Li Fu-jen

Report of an Honest War Correspondent

(March 1945)

From Fourth International, Vol.6 No.3, March 1945, pp.90-91.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

By Jack Belden.
Published by Harper & Brothers, New York, 1944. Price, $3.00.

Across the mangled terrain of war-torn Europe, rising above the terror, agony and filth of many bloody battlefields, can be heard the rumblings of approaching revolutionary storms. The common people are beginning to assert themselves. They are thrusting their clenched fists in the faces of a ruling class which plunged them into this infamous horror. We hear voices. They are the voices of workers, peasants, the city poor – proclaiming that they do not intend to tolerate the old way of life, that they are determined to make a radical change for the better.

In addition to the civilian masses who have been dragged into the shambles, there are the soldiers, the millions of men put into uniform, weapons thrust into their hands, to the end that they may shoot and gouge each other, win a victory for their oppressors. What are the feelings of the soldiers as they go about the murderous business for which they have been conscripted by the masters of society? The capitalist press acclaims them as heroes. But do they regard themselves as heroes? American soldiers have been told they are fighting for a free and democratic world. Do they believe this? Do they fight with the intense earnestness of men fired by the crusading spirit? Or do they fight because they are compelled to fight? War correspondent Jack Belden of Time magazine is the first of his profession to give us a fairly complete picture of the soldier at war. To be able to do this, he had first to get wounded at Salerno and return invalided to America, where, away from the prying eyes of censors, he was able to complete a book. Still Time to Die is the first really truthful book to come out of this war.

For more than seven years Belden has been at war – in China, North Africa, Sicily, Italy. Now he is on the western front in Europe. He has kept the closest company with Chinese, British and American soldiers, in and out of battle. He has studied the soldier and his reactions, recorded his thoughts and feelings. He has studied the army as an institution, war as a political phenomenon. He has reached conclusions. The conclusions are revolutionary.

Here is the American army as Belden has observed it:

The American Army is filled with men of courage, but one must search a much longer time to find men whose courage proceeds, as von Clausewitz says, “from positive motives, such as ambition, patriotism or enthusiasm of any kind.” And rarer still, indeed, in the American Army, is that bravery which springs out of the heart of politics. Belief in a political goal can heat a man’s courage up to a pitch of battle ardor, and higher still, to long, steadfast resolution. But in our army, today, there is little of this kind of feeling. The American is brave, daring and resourceful, but his courage is mostly that fatalistic kind which he wears like armor. Sometimes the armor is not enough, and it rusts away, revealing a hollow, broken man inside the soldier’s shell ... Psychologically, the lack of belief in what he is doing expresses itself in the idea of the futility of endeavor. The soldier thinks: “What is the sense of undergoing all this misery? It is accomplishing nothing. I have nothing for which to fight.” He would like to get out of the bloody mess, but, because of his training, his social fear and his loathing to let down his comrades, he can’t run away. It is an insoluble dilemma: he hates the business, because it is senseless, but still he can’t get away.

The conclusion, which Belden leaves the reader to draw for himself, is that all the propaganda of the imperialist warmongers has failed utterly to imbue soldiers in the mass with the idea that they are fighting and dying for something worthwhile. Their feeling of the futility of the whole business will lead, in time, to rebellion. Reluctant acceptance of war is but a step removed from revolt against war.

The first chapter of Belden’s book, The Nature of the Battlefield, is a powerful piece of writing in which the essence of war – combat – is discussed in its manifold aspects, material and psychological. From this one chapter the reader can learn more about the soldier than from the reams of dispatches which fill the daily press, in which the real personality of the soldier is concealed. The author has set down a series of generalizations derived from long and intimate association with war. They represent the compressed result of experiences and observations gathered on Chinese, British and American battlefields which are described with dramatic force in the chapters that follow. This first chapter pulses with sympathy for the soldier, victim of imperialist rapacity and greed, who fights and suffers and dies without – as yet – knowing why. Nor does the author reserve his sympathy for the Allied soldiers alone, although it is mainly about these that he writes. The warmth of his understanding encompasses all soldiers, no matter what uniform they wear. There is not a trace of chauvinism in Belden. It was from soldiers of many nations that he absorbed into his system a real conception of human solidarity.

Possessed of a reflective temperament, and with more opportunity to think about his experiences than the soldier in the field, Belden has been able to reach conclusions about the war itself. In the final chapter of his book he sets them down in a burning testament of faith in the common people – workers, peasants, soldiers – and proclaims himself on their side in the coming great battles for Socialism:

I recognized at last ... that you cannot, no matter how much you wish, in turbulent times like these, stay out of the struggle and exist for yourself. You cannot sit on the fence. For a time you may get away with it, but sooner or later you will be dragged off on one side or the other. You have to choose. You are either for or against.

It was in China that Belden’s political education began. A native of Brooklyn, he went to sea after leaving college and spent three years at seafaring. In 1933 he jumped ship in Hongkong, went to Shanghai, got himself a job as a newspaper reporter. When the Japanese invasion of China began in 1937, he was hired as a war correspondent. He had acquired considerable mastery of the difficult Chinese language and was therefore equipped for intimate contact with the Chinese armies. In defeat and retreat he accompanied them through all the major campaigns. He shared intimately all the vicissitudes of the hard life of the Chinese soldier. That is why his chapters on the war in China are not just run-of-the-mill stories such as were written by correspondents who viewed happenings from the outside. They are the live diary of a participant.

Belden gradually came to the realization that it was the decayed social order in China, and the reactionary regime resting upon it, that were bringing to frustration and impotence China’s just struggle against Japanese imperialism. He saw the terrible oppression of the masses, the fearful lot of the soldiers. He observed the official corruption and ineptitude which nullified all the heroic efforts of China’s fighting men. In each battle, by some seeming “accident,” prospective victory gave way to humiliating defeat.

After a while, when my expectant hopes of victory were one upon another smashed on the rocks of battle, it came to me full flood that the recurrent nature of these seemingly accidental incidents could not be put down to the blind confluence of mischance alone. So I began my search backward from the battlefield for the reasons why reinforcements failed to arrive on time, why the peasants acted as guides to the Japanese and why orders were frequently disobeyed or ignored. I found that reinforcements never could arrive on time because of the state of the railways, the dearth of roads and the lack of transport; that peasants acted as guides for the Japanese because they did not see or believe that their individual fortunes were bound up with the outcome of the war; that division commanders often ignored orders because, like feudal lords, they were afraid if they lost their troops they would not longer be commanders. So back from the battlefield, my pursuit of knowledge led me to government, to society and its forces. I had to find why China had not been industrialized while Japan had, why landlords and their sons were not drafted into the army while tenant farmers and agrarian lumpen proletarians were, why commanders based their moves on personal relationships and not on strictly military procedure. Naturally, I was led into a study of agrarian economy and the social forces that exist within the womb of that economy, and that led me – I was only following the trail where inevitable facts stood up like bold signposts – to the Chinese Revolution. And so I came to world diplomacy, to Western imperialism, to world economy and at last to the heart of the whole anarchic, rotted social order of this universe, concealed, palsied over and polluted by the double talk of statesmen, the loud and lying legends of the newspapers and the cynical and brutal mendacities of the overseers of money and privilege.

In hospital in America only a few months ago, Belden’s political education was brought many stages nearer completion. Rome had fallen. He read how workers in the Italian capital gathered in the streets when Mussolini was ousted and shouted: “Long Live Matteotti!” He noticed that they “had not yelled: ‘Long Live the King!’ or ‘Long Live Badoglio!’ No, from the depths of the past, and out of the bleak years of Fascism, they had summoned the ghost of a Socialist idea. They had shouted not for kings and ‘liberal’ fascists but for themselves.”

In China, India, North Africa and Italy Belden had observed that “everywhere was oppression of the people,” Back in America, after an absence of ten years, he was able to observe “almost the whole metropolitan press baiting Labor, the one organized force in America that had opposed Fascism before Pearl Harbor ... the slamming discrimination against the Negroes in the South, the soldier-vote fraud, the hysterical demagoguery of Congress ... editorial writers screaming in the tones of insane monkeys that the Japanese were not members of the human race; the general who demanded that Tokyo be razed to the ground; and the well-bred Mr. Grew, with his country-club democracy, slyly insinuating that we keep the emperor in power in Japan.”

Unique among the present corps of war correspondents, Belden has turned his back on the revolting miasma of capitalist politics and statesmanship and cast in his lot with the common people:

I believe in the long run these people will go on. I believe they will get what they are seeking. It may not come in my lifetime, but it will come in the lifetime after mine, or the one after that. But I will fight for it to come in my lifetime ... I do not think Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin or Chiang Kai-shek will get us a better world. I think a better world is where a free-thinking people controls its own destiny and I think it can only be obtained by the people. I believe in the peasants of China, in the Partisans of Yugoslavia, in the underground of France. I believe in farmers and workers everywhere ... I do not believe in the falsehoods, the shams and the deceits of the statesmen, the generals and the “leaders.” I do not believe that if we only had a number of good people, the world would roll smoothly on its axis. I do not believe in good people ruling us, but only in the mass of the people ruling themselves.

The author does not define his political program. He does not define his political goal. He does not indicate how the people are to arrive at self-rule. He leaves the socialist society to be inferred by his readers. Because he is not yet a Marxist, his thinking is not always clear. Thus, in an otherwise fine and stirring dedication of his book (to the imperialists – “in hate”; to the soldiers – “in love”) he does not describe the war as an imperialist war, but accuses capitalist statesmanship of having “twisted” it into “what it should not have been,” thereby implying that it started out as a good and noble enterprise only to get derailed by ill-intentioned men. These weaknesses detract but little from the value of the work as a whole. Soldiers and workers who read Belden’s book will recognize in him an honest spokesman of the oppressed.


Last updated on 20.3.2005