Last year, ex-Marine Danny Maher, a.k.a. Donny O'Malley, launched a streaming comedy channel aimed squarely at veterans. The idea behind the channel, VET TV, was that the majority of Americans don't understand what life in the armed services is really like, and as a result the portrayals of soldiers in pop culture don't reflect the realities of the front lines. VET TV, O'Malley believes, paints a more accurate picture, and that picture is not always pretty, and in fact quite often offensive.
Almost as soon as the project got off the ground, critics honed in on what some called tasteless or downright toxic humor, raising questions about how best to reintegrate America's ever-growing population of military veterans back into society. Are rape jokes and other gross gags crossing the boundaries of respectability really doing any good if they're increasingly out of touch with the mainstream comedy? What kind of obligation does a network targeted at a narrow chunk of the population really have? And how much of content on the network is actually resonating with the country's relatively diverse veteran population?
To answer these questions, in tandem with a documentary about VET TV airing on VICE this week, we asked several veterans of the US military to check out the streaming network and offer their personal reaction to its content—and what it means for them and theirs.
Adam Linehan, former Army medic who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, senior staff writer at Task & Purpose
VET TV markets itself as the "Comedy Central of the military," but its target audience is much more specific than that might suggest. This is grunt humor. It’s supposed to be shocking—not only to civilians, but also service members in "soft skill" occupations, such as lawyers, nurses, administrative clerks, water treatments specialists, and pretty much anyone else who doesn’t pull triggers or blow stuff up for a living. Jokes about PTSD, killing people, hazing, jacking off in guard towers, goat-fucking, chai boys, and salacious female lieutenants have been circulating among lower-enlisted combat troops since long before I joined the Army in 2006. But that world is fairly insulated from the rest of the military, and a lot of grunts would like to keep it that way (hence all of the cracks about women in the infantry). I'd imagine the majority of service members—male and female—would find VET TV's content gross or obnoxious.
That, however, is not to say VET TV is inauthentic. Quite the opposite, really. In popular culture, American troops are typically portrayed as either fearless warriors or psychologically traumatized victims. One fills theaters; the other draws Oscar nominations. Neither provides much insight into a segment of the population that has long struggled in part because of a lack of public understanding. If anything, Hollywood’s insistence on those archetypes has only muddled the picture. Now, I realize that VET TV isn’t going to shatter any molds or bridge any divides. But it is an attempt to ground the conversation. As a veteran who now covers the military as a journalist, I can appreciate that.
Brynn Tannehill, retired Naval aviator who now works in the defense industry
I can understand the mission of reaching veterans with comedy. Indeed, exploring some of the absurdities of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has produced some brilliant, if dark, comedy. Four Lions and Duffleblog are good examples of finding humor in both the absurd and the awful. However, a lot of the barracks hijinks humor strikes a sour note with me.
I've seen what happens when drunken sailors sexually assault a female shipmate. I had to put two members of my squadron's administrative staff on a flight back to the US for courts martial after they smuggled sex workers onto a foreign military base housing us. The worst was when I sat on the administrative board of a married sailor who, while on deployment, employed a sex worker in an area known for high HIV infection rates and used illegal drugs while doing so. He had 19 years of service up to that point, and was one year out from retirement. He could easily have contracted HIV and given it to his spouse. I'll never forget what it was like handing down the administrative separation under other than honorable conditions.
So the humor at VET TV, while perhaps reflective of what has gone on in the past, should not serve as a model for how we do business. It damages the institutions of the military, and does harm to its members.
Thom Tran, retired US Army Staff Sergeant and Iraq veteran, comedian
Every professional comedian has at least one story about a joke that killed one night, and then ate a flaming bag of shit the next. The reason, of course, is simple: comedy is subjective. Every audience is different. Every room is different. My job as a comedian is to make as many people laugh as possible, but my role as a combat veteran, Purple Heart Recipient and veterans' advocate is to continue helping active service members and veterans as they transition out of the military.
VET TV, the streaming video network from former Marine Captain Donny O'Malley, is trying its hand at comedy, but seems to be directing it at an extremely narrow audience—Americans who have fought in post 9/11 wars—while casting a shadow over the entire veteran community.
According to the US Census and Pew Research, in 2016, about 7 percent of all Americans were currently veterans. By the numbers, as a comedian and a veteran, if I walked into any comedy club that was paying me, and I knew that, conservatively, only 7 percent of the people in that room were going to laugh at my jokes, and the other 93 percent might be ostracized, offended or just "not get it," I can be pretty damn sure I’ll never be hired at that club again. And 93 percent is a conservative number: Of that 7-percent of Americans who are considered veterans, only about 18 percent of them were post 9/11 veterans.
Even if VET TV doesn't care about the other supermajority of Americans who don't get it, as their mission statement suggests, how are veterans going to reintegrate into a society where the public might be inclined to think we’re all a bunch of knuckle draggers? How is it helping veterans, if the people who are hiring and approving small business and home loans think that we all have this intensely dark humor? Some of us do, that's true. Not all of us are proud of it. The military is great at training us for war, but shit at reintegrating us back into normal society. And whether we like it or not, reintegration is a thing that is going to happen. And if the mainstream of normal society comes to suspect all veterans think this way, it's not going to make that reintegration any easier.
We, as veterans, hate when the media gets it wrong. We bitch when we watch a movie and the uniforms are messed up, the haircuts aren't regulation, and the unit is jacked up. Because that’s supposed to be a representation of who we are. But it's never right because there are so many of us, and we're all different. Suggesting to the world that veterans, as a whole, enjoy extremely dark, lowbrow humor like this isn't helping. It’s widening the gap between civilians, the military and veterans. Our service is supposed to be a part of something we’re proud of, and that the American people can be proud of—not something we have to defend.
James LaPorta, military correspondent for various news agencies and former US Marine infantryman, veteran of the Afghanistan War
The military phrase "good initiative, bad judgment" isn’t the best way to describe VET TV, the newish streaming network billed as an authentic outlet for veterans, but it's the first thing that comes to mind.
The expression simply means that there's a problem that needs to be solved, yet the method an individual or organization has chosen to address the issue is in itself problematic. VET TV wants to create "targeted and therapeutic entertainment for the veteran community in order to promote camaraderie and prevent veteran suicide." This is "good initiative" and VET TV is correct that using comedy and dark humor may be the ideal approach to providing that service, especially for those that feel ostracized from civilian life.
Using dark comedy to reinforce community is not a new concept, especially among comedians. As George Carlin once said, “I think you can joke about anything. It all depends on how you construct the joke, what the exaggeration is...because every joke needs one exaggeration, every joke needs one thing to be way out of proportion.”
The problem with VET TV is not the use of dark humor or even a taboo topic—it's the execution of it, the "construction of the joke," as Carlin put it. This is the "bad judgment" displayed in the majority of VET TV segments I watched, which I think are just as likely to alienate much of the veteran community as anything else.
VET TV’s creator Donny O’Malley says he asks himself two questions in putting this project together: “Did I make a positive impact on someone else’s life today?” and “Did I waste my time or talent today?”
I don’t believe O’Malley is wasting his time or talent—and it seems that with his nonprofit organization he may well be making a positive impact in some veteran’s lives. But at what cost to the larger veteran community, and how society perceives us?
Jennifer Sims, former captain in the US army and veteran of Afghanistan
While VetTV accurately mirrors some of the humor that permeates the services, military leadership long ago realized that much of this humor does not have a place in the fighting force. This unwelcome humor doesn’t include things like expletives, death jokes, or dick jokes, but is specifically humor surrounding hazing, sexual harassment and assault, racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. That’s where VetTV makes its biggest mistake.
The humor that VetTV parrots emboldens discriminatory and backwards attitudes. The portrayal of women, LGBT people, and people of color in the skits is incredibly inaccurate and degrading, instilling bigoted attitudes in those that consume the content. While some of the inspiration here may have come about during the specific conditions of combat in counterinsurgency warfare, it doesn’t give those that experienced it a license to disregard the dignity and respect that every person deserves.
As a veteran and a transgender lesbian who transitioned during service, I’ve seen this world from both sides. I’ve had to sit silently while commanders make discriminatory jokes, and I’ve been the target of transphobia, homophobia, and sexism. Prejudice, ignorance, and intolerance permeate the military and weaken the force. You can’t have a successful military of just white, straight, cisgender men. And you can’t have an integrated force without treating everyone with dignity and respect.
It is ok to change America's perceptions about service members, and it’s ok to make humor specifically for veterans. It’s also understandable that veterans have created, supported, and consumed VET TV, given the inadequate mental health counseling and separation services. But all this doesn’t give the creators a license to discriminate and portray women, LGBT people, and people of color negatively. VET TV is propagating the discriminatory attitudes that permeate the military and isolate veterans from the rest of society. Their humor is a crutch that keeps veterans from rejoining society in a meaningful way by retaining the backwards ideas about gender, gender identity, race, and sexual orientation.
You served in combat, now move the fuck on.
Supriya Venkatesan, US Army veteran of the Iraq War and wellness specialist
As I watched the mini-shows and read through the blog posts on VET TV, I noticed a disturbing pattern. The content was thematically tied together with the narrative of violence against women. A wave of shame and smallness came over me. It’s the same wave of emotion I felt on a daily basis as a female soldier.
One such blog post, a faux screenplay titled Seal 69, describes the fictionalized rape of Osama Bin Laden’s wife.
In the blog, the author writes, "SEAL 1 is in full beast mode. He pulls out his dick, spits on his hand, puts his hand in her crotch to wet it, then puts his dick in slowly.” The author continues, "SEAL 1 smashes harder, grabs her by the neck, squeezes her and busts the most magnificent growling and animalistic load of all time.”
Let’s be clear: the author is describing a rape scene, right before he goes on to describe the violent death of Mrs. Bin Laden.
As a veteran, I know war is dark and chaotic, a moral quagmire and the only place on planet Earth where laws are made on the fly. I understand that, psychologically, the human mind flays to grasp onto anything to prevent itself from imploding.
But violence is not an outlet. It shouldn't be normalized. Rape culture shouldn't be accepted. Espousing hate is not comic relief, but just another wedge between sanity and insanity. Hate devolves humanity into more primal instincts where we are forced to function from a place of fight or flight, lacking skills of mature cognition.
Veterans who most likely need mental health services are being further isolated from mainstream societal values through this attempt at humor. In my humble opinion, veterans need healing through better understanding of their complex inner worlds—not through the equivalent of a dick pic.
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