Academic journal article Western Folklore

Devil Dogs and Dog Piles: John Paul Wallis and Jay Mechling

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Devil Dogs and Dog Piles: John Paul Wallis and Jay Mechling

Article excerpt

Whoever designed the dust jacket for journalist Sebastian Junger's 2010 book, War, selected for the rear of the jacket a color photograph of the Second Platoon, B Company, engaged in a free-for-all playfight. The soldiers-some shirtless-grappled with each other in a small space at Outpost Restrepo, a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley in Eastern Afghanistan.1 Junger was an embedded journalist on assignment from Vanity Fair magazine from June 2007 to June 2008. With Junger was war photographer Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Libya in April of 2011. Junger was writing about the experience of combat at that very tenuous outpost, and Hetherington was taking both still photographs and video. Hetherington's photographs resulted in a book, Infidel (2010), and Hetherington and Junger fashioned a striking, award-winning documentary film, Restrepo (2010), from the video footage. Hetherington's photograph of the freefor-all (2010:127), the one probably chosen by an editor or book designer for the dust jacket, actually is one of a series of photographs showing some sort of playfighting among the soldiers.

Looking at Hetherington's photographs (contextualized as they are by Junger's War, the Restrepo documentary, and the commentary by both Hetherington and Junger in Infidel), we are struck by two things. First, the playfighting is pervasive, which is not surprising, given the ubiquitous presence of playfighting in the friendship groups of male children, adolescents, and adults. Playfighting in a very dangerous combat zone, though, does pose some puzzles, which we address shortly.

Second, Hetherington's photographs of the soldiers at Outpost Restrepo (named for a beloved medic of the Second Platoon killed in July of 2007) are unmistakably homoerotic. Hetherington's commentary confirms his intention. "As the deployment wore on," writes Hetherington in a commentary on one photograph, "Bonding," (Hetherington 2010:86),

attacks on Outpost Restrepo continued, but I became less interested in photographing combat and more interested in the relationships that existed between the soldiers After I saw this image ["Bonding"], I thought more about the very male atmosphere that existed up at the outpost. I saw that there was a special kind of bonding going on-something forged by the extreme circumstances. A friend of mine's grandfather who fought in World War II had commented, "Only in war is it possible for men to demonstrate their love for one another. It's the only place where society sanctions such behaviours." (Hetherington 2010:234)

The written and visual record of playfighting among the soldiers posted at Outpost Restrepo documents just one extended instance of this genre of male play, as memoirs (e.g., Swofford 2003) and vernacular photographs by the warriors themselves since the Great War (Mechling 2012) pile example on example and suggest that this "horseplay," this "rough-and-tumble play" (as the scholars of play often call it), is integral to the experience of male warriors.2

It is easy enough to dismiss playfighting as trivial, as merely "blowing off steam" (the same metaphor that teachers and parents use when sending unruly kids outside), but we believe that playfighting among male warriors deserves a closer, analytical look. Certainly playfighting among warriors achieves the physical release of energy that the steam engine metaphor suggests, but that thin interpretation misses other, more complex (and often unconscious) meanings. One of the values of folk play and folk rituals is their indirection, the way they address some basic social and psychological anxieties in individuals and groups, displacing (in its psychoanalytic meaning) anxieties and hiding them in some other seemingly unrelated actions. The important social and psychological work done by playfighting among warriors has, therefore, some therapeutic value to the players, and this fact interests us because we seek a greater understanding of the value of folklore as a resource for warriors' dealing with the short-term and long-term stress of trauma in combat. …

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