Gallows Humor

Gallows humor meme

Gallows Humor in the Military

For the most part the huddled masses know nothing of the concept of gallows humor, and yet for many in the military it’s just a part of who they are and their normal daily behavior. Most of us think little of it, that is until an outsider gets ahold of what one of us has said, or a meme we’ve posted. I was reminded of this with the recent accident aboard the Bon Homme Richard in San Diego. Even while the fires were burning, the jokes were flying and the memes were being posted. Outsiders invariably get accepted into closed groups on social media but are quickly exposed when they react in abject horror to the insensitive and heartless nature of the comments. Of course, when they react with righteous indignation they are not met with repentance or sympathy, but instead they are treated like a failed act at Amateur Night at the Apollo. The outsider is jeered away and unceremoniously booted off the page by Hells Angels bouncers, with not even the offer of a tissue for their tears.

In the Air Force the biggest offenders are those in aircraft maintenance, and the Crew Chiefs are the worst. The limits for what they will say or do is very fuzzy. For sure they offend most of the rest of the Air Force and maintenance commanders live in fear that the animals will do or say something to trash their careers. But I digress.

Maintainer Nation coin for USAF crew chiefs as sold by challenge coin nation

The term gallows humor, or more commonly referred to as “black humor” was first coined by the surrealist theorist Andre Breton in 1935 while interpreting the writings of Jonathan Swift. Now before anyone takes offense at the term “black humor” please take a minute to look it up before you crucify me in the court of social media.

In 1942 Antonin Obrdlik wrote an article in the American Journal of Sociology entitled, “Gallows Humor – A Sociological Phenomenon” where he noted, “Black comedy has the social effect of strengthening the morale of the oppressed and undermines the morale of the oppressors.”

Sigmund Freud said, “The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.”

I won’t go into any further explanation because you either already know what gallows humor is, or you don’t. But I will note that it’s been around since the first caveman saw another cave man get stepped on by a dinosaur. And I’d hazard a guess that some stone age cave paintings are actually memes.

Of course I’m sure many of you are asking what stress of death Air Force people really have, and I’m sure not going to equate it to being in-contact as an Infantryman. But just as an example, if you step one foot too close to a running jet engine, in just a millisecond, and with no warning, it will suck you in and grind you into a big pile of ground beef. You can’t stop it or hold onto something. I’ve had students and friends get killed and maimed by jets. I saw a guy get his foot crushed and another get his head crushed. I could write a book about all those who have been killed or maimed by aircraft. There is ever-present danger around aircraft, even when they aren’t running, and that becomes the motivator for the gallows humor.

There are other vocations besides the military with the same sense of humor. Medical, firefighters, police, and mortuary services, just to name a few, and the best advice I can give to people who are outside of these groups is to just stay outside. You can thank them for their service and appreciate what they do, but if you step inside their circle you are liable to be shocked and become disillusioned.

I will however close on this positive note for all you socially unacceptable Cretans.

A 2017 study published in the journal “Cognitive Processing” concludes that people who appreciate dark humor “may have higher IQ’s, show lower aggression, and resist negative feelings more effectively than people who turn their noses up at it.”

The current modus operandi of the day seems to state that everyone should be nicey-nicey, sensitive to others feeling and sensibilities, and never say anything that might offend. And for sure this way of thinking and behavior had been cultivated in the military for at least a decade or more. But if dark humor is a healthy way of dealing with severe stress, are we doing our troops a disservice by taking away a coping mechanism?

Nonner tears coin

Sure it’s offensive to Nonners, POG’s and the civilian population at large. But I don’t care. They just need to stay on their side of the fence and play with their My Little Pony collection. I’ll launch jets to make bad guys go away and they can complain about the jet noise frizzing the purple hair on their favorite pony.

 p.s. We still get upset when people get hurt and killed.

Gallows Humor Challenge Coins

Sometimes gallows humor is seen in military challenge coins. This Blue Falcon Coin sold by Challenge Coin Nation is a perfect example. 

Blue Falcon challenge coins sold by challenge coin nation


About Challenge Coins With Challenge Coin Nation

We at Challenge Coin Nation are a veteran founded company and are honored to be able to continue serving our brothers and sisters in arms all over the world. We sell many different military themed items, but challenge coins are our specialty. Check out some of our items below. Oh, and you might ask, “How much is shipping?” That’s an easy question. Shipping is free – worldwide!

Shop for more coins at these pages:

Challenge Coin Nation Home

Challenge Coin Nation Challenge Coins

Challenge Coin Nation Stock Challenge Coins

Challenge Coin Nation Custom Coins

B-21 Bomber Coin

B-52 Bomber Coin

F-15 3D Coin

OV-1 Coin

USMC Challenge Coin


Gallows humor is a form of comedy that finds its roots in the most unlikely of places - the gallows, where death awaits its victims. Despite its morbid origin, gallows humor serves as a coping mechanism for individuals facing challenging, uncomfortable, or even life-threatening situations. This unique brand of humor allows people to find laughter in the face of darkness, offering a momentary reprieve from the harsh realities of life. This essay explores the history, psychological aspects, and ethical considerations of gallows humor.

Historical Origins

The term "gallows humor" is believed to have emerged during the 18th century, but the concept dates back centuries. In times of great adversity, such as wars, plagues, and other tragedies, people have employed humor as a defense mechanism. The gallows humor has been present in literature, plays, and art, with classic authors like William Shakespeare and Jonathan Swift using it to tackle profound and often uncomfortable subjects. The ancient Greeks and Romans also had their own versions of gallows humor, using satire and irony to cope with life's struggles.

Psychological Aspects

Gallows humor reflects the intricacies of human psychology. In times of crisis or trauma, laughter can be a natural reaction to reduce tension and anxiety. The release of endorphins during laughter acts as a form of self-soothing, helping individuals temporarily escape distressing situations. In essence, gallows humor serves as a psychological survival tool, providing emotional distance from challenging circumstances.

Moreover, gallows humor may also stem from a form of cognitive dissonance. Facing situations that are terrifying or seemingly hopeless, individuals may employ humor as a way to reconcile the incongruity between their beliefs about the world and the harsh reality they are confronting. By finding humor in the darkest moments, they create a sense of control and defiance in the face of despair.

Cultural Variations

The acceptance and prevalence of gallows humor vary across cultures. Some societies may embrace dark humor as a way to confront taboos and break down societal barriers. Other cultures may view it as offensive or disrespectful, particularly when dealing with sensitive topics like death or tragedy. Humor that involves a communal tragedy can be seen as healing or as re-opening old wounds, depending on the context and audience.

Ethical Considerations

While gallows humor can be a valuable coping mechanism for individuals, it also raises ethical concerns. When used appropriately, gallows humor can provide relief and foster a sense of camaraderie among people facing adversity. However, there is a fine line between using humor to cope and potentially trivializing or disrespecting the gravity of certain situations.

Comedians, writers, and speakers must be cautious about the content and context of their humor. Jokes that target vulnerable or marginalized groups, or that exploit personal traumas for amusement, are not acceptable forms of gallows humor. The key is to strike a balance between using humor as a coping mechanism and being sensitive to the feelings and experiences of others.


Gallows humor is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. In the darkest moments of life, laughter can be a beacon of light that helps people navigate through adversity. By finding humor in the face of death, pain, or tragedy, individuals demonstrate their ability to rise above despair and find solace in the absurdity of life. However, it is essential to approach gallows humor with sensitivity and empathy, ensuring that it remains a tool for healing and connection rather than a source of harm. When used responsibly, gallows humor reminds us that even in the most challenging times, laughter can be a powerful and unifying force.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.