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Fourth International, December 1940


Michael Cort

Discipline in the American Army


From Fourth International, Vol. I No. 7, December 1940, pp. 195–199.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


An army is the concentrated image of the society it serves. While societies clothe themselves with lip-service to moral and spiritual abstractions, by looking at their armies you will discover all the compulsions they have so carefully camouflaged. For an army has no place for evasion or subterfuge. It must strip clean all impediments that hinder the realization of the political and social goals of the class it serves. If proof were needed that we in America live in a coercive society, that the aims and interests of our antagonistic classes are mutually exclusive, and that the entire state apparatus is an instrument of exploitation, one need only look at the United States Army. Three months ago Congress gave the hierarchy of the Army that for which it has clamoured these past twenty years…a conscripted citizen army. A few meager limitations were imposed – only 800,000 conscripts at a time and for one year at a time. But there was no compromise on the method of training and handling these conscripts. These men are to fight for “democracy” and for this purpose are to be sweated and browbeaten into unthinking robots.

The goal, one year from now, is 800,000 men with guts sucked in, who will march and wheel and fire and who will ask no questions, voice no hopes or fears; 800,000 men who will obey blindly, unreasoningly, automatically.

During the past year, when the Army hierarchy and a high-powered propaganda machine representing big finance capital were engaged in selling the country on the necessity of conscription, much was said about the formation of a “democratic army.” Implication was that the workers were not to lose their fundamental civil rights, and in fact all human dignity, once they donned khaki. “We will welcome suggestions from the ranks regarding army efficiency,” a member of the General Staff said recently in a public address. “The American method of training men is not the European. Ours is a democratic army of free men banded together to see that freedom and justice shall not disappear from this earth.” This speech, needless to add, was delivered before conscription had been enacted. There is less coddling of democratic sensibilities now. Discipline and obedience have become the key words today and behind those words lie all the ugliness and corruption of the army caste system.

The Military Caste and Its Regime

Eight hundred thousand untouchables are to turned over to the tender ministrations of drill masters whose viciousness is deliberately fostered by the military bureaucracy. And the American military bureaucracy is notoriously zealous in establishing its prerogatives. In the most heavily over-officered army in the world (only in a comic-opera could one find a parallel), these martinets have been known to sacrifice men, materials and even jeopardize the country for the maintenance of their caste system. They are the custodians of our own Nuremberg laws. All the gradations of rank, the written and unwritten laws, the Army system of jurisprudence, are nothing but an elaborate apparatus for the protection of the hierarchy. Whatever has been recently promised in the press regarding reforms, the United States Army is and will remain the image of its master…decadent capitalism.

When a worker leaves his home and job to enter the imperialist war machine just what sort of an existence faces him? What are his rights and privileges? When is discipline relaxed? When is he able to speak his mind, do as he pleases and function as a normal human being?

Eighty percent of the soldier’s waking hours are devoted to training of one type or another; the remaining twenty percent of his time is just as stringently supervised and regulated, although indirectly, as his drill period. From reveille at 5:30 until taps at 11 there is hardly a moment when the conscript is free of supervision and discipline. How his bed is made, the angle of his hat, the knot in his tie, what he eats and how much, when he marches, when he plays and what games, what movies he sees and what books he reads ... these are no longer of his own choosing.

Baron von Steuben, first Inspector General of the United States Army, implanted German military conceptions on this continent during the war for independence. His basic philosophy still guides our General Staff, and the Baron was no man to overlook details. Every moment of a soldier’s day was analyzed and regulated. Standing at attention sounds like a comparatively simple maneuver ... but not to the Baron, and therefore, not to our contemporary subalterns. Writing in The Military Companion, the Baron instructed:

“When under arms the soldier must stand straight and firm, with heels on a line two inches apart, the shoulders square to the front and kept back, the right hand hanging down the side with the palm close to the thigh, the body kept still and as little constrained as possible; the piece on the left shoulder, with the elbow turned in close to the body, the guard just under the left breast, the forefinger and thumb before the swell of the butt, the three left fingers under the butt, the flat of the butt against the hip bone, and pressed so as the piece may be felt against the left side, and stand before the hollow of the shoulder, neither leaning towards the head nor away from it, the barrel almost perpendicular. When exercising, he is to be exact and measure a second of time between each motion.”

No fascist despot ever conceived a mold more confining than that into which the American conscript is forced.

“Recreation” Regulated by Lynch Law

Even recreation periods serve the war machine, for here the non-conforming worker is subject to the full pressure of Army opinion. In competition men are pitted against men, squad against squad, and company against company. In these games, as well as in the drills, the squads are imbued with the competitive spirit and urged to create “outstanding records.” Extra privileges and time off are the bribes. More than that, the men are subtly urged to take discipline into their own hands and deal with any comrade who, in the opinion of the officers, mars that record. This encouragement of lynch law was emphasized in a book written by Prof. Joseph Peterson, University of Minnesota, and distributed to all newly commissioned officers during the first world war. Prof. Peterson urged the new officers to set rigid standards of conduct and to penalize the entire company when an infraction was committed by one man. This, he pointed out, will encourage the men to discipline their own comrades. In citing such a case history, he wrote,

“A certain man was turned off guard for being dirty. The most worthless man in the troop undertook to, and did, thrash him with a watering bridle for disgracing the organization. This occurred in a troop that had been in existence for only four months and but one man in it had ever soldiered before. The pride of organization came to it early.”

Here then, is a simple and “clean” method of dealing with the more militant conscripts. Through this method of discipline the long arm of “company honor” is ever upon the backs of the men. The biology and psychology of competition is perverted to the ends of terror.

This method will probably be extensively employed during the coming year for, as Prof. Peterson pointed out, “a drafted army is more difficult to handle than a professional one.” Trade unionists and class-conscious workers are in a drafted army and it is not always easy for a shave-tail, fresh and starched from West Point, to handle them.

A Bourgeois Conception of Discipline

While recreation and off-hours discipline is subtle and oblique, the discipline of the drill field is direct and brutal. Drilling is not only an end in itself but, more important, a means to an end. It is on the drill field that a man’s spirit is broken and his nerves and muscles conditioned to the point where they become automatic reflexes. Long after the conscript has learned his manual of arms and can do his squads right with true Prussian perfection, he spends hours tramping back and forth, presenting arms, shouldering arms, saluting and obeying blindly and promptly all the involved commands the drill sergeant can conjure up. It is upon this mechanical repetition day after day after day, that the army counts for leveling the men. In the Journal of the Military Service Institute of United States, Major James Chester wrote,

“He (the recruit) is drilled until he knows his drill; then he is drilled until he acquires discipline; then he is drilled to keep from forgetting it. And when he does forget it his memory is revived by punishment. Moreover, when he is not drilling or undergoing punishment, he is being badgered by the noncommissioned officer who insists that when he says ‘come’ the recruit shall come. And when he says ‘go’ the recruit shall go, and when he says ‘do this’ the recruit shall promptly and unthinkingly do it.”

Philip Wylie and William W. Muir have just written a book intended to popularize the service among the new conscripts. Entitled The Army Way, the book is much more revealing than the authors, or the military, intended. In one place the authors quote several drill sergeants on the matter of discipline. One of them says,

“My system’s a little different. I’ll take a new man who’s doing a lot of fudging and I’ll start him in on a mess of chores that don’t make sense. He knows they don’t make sense. I know it. And he knows I know it. So he thinks I’m riding him. Well, in a way, mebbe I am. But I’m doing it to show him that what I say ... goes! Like that gas-feed ... (on an automobile). I’m the guy that puts the foot on the pedal. The private’s got to know that when I push down, he has to feed the gas in. It’s none of his business if the car ain’t goin’ anywhere. None. He ain’t the driver. I am. He’s got to get the absolute habit of jumpin’ into action when I say so. Then ... when the time comes…if there ever is any action…he’ll jump and jump quick and jump right. Get it?”

Ingenious sergeants, such as the one just quoted, sometimes evolve long and intricate routines that call for a new command every four paces. Under this badgering the conscripts make mistakes, for the mind will only consciously absorb and transmit to the legs and arms a limited number of commands in a minute’s time. Each time a mistake is made the sergeant starts over again. This time a little faster and a little louder. The end isn’t accomplished the first hour, or the first day, or even the first week. But after months of this the men will have been reduced to numbed, dazed, unthinking automatons. Their subconscious will have compensated for their conscious failures. They will obey the commands automatically! And consequently, the Army reasons, when they are ordered to charge the “enemy,” that command also will be obeyed automatically.

Robots Are a Substitute for Courage

In this connection Prof. Peterson told the West Point graduates of 1918:

“Under battle conditions when on the verge of making a charge, the will power of the soldier is likely to desert him; but if his habits are thoroughly established he begins to act along the lines of least resistance. He feels a rifle in his hands; for months he has been trained to run forward and engage the opponent with his bayonet, and as it is the most natural thing to do, he responds to the call of habit.”

While the politicians beat the drums of prejudice and hatred and call for a “holy war,” the Army General Staff remains singularly objective. They have learned from previous imperialist wars that courage based on moral conviction of the justice of this war is not to be had and that obedience created by mechanical conditioning is a substitute for courage. And however much they may fear, or even dislike, the rival imperialism of Germany, the Prussian military machine

is their model and the object of their envy. Nothing short of “German efficiency” and, of course, all its attendant social implications, will satisfy our military. To quote again from Major Chester and the Journal of the Military Service Institute of the United States:

“The courage of a company, or any other military organization, is the courage of the commander. It has no reference to the men in the ranks. Their merit, if they have any, is in their discipline. If they fail to follow their leader they are not necessarily cowards. They are only undisciplined.”

And further, “Government by discipline (army) is akin to the government of the gods ... it is despotic. There is no room for a town meeting.”

The Army’s Conception of Punishment

Such is the American military philosophy of discipline as applied to regular training. When it comes to punitive discipline the punishments are more ingenious and based upon all the tortures inherited from the dark ages. It is true that under pressure of public opinion the Army officers have been forced to abandon the “water cure” and the “stretch block” and similar devices once so dear to their hearts. But more “humane” punishments have been devised that are equally effective in breaking a man’s spirit and often his mind. As for the list of punishable offenses, part is written and part is unwritten. The unwritten part, of course, gives the bureaucracy the utmost leeway in handling recalcitrants. The written part is headed by espionage and desertion, both of which receive the death penalty. Articles of War 7 to 59 cover the other offenses and include: quarrels or frays, refusing to obey an officer, misbehaving before the enemy, abandoning post, quitting colors, making known the watch word, beginning, exciting or causing any sedition or mutiny, being present at a mutiny and not endeavoring to suppress it, striking a superior officer, enlisting in another regiment without being regularly discharged, advising to desert, selling, losing or spoiling arms or clothing, sentinel sleeping on post, doing violence to any person who brings provisions into camp, forcing a safeguard in foreign parts, relieving the enemy or protecting him, corresponding with the enemy, compelling a commander to surrender, etc., etc.

The pages of the Journal of the Military Service Institute are filled with disciplinary suggestions. One of the most succinct bits of advice comes from the pen of Major Chester who made a tour of American penitentiaries and urged the adoption of police methods in the army. In describing the method used in Sing Sing Prison, Major Chester wrote,

“The man with a rebellious spirit was easily recognized and selected for drill. The drill was simple enough. The commands were ‘open your mouth.’ ‘Shut it.’ ‘Open your mouth’ ‘Shut it’ ... ad infinitum. Of course the rebellious spirit, after dozens of repetitions of the absurd command, failed to obey, and punishment followed. So many minutes in the shower bath, after which the drill was resumed and prosecuted to a second disobedience and punishment. Then the drill would be varied by making the prisoner open and shut his eyes at command, or raise and lower his arms, or anything, the absurder the better. The study of penitentiary methods opened my eyes to the true value of much in the military service. The manual of arms, and ordinary barrack-yard drill, after the men are able to execute them perfectly, are the military counter-parts of the discipline drills of our penitentiaries.”

Then there is the case of a bright young captain who confined a “trouble maker” to his barracks. The officer stipulated, however, that the soldier had to report to Headquarters every half hour. It happened that Headquarters was such a distance from the barracks that the soldier could cover the distance in fifteen minutes only by running. A fifteen minute run to Headquarters to report, a fifteen minute run back to the barracks and it was time to set out again for Headquarters. Under this routine the soldier, of course, collapsed long before his period of confinement had been completed. What happened to the soldier after his collapse, and therefore his failure to report, is not recorded.

Long hours in the open with a drill pack is another Army favorite. The officer will stipulate that the prisoner is to drill with a pack of a certain weight. The weight set, of course, is heavier than a regulation pack. To make up the required weight the sergeant loads the prisoner’s pockets with heavy rocks and then turns him into the field.

David Spudson, the English writer, reports this incident that occurred during the last world war. A private was sentenced to 18 months hard labor. He was given the alternative, however, of going over the top. He chose the almost certain death of going over the top alone and in face of a concentrated enemy fire. Miraculously he returned alive, albeit without a hand and with a shell in his thigh. He was sent to a hospital and upon recovering was sent to prison to finish out his original sentence. Over the top hadn’t broken his spirit and so his commanding officer returned to the longer method.

Theirs Not to Reason Why

This fetish for obedience pyramids right through the Army bureaucracy. No commissioned officer with any ambition would think of questioning an order, however bad. Neither would he, on the other hand, dream of disciplining his subordinate non-commissioned officers in front of the men, however flagrant their abuse of their authority. While some officers like to assume the pose of “father confessor” to their men, and some even go so far as to invite the submission of all complaints directly, they privately believe that the more the non-coms ride the men the better will be the company discipline. In Leadership, a booklet written by Major Arthur Miller and distributed to commissioned officers, it is stated:

“It should always be remembered that the non-commissioned officer is the backbone of discipline. It only breaks the authority and grip of the non-com to have an offender whom he has reported talk himself out of punishment. If you find that a non-com is in the wrong, it is best for discipline not to let it appear in that light before the man he has reported for punishment.”

Thus the commissioned officer works through his sergeant to the squads, and the sergeant through the corporal to each of the seven men in the squad and the iron ring is closed. At no time, waking or sleeping, on camp grounds or off, is the conscript a free man in any sense of the word.

There is one recourse left open to a man who finds himself persecuted; he may demand a trial by court-martial. The 104th Article of War reads,

“Under such regulation as the President may prescribe and which he may from time to time revoke, alter or add to, the commanding officer of any detachment, company or higher command may, for minor offenses not denied by the accused, impose disciplinary punishments upon persons of his command without intervention of a court-martial, unless the accused demands trial by court-martial.”

That last sentence of the 104th Article is a slender thread indeed. Recognizing that courts-martial are presided over by the bureaucracy itself, and that the very act of appeal to the court is a threat to the disciplinary apparatus, it would take a brave man indeed to defy his captain. And you will search in vain for an officer who believes in democracy within the army. Whatever their philosophies before entering West Point, they are soon educated to the Army way.

In advising officers to resort to trials only as the last resort, Major Miller has this to say:

“Continued trials and their publicity disrupt organization pride. And are an admission by the officer that he can’t control his company. (Furthermore) ... justice is more apt to be met by officer punishment for he knows his men better than the summary court and knows what form of punishment would be most effective.”

Note that there is no concern regarding the guilt or innocence of the accused, only the problem of “most effective punishment.” In the United States Army’s Manual for Courts-Martial this is written:

“... to invoke court martial jurisdiction rather than exercise this power of command ... is to choose the wrong instrument, disturb unnecessarily military functions, injure rather than maintain discipline, and fail to exercise an authority, the use of which develops and increases the capacity for command.”

Imagine any shave-tail risking the impression that he is not desirous of developing and increasing his “capacity for command”!

Despite the great pressure from the bureaucracy, however, there has been an increase in the number of demands for trials by courts-martial instead of summary punishment during the past half century. This increase became especially noteworthy when conscription brought militant and developed workers into the Army.

Character of Army Jurisprudence

Army jurisprudence has developed slowly over the years by legislative acts, executive fiats, and judicial opinion. While there was little apparent plan and the entire judicial structure looks like a crazy quilt, it was molded consciously, and subconsciously, to complement the Army philosophy of discipline, and now stands as a model of coercive class rule. There is little similarity between Army and civil courts, between the rights of personal security in civil life and in the war machine. The 5th and 6th amendments to the Constitution of the United States, which protect citizens from punishments without due process of law, are specifically exempted in all trials arising in the land or naval services.

The first Article of War placed all commissioned officers, and the 10th Article placed enlisted and drafted men, under the jurisdiction of courts-martial. The jurisdiction has been enlarged, by judicial opinion, to include all drivers, professors, sutlers, retainers at the camp and all persons serving with the Army, enlisted or not. Any man, or officer, can be remanded for trial by a simple accusation from his superior. Without any investigation into the case he is imprisoned until the court sits. He is seldom given an opportunity to prepare his defense, either by engaging a competent counsel or personal investigation and interviewing of witnesses. When the trial opens there are no rules of evidence and the only requirements are that the court be sworn and the charge made out. The duties of the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney are all performed by the Judge Advocate. In other words, the ranking officer of the court-martial, the prosecutor, acts as defense attorney when he deems it necessary, and passes upon all evidence and points of law.

The accused is allowed to retain a counsel to assist him during the trial, but the counsel is restricted to giving advice and framing questions which are handed by the accused to the Judge Advocate on slips of paper. Any legal objections are aiso handed on slips of paper to the Judge Advocate. The counsel may not address the court or interfere in any way with the proceedings. Furthermore, the court-martial may refuse to receive any counsel designated by the accused. The general practice is to exclude the accused from the entire trial except, of course, during his testimony and during the appearance of defense witnesses. As for the verdicts, a crime carrying a death penalty requires two-thirds agreement among the judges; anything less is decided by a simple majority.

An Ideal System for Frame-Ups

While the bureaucracy prefers to conduct a court-martial with the maximum of secrecy, this medieval system of jurisprudence has received public attention and condemnation from time to time. During 1919 public indignation against military justice became so violent that Newton D. Baker, Secretary of War, requested the Judge Advocate General to make a personal investigation and prepare a defense which he (Baker) could submit to Congress. Many soldier welfare committees sprang into being and several made exhaustive studies of Army justice. The following is a summary of these committee findings as presented on the floor of Congress in the Spring of 1919.

  1. The general treatment of accused soldiers is not according to rigid limitations of law, but according to the arbitrary discretion of the commanding officer.
  2. A soldier can be put on trial by an officer, at his discretion, and without any inquiry into probability of the charge.
  3. The military criminal code is not modern and enlightened, but entirely archaic.
  4. The Judge Advocate combines, incongruously, the functions of prosecutor, judicial adviser of the court, and defender of the accused.
  5. Commanding Generals, as reviewing authorities, have sent back for reconsideration judgments of acquittal (such double jeopardy is of course impossible in civil law).
  6. The sentences imposed by the courts-martial are excessively severe.

The Army’s Social Philosophy Stated

The United States Army at the moment is basking in an unprecedentedly brilliant spot light. All the high-powered forces of press and radio are focused upon the Army, engaged in a mighty campaign to “sell” it to the nation. It goes without saying that the bureaucracy is now on its best behavior. There is still a large and vocal minority in this country and the martinets are not too easy in their shiny boots. But as the avenues of free expression are choked off one by one, as the unions are smashed or emasculated and the workers dragooned by millions into the war machine, America will once more see blossoming the full flower of the Army’s social philosophy. This philosophy was expressed more than frankly by General Robert Bullard, writing in the Journal of the Military Service Institute. Bullard, a frank admirer of the Prussian military pattern, listed what he called The Cardinal Vices of the American Soldier. Not content with the listing, he analyzed these vices and found their roots in democracy itself. Here in the General’s own words, are the “vices”:

An abnormal claim ... view and development of personal independence ... A spirit rebellious and insubordination to authority. On Americans accustomed to American ways, the American soldier’s rebelliousness, insubordination, and lack of respect toward authority, do not easily impress themselves. It is, however, the first thing noticed by foreign observers of our army, and by ourselves the instant we observe a foreign army. Why is it? It is because of a foolish pride of independence that prevents them from yielding the requisite obedience, discipline and faithful service.”

Excessive and unnecessary wants: wastefulness. A Frenchman can live on what an American wastes. Two Japs, or two Chinamen can do likewise. To know our habit we need only look in on the soup kitchen of any troop. They cook great quantities, eat great quantities and waste great quantities, and the commander cannot deny you that more is eaten than is needed.”

A deficient sense of the seriousness of the obligation of the enlistment oath (desertion). The reason for this found in civilian life where men are found quitting on the slightest jar, the least dissatisfaction, any employment. And they indignantly resent any questioning thereof. This condition is growing daily worse.”

Intemperate criticism of superior authority; a loose tongue. Their very great personal liberty, the free discussion and unrestrained expression of opinion on all public men and affairs, the habit of setting themselves in judgment on men and measures, have left the Americans with the idea that there is nothingn ... they are not at liberty to criticize. The cause of so wretched a vice is idleness. Its cure is therefore simple…work. Give all the military work he can do (nay more), and make him do it.”

These words, mind you, are not those of a Keitel or a Graziani, but those of a great American military “hero,” a man often referred to as General Pershing’s “good right arm,” a man who, without question, speaks the mind of the American military. In a word, the class struggle does not cease at the doors of the barracks; on the contrary, as 800,000 Americans, predominantly workers and farmers, will discover for themselves in the coming year, the class struggle reappears in an extremely intensified form – that is what General Bullard’s words mean. These workers and farmers come to the Army with the experience of the great strike and farmers’ struggles, of the last ten years, a far richer experience than the men the Bullards have hitherto faced. We await the outcome with confidence!

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