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George Breitman

Why the Lichfield Trials?

(11 May 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 19, 11 May 1946, pp. 3 & 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Readers of The Militant are already acquainted with the main facts about the Lichfield trials; with the reports of brutal beatings and sadistic treatment of American prisoners – many of them wounded and decorated combat soldiers – at the Army’s Tenth Reinforcement Depot guardhouse in England; with the proceedings of the first two courts-martial, which ended in the conviction of two sergeants. Even the capitalist press is finally beginning to give a little space to these atrocities (along with the much greater space they give to advertisements seeking enlistments in the armed forces).

These facts have given rise to certain questions which must be answered before one can see the Lichfield case in its proper perspective:

What is the Army’s aim in holding these trials? Does it want to really punish the guilty parties? Does it aim by these trials to prevent similar brutality elsewhere?

The first thing to remember is that the Army was in no hurry to prosecute this case. The Inspector General’s Department was acquainted with the facts for almost a year before the first court martial was convened. During this war thousands of soldiers were charged, tried, convicted and sentenced in a week or two on far less evidence than was available in the Lichfield case. One can therefore say that the Army appeared strangely reluctant to even bring the case to trial at all.

But in a certain sense it could not help itself. Lichfield and the methods employed there were notorious throughout the Army in Western Europe. I, who was never near Lichfield, heard about it in France almost a year before the trials began, and so did hundreds of thousands of other troops. (Interest in it was so great in the ETO that the Army paper Stars and Stripes was often compelled to feature news of the first trial ahead of the Nuremberg “war criminals” trial which began around the same time.) When the war ended in Europe, many soldiers acquainted with the story had gone home and spread it further.

The Army was thus faced with an unwelcome choice: Take the chance of perhaps letting it get to a Congressional committee and having an investigation by some outside body – or of proceeding on its own and trying to make the best of a bad business. Its hand was forced, and naturally it took the second course.

But the Army did not intend to do more than make a facesaving gesture. This was demonstrated beyond any possibility of doubt when it confined its charges to a number of enlisted men and the two junior officers at the Lichfield guardhouse. One of them was admittedly a psychoneurotic, the otb«r a lieutenant who had so disliked his job there that he made repeated efforts to be transferred to some other post. It omitted charging the commanding officer, Col. James A. Kilian, who was responsible for setting the guardhouse policy. It was demonstrated again in the middle of the first trial when the War Department had to withdraw its recommendation to the Senate of a promotion for this same Kilian, although the War Department had known the facts about Lichfield long before it submitted this recommendation.

Kilian and some of the other officers at Lichfield are now also facing trial. This happened because the Lichfield guards, who had been perjuring themselves at the beginning of the trial on Kilian’s orders, began to tell some of the truth after they saw their case was hopeless. But even after Kilian was charged, a member of the Western Base Section general staff contacted the enlisted defendants and tried to make an out-of-court deal favorable to the officers. If Kilian faces trial, it is not because the Army wanted it but because Kilian’s conspiracy to silence the guards could not survive the testimony of soldiers who had been beaten at his orders.

On top of this it must be remembered that the Army has shown no intention of going higher than Kilian – of investigating, for example, the eight generals who in one month inspected the Lichfield guardhouse at the time of the atrocities and found it very satisfactory – of inquiring, for another example, into the statement to a guard by Major General Brown, commander of the Ground Forces Reinforcement Command: “You’re not tough enough on these men. You’re not running a hotel, sergeant.”

This leads to another series of questions: Was Lichfield unique? Was it an exception in the Army? Were other guardhouses, stockades and detention centers operated on other, more humanitarian principles?

To these questions it is possible to answer with a categoric No! Lt. Granville Cubage, one of the junior officer defendants, testified that Kilian had told him Lichfield could be “as tough as any DTC” (Disciplinary Training Center).

The defense counsel asked him: “Did other DTCs use methods similar to Lichfield that the guards at Lichfield might have been aware of, supporting their belief that they were carrying out a legal order?” To which Cubage replied:

“Yes. When I took prisoners from Lichfield to the DTCs, I took guards with me from Lichfield ... The commandant at DTC 2913 at Langford, England, for instance, took myself and the guards through their solitary confinement cells in October, 1944, and showed us the punishment the men got there ... Also when we returned from DTC 3 at Sudbury, England, I told our guards that the commandant there had told me his men used clubs for beating prisoners. I told the men that at Langford they had a dungeon far below ground, you couldn’t see the light and the officer in charge laughingly told me that occasionally someone fell down these stairs on his face.”

Here is some additional evidence from George Fielding Eliot, military commentator of the N.Y. Herald-Tribune:

“... there is strong reason to believe that Lichfield is only one among many. There are too many other reports of similar tenor from other parts of the world where American soldiers have been serving to make it possible to think that the conditions at Lichfield were exceptional. Bitter stories come back by various means – stories of the ‘Black Hole’ of Le Mans, stories of men staked out naked in the African sun at the detention center of Casablanca, stories of men ‘on the rock pile’ in the Pacific theater, stories of clubbings, stringing up by the thumbs, of worse – and nameless – brutalities practiced by American soldiers.” (Feb. 2, 1946)

Surely the Army, equipped with an Inspector General’s Department whose job is supposed to be the investigation of all “irregularities,” knows as much about these hell-holes as Eliot. Yet no one anywhere has heard any plans for courts-martial involving them. Why?

The truth of the matter is that the Army has something to conceal – and that is its own policy. Eliot, whose only fear is that the Army may go too far and thus discredit itself, admits the existence of a policy:

”There seems to have been a consistent Army policy to make detention so dreaded that men would avoid it like a plague ...”

And his counterpart on the N.Y. Times, Hanson W. Baldwin, who apologizes for the Lichfield brutalities on the grounds of military necessity – that old alibi used to cover up most crimes and blunders in wartime – also admits there was a policy; even calls it official: “... the men on trial (with definite exceptions) probably are not so much the sadists they have been pictured as executors of an official Army policy of toughness ...” (April 24)

Any conclusion of the Lichfield case which does not bring the indictment, trial and destruction of this Army policy will expose the Lichfield courts-martial as a whitewash, no matter what happens to the individual defendants.

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