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An Army Major Tells
Some Truths

(2 November 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 4 No. 44, 2 November 1940, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A devastating indictment of the officer caste in the army has just been made by an authoritative spokesman, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, in his book, Battle Shields of the Republic (Macmillan Co.), published last week.

His chief charge is directed against the promotion system in the army, which is based not on capacity to lead troops in battle but upon favoritism and seniority.

The young officer out of West Point is sent to an army post where he is buried in pure paper-work, records and red-tape routine reports. He has no urge, the book states, to study the problems of modern warfare.

The chief concern of the young officer is not the readiness of his unit for battle, but securing a favorable “efficiency report’” from his colonel; for his promotion is based on seniority and the good graces of his superior officers.

The basis of the colonel’s “efficiency” report is personal opinion. As a result, the young officer must play up to the colonel’s prejudices and wangle his way into the same social circles. Major Wheeler-Nicholson cites the case of a lieutenant who received an unfavorable “efficiency report” after his dog chased the cat belonging to the Colonel’s wife.

As a result of this system, the Major points out, most of the officers reaching high rank – by the process of stepping into dead mens’ shoes and pulling all the strings – are amateur diplomats first of all, and rarely first-class soldiers. In addition, their entire training has been in paper-work administration, and they are wholly unfitted for leadership in real war.

The book makes thoroughly clear the corruption and connivance which characterizes the army regime.

In addition, Major Wheeler-Nicholson asserts that the same system is in force in the Reserves and National Guard, where the officers are even more inadequate. He maintains that the average officer in the American Reserve or National Guard knows less about war than the average German private.

A most serious effect of the present army system, as the book points out, is that the officers are brought to high rank when they are already too old. The general officers average about 60 years in age, almost exactly that of the French and British generals who failed against Hitler. The heads of the Nazi army average but forty-five.

Civil War Officers Were Different

The North might have lost the Civil War if Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Emery Upton, James H. Wilson and Alexander Mackenzie had not finally been placed in command of the Union Armies. The average age of these six when they took command was thirty-three years, and not one was forty-five at the end of the war. Wheeler-Nicholson states that if the present system had been in force back in 1863 not a single one of these brilliant military men could have become a general, for the system does not permit promotion for ability, only demotion for demerit – which most often means failing to smooth some officious general the right way.

This system can provide only the type of army leadership which abandoned the French workers and soldiers to the mercy of the Nazi.

But all is not lost, according to an article in the October 18 issue of United States News, an “inside” political dope-magazine for Wall Street. The evils pointed out by Wheeler-Nicholson, begrudgingly acknowledged by the News, will be changed.

“Reforms” That Change Nothing

According to the News, promotion from the ranks has become a definite part of the future army program. Special schools are being planned to prepare enlisted men – not draftees – for commissions. But not all enlisted men. The plan provides that any enlisted recruit may enter one of these schools after a year of regular training – “if he has a college education”. This contemplated reform may provide a lot more paper-work officers from the ranks of the well-to-do who can afford to send their boys to college, but gives little hope for competent leadership where the bullets fly thickest.

The U.S. News article also reveals plans to reduce the snobbishness and “stuffed-shirt” attitude of the officers. The officers are being encouraged to become more close to the ranks, but, “Of course” this does not mean “drinking and chumming with them.” Just an occasional pat on the head!

This new attitude is not motivated by genuine sympathy for the ordinary recruit. Oh, no! The article makes this clear when it states, “Operation of a tank or plane with three or four men cramped into a tiny cockpit leaves the officer-in-charge little inclination to be thought a ‘stuffed shirt’ by the mechanics on whose skill his life may depend.”

Harsh martinet discipline is to go also. According to recent instructions from the army high command, new recruits are not to be given disciplinary confinements – “where such punishment can be avoided”.

Instead, a more inspiring influence will be employed to keep the recruits in line. Says the U.S. News, “The Army is relying on the women’s influence. Now each army post is to have a post matron or ‘mother’.” Come, son, tell mother all!

This balderdash proposed as reforms for the army ruling system merely adds further proof of the hopeless weaknesses of the whole officer system. It cannot be otherwise. For the present army command is an extension of the ruling regime of the degenerate capitalist system. So long as the boss class runs the army it will move heaven and earth to close the doors of the officers corps to the talented workers and tested union fighters.

* * *

Capitalist war is exactly like capitalist economies: we go to war to get the peace to get the strength to go to war to get the peace, etc., etc.

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