Democracy was just a word

Thursday, May 30th, 2019

American soldiers didn’t fight for especially noble reasons, Dunlap reminds us:

Most soldiers paid little attention to the “moral values” of the war, losing themselves in the anonymity of the uniform so far as political views were concerned. Democracy was just a word, and the enlisted man was either oversold on how noble we were or was double-crossed enough one way or another until he believed nothing in the way of official instruction or information. He came to live only for the day he would be free and in the meantime hated the Army about as much as the enemy.


  1. Graham says:


    I periodically wonder how many of those who fought in that war thought they were fighting for “Our Democracy” and would recognize it in the meaning of that term as used today. Many people seem to assume they were.

    I had assumed many thought of themselves as fighting for ‘democracy’ in general or maybe ‘freedom’, especially among Americans, maybe even ‘peace’, and maybe some varying combination of those things plus their ‘country’ or similar traditional allegiance. In the latter case, freedom and country were probably especially bound together for those fighting for other allied countries. Even the British. Churchill spoke eloquently about freedom and democracy, and truly, but it had a very English colour and interest.

    Here, I am struck. I have of course no idea what the experience these men went through was really like, so maybe this is just the natural state of affairs, especially for an army of ordinary men not very heavily indoctrinated from childhood in anything too demandingly ideological. Still, this account really calls into question the role played by large-scale motivations.

  2. Kirk says:

    News flash: Ain’t nobody dying for no flag, nowhere, nohow.

    Men may get into the Army “situation” out of flag-waving patriotism, but what keeps them there and motivating them to fight is a whole other set of things.

    If it was just patriotism, or religious fervor, you’d not need to do much in the way of training, or worrying about unit bonding. And, while you may be able to leverage that sort of thing for some time, the long term is that you’re likely to wind up losing to the first batch of cynical professionals who’re fighting for a paycheck.

    Men fight for their friends, their self-respect, and because they’re stuck somewhere that the options are essentially non-existent. You can’t leave the Army and go home to hide, in a conflict like WWII–’cos everyone there knows where you were, and they’re the ones blinded by patriotism, mostly. Bluntly put, as one of my WWII veteran acquaintances phrased it “Well, part of it was that we were all pretty sure that a coward would never get laid again…”.

    Social pressure, a la the White Feather story, in other words.

    And, unit bonding. Pay. The draconian military justice system, plus the sheer human inertia of it all.

    Patriotism serves you best in getting you into that situation, and in looking back at it for justification. That WWII vet I mention? LOL… Dude was forthright as hell; he knew where all the skeletons were buried, and the one thing he pointed out to me was how many of those guys marching proudly in the front ranks of the Memorial and Veteran’s Day parades were scared, young kids who’d have traded everything to get out of the “situation” they were in during the war. Patriotism? Vanishingly rare, on the front lines. Rear-area guys who were making bank, trading supplies for sex, buying up souvenirs to send home? Yeah; maybe they’d have told you “patriotism”, and believed it. First day they got shot at and had to pick up pieces of their friends who’d been hit, though…? Not so much.

    The trick with any army is to come up with a means of keeping men at the coalface in the absence of idealized intellectual constructs like “patriotism”. They may use those words to tell you why they fought, or to justify why they enlisted in the first place, but the reality is, that’s never enough to keep you in the fight when you’re covered in jungle rot and the gore of your friends. What you remember long years after the fact is almost never the reality.

    In my personal experience? I told everyone I was going off to “do my duty”, and get money for college. Reality? Let’s be honest–I wanted to be a soldier, and at the time I was doing that, it was a socially unacceptable thing. I don’t know how many teachers and other adults told me I was wasting myself in the Army, that it was for losers, and all the rest of the post-Vietnam BS. I still did it, and I justified it with those reasons, but… Funny thing: I never really was that patriotic, I have grave doubts about whether my fellow citizens are worth defending (more so, now…), and I never really wanted to go to college in the first damn place. I hate the classroom, and the academic world entirely too much.

    So, yeah; I lied to everyone about why I’d joined, and to a degree, I still do.

    Because the fact that the prospect of being able to kill people and blow things up in a socially acceptable way was a primary motivation of mine isn’t something you talk about in polite company.

    Looking back, I was an angry, frustrated young man, who could quite easily have gone down another path and become a mass murdering sociopath. That’s a truth I only really admit to myself, and it’s also a large reason I made a career of the military. People have been pissing me off and abusing me since I was a little kid, mainly because I was always that autist who was a little slow on the social cues and the timing of things. Which I paid for, in ohsoverymanyways, growing up.

    So… Patriotism? Not so much. I just wanted to kill a bunch of people, and not go to prison for it.

    Of course, that’s a cynic looking back on it all, with much lower testosterone levels and a bit more experience of the world. I’m not anywhere as angry as I once was, because I’ve got a better understanding of how it all works.

    Do note how this ties in with my cynicism about the value of IQ testing–I’m that kid who always did really, really well on the tests, did well in school without a lot of effort, and who never, ever experienced social success, growing up.

    Instead, I scared the hell out of people, and they responded accordingly, because there’s apparently something terrifying about having the words of an adult come out of a child’s mouth. I come by my doubts about “high G” quite naturally, because I was always one of the anointed–Only I had the self-awareness to look around and wonder why the hell that wasn’t working for me. I’ve got a pretty good idea of why, now–But, at 17, it was probably a very good thing for the rest of you that I had the Army to go into. Channeled some demons that really shouldn’t have ever been let out to play on civvie street.

  3. Kirk says:

    Shit… Did I say that out loud?

  4. Graham says:

    I hear the internet’s a safe space.

  5. Graham says:

    Well, even guys who are talking to the camera for respectable TV documentaries basically always say they fought for their comrades and themselves, or some variation on the theme. Or they had few other options, depending on the lives they led and the kind of service they had joined.

    Your way of putting it, that all the rest is the stuff that gets you to that point, but not what you fight for at the time, seems consistent with that.

  6. Kirk says:

    It’s been my experience that the only people who speak of patriotism are the ones who weren’t ever there, on the front lines.

    What’s that line of Johnson’s, again? “The more he spoke of honor, the faster we counted our spoons…”. The people posturing about patriotism are usually bent, in some way. The real patriots are like Cincinnatus, and never, ever talk about it–They’re embarrassed to articulate it, in some respects, or they’re just incomprehending that anyone would need to discuss it openly and formally.

    I might actually be patriotic, at some level. But, it’s not the patriotism of the flag-waving sunshine patriot–I’m that cynical bastard in the back ranks, muttering darkly about the idiocy surrounding himself, and then going out to do what needs doing, for pragmatically cold reasons. No romance about it, at all–The flag is just something out in front of the formation, and the only damn reason I’d be dying to keep the sonuvabitchin’ thing standing up is because the unit needs the ‘effin thing to rally on. Symbology only motivates my sort when we understand the pragmatic need for it–We don’t need it ourselves, and if it were just us, we’d still be standing on that hill getting shot at, and the flag be damned. Most professional soldiers I know that bother to think about these matters tend to think along these lines, although I’m sure that there are some who would play Horatius simply because they believe in the various symbols, and are willing them into existence. I respect them, but that ain’tent me.

  7. TRX says:

    > social pressure

    The Army tried to keep draftees from the same town or neighborhood together, so that if one ran, the others would know him. They figured he could never go home if the others came back to tell.

    A few years ago I had cause to be in several cemetaries in rural Georgia, in tiny towns or places that used to be towns. There were rows of identical tombstones marked “US ARMY”, names, and all with about the same date of death. Best as I can tell they were part of TORCH in North Africa.

    Most of the adult male populations of those towns went away, and sometimes not enough of them came back, and the women, old people, and children moved somewhere else.

  8. Paul from Canada says:

    Reminds me of the so called “Pal’s Battalions” in the British Army in WWI. When they raised the “new” or “Kitchener’s Army”, whole factories, sports clubs, and other social groups joined up together, and were kept together. Considered god for morale and cohesion.

    Unfortunately, since they were all grouped together, if a particular unit got wiped out, so did the whole group. So whole villages lost most of their men in one day.

  9. Albion says:

    @Paul from Canada: In 1914 the Edinburgh-based Heart of Midlothian football club (soccer, if you must) was regarded as the best team in Scotland. On the outbreak of war they formed a Pals Battalion and thus drew a lot of praise. Sadly, ten of the players were either killed in action or unable to play again when the war was over. Understandably, it took the Hearts club a long time to get back to the top.

  10. Paul from Canada says:

    I’m a double colonial, born in South Africa, now Canadian. Football works just fine for me.

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