Jerks, Sad Sacks, Profiteers, and Jim Crow
The GIs in ETO were highly selected in age and physical health, somewhat selected in
intelligence, well disciplined. The Army's training system added inches to their chests
and leg and arm muscles. It also instilled a sense of responsibility, along with a fear of
the consequences of disobeying an order, not to mention criminal behavior: nicely summed
up in the old drill sergeant's saying, "The Army can't make you do something, but it
sure as hell can make you wish you had." It also did a good job of recognizing and
promoting talented young men who were capable of standing the stress and leading
War brings out the best in many men, as the tiny sample of the men of ETO quoted or cited in this book testifies. To generalize, a large majority of the GIs in Northwest Europe in 1944-45 did their best at whatever they did, and in most cases they discovered that they were capable of doing far more than they had ever imagined possible. Thousands of men between twenty and twenty-five years of age responded to the challenge of responsibility magnificently. They matured as they led and, if they survived, they succeeded in their postwar careers. In one way, they were lucky: only in the extremity of total war does a society give so much responsibility for life-and-death decision-making to men so young. Together, the junior officers and NCOs who survived the war were the leaders in building modern America. This was in some part thanks to what they had learned in the Army, primarily how to make decisions and accept responsibility.
The Army was unlike civilian society in most ways, but ETO and the home front were together in their shared sense of "we." It was a "we" generation, as in the popular wartime saying, "We are in this together." In the Army, this general attitude was greatly reinforced. The social bond within the Army was like an onion. At the core was the squad, where bonding could be almost mystical.
Lt. Glenn Gray (after the war a professor of philosophy) put it well: "Organization for a common and concrete goal in peacetime organizations does not evoke anything like the degree of comradeship commonly known in war. At its height, this sense of comradeship is an ecstasy. Men are true comrades only when each [member of the squad] is ready to give up his life for the other, without reflection and without thought of personal loss."
After the squad came succeeding layers, the platoon, company, on up to division, all covered by the loose outermost layers of corps and army. The sense of belonging meant most GIs wouldn't dream of stealing from or cheating a buddy within the squad or company, or of slacking off on the job, whether as front-line infantry or driving a truck.
But the Army was so big -- eight million men at its peak, from a low of 165,000 four years earlier -- and put together so quickly, that thousands of sharp operators and sad sacks, criminals and misfits, and some cowards made it through the training process and became soldiers in ETO. Some were junior officers in infantry divisions and the price for their incompetence was casualties. More were rear-echelon soldiers, completely free of a sense of "we," who in one way or another took advantage of the opportunities presented by the war.
Joseph Heller's character Milo Minderbender in Catch-22 is an exaggeration, but not an invention. The United States was sending to Europe colossal quantities of goods. Given the amounts involved and the constant need for haste, there was a vulnerability that a few soldiers found irresistible. More than a few, really -- the figures on stolen goods are staggering. The matériel for the Americans fighting in Italy came in through the port of Naples. It came in day and night -- weapons, ammunition, rations, fuel, trucks, electrical, equipment, and much more. Every item was eagerly sought on the black market. One-third of all the supplies landed in Naples was stolen. In Italy, once an entire train carrying supplies to the front simply disappeared.
Copyright © 1997 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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