Diogenes, Dogfaced Soldiers, and Deployment Music Videos

Author: Geoffrey Carter | Saginaw Valley State University | Bill Williamson: Designer

kynos | i'm a dog | between kings & mutts | from abu ghraib to amarillo | videos | references

I'm a Dog, So What?!

Before turning directly to the soldiers’ videos, I want to spend a little time and articulate the particular brand of “dogface” cynicism that I have alluded to. More specifically, I want to discuss these music videos using what Peter Sloterdijk (1987) called kynicism. In spelling cynicism with a “k,” Sloterdijk pointed to an older, Greek spelling (kynikos). In his celebrated work, Critique of Cynical Reason, he used this older spelling to distinguish the crude humor of kynicism from the cynical nihilism of “enlightened false consciousness” (p. 5). As his title suggests, Sloterdijk implicitly tarried with Emmanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, especially the latter’s transcendental imperative towards duty. For Sloterdijk, the cynical call to duty that Kant’s work initiated received a very different calling—one more familiar to soldiers during their tour of duty—when it becomes embodied in the kynical gestures of Diogenes of Sinope. Diogenes is a figure once reviled by the likes of Plato and Aristotle for such outrageous acts as farting in place of reasoned argument. Diogenes, though hardly a soldier, shares some of a soldier’s sensibilities. Diogenes’s tactics are, I want to suggest, not unlike the ones Paul Fussell (1989) described in his magisterial study of soldier behavior, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, namely, a persistent readiness to use the language of “chickenshit” and “flaming horse turds” to deal with aspects of military bureaucracy and war (p. 91). Let’s refer to this as the call of doody. As Stefan Sorgner (2003) explained, the “fartiness” of kynicism carries with it a “cheerful cheekiness” that stands at odds with philosophical authority. In place of syllogistic reasoning, Diogenes offered irreverent bodily gestures. I argue this offensive method of critique is at work in the play observed in the music videos of soldiers currently stationed in combat zones; they offer not only a kynical critique, but also an antidote to despair.

Instead of unpacking all the subtleties of Sloterdijk’s (1987) lengthy exploration of the relationship between cynicism, nihilism, and “enlightened false consciousness,” (p. 5), I will confine my discussion of what Sloterdijk meant by cynicism (without a “k”) by using the grassroots videos created by military personnel as an example. For Sloterdijk, cynicism amounted to a situation where someone belongs to a group (like the military), sees the shortcomings of that group, becomes miserable as a result of the group, but is forced to stick with the ideals of the group nevertheless. Perhaps many soldiers feel this way toward their superiors at some stage in their deployment. Although my reading of the “Dogfaced Soldier” song acknowledges some function of group cohesiveness for the Third Infantry Division, I contend that at some level it marks a complex relationship with the U.S. military institution overall. A soldier who embraces the idea that he or she is “just a dogface soldier” does something different than what a dog can do: namely, by calling themselves dogs in the face of their master (i.e., Uncle Sam), they affirm their subservience before they are forced to do so. This preemptive strike is equivalent, I contend, to saying: “I am calling myself a dog before I am really treated like one in combat.” Might we see the role of this song in boot camp cadences as a kynical act where soldiers are effectively marching around the compound shouting, “I am a dog, so what!”? If so, might we regard such an affirmation—or “nonpositive affirmation” to use an expression of Victor Vitanza's (1997)—to assist us in revealing the different meanings of the word “dog” (pp. 36, 358)? That is, instead of dwelling on the negativity of dogging tasks, perhaps there are times to embrace, with dogged persistence, the full range of meanings in the word dog. To accept one’s dog tag, after all, is precisely what Diogenes does; he kynically accepted his nickname, “the Dog.”

image of Diogenes and dogsTo be sure, I will concede that some people might regard the “dogface” tag as an endearing one. In fact, some might argue that saying one is a dog carries no pejorative connotations whatsoever and speaks to the loyalty of man’s best friend instead. Indeed, some might ask, “What’s wrong with having a dog face? My dog is so cute!” Stopping short of conceding that I’m a “cat person” (and perhaps fundamentally unfit to talk about dogs and their owners), the real issue for me is what breed of dog would our soldiers be? Once again, I want to underscore that Sloterdijk’s kynical term is also related to the Greek root kynos or “dog.” Diogenes, nicknamed “the Dog” by figures like Plato and Aristotle, learned to embrace this designation at the same time he mocked those who gave him the name. Diogenes is reported to have replied to Alexander the Great’s proclamation, “I am Alexander, surnamed the Great” with “I am Diogenes, surnamed the Dog” (Laertius VI, 32). Although Diogenes considered himself a dog, he was no best friend to authority. As Diane Davis and Vitanza (2005) suggested, the dog label of Diogenes “captured the mode of life he so faithfully and scandalously practiced” (p. 133). Although there are certainly limits to how scandalously a soldier can publicly behave, I want to suggest that the posting of these videos on YouTube speaks to a mode of life that is not completely in step with the clear-cut duty of military protocol. And yet, just as Alexander the Great is reported to have said, “Had I not been Alexander, I should have liked to be Diogenes” (perhaps inspired by Diogenes’ proclamations that he was “a citizen of the world”; see Laertius VI, 32, 63), there is also a playfulness to some of these videos to which military leaders might aspire.

kynos | i'm a dog | between kings & mutts | from abu ghraib to amarillo | videos | references