 book by Mark Bowden and 2001 film; the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2008); and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. You could toss in Lone Survivor, Shooter, Under Siege, Tour of Duty, Call to Glory, JAG, and Band of Brothers -- the moral of the story wouldn't change much. Some of these works include conniving politicians or less-than-admirable commanders, but the core institutions and the troops themselves are portrayed in a consistently positive light. Today, only Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury is still willing to crack a few jokes at the military's expense, but his main military characters (B.D., Ray, Melissa, and Toggle) are all wounded or damaged in some fashion and the predominant tone is one of sympathy and support rather than satire.

I can think of only five partial exceptions to this pattern -- Private Benjamin (1980), Stripes (1981), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) and the two Hot Shots! parodies, but these works do not undermine my larger point. Although these films poke some gentle fun at the military (especially in Good Morning, Vietnam, where Robin Williams's character, Army disc jockey Adrian Cronauer, frequently clashes with his stick-in-the-mud superiors), the broader lesson in each film is a positive one. In Stripes and Private Benjamin, for example, the lead characters ultimately gain wisdom from their military experience and become better people. And Good Morning, Vietnam becomes less funny as the film proceeds, as Cronauer confronts the realities of the war and discovers a Viet Cong agent has duped him. Hot Shots! (1991, 1993) doesn't really count, as these films are really spoofs of pro-military genre films (especially Top Gun) rather than of the military itself.

So why can't we make jokes about the military anymore? I'm not entirely sure. I suspect it is due in part to the creation of the all-volunteer force, which means most Americans don't serve in uniform anymore. Ten million Americans served in World War II, and they knew first-hand about heroism and sacrifice but also about military lunacy. They could laugh at the absurd aspects of military life without having their patriotism questioned. Today's civilians don't feel comfortable laughing at institutions in which they have not served and don't intend to. Instead, pious respect for our men and women in uniform rules the day.

The post-9/11 "war on terror" magnifies this reticence, because it is harder to poke fun at the military when soldiers are actually fighting and dying in distant lands and when the public at large has been repeatedly told that these wars are necessary to protect them from the shadowy danger of "international terrorism." Plus, the only way to get Americans to keep volunteering for these wars is to convince them that they are performing a heroic mission, and that means keeping jokes out of the newspapers and off the screen. It’s true that FOX is challenging this taboo with its new series Enlisted, but its comedy is pretty bloodless, very respectful of the military itself, and it remains to be seen if the series will catch on or not.

Add to that the fact that politicians from both parties now compete to display their own patriotism by offering rhetorical support for "the troops." Ever since George McGovern ran for president in 1972 on an anti-war platform, the GOP has tried to paint the Democratic Party as unpatriotic and "soft on defense." Ronald Reagan perfected this line of attack, and the Democrats' only response was to try to sound as hawkish and pro-military as their Republican counterparts. As a result, you don't see any William Proxmires railing about gold-plated military excesses or making fun of the Pentagon's peccadilloes.

Unfortunately, losing our ability to laugh at the military comes with a price. No human institution is perfect, and none should be given a free pass by the rest of society. Humor and ridicule are potent weapons when trying to keep powerful institutions under control, and giving them up makes it harder to keep those institutions on the straight and narrow. Capable armed forces are a regrettable necessity, but treating them with excessive deference and declining to joke about their foibles makes it more likely they will be indulged rather than improved.

Don't forget: The U.S. military hasn't done all that well in its recent wars, it has a serious problem with sexual violence and misconduct, the service academies have endured repeated cheating scandals, and we recently discovered that the custodians of the U.S. ICBM force were cooking the books on their readiness exams. These and other concerns are no laughing matter, but a bit of humor might go a long way toward mobilizing public concern and convincing the brass that they need to shape up.

I'm not calling for a full-blown comic assault on the military, the arms industry, or even the CIA, but at this point some Strangelove­-quality satire might be just what we need.

Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images


At Moscow's Mercy

By pledging not to use force outside NATO territory, Obama might as well have given Putin a free pass to annex more territory.

Speaking in Belgium on March 26, 2014, President Barack Obama made it clear that military force would not be used to deter further Russian aggression outside NATO territory. Whatever the rationale behind this baffling clarification, it only increases the risk that the alliance will be drawn into a military conflict with Moscow. NATO has had to fight outside its borders before, and it may be forced to do so again if Russia keeps seizing its neighbors' territory -- regardless whether or not those neighbors fall under the alliance's collective security blanket.

Deciding how NATO should respond to the crisis in Ukraine, which deepened over the weekend of April 5-6, as pro-Russian activists seized government buildings in the eastern part of the country, has been hampered by two crucial questions that have remained unanswered since the end of the Cold War: Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the disappearance of the threat NATO was designed to counter, the alliance is still debating what role it should play in guaranteeing global security and how far its membership should expand. Paradoxically, the Ukrainian crisis helps answer both questions.

NATO membership should only extend to other strong democracies with which existing alliance members share vital interests within a defensible geographic area. While this augurs for keeping NATO smaller rather than larger, it does not mean that its interests -- and need to project force -- are confined to the territory of member states. On the contrary, the alliance has an interest in the stability and viability of the states beyond its immediate frontier. NATO may have little reason to admit Ukraine as a member, but it has every reason to defend it now.

After the Cold War, NATO members no longer feared a Soviet attack. But as successful, trading democracies, they had many vital interests in common, often extending far beyond their borders. The Kosovo action proved that NATO could conduct operations against a much weaker foe in the near abroad. In Afghanistan, the alliance has shown that it can play a global expeditionary role, but only with great difficulty. Clearly, the country with the greatest interest in maintaining this expeditionary role for NATO is the United States (without NATO, it must bear the burden of maintaining global stability largely alone). But now, in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, the American president has suddenly distinguished sharply between the defense of NATO countries and that of non-NATO countries, going so far as to declaim against "military adventures" outside NATO territory. As a result, it's difficult to tell just what the alliance's mission -- or relevance -- will be moving forward.

Confusion about NATO's mission has inevitably translated into confusion about how big the alliance should be. In 1999 and 2004, NATO expanded its membership to include Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the Baltic states. Including those countries made sense both in terms of shared values and interests -- within a defensible geographic area. But with the accession of Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, and Croatia in 2004 and 2009, NATO expanded to include countries that were unstable, militarily weak, and economically moribund in a geographic area that was not vital for the survival of NATO.

Even more worrying was NATO's 2008 announcement that it "welcomed" membership for Georgia and Ukraine, a move that had no obvious strategic justification and that caused considerable alarm and anger in the Kremlin. Just a few months later, Russia occupied parts of Georgia, partly in order to create a border conflict that would prevent the former Soviet republic from joining NATO anytime soon (the alliance treaty prohibits the accession of any country involved in a border dispute). U.S. officials reacted to the Georgia crisis -- for which they arguably bore part of the blame -- with a familiar combination of pointless anti-Russian bluster and inaction.

NATO's vital interests outside its borders raise other serious questions that the United States has chosen to ignore since the end of the Cold War: How can large ethnic minorities -- including major Russian populations left outside Russia's borders -- be both protected and protected against? And how will the post-Soviet states be peacefully integrated into the modern world of free and prosperous societies?

Both of these problems turn on the viability of post-Soviet states as free-market democracies. President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, announced a specific set of criteria for U.S. recognition of post-Soviet states: They would have to: 1) adhere to a democratic and peaceful transition; 2) respect existing borders or shift them only through peaceful negotiation; 3) demonstrate support for democracy and the rule of law, with an open, free, and fair electoral system; 4) safeguard human rights, including individual freedoms and the equal treatment of minorities; and 5) respect international law. These criteria were valuable, chiefly because they were objective principles that could be applied generally -- achieving the kind of clarity that is too often lacking in American foreign policy (witness: the Arab Spring.)

But the Bush-Baker criteria focused too much on behavior and not enough on the structural requirements of proper governance. They therefore provided few clues as to whether the newly recognized states would prove successful. More meaningful criteria -- such as respect for property rights and freedom of exchange, broad political participation, impartial execution of the laws, and an independent judiciary -- have often fallen by the wayside. Since then, in the post-Soviet states, the Arab world, and elsewhere, the United States has mistakenly treated such constitutional matters as essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of sovereign states. In a nod to the principle of non-interference, the United States has often acted as if the factors on which the success of its development assistance  -- and broader foreign policy objectives -- often rested were officially none of our business. In Ukraine, for example, Washington has put little effort into advancing institutional reforms as a condition for more full bilateral relations.  

Inattention to Ukraine's viability as a state made a major blow-up almost inevitable. The collapse of the Soviet Union left behind an independent Ukraine -- something that had never existed before -- that contained large areas that had always been Russian, including large Russian populations and Moscow's most important naval base, at Sevastopol in the Crimea. More problematic, however, was the effect of these factors -- along with the role played by the West -- on the Ukrainian political system. Over the years, power has swung back and forth between ethnically Russian and ethnically Ukrainian factions -- and the orientation of the state has oscillated with them. The United States and its European partners, meanwhile, have encouraged and celebrated the dominance of the anti-Russian faction, seemingly unaware that democracy requires a unified polity in which power is shared and all major factions feel enfranchised.

The steady decay of Ukraine's military capability has proved equally problematic: Even during the periods when anti-Russian factions were in power, Ukrainian leaders, wary of provoking Russia, gave little thought to building up the country's military forces. As a result, Ukraine has been dangerously frail virtually since its independence -- and the United States has done next to nothing to shore it up. Political instability has combined with military weakness to produce a weak and vulnerable state just beyond NATO's frontier.

A smaller (and less ethnically Russian) Ukraine might have been more stable and easier to defend. But Moscow purposely enlarged Ukraine during the Soviet period in order to enhance the façade of a diverse coalition of Soviet states. If the Russians had sought to revise this arrangement peacefully, it might have been possible to accommodate them through arms-length negotiations with a broad-based government in Ukraine. As President George H.W. Bush's criteria implied, changes in borders were not necessarily off the table. They just had to be agreed upon through peaceful negotiation. By resorting to force, however, the Russians have turned their grievances over Ukraine into a dangerous challenge to the international system -- and to NATO.

Russia's forcible annexation of Crimea falls into a category of military actions that has been mercifully rare since World War II: the war of territorial conquest. Among the handful of examples are North Korea's invasion of the south in 1950 and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 -- and both times the United States went to war to reverse the result.

Russia's actions are a throwback to an earlier era, when most wars were fought for the specific purpose of gaining territory. Prior to World War II, such conflicts were depressingly common, and resulted in a level of devastation and loss of life that only seemed to increase with every generation. But since the end of World War II, the loss of life due to war has plummeted in absolute terms, particularly since 1990. There are various explanations for this, among them the general deterrent effect of nuclear weapons, the proliferation of essentially non-violent democracies, and commercial globalization that makes war more costly.

Regardless of the precise reasons why, the war of conquest has become a thing of the past, and the world is a much safer place for it. In the nuclear age, conflicts like the two world wars are hard to imagine. But there is no doubt that Russia's forcible annexation of Crimea opens the door to a much more violent world. The justification that Russia used in Crimea -- the need to protect ethnic Russians and "reunify" Russia -- is one that Russia could use in other areas, from eastern and southeastern Ukraine to the Baltic states. Same goes for every other territorial dispute around the world in which revisionist powers face militarily weaker opponents, particularly if the latter are not protected by an alliance with America.

And that is why the forcible annexation of Crimea affects vital U.S. interests in a way that goes far beyond the particular status of Crimea, to which the United States is largely indifferent. The peace and security of the United States depend upon the security and political stability of its trading partners, which now include most of the world's sovereign states. That is why the United States forged NATO and its alliances on the Pacific Rim and among the Gulf kingdoms. In short, the United States depends on the stability of the international system and the norms that uphold it in the modern era. Few things could be as poisonous to that system as reviving the war of conquest as a tool for resolving territorial disputes.

The United States and its allies have moved quickly to impose significant sanctions on Russia. As a result of a decade of experience dealing with North Korea and Iran, U.S. sanctions are now much more specific and effective than there were before. In 2005, for example, North Korea was virtually cut off from the entire global financial system -- including most of the world's banks -- as a result of a single Treasury Department action against a small bank in Macau. Likewise, sophisticated U.S. and EU sanctions have crippled Iranian oil export earnings without significantly reducing the overall volume of its oil exports. Similar sanctions will increase the pain felt by the Russian government, while softening the blow on Russia's trading partners in Europe. Diversifying Europe's energy sources could go a long way toward shielding it from the effects of sanctions against Russian exports.

Beyond sanctions, however, the United States and its allies should also move fast to confront Russia in Ukraine. The Obama administration has refused a Ukrainian request for defensive military equipment. That could prove to be a big mistake. Not only would strengthening Ukraine's military increase the penalty for Moscow's actions in Crimea, it would raise the costs of further Russian aggression. Right now, the Russian forces massing at the border face few deterrents to marching on eastern Ukraine. Having been overrun in Crimea, Ukrainian forces are likely in a deplorable state of morale and readiness throughout the country. Russia, meanwhile, has become extremely adept at infiltrating and organizing irregular forces -- and it has reasons to invade. The annexation of Crimea doesn't actually solve the problem of access to Crimea -- the Black Sea peninsula is not connected to Russia by land -- and according to Moscow, at least, the heavily Russian areas of eastern and southeastern Ukraine are still pining to join Mother Russia, too.

Given the short timeframe, there is little the United States can do to bolster Ukraine's military capability. Token American air defense systems or Patriot Missile batteries on the ground in Ukraine would only be useful if manned by U.S. troops (just a few hundred of whom could go a long way toward deterring a Russian attack.) Even with U.S. troops on the ground, however, the Russians could conclude that the United States is not really willing to fight for Ukraine and call its bluff. The United States may well choose to back down rather than get sucked into what, for Obama, would be nothing more than a "military excursion," as he recently put it. And that would be the worst of all worlds. If the administration draws yet another red line, this time with actual U.S. forces, and then backs down when challenged, the damage to America's prestige -- and its ability to deter anyone at all -- would be catastrophic. In any case, NATO's refusal to help Ukraine defend itself now only highlights how little basis there was for dangling the prospect of NATO membership back in 2008.

Given the potential for escalation, the United States should secure a commitment from NATO to fight and win in the event of a Russian attack on alliance forces before any troops are deployed to Ukraine. This point may seem moot given the administration's pronouncements. But reality has a way of imposing policy. The partial collapse of Ukraine in the context of a Russian incursion would create an extremely dangerous situation, and one that NATO may not be able to avoid getting embroiled in.

NATO should rethink its position, and fast. A risk-averse approach now could prove reckless in the long run. The viability of Ukraine as an independent state is a vital interest for NATO. If the Russians invade Ukraine the resulting instability will not be contained there, but could spread quickly across the region. Moldova, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia -- each of these countries was traditionally part of Russia and still contains a large Russian population. All could be infiltrated by irregulars or see separatist regions hold referenda and break away -- only to be quickly recognized by Moscow.  

The defense of NATO cannot start at NATO's borders. Collective defense means the defense of collective vital interests, wherever they may be. And that's why, like it or not, the Ukraine crisis has landed on NATO's front burner. The Russians have no intention of going to war with NATO. But they may well continue annexing territory until NATO stops them.