Dying Peacefully, Living Through Laughter

How comedy is helping veterans heal the "invisible wounds" of war. "Should I end my life or enjoy a cup of coffee?" This quote, often misattributed to the French philosopher Albert Camus, effectively captures the essence of what he and his existentialist contemporaries aimed to express in their works, especially in the Theater of the Absurd: to jolt the audience out of complacency and confront them with the harsh realities of the human condition. The world isn't always fair or logical; bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. Both good and bad people can do good and bad things; that while fate is beyond our control, the future is our responsibility; that ultimately, our life is up to us despite, at times, seeming meaningless and absurd.

While most people might need this kind of soul-stirring shock, veterans need hardly; "Adaptation is the definition of absurdity," as one Green Beret and former client once told me. War is a perplexing world of contradictions lived in extremes far removed from "normal" life: thrilling highs and prolonged and sometimes agonizing lows; the honor of service, pride of purpose; the thrill of danger; the rush of raw power; committing deliberate violence for the greater good; struggles between loyalty and betrayal; the immediacy of life and the omnipresence of death; an all-consuming commitment to a private brotherhood and sisterhood. As David Wood noted in his book What Have We Done.

War is a different moral realm where many of the values and principles we learned are abandoned.Do unto others, suspended. A strange world where complex moral dilemmas, such as confronting a child soldier, demand immediate solutions by those who are least equipped to make them, due to reasons of incomplete neurological development and lack of experience. An environment for which the U.S. has trained its warriors extensively in physical fitness and military tactics but left them mentally and spiritually unprepared. An environment from which they return to find their new understanding of the world and who they have become fits awkwardly or not at all into their previous lives in peacetime America. They return to a civilian public whose intermittent attention to veterans largely fails to grasp or acknowledge the experiences they have endured on our behalf."

The problem with absurdity, as Joe Kincheloe points out in Fiction Formulas, "is that it dances with fate around the sand trap of nihilism." Absurdity leads to the question, why should one continue to live?

In my experience and research on moral injury, many veterans who return from war have, at the very least, some sense of internal unrest about what they have seen or done, what they've been forced to do, or what they couldn't prevent on the battlefield; likewise, how they (and others) have or have lived up to their own standards of right and wrong. Many vets struggle with feelings of guilt, shame, anger, resentment, bitterness, sadness, depression, and regret. They become tormented by a lack of meaning and purpose and cynicism and bitterness. They start to lose trust in others and sometimes even in themselves. Whether this is due to overwhelming emotions, the fear of shame, the numbness from scars, the feeling that others "wouldn't understand," "couldn't understand," "don't care," or would "judge them," many veterans struggle to find their way back to "normal" life and regular relationships. Consequently, they suffer in silent isolation, questioning what "it" all amounts to and whether they're too worn out to keep trying to figure it out.

Dying Peacefully

Experts and official government estimates (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2023) are that 17 to 22 veterans die by suicide each day. An interim report by America's Warrior Partnership and Duke University (n.d.) put the number as high as 24 suicides per day and 20 additional who die by "self-injury mortality" (also known as an overdose). From 2020 to 2021, the rate of suicide among veterans increased by 11.6% percent (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2023). In 2021, suicide was the 13th leading cause of death for veterans overall and the second leading cause of death for veterans under 45 years old (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2023). Veterans are also 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than Americans who never served in the military (Morral, 2023). For female veterans, the risk factor is twice as likely (DAV, 2024).

"We went to war to serve our country, but we come home someone else," said a retired Special Operations Forces veteran, who served three deployments in the Middle East but wished to remain anonymous. "Who are you kidding," said his friend, also a retired Operator. "Our sense of 'home' is gone... we didn't lose our lives, but our lives are far from 'normal' now." Another Operator added, "I was trained to be what many people see as 'a monster' if they knew what I did. Then society expects us to just come back and have all that aggression disappear. We often deceive ourselves into thinking we’re handling it, but deep down we know we’re not. A retired Green Beret said, "We believed there was purpose, order, and justice and wrong in the world, but all it is, is a chaotic cesspool of f***ed-upedness."

Living Through Laughter

"What the military leaves out is that they make great warriors, but when you leave, no one really helps you systematically become a civilian," said author and trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk. "Comedy is a great way to open up people's minds because you show the absurdity of it all."

Studies (Kafle, 2023) conducted in seven countries show that humor can have a significant impact on mental health symptoms, such as increasing connectedness, trust, self-concept/identity, and empowerment. This can be especially valuable for "invisible wounds" like moral injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that can cause isolation, detachment, social anxiety, self-criticism, and perfectionism.

Veteran groups are discovering the therapeutic benefits of humor. Retired Army Lt. Col. Robin Johnson is the executive producer for Operation HEAL*ARIOUS, a resilience training and suicide prevention program that teaches participants how to use humor to reframe harmful thought patterns. Veterans art groups like the Comedy Bootcamp are also using comedy to help veterans both connect and communicate by stepping out of their comfort zones and working together to write and perform standup routines. Additionally, there is the Armed Services Arts Partnership, a nonprofit that teaches creative and performing arts classes, including humor, for veterans and military families. Others using humor to heal include Comedy Vets, who produce live comedy shows for military personnel and their families to "help veterans laugh" and "help veterans survive," as well as The Veterans of Comedy, a group using laughter to help bridge the gap between service and civilian life.

History is full of individuals who gave their lives in service to their country and the values it upholds. On Memorial Day, we honor their "ultimate sacrifice." But history is also full of military personnel whose confusing post-war life is filled with exhausting contradictions, existential absurdities, and haunting memories some that can be talked about, many that cannot and which must be described in the military's famous phrase, "that’s f***ed up."

It is said that comedy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin; both frighten the mind, stir the soul, challenge norms, provide profound truths, and surface contradictions. The tragedies of war leave many veterans feeling trapped and with only their grim thoughts, but increasingly, humor is proving to be a much-needed balm or therapeutic companion that offers relief from the absurdity of war and the world.

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