Comedy in Combat Culture MacArthur 2nd

Understanding the Use of Humor in Crisis and Conflict


Maj. Sally Williamson, Australian Army


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Soldiers stand in line at a “reenlistment office” in Baghdad on 25 February 2004.

There are few leaders with a job more serious right now than Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Yet, this emergent world leader still finds the odd occasion not to take himself too seriously. During an interview with David Letterman in an underground train station in Kyiv nine months after the large-scale Russian invasion, Zelensky joked:

Two Jewish guys from Odesa meet up. One is asking the other, “So what’s the situation? What are the people saying?”

And he goes: “What are people saying? They are saying it’s a war.”

“War? What kind of war?”

“Russia is fighting NATO.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes, Russia is fighting NATO!”

“So, how is it going?

“What do you mean, how is it going? Seventy thousand Russian soldiers are dead. Missile stockpile has been almost depleted. A lot of equipment is damaged, blown up. That’s the situation.”

“And what about NATO?”

“What about NATO? NATO hasn’t even arrived yet!”1

His tone is calm, and his voice is clear. There is a small smile and his usually serious and sullen face lights up for just a second as he says the punch line. Although spontaneous, it is a thoughtful joke delivered to domestic and international audiences with a slightly different message for each. It demonstrates how appropriate humor can serve as a useful tool for interpersonal and informative communication, transcend traditional hierarchies, serve as a culturally acceptable mechanism for voicing dissatisfaction, and act as an effective coping strategy in crisis and conflict.

Understanding what constitutes appropriate versus inappropriate humor is based on individual values and beliefs, and the context in which it is delivered. Filipe Sobral, Liliana Furtado, and Gazi Islam describe humor as having two potential styles: positive or negative. Positive humor includes affiliative or self-enhancing humor and seeks to “build and enhance interpersonal relationships through funny stories, jokes, and witty comments.”2 Negative humor, on the other hand, is aggressive or deprecating and functions through irony, sarcasm, and ridicule. This kind of humor is used to vent dissatisfaction and create relatability by drawing the comedic aspects from shared or collective hardships.3 Another important aspect of humor relates to whether the joke targets oneself or whether it targets a person or entity that is a stranger to the audience, known to the audience, or a member of the audience.4 From a context perspective, humor is generally best received when the audience shares the same context or can, at a minimum, imagine themselves in that situation.5 Timing, tone, and method of delivery can also serve to make a joke more or less effective, as anyone who has seen stand-up comedy can attest.6

There are substantial amounts of literature that focus on the managerial aspects of humor.7 However, for the military, comedy is more than just a tool for transformational leadership, it is a part of the organization’s social identity and culture.8 In a 2016 Army Magazine article, Col. Eric Zimmerman discusses how humor was historically incorporated into leadership doctrine. He explains that the 1948 Department of the Army Pamphlet 22-1, Leadership, and the 1999 Field Manual 22-100, Army Leadership: Be, Know, Do, both included passages espousing the positive aspects of affiliative humor. He recommends that the “artful application of humor in leadership” should be incorporated into modern doctrine as there are many potential benefits, such as the “development and maintenance of trust and cohesive teams, resiliency and critical and creative thinking.”9 Modern U.S. Army doctrine does not mention humor as a leadership trait, but it emphasizes why having a sense of humor is important in retaining a positive emotional state and achieving optimal mental readiness.10 Studies tend to support Army Techniques Publication 7-22, Army Team Building, and Zimmerman’s claims.11 However, these same studies also warn that if comedy is inconsistent with the leadership style or typical behaviors of a certain individual, it may aggravate divergence in leader-follower relationships and impair team outcomes.12

David Letterman interviews Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

For comedy to be an effective interpersonal and informative communication tool, leaders attempting humor must have high levels of emotional intelligence and a natural or learned affinity for humor. Contrived or fake attempts at humor will likely detract from the messaging, undermine the legitimacy of the deliverer, and generate mistrust.13 Zelensky has been a comedian much longer than a politician, so even though his domestic and international information campaigns are usually grim, sincere, and serious, he can naturally revert to humor when opportunities arise.14 Although an advantageous trait, military leaders do not need to be comedians. However, they need to recognize the value of having a collective and individual sense of humor because comedy does not just operate in a linear or hierarchic fashion and is an inevitable component of workplace relations.15

The many forms of Army-deprecating humor that operate beyond the boundaries of traditional military structures are important expressions or artifacts of culture. Doctrine Man, Army WTF Moments, Duffelblog, Sad Officer Memes, Miltwitter, and the Angry Staff Officer are modern examples of ironic, satirical, and negative humor that reflect parts of Army culture rarely discussed formally.16 Although social media has made creating and disseminating jokes easier, military-related satire has always been present in the United States. Fictional examples like the cartoon Willie and Joe, the movie and spin-off television series M*A*S*H, and the movie Stripes, funny anecdotes from military memoirs, and cartoons from military magazines and newsletters demonstrate the power of comedy in breaking open taboos, building rapport, and creating a shared sense of understanding.17 As will be discussed in later sections of this article, satirical humor is primarily used as a means of voicing dissatisfaction and relieving stress; however, it also serves as a relatable and socially acceptable communicative tool to nonmilitary personnel.

Image courtesy of Westflandrica Heritage Library, Kortrijk, Belgium via Wikimedia Commons

Bridging the military-civilian divide, particularly during conflict or crisis—when the realities of war can feel far removed from the everyday existence of friends, family, and the general population at home—can be very difficult. The Army strives to demonstrate unwavering professionalism, discipline, and responsibility, but in so doing, it can create a robotic reflection that is disassociated from the civilians they serve.18 Comedic outlets are an avenue for communicating the human side of military life. They are a nonendorsed way of showing imperfection, relatability, and most importantly, humanity.19 As Angry Staff Officer suggested, “The more that we can do to show that we are their Army, the better.”20

Although useful in messaging to nonmilitary audiences, the primary motivation for these comedic outlets is to voice dissatisfaction with leadership, the military bureaucracy, or the political masters that control it. Individuals or groups may voice dissent through humor because it is often a more culturally and socially acceptable way to motivate change in situations where they might not otherwise have agency due to existing power structures and hierarchies.21 Comedy transcends rank and position and provides an avenue to challenge policy, decision-making, and resource apportionment without threatening the chain of command.22

When leaders use deprecating humor toward subordinates without establishing a very close bond, they are unlikely to get a good reaction.23 However, when a subordinate uses ironic humor toward superiors or the Army, it can incite positive change. This only works, however, if those superiors and authorities retain their sense of humor and see the joke or story in the way it was intended—as a form of constructive criticism.24 The following anecdote comes from the author’s personal experience and describes how a well-timed joke from a soldier can work to diffuse tension, deliver feedback, and motivate change.

It was late. After patrolling half lost in the tropical heat all day, the platoon finally wandered into the support area and made their way to the mess tent. Hoping for a fresh meal, they quickly realized that the cooks had finished for the night and were deep into clean-up duties. You could feel the mood sink and the soldiers walked dejectedly outside looking for a place to sit down and open yet another MRE. The platoon jester cleared his throat, and in his finest mock general officer’s voice exclaimed, “Don’t worry men! We have so much morale right now, that we can just eat that for dinner instead.” Laughter and smiles replaced the silent disappointment that had filled the air only seconds before and the young platoon commander breathed a sigh of relief. He made a quiet promise to himself to work extra hard on navigation that night.

There is no doubt that the primary target of the joke was the platoon leader, and the message delivered by the soldier was ironic but clear. Morale was low because the team had missed out on fresh food, and the cause of this condition was the leader’s poor navigation skills. However, the delivery was witty, tactful, and funny, and the deliverer was known to the audience as a natural joker. An angry or direct attack on the platoon leader or even a quiet word from one of the senior NCOs may have invoked the desired change of behavior; however, it would also have represented a challenge to perceived notions of hierarchy and elicited a very different physiological response. The informal, timely, and effective quip was a relatable expression of collective thought and an assessment of the platoon leader’s performance but delivered in a nonthreatening way.

This expression of collective thought is not only useful in motivating leaders to action, but it can also be a way of venting frustration in stressful situations. Humor has long been established as an effective coping mechanism for soldiers and civilians caught up in conflict and crisis.25 The Wipers Times was a British World War I magazine produced by soldiers in the Ypres Salient. The editorial in volume 3 from March 1916 states, “We hear that the war (to which we alluded guardedly in our first number), is proceeding satisfactorily, and we hope shortly to be able to announce that it is a going concern. So, for the time being, there we will leave it and turn to graver subjects.”26 This type of ironic or dark humor, and the sharing of jokes and stories in dire situations where one might otherwise freeze or crumble, helps to maintain morale, willpower, and cohesion amongst fighting forces.27

Door gunner Petty Officer Richard Symonds of the Royal Navy wears a Santa Claus outfit as he delivers mail and Christmas presents to troops around Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on 25 December 2010

Leaders, however, need to recognize when their subordinates are using humor as a tool for managing stress as it is often indicative of underlying sentiments or thoughts.28 Deprecating humor directed at others can quickly shift from appropriate to inappropriate as the values and norms of the fighting force are stretched beyond accepted cultural standards due to escalations of violence and human suffering.29 Words spoken in jest often lie somewhere between the desired truth and reality and can signal shifts in morality, faith, and self-belief.30 This is not to say that leaders should completely restrict the use of dark humor by their subordinates but rather pay more attention to whom they are targeting their jokes, monitor the impacts they are having on the team, and find time to reinforce moral and ethical standards when appropriate.

We can reconsider the Zelensky joke from the opening paragraph as both a stress-coping mechanism and a means of voicing dissatisfaction toward NATO. Although the subject of his joke is primarily Russia, there is a hint of deprecation toward his powerful Western-based allies. Zelensky makes his humorous yet poignant criticism in such a way that his message is clear and culturally acceptable given Ukraine’s position within the global hierarchy. His joke is appropriate and relatable, and he delivers it at a time and to both an internal and external audience who is ready to receive it. Although not all leaders have the requisite emotional intelligence to use comedy as part of their repertoire, they should understand its value as a tool for interpersonal communication, study its history as an outlet for expressing dissatisfaction, recognize its positive and negative attributes, and acknowledge its importance as a coping strategy. Humor is a fundamental component of combat culture in conflict and crisis. As Zelensky said in his interview, “Because these days there aren’t as many opportunities in our lives for a smile but you can’t live without a smile. Humor is a part of one’s being … it’s very important, as it helps one not to lose their mind.”31


  1. Volodymyr Zelensky, interview by David Letterman, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman, episode 25, Netflix, 12 December 2022, accessed 13 June 2023,
  2. Filipe Sobral, Liliane Furtado, and Gazi Islam, “Humor as Catalyst and Neutralizer of Leadership Effectiveness,” Revista de Administração de Empresas 59, no. 5 (2019): 315,
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Robert P. Vecchio, Joseph E. Justin, and Craig L. Pearce, “The Influence of Leader Humor on Relationships between Leader Behavior and Follower Outcomes,” Journal of Managerial Issues 21, no. 2 (2009): 171–94, accessed 14 June 2023,
  6. Paul Lewis, Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 1–23.
  7. See the following for a summary of the literature on the subject. Gordon P. Brooks, “Humor in Leadership: State of the Art in Theory and Practice” (paper presentation, Annual Meeting of the Mid-Western Education Research Association, Chicago, IL, October 1992), accessed 28 March 2023,
  8. Richard Godfrey, “Soldiering On: Exploring the Role of Humour as a Disciplinary Technology in the Military,” Organization 23, no. 2 (2016): 168,
  9. Eric E. Zimmerman, “Seriously, Let’s Inject Humor into Leadership,” Army Magazine 66, no. 8 (August 2016): 22.
  10. Army Techniques Publication 7-22, Army Team Building (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Publishing Office, 2022), 9-4–9-8.
  11. Sobral, Furtado, and Islam, “Humour as Catalyst,” 313–22; Vecchio, Justin, and Pearce, “The Influence of Leader Humor,” 171–94; Bruce J. Avolio, Jane M. Howell, and John J. Sosik, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Bottom Line: Humor as a Moderator of Leadership Style Effects,” Academy of Management Journal 42, no. 2 (1999): 219–27,; Barabara Wisse and Eric Rietzschel, “Humor in Leader-Follower Relationships: Humor Styles, Similarity and Relationship Quality,” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 27, no. 2 (2014): 249–69,
  12. Sobral, Furtado, and Islam, “Humour as Catalyst,” 322.
  13. Charles Kibben, “Humor and Emotional Intelligence: A Correlational Study of Leadership” (PhD diss., University of Phoenix, 2012).
  14. Jessica Pisano, “How Zelensky Has Changed Ukraine,” Journal of Democracy 33, no. 3 (July 2022): 5–13, accessed 14 June 2023,
  15. Godfrey, “Soldiering On,” 168; Zimmerman, “Seriously, Let’s Inject Humor,” 21.
  16. To explore some of these sites further, see Doctrine Man,; Army WTF Moments,; Duffel Blog,; and The Angry Staff Officer,
  17. Zimmerman, “Seriously, Let’s Inject Humor,” 21.
  18. Nancy Sherman, Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
  19. Angry Staff Officer, interview by David Weart and Zach Mierva, “Humor and Leadership: A Conversation with Angry Staff Officer,” 7 June 2019, in The Leader’s Huddle, podcast, 8:30, accessed 14 June 2023,
  20. Ibid.
  21. Godfrey, “Soldiering On,” 168, 173–75.
  22. Ibid., 183, 185.
  23. Sobral, Furtado, and Islam, “Humour as Catalyst,” 314–16, 322.
  24. Godfrey, “Soldiering On,” 183, 185; Joshua M. Averbeck and Dale Hample, “Ironic Message Production: How and Why We Produce Ironic Messages,” Communication Monographs 75, no. 4 (2008): 396–98,
  25. Liz Willis, “Humour as a Strategy in War,” Medicine, Conflict and Survival 18, no. 1 (2002): 81–83,; Jelena Gavrilovic et al., “Coping Strategies in Civilians During Air Attacks,” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology: The International Journal for Research in Social and Genetic Epidemiology and Mental Health Services 38, no. 3 (2003): 128–33,
  26. “‘The Wipers Times,’ No. 3, Vol 1, Monday 6 March 1916,” National Army Museum, accessed 23 March 2023,
  27. Godfrey, “Soldiering On,” 186.
  28. Lewis, Cracking Up, 1–23.
  29. Godfrey, “Soldiering On,” 189.
  30. Sigmund Freud, The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. Abraham A Brill (New York: The Modern Library, 1938), 762–803.
  31. Zelensky, interview by Letterman, 20:30.


Maj. Sally Williamson, Australian Army, is an Art of War Scholar at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. She holds a BA in Indonesian and politics and an MA in defence studies from the University of New South Wales. She has operational experience in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and the Southwest Pacific; and she completed her subunit command time in a special operations battalion.


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