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Jack Wilson

On Life and Democracy in the Army

(March 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 9, 3 March 1941, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

We were guzzling a bottle of beer with a buck private near an Army camp when a couple of officers walked in.

“Don’t have to salute them any more, outside of camp,” he told us, sighing with relief. “You’d go nuts trying to salute all of them,” he added.

And then his (ace brightened. “Say, do you know that last Saturday night a bunch of the Minnesota boys were at a joint and they had their arms around each other!”

Nobody catching the point. I asked what was so unusual about that. “The officers and the men. Two louies and some of the boys. They were singing songs together. you know, and holding themselves with their arms around each other.”

He said it like it was the seventh miracle. He still couldn’t quite believe it.

You see, he had been a National Guardsman for seven years and was properly trained as an American soldier. He had learned that officers and men don’t mix. It ain’t Kosher, as they say down South.

Officers and men. That’s two different and separate classes. None of this baloney about democracy they feed you in civil life.

And he told us more.

Army life isn’t what it used to be a few years ago. They have a million sergeants now, it seems, compared to the old days. A sergeant, and not a corporal, is in command of a squad. Superficially, the vast increases in “non-coms” looks like a “democratization” of the Army. The opposite is true. More rigid control is possible over the ranks by having a “spread” in command, by building a huge corps of sergeants between the officers and the men. It’s the three stripe boys who handle the discipline of the men. And it’s a rule that the officer always backs the sergeant against the men.

“You gotta have control of the men.” If he can’t take them out and beat the hell out of them, he’s through. One of mine didn’t last long. Behind the barracks is where they settle the question.

How about promotions? “I was a sergeant once. Got transferred and had to start all over again. An officer? Naw. I don’t want to be one. Look at all the dough they dish out in uniforms. Over $700 a year.” He was satisfied to remain in the ranks.

He was vague about the war. “If you gotta fight, you gotta fight.” He was ready. Why? He didn’t know. He was proud of his efficiency in handling machines. “Brother, you could blindfold me and I’ll take any gun apart and put it back together again in no time.” Such is Army life today.

Jimmy Stewart and John Nobody

Another slant on the Army is furnished by telling two incidents related to draft classification.

As most readers know, Jimmy Stewart is a Hollywood movie star. The typical American young man, good looking, a nice guy, a believer in democracy and virtue, etc., etc., etc.

Stewart drew a low draft order number. “I’m ready to serve at any time,” he told the press.

A few weeks ago, it appeared. Jimmy’s number was up. He was to be drafted. And then Major Plato, head of the California Selective Service Board, announced a temporary deferment for Stewart. “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer asked for it.” Major Plato said.

A storm of protest followed. As one movie critic put it in his nationally syndicated column, “What’s indispensable to national defense in making love to Hedy Lamarr at $2,000 a week?” And how will the average draftee feel about that?

So 24 hours later Major Plato blandly denied that Stewart had been deferred by request, but rather he was reclassified because he was 10 pounds under weight.

Sounds plausible if you ignore the background as related here, which we hope you don’t. But even the new excuse is a flimsy one.

It happens that an Ohio acquaintance of ours out here was called for his final medical exam. A fellow who’s out here for his health.

“When you walk into the doctor’s office you know you’re near the Army. He treats you just a little better than a dog, but not much. Under other circumstances I sure would like to have smacked him one, the way he growled and snorted,” the Ohio fellow said.

But to get back to the main point. “It broke the doctor’s heart that he had to reject me. At first he thought I was only 25 pounds under weight and he was going to O.K. me, but when it was even more, he said I wouldn’t go, at least this time.”

So they’ll take a poor man who is plenty under weight but exempt a rich man like Stewart who is only slightly under weight. “I told the doctor that while I personally was indifferent to being in or out of the Army. I didn’t like the method he went about it, because of the Jimmy Stewart business. Then I was shown the door.”

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Last updated: 29 February 2020