The Greatest Generation? Reflections of a World War II Veteran


We are being deluged by a flood of tributes to the heroism of what the TV commentator Tom Brokaw has dubbed “the greatest generation,” the veterans of World War II. The immediate reason for this torrent of tributes is the desire of the book and movie industries to make money by marketing World War II as if it were a video game.

However, the basic, underlying reason is the desire of the rulers of our society to glorify World War II soldiers as a means of glorifying the American militarism that through its forces in bases abroad and its overwhelming might dominates the world.

A description of some of my experiences in the army during the war may serve to correct the picture given in these “tributes” and present things that are not being talked about.

I was drafted in the summer of 1941. Probably few people realize it now, but the draft was in effect a year before Pearl Harbor, as the United States government was edging its way into the war.

On the latrine wall of the camps where I was stationed was written in block letters “OHIO.” “OHIO” stood for “over the hill in October,” a call for mass desertions in that month.

Of course, October came and went, probably without a single desertion. The consequence would have been severe, and Army discipline is not easily broken, certainly not by disorganized individual action, but “OHIO” indicated the feeling of the men about having been corralled.

The “OHIO” slogan is better understood if we remember what has been forgotten, the resistance to the United States entering the war. A congressman named Louis Ludlow had introduced in Congress a constitutional amendment that provided for a national referendum to be taken before Congress could declare a foreign war, and this amendment had received immense support.

Pearl Harbor brought a grim realization that there was no escape now. In the long waiting lines at the public telephones, as soldiers called their parents and girl friends, seeking to exchange comfort and reassurance, I heard no expression of patriotic fervor.

“For Mom and apple pie”

The newspapers were full of stories about soldiers’ reactions to the war. It became a half-joking journalistic cliche that a common reply to the question why they were fighting was “for Mom and apple pie.”

It may have been a joke, but the phrase did seem to capture a feeling that was widespread. “For Mom and apple pie” did not mean that the men believed the German army would leap over the Atlantic Ocean, invade American homes, and dictate the striking off of apple pie from the national menu. It meant that they wanted to get home as soon as possible.

The only way out of the Army was getting the war over with and the only way to do so seemed to be by winning it. This and the iron Army discipline was the main impelling force driving the soldiers. To judge from the lack of discussion of the purpose of the war in barracks bull sessions, there was little ideological motivation.

The Pentagon seemed to realize this, for it published a set of materials that unit commanders were supposed to use in preparation for required lectures on the war. In none of the bases at which I was stationed were these lectures regarded by the soldiers as anything else than an ordeal.

The officers themselves regarded the compulsory lectures as a nuisance. At one base the commander met the requirement by having the lectures delivered over a loud-speaker while the soldiers were performing their duties. Thus while a soldier on kitchen police was wrestling with pots and pans he was being informed about the virtues of democracy.

At one lecture that I attended, the officer, discussing the Atlantic theater of war, explained that the enemy was governed by the pernicious doctrine of racism. Then, turning to the Pacific theater of war, he referred to the Japanese as “little yellow monkeys.”

The contradiction was not his alone. The United States was fighting a war ostensibly for democracy and against racism, but its army was segregated, with the inferior position of Blacks reinforcing the racial prejudices fostered by American society.

These prejudices were manifested at a boxing tournament at which I was present that was held to divert the restless soldiers as they were waiting impatiently to go home after the defeat of Germany. A bout between a Black soldier and a white soldier roused the fury of a portion of the white soldiers, and violence seemed imminent.

In response, the base commander had the band play “The Star-Spangled Banner” so that every one had to stand at attention, allowing time for passions to cool. This was how racism was coped with in the Army.

As for the heroic actions depicted in the war movies, I can only say that I did not see combat, as I was engaged in the unheroic task of taking care of medical records in a station hospital in England. I am sure, though, that there were many acts of bravery: the extreme situation of war can call forth the best in human beings such as coming to the aid of one’s buddies at the risk of one’s own life, in addition to calling forth the worst in human beings.

I doubt, however, that those who performed these acts of bravery said, as one of the heroes in the film “Pearl Harbor” did, “We’re not anxious to die. Just anxious to matter.” This does not sound like any soldier I ever heard.

From my position in the station hospital I perceived aspects of the war not portrayed in the war movies. Hospitalized commandos-soldiers especially trained to engage in lightning raids on the coast of France-boasted that they had killed coast guards who had surrendered to them, as the prisoners would have impeded their operations.

This was, of course, in violation of the rules of war, but the commandos were only violating them on a small scale while their generals (and also those in the Pacific) were violating them on a huge scale. The saturation bombing of major German cities (100,000 people died in a single raid on Dresden alone) was what Roosevelt had rightly characterized as “inhuman barbarism” when the Germans had engaged in the far smaller bombing of the Dutch city of Rotterdam and the British city of Coventry early in the war.

The Nazis’ assembly-line murder of Jews, gypsies, Poles, homosexuals, and others was the most awful manifestation of the barbarism of World War II, but it was not the only manifestation.

“Bring the Boys Home”

Another aspect of the war unmentioned in the “tributes” was the very large number of gunshot wounds incurred when soldiers “accidentally” shot themselves in the foot. Although the Army did not find it expedient to bring charges-it would in any event have been difficult or impossible to prove-there can be little question that in just about every instance the wound was purposefully inflicted. It was what Joseph Heller in “Catch 22” called “the million-dollar wound,” the wound that would get you back home.

When Japan surrendered, it seemed as if everyone would be going home shortly, but then it was announced that troops would be needed for occupation duty and that demobilization would proceed by stages in a manner that soldiers found to be all too slow. Protests occurred at various bases.

Only subsequently did I learn that the movement had had its inception in the Pacific, where the demonstrations were larger, more militant, and more political.

At its height 20,000 men came to a mass meeting in Manila in response to a leaflet that stated, “The State Department wants the army to back up its imperialism.” The main demand of the speeches was the rapid release of combat veterans, but speakers also denounced in that connection U.S. troops being sent to aid Chiang Kai-shek against the Communist forces in China and to aid the Dutch in Indonesia against the nationalist forces of Sukarno.

Their assertion that the purpose of an American occupation army in the Philippines was to restore to power wealthy landowners who had collaborated with the Japanese conquerors while the Filipino people had engaged in a war of resistance drew great cheers.

The army, while threatening courts martial if the demonstrations continued, largely yielded to their pressure and the pressure of support movements in the United States, greatly speeding up the demobilization. However, by increasing the number of new inductees it carried through the U.S. plans for the maintenance of bases and armies of occupation in both Asia and Europe.

The “Bring the Boys Home” movement was the biggest military rebellion in U.S. history. In this respect the soldiers and sailors of World War II indeed constituted “the greatest generation.”

No more than World War I fulfilled its slogans of being a war to end all wars and of making the world safe for democracy did World War II bring a lasting end to fascism. Indeed, immediately after the war U.S. imperialism used its erstwhile enemies to combat social revolution.

In Japan MacArthur ruled in accordance with a memorandum from his advisors that “in the interest of … prevention of revolution and communism” it was necessary to “prevent indictment and prosecution of the Emperor as a war criminal.” In Europe the United States recruited thousands of Nazi war criminals and collaborators to act as spies and prospective guerrilla troops against the Soviet Union.

Today a new generation faces the task of overthrowing the capitalism that in crisis is the breeding-ground for fascism. Budding neofascist movements are present in many countries of Europe, ready to burst into poisonous flower as the crisis heats up-and the United States is not immune. In fulfilling its task this generation will be proceeding in the tradition of the “Bring the Boys Home” movement and the antiwar struggle during the Vietnam war.

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