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

From Abu Ghraib to Amarillo

Of course, to say that all military videos are kynical expressions elides those videos that use darker themes. Setting aside Moore’s stark sequence in Fahrenheit 9/11, there is also the reality that U.S. soldiers took pictures and made movies in Abu Ghraib. Although the YouTube music videos I am exploring hardly commit such atrocities, the memory of those amateur films that caused outrage around the world will forever haunt our opinions of soldiers with movie cameras. For me, a trace of these war crimes can be found in the YouTube video titled “What is Love?," a song popularized in a Saturday Night Live comedy sketch (see Michaels & Ferrell, 1998). On one hand, there is the playful encouragement by the Marines in this video to get the young Iraqi children to bop their heads with the song. These are the sorts of playful connections with the population that are vital to a unit’s success in a combat zone, which is also the home of many civilians. Still, on the other hand, there is a scene of a soldier bobbing as he pats down someone dressed as a Middle Eastern man at a checkpoint. For sure, such an image is part of the soldiers’ daily lives, but seeing soldiers bobbing with weapons in their hands and gas masks on their faces has, for me, an ominous quality, especially in light of the song’s refrain: “Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more.” What is Love video stillAs much as we do not want our soldiers to hurt, the tragedy of Abu Ghraib is an underside of war we dare not forget, lest we repeat our past mistakes. In my reading, the “What is Love?” video is less kynical, and, indeed, opens a potentially cynical view of soldiers’ videos. Their playfulness with the children suggests the soldiers do not want to hurt, but to hear these lyrics alongside image of guns, gas masks, and checkpoints speaks to us more loudly, perhaps, following the crimes of Abu Ghraib.

view video: What Is Love?


More cynical versions of soldiers’ videos remind me of Slavoj Žižek’s (1997) critique of movies like M*A*S*H and An Officer and a Gentleman (Elfand & Hackford, 1982). Žižek (1997) argued these movies too effortlessly simplify “the meaninglessness of military slaughter” by offering up “a healthy measure of cynicism, practical jokes, [and] laughing at pompous official rituals” (p. 20). Žižek suggested that these antics only serve to reify the “perfectly functioning military subject,” and they do not come across in the manner of films like Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick, 1987) which “successfully resists the ideological temptation to ‘humanize’” aspects of war (Žižek, 1997, p. 20). While I do agree with Žižek’s criticism of purposefully humorizing in movies what is inherently dehumanizing in reality, I cannot bring myself to similarly criticize the videos made by the soldiers overseas. These men and women are not professional moviemakers, and they are coping with an appalling situation by finding whatever playfulness is possible. Those interested in further exploration about how soldiers cope with their conditions would do well to consider the arguments made throughout Žižek’s vast corpus.

While Žižek might reject the cynical use of humor to minimize the inherent atrocities of war, he might not be so hard on the kynical use of humor some soldiers have employed to distance themselves—however slightly—from military group think. I argue that these dogfaced soldiers are simultaneously well-schooled in the unquestioned obedience demanded from them by their masters, while at the same time they are able to come off their leash and poke fun at the powers that be. Unquestioned obedience to authority enables the individual to act aggressively in order to further a larger political agenda and to distance oneself from any personal responsibility. Soldiers are often the symbolic weapons in the hands of their superior officers. Coming off one’s military leash may result in censure, but this kynicism may ultimately be imperative to individual well-being. Peter Sloterdijk (1987) maintained that a kynic “sacrifices his social identity and forgoes the psychic comfort of unquestioned membership in a political group in order to save his existential and cosmic identity” (p. 164). Such sacrificial risks are involved any time a group of soldiers decides to put videos like the kind I’ve been exploring online. There are risks, too, in discussing these videos in the classroom—as Kairos readers might—because they are not suggestive of the way the military actually does business; indeed, many students may regard military service as a sacred act and could be offended by making light of one’s duty. When it comes to matters of God and Country, it’s never easy, as Victor Vitanza (1997) noted through Kenneth Burke (1969), to find a way of “making peace with the faeces” (p. 333 in Vitanza, p. 23 in Burke). Or, put another way, not everyone wants to kynically laugh about shit.

For his part, Diogenes denied being a part of any group, eschewing all organized political or social associations, but even he could not avoid being part of some culture. The very act of rebelling acknowledges initial membership into the group in question. The softening of a strong group mentality is played out symbolically in the video featuring Tony Christie’s 1971 hit “Is This the Way to Amarillo?” It’s a grassroots video made by British soldiers based on a song that was popularized by British comedian, Peter Kay, and one that I admit is somewhat out of sync with my previous focus on American soldiers and hip-hop. After all, “Is This The Way To Amarillo?” is something of a British parody of country songs that had a Lawrence Welk-like appeal before Kay revisited the song in a sketch more akin to Monty Python (MacNaugton & Cleese, 1969-74) than Good Morning, Vietnam. Still, perhaps this video might be considered in light of the videos produced by the Navy’s VAW-116 Sun Kings that I alluded to earlier and that I also regard as somewhat out of sync with my exploration of kynicism. Regardless of its being British, there is something grittier (and less macho) about the continuously unfolding “Amarillo” video that gets at something that the Sun Kings’ highly polished and edited videos seem to miss. Granted, perhaps I’m drawn to “Amarillo” because I simply know less about what attracts the British soldiers to Kay than what I think I know about why the Kings are attracted to the songs they record. Still, I think it’s okay to prefer Kay to the Kings, especially if we consider that Diogenes, too, had little use for Kings, even if Kings like Alexander the Great aspired to be like Diogenes.

For its part, “Is This the Way to Amarillo?” opens with a single lip-synching soldier winding his way through a military compound, calling people away from their various duties to join his dance. Soldiers toting cans of gasoline in the motor pool hustle to strut alongside the singer, but then the rest of the camp follows: armed officers, those shaving, the wounded, and even those holed up in the latrine get into the dance. Most tellingly, there are scenes of Iraqis being accepted into the dance; everyone is welcome. A transformation in group identity unequivocally takes place. The mixed breed of the “dogface” is being further emphasized. Soldiers reject a military mindset of “us against them” by including Iraqis in the dance, and their cosmic identity is saved though humor. In joining this dance, one joins Diogenes (1995) in becoming “a citizen of the world” (p. 63).

view video: Is This The Way to Amarillo?

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