BOB GARFIELD: Sensitive, responsible journalism is, of course, a very good way to serve the interests of a given population. Another way is insensitive, wholly irresponsible clowning around. After all, even soldiers, especially soldiers, like to laugh at the foibles of the military.
BOB HOPE: General Westmoreland went to see the President. I guess it didn’t work out; he’s back!
BOB GARFIELD: That’s Bob Hope entertaining troops in Vietnam in 1967. Comedians like Louis CK still take USO tours to war zones, but for those on active duty and those who have reentered civilian life, there is a new source of satire, the Duffel Blog, an Onion style online publication that allows current and former military to satirize military life. Here’s a Duffle Blog headline for you, quote, “Decorated War Hero, Airborne Ranger Emasculated by Wife at Local Mall.” Or how about this one, quote, “Coast Guard Finally Shoots – Something,” or this, “Bill O’Reilly Wounded in Latest Salvo of War on Christmas.”
The site scored an Onion-esque achievement when it fooled the Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell with the headline, [LAUGHS] “Guantánamo Prisoners to Receive G.I. Bill Benefits.” McConnell's office fired off a sharply-worded letter to the Pentagon before realizing it had been punked. Paul Szoldra, an eight-year Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan, is the site's founder.
PAUL SZOLDRA: Humor in the military is somethin’ that really keeps a lot of people alive and keeps them able to continue on the mission.
BOB GARFIELD: You mean, like Russians during Communism.
PAUL SZOLDRA: [LAUGHS] Yeah, yeah, exactly. I don’t like the analogy of, you know, US troops to Communists but I take your point.
BOB GARFIELD: You’ve gotten a lot of attention, notably in the Wall Street Journal, for the Mitch McConnell episode. Someone in his office didn't understand that they were reading a satirical piece. Does that happen a lot? Do you get other blowback from people who are just – irony impaired?
PAUL SZOLDRA: Every [LAUGHS] – every day we get to look in the Comment section and see someone that did not get it and, you know, we all get a laugh and then, ultimately, we cry for humanity. But other notable people - we've gotten Gizmodo before, we've had other politicians besides McConnell. And, really, it doesn't matter to me whether they’re Democrat or Republican, I just think it's really funny that our site can fool you because if you really read it and you’re, you know, thinking critically, you would see it for what it is, which is obvious satire. But some of the stories really play into political biases that people want to believe and, you know, that plays out pretty well on the Comment section.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there’s one very funny headline [LAUGHS] that caused you just a world of hurt, and we’re gonna have to do some beeping here, but the headline reads as follows: “Senator Clarifies Remark, Telling Troops to Go [BLEEP] Themselves, Says Quote Taken Out of Context. [LAUGHS]
PAUL SZOLDRA: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me the story.
PAUL SZOLDRA: Oh man, so I – I – the politician thing to do - you even saw it with McConnell – is to deflect. They say something stupid and then, instead of saying, oh, you know, I screwed up, they say something like, oh, well that was taken out of context. And so, I wrote this piece with the senator in mind.
BOB GARFIELD: The politician was Senator Linda Lopez.
PAUL SZOLDRA: Yeah, a state senator. After the Gabby Gifford shooting, she was on Fox News and she actually said - without any information, she said that he was probably a Afghanistan veteran, basically, you know, perpetuating the myth that the crazed PTSD veteran shot up a congresswoman, which we know, of course, you know, was not true; he had no military connection.
So fresh in my mind, I, I wrote this piece, and you had her saying outlandish things like what you just referenced in the headline and, and many, many more things that anyone that read this would clearly see like, okay, this is pushing the boundary, like no – maybe they’ll say he was an Afghanistan veteran, but they would never say [LAUGHS] the – what was in this piece. [LAUGHS] And that one went viral, and then it went through Twitter. We had, I believe, Adam Baldwin tweeted it out to his fans. Radio host Dana Loesch actually mentioned it on her show, and she believed it. [LAUGHS] It was one of those things that like you look at and you go, man, that really escalated quickly! [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: I guess it's a coup of a certain sort when someone prominent is hoodwinked into thinking [LAUGHS] that a satirical piece is actually serious reporting. I wonder about the larger coup of actually triggering policy discussions with stories that shed light, however satiric, on something within the military. Have you had any success there?
PAUL SZOLDRA: Not that I know of, but I, I think with satire that's always the goal. I mean, you always have some sort of target. You know, a great example is the suicide issue in the military is a really big problem. I had a friend, a Marine, his name’s Corporal Seth Smith, got out of the Marine Corps, six, seven months later ended up committing suicide. It was very hard, but I wrote a story that was basically saying that military members were committing suicide during suicide prevention briefs, and the whole idea was that the system, as it is now, most of it is a lot of check in the box and, you know, just send people to a PowerPoint presentation and they're trained and now they're resilient to suicide. And, and that's not the case. And so, we were shedding light on that. We were making fun of it. And, you know, my hope with that is that down the line maybe some Army general [LAUGHS], one in particular we made fun of pretty hard in that story, maybe he’ll read that and he’ll be like, yeah, you know what, they’re kind of right here. You know, that’s a lofty goal. I don’t know if it’ll happen [LAUGHS], but, you know, that's what it is.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you have any aspirations to revisit a more serious look at the issues that, that the society’s facing, or does, in a funny way, the Duffel Blog actually do that job for you?
PAUL SZOLDRA: I mean, ultimately, I'd like to get back to, you know, helping veterans transition, but I think in our own weird twisted way, the Duffel Blog has kind of done that for us. I've gotten messages from guys that say, you know, I have PTSD and this is the only thing that makes me laugh. And I get those messages [LAUGHS] and I’m – 1) I’m just blown away. I’m like, oh my God, this funny blog that I kind of just started on the side is helping people cope with their issues from the war – I mean, that’s, that’s huge for me. So I think we’re doing that. I think we’re, we’re, you know, supporting the troops, if you will, with humor, just like Bob Hope did or just like Louis CK does. And I think we’re just one aspect of what needs to happen. I mean, there's - of course, there's plenty of, you know, therapy and there's - there's things on the VA side that need to be fixed. But I think we’re just one small piece of that puzzle.
BOB GARFIELD: Is this a business, labor of love, what?
PAUL SZOLDRA: It’s both. [LAUGHS] It’s been a labor of love for a long time. It's not providing me crazy amounts [LAUGHS] of money right now, but it's, it's been one of those, you know, just kinda keep doing it because I’ve been doing for so long and I don’t want to let those guys and girls that, in Afghanistan or elsewhere, I don’t want to let ‘em down.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Paul. Semper Fi.
PAUL SZOLDRA: Semper Fidelis, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul Szoldra is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Duffel Blog. Oh and, by the way, here is a clip of Louis CK entertaining the troops.
LOUIS CK: I was in England recently. You know what I like about England? They have money that’s like a coin, like a d – the pound is a coin, it’s not a bill like a dollar. I like that. I like spending a coin. It’s like the Old West, you know, when there was a saloon: Give me a glass of beer and a bottle whiskey and a room for a week and a steak dinner and a shave and a haircut and a bath, a woman, some oats for my horse.