Why The Troops Loved Robin Williams
Social media is alight with the public mourning of the loss of one of the most loved comedians of his generation. But America’s military and veterans community holds a special fondness for and shared a unique bond with Robin Williams. In an era when support for the troops seemed virtually unanimous among celebrities, he stands apart, and he has rightly been recognized for it in the short time since news of his death broke.
Williams participated in USO tours for more than a decade, performing for deployed servicemembers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait. The USO recognized its gratitude for his commitment in a post on the organization’s Facebook page. But there is a long roster of celebrities who made this trip to entertain the troops. All are truly appreciated, but there’s something special about Williams’s bond with his uniformed audiences. To understand why, watch this video of his performance at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. It’s been spreading semi-virally for a few years, but even if you’ve seen it, watch it again.
Since his death was made public, Williams has been celebrated for his films, his comedic genius, and perhaps most of all, for his character as a human. It almost feels as if it should be too difficult to know the true character of a man who seemed to constantly bounce between fake ones. And yet, Robin Williams the performer was never separate from Robin Williams the man. Even while the former entertained troops with rapid-fire jokes and a dizzying array of voices, the latter made the audience feel that he truly wanted to be there, with them.
When “Retreat” begins to play in the Arifjan video, around the 0:35 mark, you can see a moment in which Williams has no idea what’s going on. He has no clue why bugle notes suddenly start playing. Perhaps thinking it’s a technical glitch, he starts a joke: “Uh oh…” You can see the wheels turning as his improv synapses start firing. And just as quickly, you can see them shut down when the crowd turns toward the flag. He instinctively mimics the posture of those in uniform before crossing his hands almost self-consciously, adopting what must have seemed the most appropriately respectful pose for a civilian at that moment, and graciously accepting his temporary displacement as the focus of the audience’s attention. His expression changes, and he looks briefly at the crowd in front of him with what seems to be humility, or even awe, as this quotidian but fundamental military tradition unfolds. There even seems to be a gulp of pride. When he notices one soldier toss another his patrol cap, he remembers his own hat and removes it. At 1:17, when he bows his head, you get the sense that he isn’t just willing to be there with the troops, but proud to be. This is why he meant what he did to America’s men and women in uniform.
When salutes are dropped and the about face executed, he jumps immediately back into doing what he did best: making people laugh. I hope he knew how much he was appreciated by the troops, not just for bringing that laughter to them, but for the way he did it.
John Amble is the Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.
Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff