WASHINGTON – It reads a bit like a brewing mutiny. Writing mostly under pen names, the tribe of former and current service members behind the satirical Duffel Blog regularly lampoons military leaders, blasts the bureaucracy and mocks policy.
You might think the Pentagon – zealous about message control – would be scrambling to unmask the scribes and shut down a site that has managed to find humor even in taboo subjects such as the force’s suicide epidemic, the sexual assault crisis and the psychiatric wounds of combat.
Sample headline: “Anthony Weiner Selected As Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention Chief.”
The brass seems to be laughing along, for the most part, as the once-obscure site has become a widely read guilty pleasure at the Pentagon and at military bases around the country and the world.
When the Duffel Blog launched a couple of years ago, its creators said their only ambition was to lighten the mood among a generation of war-weary veterans who felt somewhat disconnected from civilian America.
But it has turned into much more, regularly attracting more than half a million unique visitors per month. Its brand of satire often conveys grievances and contrarian views that are widely held among those in uniform. The articles have also helped bridge the country’s civilian-military divide, the blog’s writers say, by sparking conversations and portraying troops in ways that defy stereotypes.
“Duffel Blog is a beautifully crafted response to an increasingly stuffy environment in today’s America,” said retired Gen. James Mattis, a former head of U.S. Central Command who has been parodied in several items. “Duffel Blog reminds us of much of what we in the military fight for – the freedom to think our own way and to laugh about the absurdities without being mean-spirited.”
Paul Szoldra, a former Marine sergeant, came up with the concept almost by accident. While developing a website designed to help veterans succeed in college, he penned a couple of satirical posts that got far more attention than his tips for student vets.
“When I first started it, it gave me a board to vent and be funny about things in the military that were kind of dumb,” Szoldra, 29, said in a phone interview from San Francisco, where he works for a business news site. “Other people started recognizing the power of that.”
Szoldra soon began getting emails from veterans around the country who wanted to play a role, allowing him to build a group of roughly 50 regular contributors, about half of whom are on active duty.
A Marine captain who writes under the pseudonym Dark Laughter said he found solace and empathy in the Duffel Blog when he was having a hard time adjusting to civilian life after a deployment to Afghanistan.
“I remember walking around and marveling: You would never guess in a million years that there were people fighting in places like Baghdad or Marja,” said the officer, now a reservist in graduate school, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because he fears that his Duffel Blog work could negatively affect his career. “It’s amazing how little people understand about the military, but also how little people are interested in closing that gap.”
One of the captain’s posts poked fun at the military’s euphemistic portrayal of Afghan troops who have opened fire on their American comrades – acts normally attributed to men “wearing Afghan army uniforms,” rather than to Afghan soldiers.
“Man In Afghan President’s Uniform Shoots Secretary Of Defense In Latest ‘Green-on-Blue’ Attack,” reads the headline of the Aug. 22, 2012, post, written when such incidents were occurring with alarming frequency.
Mocking the rationales that U.S. military officials have provided for green-on-blue shootings, the post said Afghan President Hamid Karzai explained that he had been motivated by “American insolence, ignorance of Afghan culture, Quran burning, violating Afghan traditions, or something else like that.”
The Duffel Blog’s coverage of the Obama administration’s debate over how to respond to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons this summer was scathing. An opinion piece published under the mock byline of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, satirized his perceived uneasiness about a military strike on Syria.
“Our Military Exists To Fight And Win Wars,” said the headline, which continued: “Except In Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, And Korea.”
A play on the poem “The Night Before Christmas” also took aim at the White House’s indecision over bombing military targets in Syria:
Twas the day after gassing, when throughout the White House
No one’s courage was showing, not as big as a mouse;
The Nobel was hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that a second soon would be there;
The Syrians were nestled all snug in their graves,
While the President dithered and ranted and raved.
And Kerry in a lather, Hagel a bind,
Both wondered if it were time to resign.
The Duffel Blog’s humor has been particularly funny when it’s been lost on people. An aide to Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., fired off an inquiry to the Pentagon after receiving a letter from a constituent concerned that inmates at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were about to receive the same college stipends awarded to U.S. troops.
Army officials laughed uncomfortably after they began fielding media inquiries about the reported promotion to lieutenant colonel of Nidal Hasan, the Army officer who opened fire on comrades at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009, killing 13. And they giggled over a story about a new Army policy that was going to force troops to get divorces in an effort to improve readiness.
The Duffel Blog reached a milestone of sorts when the Pentagon’s main Twitter account began following the site in September. Jennifer Elzea, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the step was taken to help the Defense Department “maintain situational awareness.” It probably also had something to do with the fact that the Pentagon press secretary had become a huge fan.
George Little, who stepped down from the post last month, said the blog had become a “must read,” and he counseled public affairs colleagues to monitor it closely to spot what narratives were taking hold and which messages were falling flat.
“It helps put many things in healthy perspective, even when it’s a little over the top or overly satirical,” Little said. “In the very serious world we live in at the Pentagon, a bit of levity can actually help advance the mission.”