Breitman Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

George Breitman

A Typical “Officer and Gentleman”

(1 June 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 22, 1 June 1946, p. 7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

During the last few months there has been considerable discussion in the press about the officer caste system. In an effort to attract recruits, the army has even set up a board which will soon make recommendations for eliminating some of the more glaringly outrageous aspects of the caste system. This inevitably reminds me of Captain Flick, our commanding officer overseas – the most typical, the most officer-like of all I encountered.

Captain Flick had been in the Officer Reserve Corps in peacetime; had signed up while at school, got a smattering of military training, and in due course took his place with the other officers and gentlemen by act of Congress. We came overseas and joined his outfit in England about a week before D-Day. Ours was a battalion headquarters; he was commander of the headquarters detachment, battalion adjutant, summary court officer, etc. We didn’t pay much attention to him at first because everything was so strange to us and because we were supposed to go to France on D-Day plus five.

Situation Normal

The invasion situation was normal, and we got across the channel only three days later than we were supposed to. When we got within landing distance early in the afternoon, there was no landing craft available and no one seemed to know where we should go, so we stayed on the ship all night. That proved unwise because when it got dark some German planes began dropping bombs on the ships in that area.

At the height of this activity, when we were beginning to appreciate the thoughts of a sitting duck, Captain Flick appeared among us, looking for something, and shining a flashlight in such a way as to inspire gratitude in the German bombardiers. We frankly told him what to do and where to go. After that, we watched him a little more closely.

When we got off at Omaha Beach the next day. Captain Flick was given the job of taking us to our bivouac area. With what we later recognized to be unerring inaccuracy he led us to the east instead of the west, so that it was night by the time we got to the area, and we had to dig ourselves in in the dark.

The situation remained normal and nobody knew what to do with our outfit for a couple of days after we got there. So we began to dig ourselves bigger and better foxholes. Such activity was unbecoming the dignity of a gentleman. Captain Flick ordered one of our medics to do his digging, and, not having anything else to do himself, stood by and gave directions while taking a sun-bath. Someone with a camera came by, taking human interest pictures. The captain ordered the medic to halt, took the shovel from him, assumed a position in the hole and had his picture taken. Then he got out and ordered the medic to resume work.

Some months later Captain Flick was interviewed by a radio broadcaster he knew back home and his remarks, suitably vague, made it seem he was one of the chief reasons why the invasion had been successful. Actually, Captain Flick’s chief activity during the crucial weeks of the Normandy campaign was court-martialing soldiers for firing their carbines at night without visibly good reason.

In private Captain Flick demurred weakly to the battalion commander that you couldn’t court-martial men and fine them for firing their weapons in a combat area, but the colonel didn’t see it that way. And so Captain Flick, “like a good soldier,” obediently carried out the summary courts-martial and made several hundreds of dollars for his government.

An enlisted man with charges against him by an officer never had a chance with Captain Flick. He was all for “upholding discipline.” He even court-martialed one of the members of our own detachment, a young medic who had got drunk for the first time in his life, Captain Flick threw the book at him – discipline must be maintained at all costs. But when later one of our officers, heavily drunk, broke a chair over the head of an enlisted man in a quarrel over a French girl, there was no court martial. A month later the offending officer was just transferred to another outfit and a better job.

Captain Flick was frank about some things. He called the enlisted men “the hired help” and treated them accordingly. He used to say: “You know the hired help is supposed to do all the work around here. Us officers – we’re just supposed to tell you what to do.”

His social outlook was not very broad. He never read anything but picture magazines and comic books. He used to go out of his way to embarrass one of the Catholic enlisted men, who was very devout, with questions which must have seemed amusing among the Ku Klux Klan. Behind their backs he was always making cracks about the Jews. He had been born in the South and had the traditional cracker attitude toward the Negro soldiers. As for the French people – they were dirty foreigners who spoke a repulsive and incomprehensible language and who were responsible for everything that had happened to them and no good for anything but sexual intercourse anyhow.

Stood on Rank

Toward enlisted men Captain Flick was often rude. Even with his junior officers he often stood on his rank. One of these contradicted him about some minor matter once and Captain Flick’s face got red. He drew himself up and said: “You want to remember that you’re talking to a captain of the United States Army.” “Yes, sir.” “And I’m due the respect of such.” “Yes, sir ”

But toward his senior officers he was generally obsequious and timid. One time a general was supposed to come to inspect our quarters and there weren’t many enlisted men around to clean the place up. That was the only time in 18 months I saw Captain Flick do a lick of work.

Somehow or other Captain Flick had got a college diploma. But his education wasn’t such as to inspire confidence in his judgment. One time we went in a convoy from Normandy to Le Mans, by way of the ruins of St. Lo. Captain Flick was at the head of the convoy, directing it. We went off a main road and considerably out of our way. Finally we got lost, although it seemed a difficult thing to do.

We asked Captain Flick why he hadn’t continued to follow the signs pointing to St. Lo. “Because I didn’t see any,” he answered. But, we said, every one else had seen them, and we turned back and showed him where they had been. “Why, I saw those signs,” he admitted, “but I always thought Lo was spelled L-o-w.”

Captain Flick fascinated me. He seemed to personify most of the officers I came across. I used to promise myself that some day I would write a semi-fictional story about an officer like him, finishing it off ironically with an account of his promotion to the rank of major. But toward the end of the war Captain Flick was promoted to major. That took the taste out of the project for me.

He went home around Thanksgiving, 1945, and we heard that he had reenlisted for another year. Where else but in the army can a man of his qualities get a job that automatically commands not only good pay – but “respect” as well?

Breitman Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 22 December 2018