As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly
One War is Enoughby Edgar L. Jones
During his forty months of war duty, EDGAR L. JONES served for over a year
with the British Eighth Army in North Africa; he served also as a merchant
seaman, an Army historian, and for seven months as the Atlantic correspondent
in the Far Pacific, where he was present at the assaults on Iwo Jima and
Okinawa. Here is his box score of what the men he lived with really thought
about military life and the promise -- or threat -- of peacetime
PROBABLY I shall be tagged as a psychoneurotic veteran of too much bloodshed when I say that I get alternately fighting mad and cold sick inside whenever I hear people talk about the next war. I cannot understand how they can be resigned to the prospects of another global conflict, so casual in their assumption that wars are inevitable, so damnably unaware of the consequences of their current complacency.
Has everyone in this country lost faith in peace? Here we stand at the threshold of what could be a new and better world, and our fainthearted citizenry insists upon looking backward and muttering that what has always been must be. Maybe the United Nations Organization will succeed in preventing further global conflicts, but the men from Missouri and forty-seven other states have to be shown. World peace, according to our self-acclaimed realists, is at best a heart-warming dream; common sense demands that we put our trust in bombs and battleships. So let us teach our youths, along with the new generations in Germany and Japan, that wars are wrong, but at the same time let us be practical and bring up our children to be good soldiers, just in case.
Cynical as most of us overseas were, I doubt if many of us seriously believed that people at home would start planning for the next war before we could get home and talk without censorship about this one. Although our hopes and fears for the future were varied, our common goal was most assuredly more than the elimination of a few world powers so that the remaining nations could square off for yet another war. Nor did we endure the half-life of a regimented military existence just to have people tell us that it is inevitable that our children will have to suffer similar bitter experiences.
We had a right, I think, to expect that in return for our services the global home front would give peace a fair trial. We made our various sacrifices to give our own and younger generations a chance to improve on the past, not to have the unchanging Old Guard take our victory from us and rebuild the world along their deadly pre-war pattern of distrust, secrecy, and intrigue. We wanted peace, not a world divided into armed camps; permanent peace, not a short wait between wars. Many of us had to bomb, burn, and blast into oblivion an untold number of helpless victims of total war. Only a few of us are so unaware of our own war crimes that we can let it be said that we fought only to preserve the old way of life.
Surely the entire home front could not have suffered through four years of anguished waiting, dreading each incoming telegram, shuddering at each new invasion headline, and still consider war to be the only dependable solution to international controversies. Instead of viewing the rest of the world with suspicion and singling out the next enemy, there must be some Americans willing to rely upon the fact that millions of global citizens are as peace-loving as ourselves. Certainly we do not all believe that we can successfully talk peace at the point of a gun or bring up our children as conscientious civilians by first exposing them to military indoctrination, the very antithesis of education for democracy.
But if there are some Americans who want peace badly enough to give up their right to wage war, they are being outvoiced by our militant Old Guard, whose idea of a foreign policy is to keep the United States armed to the teeth and ever ready to challenge any country which disputes our world leadership. Regardless of the existence of personal misgivings, we, as a nation, are placing our reliance not on international cooperation but upon the atomic bomb and the willingness of "our boys" to back our decisions with their lives. If it takes two to make a war, we are making certain that we are one of them.
I do not pretend to speak for all veterans. In the course of forty months of war duty and five major battles I was only an ambulance driver, a merchant seaman, an Army historian, and a war correspondent, never a downright GI. Possibly the men who were subjected much more completely than I to the whims of militarism are now satisfied with their hollow victory, but I doubt it. I never met that fabulous character, Typical GI Joe, whose every thought and post-war desire was so well known to politicians and the writers of advertising copy. But I met a lot of other Joes and my guess is that before long -- and the sooner the better -- the veteran serviceman is going to wake from his deep dreams of peace, a job, and a home and realize that his country has let him down, and badly.
Being a GI was a point of view, not a military classification, and the more thoroughly one was exposed to the waste, unfairness, senselessness, and horror of war, the more completely one substituted the serviceman's perspective for an anachronistic civilian way of thinking. The man in uniform stood apart from society and judged it, often too harshly, in the light of his own insecurity, the sacrifices which were demanded of him, and the possibility that he was being played for a sucker. In varying degrees, depending upon a man's length of service, the GI perspective included bitter contempt for the home front's abysmal lack of understanding, its pleasures and comforts, and its nauseating capacity to talk in patriotic platitudes.
The fighting man was not a deep-thinking man, despite all the lofty sentiments attributed to him. He left the peace talk to the civilians who had the time and place for it. Having been maneuvered into a position where he had to kill or be killed, he did not trouble himself with pretenses that he was a crusader. He fought because his people at home expected him to fight, and he let them seek the necessary justification for his own ruthlessness. The most he wanted was to end the war, and all wars, as soon as possible, so that he could live in peace and let others, including his own children, live in peace. He expected the home front to share his aversion for war and to figure out a better way to settle future disputes.
Civilian Joe is too concerned at present with his personal problems of readjustment to get mad at what he habitually blasphemed in his uniformed days as home-front stupidity. He is still too dazed from being home and free again to be bluntly vocal. When the veteran does start talking back, this country is going to have its wartime illusions badly shattered.
Observers not subjected for long periods to the serviceman's barren existence were in no position to interpret accurately a GI's life, because they lacked the necessary perspective. Congressmen on fly-by-night overseas tours did not understand the men doing the fighting, nor did press representatives, with one notable exception. To a greater extent than any other civilian, Ernie Pyle saw the war from the GI point of view, and he hated it with GI thoroughness. But even Ernie found it difficult to sympathize with States-side soldiers and shore-based sailors who complained as bitterly as the dirtiest dogface about their lot in life while enjoying all the physical comforts which the infantrymen lacked.
The plain, unpublicized fact of the matter was that nine out of ten servicemen wanted nothing more to do with wars after their first week of basic training. Whether stationed in Washington or on a scrap of coral sand, the average GI considered himself to be the purposeless victim of malignant justice. As he so often remarked, "From where I stand, this whole thing stinks!" He hated everyone conceivably responsible for his misfortune, cursing out the home front as vehemently as the Japanese and the Germans. His special gripes, however, were reserved for the undemocratic, stupefying, favor-ridden totalitarian nature of military life itself. He had no use for a system in which one class got the best of everything, and the other class got less than what was left.
WE Americans have the dangerous tendency in our international thinking to take a holier-than-thou attitude toward other nations. We consider ourselves to be more noble and decent than other peoples, and consequently in a better position to decide what is right and wrong in the world. What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought, anyway? We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers. We topped off our saturation bombing and burning of enemy civilians by dropping atomic bombs on two nearly defenseless cities, thereby setting an alltime record for instantaneous mass slaughter.
As victors we are privileged to try our defeated opponents for their crimes against humanity; but we should be realistic enough to appreciate that if we were on trial for breaking international laws, we should be found guilty on a dozen counts. We fought a dishonorable war, because morality had a low priority in battle. The tougher the fighting, the less room for decency; and in Pacific contests we saw mankind reach the blackest depths of bestiality.
Not every American soldier, or even one per cent of our troops, deliberately committed unwarranted atrocities, and the same might be said for the Germans and Japanese. The exigencies of war necessitated many so-called crimes, and the bulk of the rest could be blamed on the mental distortion which war produced. But we publicized every inhuman act of our opponents and censored any recognition of our own moral frailty in moments of desperation.
I have asked fighting men, for instance, why they -- or actually, why we -- regulated flame-throwers in such a way that enemy soldiers were set afire, to die slowly and painfully, rather than killed outright with a full blast of burning oil. Was it because they hated the enemy so thoroughly? The answer was invariably, "No, we don't hate those poor bastards particularly; we just hate the whole goddam mess and have to take it out on somebody." Possibly for the same reason, we mutilated the bodies of enemy dead, cutting off their ears and kicking out their gold teeth for souvenirs, and buried them with their testicles in their mouths, but such flagrant violations of all moral codes reach into still-unexplored realms of battle psychology.
It is not my intention either to excuse our late opponents or to discredit our own fighting men. I do however, believe that all of us, not just the battle enlightened GI's, should fully understand the horror and degradation of war before talking so casually of another one. War does horrible things to men, our own sons included. It demands the worst of a person and pays off in brutality and maladjustment. It has become so mechanical, inhuman, and crassly destructive that men lose all sense of personal responsibility for their actions. They fight without compassion, because that is the only way to fight a total war. To give just one illustration, I asked an infantry colonel whether he gave his battalion a pre-battle lecture. The colonel replied approximately as follows: --
"You can damn well bet I put 'em straight ahead of time, and they were the best damn outfit in the Philippines. I taught 'em ethics, fighting ethics. I taught 'em there were two kinds of ethics, one for us and one for the yellowbellies across the line. I taught 'em that the best way to kill a man was when he was lying down with his back up; the next best way was when he was sitting with his back towards ya, and the third best was when he was standing with his back towards ya . . . Always shoot 'em in the back if possible that's what I taught 'em, and there wasn't another battalion could touch 'em!"
Among other things about modern warfare, I think the home front should also comprehend the full significance of the fact that a front-line soldier had a good chance of being killed in this war by his own side as well as by his opponents. Battle positions changed so rapidly that American soldiers were shelled by American artillery and warships, bombed and strafed by American planes, and machine-gunned by American tanks -- not occasionally, but often. We also sank our own ships and shot down numbers of our own planes -- how many no one knows, but the ship I was on in the invasion of Sicily knocked out four German planes and three of our own, which Was considered a good average.
Peter Bowman summed up our victory to date in Beach Red when he wrote, "Battle doesn't determine who is right. Only who is left." We destroyed fascists, not fascism; men, not ideas. Our triumphs did not serve as evidence that democracy is best for the world, any more than Russian victories proved that communism is an ideal system for all mankind. Only through our peacetime efforts to abolish war and bring a larger measure of freedom and security to all peoples can we reveal to others that we are any better than our defeated opponents.
Today we stand on trial -- we are either for peace or for war, and the rest of the world is prepared to move with us or against us. The burden of proof is on us; and our willingness to make peace, not our capacity to wage war, is the true measure of our good-neighborliness.
PEACETIME conscription, no matter what euphemistic title we use for camouflage, is the mark of a belligerent. If we were to adopt such a course, we should be deliberately turning our backs on the peace for which we sacrificed so much and killed so many. We should be making it clear to all the world that the United States, formerly the champion of international accord, has lost faith in the principles underlying the United Nations Organization and hereafter places its reliance on its own military might. We should be double-crossing every GI who died for more than a mere triumph of arms, and robbing the living of their hard-earned dividends.
The majority of servicemen I met overseas and in camps scattered throughout this country, excluding members of the regular Army and Navy, had in common four ideas pertaining to the peace: (1) they put up with military life because they had to, but they did not want it for their children; (2) they hoped for a better world, not the "old order of things"; (3) they were not certain what sort of a world peace organization we should have, but it was obvious that we had tried once to keep the peace alone and failed; (4) they were convinced that come hell or high water, the Army and Navy would put their own interests above all else, even the peace.
All the GI wants, in effect, is to have us give peace a chance, rather than to embark upon an out-and-out war program before the UNO has been given a reasonable trial. He is not sure of anything, but he has faith in the possibilities of a better world. He held on to that faith at Tarawa, Normandy, and Iwo Jima, where only death was a "sure" thing. To give us the chance to find some way other than reliance on men and munitions to keep the peace, he risked everything he held most precious. He now puts to shame all those of us who are so lacking in the courage of our convictions that we agree with President Truman when he says: --
Until we are sure that our peace machinery is functioning adequately, we must relentlessly preserve our superiority on land and sea and in the air. Until that time, we must also make sure that by planning -- and by actual production -- we have on hand at all times sufficient weapons of the latest nature and design with which to repel any sudden attack, and with which to launch an effective counterattack.First get all set for another war, then talk peace -- that is the policy of distrustful American militarists, and that is what the GI's mean by the "old order of things." We already have the greatest military machine on earth, and the only one equipped to be aggressive on an amphibious, inter-hemispheric scale, but General Eisenhower assures us, on the basis of his familiarity with the leaders of other nations, that "there exists no fear of our motives in keeping ourselves strong." As a low-point friend of mine wrote from Manila, the General should tell that to the Russians, on whom our Old Guard has already declared war.
If other nations have no fear of our motives, they must have turned a deaf ear when Fleet Admiral Halsey told our Senate: "We want to win wars, and we want to fight them on enemy ground. That makes us all invasion-minded. That calls for an overseas movement as the first step in our air, ground, and sea offensive." But perhaps it is not fair of me to imply that the Admiral was advocating conscription when he remarked that we were all "invasion-minded," because actually he was arguing at the time against a single department of national defense. When the militarists talk conscription, they speak much more guardedly about "national security," "permanent peace," and "a fine thing for our young men."
The advocates of conscription acknowledge that their bill must be passed soon or it will be defeated. They are trying to shove through Congress an unprecedented piece of militaristic legislation while wartime emotions still run high, because they know that their program cannot be justified by cool reason. The pro-training campaigners have to hurry, because a few more Congressional post-mortems like the Pearl Harbor investigation will cure the public's blind faith in the superior wisdom of its military leaders. The slogan, "We were unprepared before, we must never be unprepared again," looks sickly in the light of General Marshall's testimony that Hawaii had "at least sufficient means so that it could have broken up the attack, so that it would have done only limited harm."
Even more damaging public disillusionment will come when the returning veteran takes time out to talk back to anyone who blithely assures him that military life is a grand experience for young men. The majority of the men in uniform hated the Army with a bitterness that made them want to take their misery out on anyone conceivably responsible for their plight. They wanted others to suffer as they suffered. Whenever universal military training was mentioned they invariably said, "Good idea. Get the whole home front into this thing. Then maybe someone will appreciate what we have to go through."
This is at least a partial explanation of why supposedly representative polls have shown the GI to be currently in favor of a bill which obviously defeats his long-term campaign to end militarism at home and abroad -- this, plus the more obvious fact that men in uniform were never free to talk openly on the subject of "why I hate the Army." If they did, they were quickly section-eighted out of the Army as constitutional psychopaths. When peace organizations requested that persons opposed to conscription be allowed to go abroad and present their side of the argument, the War Department said it could not be arranged. Nevertheless, persons favoring post-war compulsory training, including Edward N. Scheiberling, National Commander of the American Legion, have been transported overseas to proselyte the GI's.
For two weeks the New York Selective Service headquarters polled the conscription sentiments of men being processed for discharge. The majority were in favor of compulsory teen-age training, as was to be expected, but those opposed (and only those opposed were requested to state their reasons) gave some revealing answers. The principal objections listed by slightly more than two thousand GI's were: "not needed," "bad environment," "racial discrimination and favoritism," and "a volunteer army and navy would be enough." The first and last objections are self-evident, or soon will be. The second and third, however, touch closely upon the heart of GI gripes.
The extreme distinction between officers and men was intolerable to most members of the lower-class bracket and embarrassing to many democratic junior officers. The autocratic, self-indulgent behavior of the boys with the brass irked the men who took the orders. The GI acknowledged that some distinction was necessary, but he could not understand how so little rank could entitle his "superiors" to so much: the best beds, the most appetizing food, the most leisure, the least restriction on pleasure, the only covered seats at outdoor movies, the right to go to the head of the line at the PX, and above all else, the right to treat fellow Americans as servants and take it for granted that they had to obey.
The majority of officers were frustrated in turn by the small band of Academy-trained Regulars who would never give a Reservist an even break unless assured that their own positions were not threatened. The Reservists were the victims of empire-building Regulars who kept themselves surrounded by great numbers of unnecessary personnel in order to justify their rank or make a promotion for themselves possible. The Reservists were disgusted by the overabundance of duplicate headquarters, each oversupplied with Regular Army "desk soldiers." They resented the system whereby they had most of the new ideas, but the Regulars got the credit, and those in the Navy were hardly surprised to learn at the end of the war that the Regulars had awarded themselves three and one half times more decorations than were bestowed upon the Reserves.
The Army and Navy had every opportunity to strike a clean blow for democracy by setting an example in non-discrimination against Negroes, but instead, both services insisted upon racial segregation wherever and whenever possible. The Negro in "well-run" military installations was not allowed to sleep in the same room with white men, eat at the same table, or attend the same churches. This was especially true in Southern camps, where both services supported the local programs to "keep niggers in their place" in restaurants, theaters, buses, and railroad stations. When men like Joe Louis raised an objection, they were immediately transferred overseas or "up North." Except for a few "show units " of all-Negro personnel, our colored soldiers of democracy were restricted to the most menial tasks of stevedoring and cleaning the barracks of their white superiors.
One of the very few paratroop companies ever to go through training without a single man balking when it came his turn to jump was an all-Negro outfit; yet the Army made no effort to correct the rumor that Negroes were cowards. The outfit was not sent overseas, where its performance might have encouraged other Negroes to demand fighting assignments, but was shipped off to the Northwest to fight forest fires. The Navy was even more prejudiced against Negroes than the Army -- witness its refusal to allow a small company of colored truck drivers to return home on one of its carriers because there were no segregation facilities on the flight deck.
Neither the Army nor the Navy made an honest effort to curb the dangerous rise of anti-labor sentiments among our men in uniform, or anti-Jewish prejudices, or the whole distorted range of hatreds against the home front. Either through indifference or through malice aforethought, the military allowed the gap between GI's and civilians to widen to alarming proportions.
Directives out of Washington urged the Army and Navy to inculcate democratic ideals in our troops, but the orders were either disregarded by Regular officers, who considered a one hour a week orientation course to be pure fiddle-faddle, or were turned over to inept officers whose sterile lectures were guaranteed not to make a GI reason why. The military naturally could not teach human equality, or freedom of speech, or any other liberal idea which it could not let its disciples practice, and joined readily in Senator Taft's pre-election plan to bar from troop consumption all socio-political reading material.
No matter how the GI looked at it, he could see no foundation for the assertion that military training was "education for democracy." The essence of his training was "do what you're told to do and shut up," and that was a far cry from the civilian, or American, way of life. Nor did the GI, except in rare cases, learn what President Truman and others have called "skills useful in future civilian life." If he had, he would not have been so bitter about his "wasted years" in the service. The chief gripe of the majority of men in the armed forces was the fact that they were stuck in jobs they did not like and could not get out of doing.
For every thousand men, the Army needed 101 chauffeurs and mechanics, 45 cooks, bakers, and butchers, and 34 medical and dental technicians, all of whom were turned out in six-week courses. If a man did not go into the service with one of these skills, he learned only enough to do a specific job, not to earn a post-war living. Likewise, a radar operator learned to read a radarscope, but not the principles of electronics; an aviation mechanic learned how to take an engine apart according to prescribed military methods, not the principles of internal combustion motors; and a yeoman learned military correspondence procedure, not how to write business letters. Whatever a man learned, thousands of others learned the same thing, so today those "skills" are a glut on the market.
It seems likely, at the time I am writing, that the War Department will drop its plea for a full year of continuous military training and try to settle for four months only, plus additional service in the National Guard or ROTC. This would be an open admission that the military lobby is not so much interested in the training as in the principle of keeping this country in a perpetual state of war-mindedness. If the Army and Navy could extend into peacetime their war-won influence and prestige, as conscription would allow them to do, neither service need worry where its next appropriation is coming from. To the tune of "nothing is too good for our boys," the militarists would ride herd over Congressmen and taxpayers alike, justifying each new demand for money by renewing their grim warnings about the war just around the corner.
Considering the battle-tested greatness of some of our generals and admirals, I do not want it supposed that I accuse every man in a bestarred tunic of being the enemy of peace. Our generals fight wars; they do not start them. It is the military system, not always the leaders themselves, that represents democracy in reverse. Nevertheless, it is a general's job to exalt the fighting profession and to work untiringly for more guns, more planes, more bases, and more men in uniform. His first interest is the Army, and to his way of thinking, whatever is best for the Army is best for the country as a whole. While this was often the case in wartime, it does not follow that the professional soldier's plans for peace coincide with the best interests of the nation. In matters as basic and controversial as conscription or disarmament, the most unselfishly devoted of our military leaders take a prejudiced stand.
Universal military training means more important posts for many of our military leaders, faced otherwise with shrinking commands; it means fat contracts for our manufacturers of food, clothing, shoes, trucks, medical supplies, and all the other equipment needed to outfit nearly one million new conscriptees a year; it means government endowment of military education programs for our universities; it means lucrative research projects for our industrial laboratories, and new members by the thousands for the American Legion. It means the self-perpetuation of the military machine as a new form of boondoggling to win profits and power for the few, while the taxpayer is burdened with the costs of supporting both conscription and a standing force of between two and three million members of the Regular Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines.
Worst of all, in my opinion, peacetime training provides a patriotic opportunity for the Old Guard to work on the minds of our youth before they have a chance to go to college or to learn to think for themselves. With teen-age orientation under the control of militant reactionaries, conscription would produce generation upon generation of narrow-minded, intolerant, Red-baiting, labor-hating defenders of the status quo -- or what the American Legion would term Good Americans. The older ones among us in uniform saw what happened to the kids in this war, and we would not willingly have our own children become the mirrors of the military mind, which stands squarely for force, for the inevitability of armed conflicts, and for the principle that might makes right.
Reconversion of our thinking from a war to a peace basis would kill militarism in this country before it had a chance to spread any further. As it is, we are still looking at our military leaders through red, white, and blue colored glasses and allowing them to sell us the most flagrant bill of mislabeled goods since Prohibition was passed off as a national cure-all. The conscription barkers and next-war drum beaters are trying to put over military training as an antidote for everything from atomic nerves to unemployment. What Senator Johnson of Colorado, a member of the Senate Military Affairs Committee, has termed "the most un-American proposal of our time" is being heralded as an absolute essential for the defense of our country. With Prussian thoroughness, our militarists have even supplied us with an enemy, the Russians.
The greatest single barrier to the furtherance of world peace, regardless of General Eisenhower's statement to the contrary, is America's exclusive preparedness for another war. Were we to place our military might in a world trust fund, renouncing sole control over our atomic bombs and superdreadnoughts, it would obviate the necessity of any other country's building up "defensive" forces to match our own. Once the United States gives up its sovereign right to wage war, in favor of a world peace enforcement organization, the rest of the world has no alternatives except to follow suit or be branded as a prospective belligerent. With our strength committed to an international tribunal, any country attempting to manufacture its own armaments would be instantly exposed as the enemy of peace and would be treated as such by all other nations. No country today is so self-sufficient that it could afford to stand alone.
Secretary of the Navy Forrestal told the Woodrum Committee, "We are going to fight any international ruffian who attempts to impose his will on the world by force." Such an eminent authority notwithstanding, we cannot maintain world peace by ourselves. Except by stunting our national growth and sacrificing our youth and resources, we cannot "settle" the Pacific situation the next time the "Asia for the Asiatics" movement gets underway. We cannot do guard duty over the Balkan status quo, or protect democratic minorities in Spain, or guarantee Chilean sovereignty.
In order to be free to develop ourselves, we must rely on an international police force to take care of international ruffians. Instead of envisioning ourselves in the role of benevolent world cops, we should be turning over our badges to international deputies of peace, who would relieve us of the responsibility of being constantly alerted for trouble. We should be working toward a united world, indivisible, with equal restraints and correspondingly equal liberties for all.
Copyright © 1946 by Edgar L. Jones. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1946; One War is Enough; Volume 177, No. 2; pages 48-53.