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The Brutalization of the American Soldier

James M. Fenwick

Off Limits

Part IV
The Brutalization of the American Soldier

(14 January 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 2, 14 January 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

The army is a reflection of the capitalist society which created it – but with this difference: that every vileness is magnified a hundredfold. For almost every civilized norm established by nineteenth and twentieth century capitalism the army substitutes a regressive opposite.

The indoctrination consciously given the soldier by the officer corps of the army, and the corrupting influence of army life itself, are responsible to a grave degree for the bad conduct of many American soldiers abroad.

Military training consists, on the one hand, of the physical hardening and technical preparation of the soldier, and on the other, of his psychological remolding. Progressive human altitudes, carefully built up over the years by parents, teachers, and the workday world are systematically dismembered and replaced by brutal formulas designed to lower the moral consciousness to a more primitive level.

The reason for this, of course, is simple: the capitalist class and its military hired hands, the general staff and the lower ranking officers want to develop as ferocious, and hence, as effective a soldier as is possible within the limits imposed by the present stage of economic, political and social development in the United States.

The Highest Good

“Men, you’re here to learn one thing, and only one thing – and that is: how to kill as many Germans and Japs as possible!” This statement is one (of the first pieces of wisdom revealed to the enlisted man in training. In one form or another, it is pounded home daily. Almost all methods of achieving the death of the enemy are considered fair, down to the foulest refinements of dirty fighting such as eye gouging, kicking in the crotch, and garrotting – methods which are of little practical utility but which are useful in establishing certain thought patterns.

To justify the killing of other men an intense propaganda based upon two simple concepts of enemy guilt is tirelessly worked over. These concepts are, first, the German and Japanese initiation of the war, and, secondly, the enemy atrocities. War and its accompanying atrocities, we have explained many times, are inherent in capitalism and will exist as long as capitalism exists. Of course, United States capitalism can hardly be expected to reveal this simple and devastating truth. To do so would be to undermine itself.

Nor does it. Through movies such as the Why We Fight series; “orientation” lectures; pamphlets like Army Talks; Yank magazine; and especially through the pages of Stars and Stripes (which, during the war, was an exceptionally coarse, brutal, and vicious sheet, aimed at extending the worst aspects of the personality) the guilt, of the Japanese and the Germans was ceaselessly repeated. In the case of the Germans, in particular, the guilt was placed, not upon the capitalists, their fascist servants, and the German military caste, where it obviously belongs, but upon the people as a whole.

The reverse of the heaping of hatred and contempt upon the enemy was the exaltation of the American forces which took place. The standard sequence ran as follows: “Remember, men, you’re in the best goddam regiment in the best goddam division in the best goddam army of the best goddam country of the world!” In airborne outfits, as in the Italian Arditi of World War I, this reactionary consciousness was exceptionally highly developed. This led to incidents such as occurred when large numbers of the 82nd Airborne division, for instance, rioted with Negroes in England before D-Day in 1944. Complaints by foreigners against members of airborne units were especially common.

“You’re Not Paid to Think!”

Initiative, and thinking in general, are carefully discouraged in training. Generally speaking, unthinking and unquestioning obedience is the ideal sought for. Extravagant penalties are given for such dangerous breaches of discipline as having too much oil on one’s rifle, failing to salute, having a button unbuttoned, etc. Penalties such as being forced to dig a six foot square and six foot deep hole, to cut the grass with a mess knife, or to scrub the barrack’s floor with a toothbrush are known to all GI’s.

For the capitalists, this stupid, maddening sort of discipline is the only one possible. No one, unless lie could be presented with an overwhelming social ideal, would voluntarily subject himself to the danger of death, maiming or wounding; absence from home; unbearable officers; poor pay; endless Waiting, waiting, waiting in lines; deadly monotony; absence of sexual pleasures; perpetual, irrational mix-ups; and hard work which compose army life.

The army was able to create a hatred of Hitlerism. But this was negative. It was never able to create in the minds of a majority of the soldiers a positive conviction in the allied cause. For the most part he was cynical. Hence the enforced, not self-imposed, character of the discipline.

Cloud-Cuckoo Land

Under these conditions a certain inversion of values takes place in the army. Though intelligent people, and persons endowed with an understanding of human values often achieve positions of responsibility, many are unwilling to make the necessary compromises with their ideals which are nearly always involved. More especially, the rigid, initiative-destroying “chain of command” creates a system where, as nowhere else in the United States, those who are stupid but obey orders, those who are sucks, those who are brutal, those who are loud-mouthed, those who are cowards, those who are able to give a quick response (whether it be right or wrong) and those who are ignorant and incompetent achieve such relative success so surely. Even good persons who, become officers or non-commissioned officers are victimized by the limitations of the system.

These are the men who are the virtually absolute masters of the rank and file soldier.

It is almost inevitable that the GI, like the Roman slave who vented the whole crushing hatred of his condition on the farm implements, the cattle, his wife, and his fellow slaves, behaves as he does in Europe.

Combat added the final straw.

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