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James M. Fenwick

Off Limits

The College Veteran

(21 April 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 16, 21 April 1947, p. 4..
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

When the war ended and veterans began to flood the colleges there was considerable speculation in capitalist as well as radical circles as to the effect of the war experience upon the political temper of the student-veteran. Over a year has passed since the major influx began; it is now possible to approximate the state of mind of the college veteran.

The demobilized soldier has always been a menace to the status quo. A model example of that was the revolutionary activity of the German veteran in the stormy days at the end of World War I. Paralleling this, of course, was the counter-revolutionary struggle of private troops organized in the Freicorps, who fought in Poland and later formed a base for the Hitler movement.

The American capitalist class in its empirical fashion recognized the dangers inherent in millions of economically footloose veterans. The GI Bill of Rights, in addition to its function of making the imperialist war more “meaningful,” was designed to serve as a form of preventive fire insurance amid the social conflagrations whose possible occurrence could not be excluded from an assessment of the post-war period by the capitalist political leaders.

All Quiet on the Educational Front

Anyone viewing the university scene throughout the country, where in virtually all cases veterans comprise the overwhelming majority of the student body, is forced to conclude that despite the intensive and extensive character of the war from all points of view, the class-consciousness of the veteran has not been enhanced in any significant fashion.

There is none of the self-pity, the disillusion, and the cynicism of the Lost Generation which came out of World War I. There is none of the class-consciousness, the anti-militarism, and the combativity of the Locked-out Generation of the ’Thirties. There are no organizations comparable to the Stalinist (but then militant) National Student League or the Young People’s Socialist League. There is at best the AVC. The hollow rhetoric of a Bolte hardly hides a rather poverty-stricken program. The AVC looks good only because of the absence from the field of any reasonably socialist organization.

The seriousness of intention of the student veteran, which has often been remarked upon, is not basically a critical approach to existing political institutions. It represents, rather, a “purposeful driving” – a desire for better grades, a willingness to assume heavier academic loads, a desire to recoup lost time and get launched on a career.

There is no anti-war sentiment such as produced the Oxford Pledge movement and the antiwar demonstration of the ’Thirties. There is none of the naive revolt of the World War I veterans when they discovered that war was slaughter and that its ideals were lies. The veterans went into this war not as crusaders but as men with few illusions. They did the job and got out as soon as they could. Imperceptibly they are coming to accept the concept more familiar to Europe than the United States – war in permanence.

Why This Apathy?

Why this relative apathy? The cushioning role of subsistence pay, which permits persons to go to school who otherwise might not have been able to, is obvious. Employment is at record levels and permits the expectation of careers following graduation. Given a general high level of intelligence and education, exceptionally large numbers of college students never passed through or even came near the inferno of modern war. They comprised the military petty-bourgeoisie. Many spent pleasant months in V-12 and ASTP programs. Many were meteorologists, radar operators, cryptographers, or air corps personnel. Casualties in general, and among college students in particular, were very light; the number who died in World War II were fewer than in the American Civil War.

College professors, cocky little roosters strutting among their brood, pitifully confused, pitifully ignorant, pitifully prejudiced, and pitifully vassalized, cannot lead themselves anywhere, let alone lead others. Upon all of these reasons for the apathy of the veterans must be superimposed the degeneration of Stalinism. Once able to set fire to the minds of the most idealistic youth, it now repels them by its debasement of a heroic ideal.

When will the political awakening of the student veteran come? It will come when the present boom, over which the capitalist economists are already becoming nervous, collapses and the irrationality of U.S. capitalism is once mare dramatically revealed. It will come when the inevitability of World War III, which many veterans, having served in one war, do not believe can involve them, once more puts them in uniform.

That there are. students now in college who, having passed through the test by fire and water, are prepared to draw the boldest conclusions from an analysis of the present chaos, is incontestable also. Many of them are from workers’ families, who ip other times would have been unable to go to school. With proper intervention on our part they will form the vanguard of the new generation of young intellectuals who will bring their idealism, drive, courage and knowledge to the struggle for socialism.

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