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Jack Wilson

Litchfield – A Product
of Army System

(11 February 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 6, 11 February 1946, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The mistreatment of American GIs at the notorious Litchfield, England, reinforcement depot, “concentration camp,” finally has reached public print, as a result of the courts-martial of seven guards, and two junior officers.

The story of army brutality there was a familiar one. Prisoners were beaten, a regime of terror and drastic punishment for the most trivial “offenses” prevailed, and Litchfield became known as a real hell-hole. When one soldier died under “mysterious” circumstances, the scandal became too great to silence. So minor functionaries at the depot are now on trial. Colonel James A. Killian, commanding officer, and directly responsible for the guardhouse policy, has not been placed on trial.

Of course, the indignation over the brutality is real and justified. Life at Litchfield was very much like life at Dachau. At least GIs who were there so thought. Of course, the guards and officers deserve severest punishment for terrible treatment of the GIs. And the failure to courts-martial Colonel Killian speaks volumes about the army system of injustice.

Combat – or Litchfield!

The liberal press has a good moral right to be violently indignant over this scandal. We are too. But moral indignation explains nothing, and gets nowhere.

Litchfield was a hell-hole because it was supposed to be one. Not because Colonel Killian was a louse personally. Not because some of the guards were pyscho cases, and sadists. But because it was army policy.

The real story of Litchfield, and many other similar depots was explained in the testimony of Major LoBuono, former provost Marshal at that camp. “We’ve got to make life so tough for these prisoners they’ll be glad to get back into combat.” That is the real reason why Litchfield was a hell-hole.

Each army has a harsh discipline, for only discipline that is greater than the fear of death can make men risk their lives in imperialist combat. When men are moved by great social ideals, when they are willing to die for a cause, the problem of discipline is relatively easy. Discipline in that kind of an army concerns itself with team-work, combat efficiency, and operation control.

Even in Trotsky’s Red Army, fighting for the greatest idea of mankind, the world socialist revolution, there were deserters and cowards who were dealt with sharply. The violence of war creates a harsh discipline. But such actions in the Red Army of old (today’s “Red Army.” is like any imperialist army) were exceptional. For the Red Army in those days had an orientation. They had discipline, and morale based on political understanding.

The Litchfield hellhole was a classic example of the substitute for morale. “We’ve got to make life so tough for these prisoners that they’ll be glad to get back into combat.” A greater fear than the fear of death was required. It was the fear of life in a Litchfield hell-hole. Most soldiers get the point quickly. They are too smart to get themselves caught in a Litchfield depot. And the more notorious the reputation of a depot, the greater the efforts of the GIs to stay away from it.

It is not accidental that the chief complaints about treatment at Litchfield came in the winter of 1944–45 when the break-through at Ardennes startled the American army, and GIs saw how quickly their lives might be snuffed away by Brass Hat blunders. Nor could there be a stirring call to arms to block Von Runstedt. For who believed in the war? The Brass Hats got reinforcements the only way they knew how. For “slackers,” there was always the nightmare of Litchfield.

An Image of Capitalism

Thus the whole Litchfield scandal testifies, above all, to the character of the war and its instrument for victory, the capitalist army. It was a war in which the GIs had very little faith. At best it was considered a dirty, if necessary, job. Not the Wall Street profiteers, nor their Roosevelt government, nor the army itself could sell enthusiasm to the GIs.

This is illustrated in the entire combat training program followed by the army. Battle-hardening was understood by most soldiers, for they saw no way out of fighting, and obviously a well-trained outfit stood a better chance than ill-trained troops. Technical proficiency was readily acquired. However, the other side of the question, the “know-why,” was something else. Here, political orientation was imperative. And the result: the biggest joke in the army was the orientation program. The politest word ever used to describe it was “baloney.”

In one sense the Brass Hats were correct in complaining that the orientation snafu wasn’t their responsibility. They weren’t making foreign policy. They were concerned primarily in carrying it out. This was the responsibility of the Roosevelt administration, the government devoted to carrying out American imperialist ambitions. The Brass Hats are responsible, however, as the direct controlling power of the army. They, therefore, substituted force for reason in handling the “know-how” question that bothered the soldiers. This army policy reached its crudest expression in the Litchfield scandal. The German reflecting the most brutalized development of the capitalist state, no doubt could boast of worse.

Everywhere, however, an integral part of a combat training program was to make life generally so miserable that any change became welcome. In the infantry this kind of hardening of the men was considered standard operating procedure. The other, more publicized method, of building pride in outfits, as a morale factor, received its death blow when the Marshall individual replacement system went into effect early in 1944, for famous divisions and combat teams became just numbers through which a steady flow of “fresh dog meat” passed.

In conclusion, the Litchfield scandals must be seen as an inevitable part of any army based on its class rule of a privileged few, fighting a war of conquest, in which the basic interests of the vast majority of enlisted men are not served. Every capitalist army is and must be based on rule by force and not reason. This is its role in society.

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