Life’s a funny old thing.
Often though, life’s got a much different sense of humor than people do.
It’s a dark sense of humor. It’s mean, brutal, juvenile and often ironic in a way that’s only funny in a cosmic sense. You might think that a knock-knock joke is funny. Life thinks that a deaf guy getting his hands cut off in a horrible industrial accident is funny*. Seeing a guy get hit in the crotch with a wiffle ball on TV might amuse you. Life is amused by the fact that the invention of pills like Viagra and Levitra has given AIDS a whole new demographic to run rampant in.
Some people see the twisted humor in life, and while they might not laugh, they certainly get the joke. For some people, the best coping mechanism for dealing with their own existence is to laugh the pain away; make jokes at their own expense. Sometimes, when life has you on the ropes and is pounding the will to live out of you, it’s either laugh through your tears, or go mad.
The best comedians are the ones with shitty lives, or the ones that recognize how shitty life can be and how shitty we can be to each other. Those comedians harness that pain and turn it into something to laugh at, something to be made fun of until there’s no space for pain because its all been pushed out.
There are people who are very good at this. They perceive the world through somewhat jaded eyes and can appreciate humor in a cosmic sense. They get the joke, whether they want to or not. It can be a gift and a curse. Sometimes the funniest people are the ones who are dead inside, their point-of-view of existence turning them into cynical observers of life. It can be lonely.
I’ve been to Iraq twice, (three times if you count that adventure with Hiro Nakamura, but that’s a story for another time, and I’ve got Scheherazade’s panties to prove it!) Back in 2003 I was in Kuwait when the first rockets were fired in March. My unit was part of the second wave into Iraq, once the war started. I didn’t get to see too many battles; all I got to see were the results of American influence on the area. Destroyed buildings, homes with holes the size of manhole covers in bedroom walls, partial donkeys, horses and goats in the gutter. I never got to see a lot of Iraq in its original state, only after a military make over.
As a photojournalist, I went to the front lines (as if there were any) quite often in those first few months of the invasion (I mean, liberation) of Iraq. It was during one of my first embedded missions with an infantry unit that I came across Achmed.**
I was spending the night with an infantry company at an agricultural college in An Najaf. I was excited to be in downtown Najaf because it could mean that a firefight could break out at anytime. I wanted to see some action; getting shot at by SCUD missiles wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I was there to do a story about a cache of explosives that had been discovered and was going to be blown up by an E.O.D. team, (explosions are always kick ass!) As I wandered around the college campus -camera in one hand, rifle in the other- I noticed a group of soldiers hanging out by a grove of trees. They seemed to be having a good time, so I headed over there to see what the happy haps. That’s when I was introduced to Achmed.
Achmed looked to be in his forties, maybe early fifties. His hair and beard were white. He didn’t look like a soldier, or like much of a threat, which is why it was weird to see him with a giant hole where his face was supposed to be.
It seems that Achmed had attempted to sneak back onto the campus earlier in the day, possibly to steal some explosives (possibly to get back his red Swingline stapler from a classroom. We’ll never know) and ended up in a body bag for his troubles.
The soldiers were all excited about having Achmed around, because it was proof of their killing skills. He was shot in the back of the neck (just a tiny little hole, no bigger than a penny) by a M-16A2 gas-powered, semi-automatic rifle at 50 yards. At that distance, the exit wound made ground beef out of his face. Naturally, I took an assload of pictures. I’d seen violent movies and dead bodies in funeral homes and on dissection tables and I thought that I was properly desensitized; but I’d never seen a violent death in its natural state.
As gruesome as it may seem, I wanted to study my first dead body. See, the army doesn’t do a great job in introducing soldiers to the horror of war. They’re great at making sure soldiers have all their proper immunizations, but drop the ball when it comes to showing soldiers what happens when they do their job properly (namely, killin’ folks). They’d probably have a lot less cases of suicide and PTSD if they actually treated soldiers like people instead of disposable weapons with legs.
I studied Achmed’s head: the way the layers of skin and fat under the top layer of skin were exposed, the interesting shades of purple, pink and red that blossomed from the wound, the remaining eye: sitting gray and sightless in what was left of the eye socket. I tried to imagine if he knew when he got up that day that he was going to die in the outfit he had put on. I wondered if he was able to sense that he was going to die. I wondered if he felt the bullet go through his head and splatter his thoughts all over the ground, to dry in the hot sun or get eaten by feral dogs. I wondered if there was anybody back at his house waiting for his return; if he was going to be missed.
The soldiers around had no such thoughts in their heads. They preferred to practice their flying elbows. There were three of ‘em, they were guarding the body so the dogs wouldn’t come for a night buffet. It was a boring job, so they decided to spice it up. What better way than by practicing WWE moves on a dead body? With smiles on their lips and laughter in the air, they would take turns attacking this body lying on the ground. Flying elbows, flying knees and other aerobic moves of pain where inflicted upon this body, further damaging and insulting an enemy combatant who could do nothing in return. I’m not a religious person, but I felt that more reverence or respect would have been natural. I didn’t know that people would take such delight and pleasure in adding further insult to injury. I didn’t know that some people would like their job that much.
In the many months that followed, I saw more bodies. I saw bodies that were burned; torched until the fat under their skin liquefied and boiled. I saw bodies of adults with gapping holes in them (a testament to the shooting skills of the American soldier. God Bless the U.S.A.) abandoned in ditches. I saw frail kids held in the arms of parents --smeared with their own children’s blood-- plead with soldiers to be let into bases for medical aid. I saw what was left of a driver of a car bomb, hell I almost tripped on his large intestine, which, along with other unidentifiable pieces of the guy, were splattered all over a street and nearby buildings and trees.
I attended and photographed dozens of memorial services for dead soldiers. (For more info on that, read the first Eighty-Four Glyde ever!) People that I only got to know after they died, through pictures and anecdotes told by their grieving friends. I saw the good that soldiers are capable of and I saw the evil that they can do (sometimes with big smiles on their faces.)
I saw the best-prepared soldiers killed and people who should have been killed walk away from the scenes of their near-deaths, whistling. I saw a guy get blown up by a mortar on the way to the mess hall. It was the day after Thanksgiving and he just wanted a good turkey sandwich.
I was already an atheist before I went to Iraq, but what I saw and experienced just confirmed my beliefs. When you know that the guy to the left of you could die simply because he was standing in that the wrong spot at the wrong time, you start to question things. In Iraq, anybody could go at any moment. It doesn’t matter how well prepared you are or not. It doesn’t matter if you just got promoted. It doesn’t matter how smart, or funny or attractive you are. When you (and by you I mean I) realize that the only thing keeping you alive is dumb luck, well, you just gotta laugh. It’s either that, or a lifetime of medication to keep you from going nucking futs.
I write this to give people an idea of my sense of humor. It’s not for everybody. Sometimes my jokes are funny, sometimes they hit too close to home or piss people off. Sometimes they aren’t funny in the slightest (well, that’s a lie, I’ve never said an unfunny joke.) Sometimes they’re just too over the top and my words turn into an Andy Kaufman-like inside joke, funny only to myself. But hey, if you can’t laugh at how pathetic and miserable life can be, then what’s left to laugh at?
Now, who wants to hear something funny?
*In the land of the deaf, he with no hands is truly mute.
**Not his real name, but I doubt he’ll put up a fuss about it