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The Brutalization of the American Soldier

James M. Fenwick

Off Limits

Part V
The Brutalization of the American Soldier

(21 January 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 3, 21 January 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

“Moore, go down into town and pick up my laundry, will you?”

“But, sir, they’re shelling the road and the town something awful.”


“Yes, sir.”

In that brief dialogue between my company commander and one of the men is revealed the inescapable fact which dwarfed all others in every waking moment (and so many of the sleeping ones) of every combat soldier. That fact was the constant consciousness of death, the cheapness of life, and how easily it could be dissipated

No soldier could remain in combat long without realizing that whether he lived or whether he died was only a statistical question, that, by and large, whether he was a good soldier or a bad one, whether he was brave or a coward, or whether he was religious or indifferent, didn’t really matter. It was a question only of time.


The combat soldier felt himself alone in his misery and his danger. Consequently, hatred and envy festered in almost every one of them. The hatred and envy were directed at almost everybody, especially those who were more fortunately situated than he. For line company men this included battalion headquarters men (“Those rear echelon bastards!”), quartermaster corps personnel, especially Negroes (“Why the hell ain’t they fighting?’’), strikers, or civilians in general.

The Germans, as the ostensible cause of the war and of its continuation (“Why the hell don’t they quit? They know they’re licked?”) inevitably bore the brunt of the hatred. For that reason brutal treatment of the Germans and looting was looked upon merely as what they justly deserved. Furthermore, the distinction between reducing a town to rubble by aircraft and artillery and doing a little quiet looting seemed the purest metaphysics to the average soldier.

The overflow of this feeling inevitably involved the French and Belgians, since they were felt to be partly responsible for originating the war. This is unquestionably a factor motivating the behavior of American soldiers in France and Belgium at the present time.

You Hardly Live Once

Violent living produces violent pleasures. In the presence of death everything seems fleeting. Pleasures are seized and exhausted immediately. Drinking is so heavy because there is so much to forget. Sexual satisfactions are quick and without human, loving overtones. There is not time.

Personal relations are on the most meagre basis. Too close personal attachments are avoided because your closest friend may be dead the next hour. In the face of an unendurable misery out of which there leads no visible path, cursing becomes the normal code of conversation.

Add to this the interminable fear and friendship.

Add the classes in military courtesy, close order drill, care and cleaning of equipment, five mile hikes, and the moronic, nagging discipline imposed by the officers during the occasional three- or four-day rest periods between commitments to battle.

Add the general lowering of the moral level which fascism has introduced into the world.

It does not take a prophet to foretell the results.

The Sum Total

Many soldiers, after having experienced all this, have now been assigned as occupation forces.

This means living in a god-forsaken, if intact, German village dating from the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. Or it means living in a city amid the incalculable ruins which are modern Germany. It means shoving around a hostile, if apathetic people. It means, if one is at all sensitive, to be the daily witness of the most heart-rending poverty and human desolation.

Coupled with this, of course, is the barracks life, the daily bird-brained discipline from the officers, the monotonous and often insufficient food, the royal prerogatives of the officer caste, the frequent lack of proper clothing, the absence of entertainment, the laughable educational program, the loneliness, the lack of a harmonious sexual life, and the bleak and unknown future.

That all of this should result in base acts against foreign peoples was inevitable.

That it should take the form of demonstrations for redeployment home is equally understandable.

That it will assume more politically conscious forms in the future can be predicted with equal surety.

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