During a four-month-long participatory fieldwork amongst soldiers serving in the Danish army, I experienced how laughter permeated everyday life and caused momentary breaks from the seriousness that came with being embedded in a quite hierarchal structure. Even the sergeants who were supposed to discipline the young soldiers were keen on lightening the atmosphere by telling jokes or encouraging others to do so. Humor appeared to make military service more fun: it lightened the mood and supported social bonds among soldiers which also made the tough times more bearable.
However, I also observed how humor took part in 'making' of military professionals; how seemingly innocent comments or actions that were "just a joke" took part in establishing otherwise unspoken limitations and norms for how to be a good soldier. In this article, I will unfold how the telling of jokes, laughter, and pranks seemed to "tinker towards" (Law and Mol 2002) what was expected of the soldiers for them to be recognizable as military subjects; and thereby move closer to becoming insiders to the military profession. Attempting to grasp this role of humor in soldiers' continuous process of becoming (Haraway 2008), I will combine insights from previous ethnological studies of humor and gender studies, unfolding how the concept of affects might further develop the understanding of how humor works in powerful ways in military settings.
This crucial role of humor will be examined by unfolding the question of potency, not only as enacted sexually but equally as enacted through leadership. Connecting these two 'versions' of potency it is possible to demonstrate how humor not only takes part in a very serious policing of 'right' and 'wrong' ways for soldiers to create social bonds, but equally to demonstrate how humor in subtle ways takes part in negotiating the recognition of 'insiders' to the military profession. Thus, humor is essential to military subjectivity.
To set the scene for the analysis, I want to present the reader with the scenario that spurred this article; it is a scenario which occurred during a two-and-a-half hour long march one warm afternoon:
It's getting hot walking with about 25 kilos of gear on our backs, so during our first stop, Just, Fischer, and Persson pull down their pants to cool off their legs--which means that they are standing in the middle of the woods in their underwear, pants down by their ankles. On the other side of the trail, about 15-20 meters away and somewhat separate from the rest of the group, Juul and Karlsen are lying down against each other on the ground, enjoying a break in the sun. One of them has their arm around the other, and they are both smiling. On the opposite side of the trail, one of the guys with his pants down around his ankles notices the two guys and proclaims loudly: 'That's kinda like Brokeback Mountain.' After a few more guys comment on the apparently homoerotic character of this scenario, several of them sneak up on the two guys and throw themselves in a bundle on top of them. Juul and Karlsen are surprised and look like they are exhausted by the many kilos of human bodies that suddenly land on top of them, while the guys who have thrown themselves on top of them laugh, (based on field notes, week 11) (1) The two men lying together, Juul and Karlsen, seemed to grow fond of one another during the conscription period. But, as this excerpt indicates, their way of being close was considered inappropriate. It was compared to Brokeback Mountain, the 2005 blockbuster film about the forbidden love between two male cowboys. Although it was apparently perfectly fine to pull down your pants while surrounded by the rest of the platoon, it was deemed out of place to show another guy tenderness by holding him. I did not know the intimate details of Juul and Karlsen's relationship--they might have been close friends without any sexual interaction, or they might have been lovers. But this is irrelevant, as they were considered to be 'more' than conscripts with a close bond; they were read as men who desired men. Seeing this display of assumed desire that did not fit the norm, some of the other male conscripts intervened with humor, which illustrates how humor can be an effective mechanism for policing sexuality and closeness.
But the scenario opens up an array of possible interpretations. Seeing it as a form of policing that safeguards the norms of heterosexuality is, of course, just one way to interpret this scenario. The scenario could also be seen in a broader perspective regarding how to perform as a soldier, and how this is regulated affectively--e.g., through laughter. This becomes apparent as the wider context of the scenario is unfolded. By doing so, I suggest that the tenderness between the two men was interfered with not just because of their display of intimacy but also because their individual performances as soldiers fell outside of the recognizable patterns for being a good soldier.
Second, to understand why Juul and Karlsen did not oppose the group of peers throwing themselves on top of them, at the end of the article I will attend to the powerful forces working through jokes, mockery, and teasing. Here, I will draw on the work of affect scholar Sara Ahmed (2014a) who has argued that 'being with' means to be 'similar with' as recognition entangles in processes of attunement. In the form of a seemingly innocent use of humor, this social mechanism is suggested to take part in the disciplining of soldiers, keeping them within a humorous mood out of fear of ruining 'the good mood'. But before turning to affects, I must set a minimal framework for this article, empirically as well as analytically.
Empirical setting and analytical approach
In a landmark article, feminist military scholar Carol Cohn notes how, during her fieldwork among defense analysts in the US, she realized "that talking about nuclear weapons is fun" (1987, 704). As part of a more extensive analysis of the use of language in this context, Cohn argues that language becomes a way of bypassing the realness of a subject that may otherwise invoke moral outrage or emotional reactions, thereby making it possible to work in close proximity to death. Conn's argument still appears relevant 30 years later, as I reflect on my own fieldwork in which the potentially very serious and deadly consequences of military work seemed absent. While Cohn did not focus on humor as such, I wonder how we might approach this still-very-present matter of "fun" in the training of Danish soldiers. For readers to understand the empirical setting for the analysis, the following section briefly introduces the Danish case and the empirical work leading to this article.
The overarching research project from which this article has unfolded, explores what it means to be a good soldier in the twenty-first century and how the road to becoming one might be challenged and obstructed. (2) In this work, the good soldier has been constructed as "a figure or character with agentic presence and force" (Ashcraft 2017, 53), which opens up to contradictions, negotiations, and compromises in the performative becoming of these soldiers. Here, I draw on Judith Butler's definition of performativity as "that power of discourse to produce effects through reiteration" (Butler 1993, 20). This term is used to enable an analytical exploration of how the recognition as a good soldier is a continuous process that is never finalized; it is a continuous becoming. Empirically, the project attends to soldiers doing military service in Denmark where a 170-year-old conscription system is still in effect, albeit most of the 4,200 conscripted soldiers needed each year voluntarily sign a contract to serve. (3) While only male citizens can be drafted, women are given the option to serve alongside them--unlike in the neighboring countries of Sweden and Norway where gender-neutral conscription has recently been introduced. However, all three countries have somewhat similar conscription systems that historically have been tied to the development of the country's welfare system and claims for democratic rights (see e.g. 0stergaard 1998; Sundevall 2011; Kronberg 2014). Summed up in the phrase "One man, one vote, one rifle" (Sundevall 2017, 63), military service could be seen as 'the price to pay' for recognition as a citizen of the state. Hence, the Danish maleonly conscription system is reminiscent of a time when only men were considered citizens entitled to certain rights. However, since becoming one of the first countries to legalize pornography and abortions, many Danes have considered the country to be a frontrunner when it comes to matter of gender equality (Nellemann et al. 1988), something that is supported by a substantial representation of women on the labor market and men involved in child rearing and housework. (4) A recent attention to gender issues in the military could perhaps also be seen as testimony to an egalitarian assumption that men and women should not just have equal rights but also a more even representation, even in traditional male-dominated professions. (5) Further, when interviewing male soldiers in Denmark, I found that they tend to distance themselves from militaries assumed to be hyper-masculine--often exemplified through the U.S. military--mentioning that Danish soldiers are far better at critical thinking, have a more informal tone, and respect women more. Among the conscripted soldiers that this analysis focuses on, 17 percent are now women (Conscripted Soldiers, 2018), making them less of a rare sight in the Danish military than they were just ten years ago.
The primary empirical foundation for this article is a participatory fieldwork carried out in the spring of 2016. Here, I participated in the everyday life of a platoon comprised of conscripted soldiers, joining them from the first day until they were discharged four months later. (6) I...