Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The value of humor in combat, especially as a measure of a unit’s sanity and hubris

No, I am not talking about "Humor in Uniform"-type garrison guffaws stuff that I read in Reader’s Digest as a child. Rather, I recently was discussing memories of the Iraq war in a personal exchange with my friend Andrew Exum. He noted, in an observation that he has given me permission to quote here, that: ...

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No, I am not talking about "Humor in Uniform"-type garrison guffaws stuff that I read in Reader's Digest as a child. Rather, I recently was discussing memories of the Iraq war in a personal exchange with my friend Andrew Exum. He noted, in an observation that he has given me permission to quote here, that:

When I was still Captain Exum, I was attached to the 22 SAS for 45 days in Baghdad, and our two units formally presented the one to the other: I told them about the Rangers and our heritage, and they did the same for the 22 SAS. They said that it was mandatory that each member of the SAS have a sense of humor. They then proceeded to explain that people who take themselves too seriously are the same people who begin to believe their own hype, lose their humility, and get sloppy and get themselves (and their men) killed. I've never forgotten that lesson and have tried to live by it ever sense.

Tom again: It occurred to me that I've never read much about this -- that is, the use of humor as a test of sanity and common sense in battle. Yeah, I know there are lots of examples. But anyone know of studies or analyses? Or rules like the SAS one cited by Ex?

No, I am not talking about "Humor in Uniform"-type garrison guffaws stuff that I read in Reader’s Digest as a child. Rather, I recently was discussing memories of the Iraq war in a personal exchange with my friend Andrew Exum. He noted, in an observation that he has given me permission to quote here, that:

When I was still Captain Exum, I was attached to the 22 SAS for 45 days in Baghdad, and our two units formally presented the one to the other: I told them about the Rangers and our heritage, and they did the same for the 22 SAS. They said that it was mandatory that each member of the SAS have a sense of humor. They then proceeded to explain that people who take themselves too seriously are the same people who begin to believe their own hype, lose their humility, and get sloppy and get themselves (and their men) killed. I’ve never forgotten that lesson and have tried to live by it ever sense.

Tom again: It occurred to me that I’ve never read much about this — that is, the use of humor as a test of sanity and common sense in battle. Yeah, I know there are lots of examples. But anyone know of studies or analyses? Or rules like the SAS one cited by Ex?

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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