Before I explain what in the hell I was doing watching cartoons in a war zone, I should probably explain something first.
For those of you who don’t know, or simply haven’t been paying attention, the primary element that makes Army Special Forces (aka Green Berets) different from the rest of the SOF world is our ability to make friends and build armies from those friends. If you didn’t know that, don’t worry! The average civilian typically thinks a ‘Green Beret’ is some lesser known Prince song that was on the top 40 list in the 80’s.
Anyway, back to my original point – so there I am in Iraq hanging out in our Iraqi Army Scouts team house watching T.V. and drinking some chai. The Iraqi Army Scouts were roughly equivalent to our Rangers. This equivalence is in structure, not ability, though we trusted their abilities enough for them to go into houses with us and operate alongside us. We even trusted their loyalty to a great degree, though there were always elements of operational security we kept to ourselves. Good guys for sure. I truly enjoyed spending time with them and even earned/shared the title of “brother” with a few of them.
Normally when we all sat around together, drinking chai and smoking flavored tobacco from a hookah, the television was just background noise for me. I would try to pick up as many words as I could, or get whatever I could from the context and occasionally ask our interpreter some questions about what was being said.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing television via satellite in the Middle East, I quickly noticed there were really only two types of shows to choose from: music videos with guys spinning flutes in the desert surrounded by belly dancers and music videos that tell a sad soap opera-like story with a blue lens filter. I got lucky this day and we happened upon Tom and Jerry. I instinctively said “La! La!” or ‘No! No!’ to the Scout holding the remote. Don’t change this shit! I didn’t think any of them had seen this show before.
I didn’t consider it when I had that flash of nostalgia, but as we all watched together, I realized that Tom and Jerry used no language. It was all physical humor. Then something magical happened: Tom smashed his face on something while chasing Jerry and we all instinctively laughed… together. We laughed together for a good 15 minutes during this episode. No one spoke a word. I was glad for that, it would have ruined the mood. For a short stretch of time, we all forgot that we only understood each other through an interpreter and we all spoke the same language of laughter.
I could somehow sense that this was a bonding moment that went above and beyond our typical bonding moments with the Iraqi Scouts. We could understand each other to a great degree, particularly body language and movement. But only a few of us were capable of understanding phrases intended to be humorous. Typically the humor would have to be translated, and a bit is always lost in that. Tom and Jerry did not have any humor lost in translation.
That was one moment of many that made me love and truly believe in the Special Forces mission of unconventional warfare. Language skills are a crucial element of unconventional warfare and it is an extremely powerful tool. Humor is one of the most powerful languages available to humans precisely because it transcends all the doubt and fear that exists when someone doesn’t understand what you’re saying and you can’t understand them.
True laughter is from the heart and it is hard to fake. When surrounded by warfare and death, it’s a very comforting thing to see.