This was all very democratic and pleasant

Tuesday, January 12th, 2021

It was perfectly understandable, T. R. Fehrenbach says (in This Kind of War), that large numbers of men who served (in World War 2) didn’t like the service:

There was no reason why they should. They served only because there had been a dirty job that had to be done. Admittedly, the service was not perfect; no human institution having power over men can ever be. But many of the abuses the civilians complained about had come not from true professionals but from men with quickie diplomas, whose brass was much more apt to go to their heads than to those of men who had waited twenty years for leaves and eagles.

In 1945, somehow confusing the plumbers with the men who pulled the chain, the public demanded that the Army be changed to conform with decent, liberal society.

The generals could have told them to go to hell and made it stick. A few heads would have rolled, a few stars would have been lost. But without acquiescence Congress could no more emasculate the Army than it could alter the nature of the State Department. It could have abolished it, or weakened it even more than it did — but it could not have changed its nature. But the generals could not have retained their new popularity by antagonizing the public, and suddenly popularity was very important to them. Men such as Doolittle, Eisenhower, and Marshall rationalized. America, with postwar duties around the world, would need a bigger peacetime Army than ever before. Therefore, it needed to be popular with the people. And it should be made pleasant, so that more men would enlist. And since Congress wouldn’t do much about upping pay, every man should have a chance to become a sergeant, instead of one in twenty. But, democratically, sergeants would not draw much more pay than privates.

And since some officers and noncoms had abused their powers, rather than make sure officers and noncoms were better than ever, it would be simpler and more expedient — and popular — to reduce those powers. Since Americans were by nature egalitarian, the Army had better go that route too.


The so-called “caste system” of the Army was modified. Captains, by fiat, suddenly ceased to be gods, and sergeants, the hard-bitten backbone of any army, were told to try to be just some of the boys. Junior officers had a great deal of their power to discipline taken away from them. They could no longer inflict any real punishment, short of formal court-martial, nor could they easily reduce ineffective N.C.O.’s. Understandably, their own powers shaky, they cut the ground completely away from their N.C.O.’s.


Now an N.C.O. greeted new arrivals with a smile. Where once he would have told them they made him sick to his stomach, didn’t look tough enough to make a go of his outfit, he now led them meekly to his company commander. And this clean-cut young man, who once would have sat remote at the right hand of God in his orderly room, issuing orders that crackled like thunder, now smiled too. “Welcome aboard, gentlemen. I am your company commander; I’m here to help you. I’ll try to make your stay both pleasant and profitable.”

This was all very democratic and pleasant — but it is the nature of young men to get away with anything they can, and soon these young men found they could get away with plenty.

A soldier could tell a sergeant to blow it. In the old Army he might have been bashed, and found immediately what the rules were going to be. In the Canadian Army — which oddly enough no American liberals have found fascistic or bestial — he would have been marched in front of his company commander, had his pay reduced, perhaps even been confined for thirty days, with no damaging mark on his record. He would have learned, instantly, that orders are to be obeyed.

But in the new American Army, the sergeant reported such a case to his C.O. But the C.O. couldn’t do anything drastic or educational to the man; for any real action, he had to pass the case up higher. And nobody wanted to court-martial the man, to put a permanent damaging mark on his record. The most likely outcome was for the man to be chided for being rude, and requested to do better in the future.


In their neat, fitted uniforms and new shiny boots — there was money for these — the troops looked good. Their appearance made the generals smile.

What they lacked couldn’t be seen, not until the guns sounded.

There is much to military training that seems childish, stultifying, and even brutal. But one essential part of breaking men into military life is the removal of misfits — and in the service a man is a misfit who cannot obey orders, any orders, and who cannot stand immense and searing mental and physical pressure.

For his own sake and for that of those around him, a man must be prepared for the awful, shrieking moment of truth when he realizes he is all alone on a hill ten thousand miles from home, and that he may be killed in the next second.

The young men of America, from whatever strata, are raised in a permissive society. The increasing alienation of their education from the harsher realities of life makes their reorientation, once enlisted, doubly important.


Orders in combat — the orders that kill men or get them killed, are not given by generals, or even by majors. They are given by lieutenants and sergeants, and sometimes by PFC’s.

When a sergeant gives a soldier an order in battle, it must have the same weight as that of a four-star general.

Such orders cannot be given by men who are some of the boys. Men willingly take orders to die only from those they are trained to regard as superior beings.


The Old Army, outcast and alien and remote from the warm bosom of society, officer and man alike, ordered into Korea, would have gone without questioning. It would have died without counting. As on Bataan, it would not have listened for the angel’s trumpet or the clarion call. It would have heard the hard sound of its own bugles, and hard-bitten, cynical, wise in bitter ways, it would have kept its eyes on its sergeants.

It would have died. It would have retreated, or surrendered, only in the last extremity. In the enemy prison camps, exhausted, sick, it would have spat upon its captors, despising them to the last.

It would have died, but it might have held.


The trouble is, different men live by different myths.

There are men who would have a society pointed wholly to fighting and resistance to Communism, and this would be a very different society from the one Americans now enjoy. It might succeed on the battlefield, but its other failures can be predicted.

But the infantry battlefield also cannot be remade to the order of the prevailing midcentury opinion of American sociologists.


Over several thousand years of history, man has found a way to make soldiers out of this kind of man, as he comes, basically unformed, to the colors. It is a way with great stresses and great strains. It cannot be said it is wholly good. Regimentation is not good, completely, for any man.

But no successful army has been able to avoid it. It is an unpleasant necessity, seemingly likely to go on forever, as long as men fight in fields and mud.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    He seems to be conflating mindless obedience with fighting spirit. It seems to me these two things are near opposites.

  2. Kirk says:

    Fehrenbach gets the “Old Army” entirely wrong, mainly because he didn’t know it. He was drafted into the Army in 1943 at age 18, and all he would have known of that “Old Army” is by rumor. He saw the WWII Army up close and personal, but the reality of the pre-WWII Army escaped him.

    I had the pleasure of discussing that very issue with a guy who’d done significant time in the Army of the 1930s, as in “most of that decade”. Fehrenbach really got everything wrong with his description, here–The NCOs were not the gods of the barracks he describes, and the officer’s roles were a hell of a lot more distant. You had no centralized training system that churned out draftees to fill units, or massive training establishments where you turned hordes of civilians into soldiers. It was all much more artisanal and decentralized. You had to find your own recruiting sergeant during the Depression, and convince him you were worth the time and effort. There was limited to no coercion–With the Depression on, manpower was seriously cheap, and you had to fight to keep your position. Screw up? Buh-bye… Go back to the breadlines, bub. The NCOs almost didn’t care if you went AWOL–Your replacement would be on the next train, bus, or whatever. And, if he couldn’t hack it, too bad, too sad… Someone else would.

    The pre-WWII culture of the Army was considerably different than the one that grew like cancer during the war. About the only feature that really remained was the cavalier manner that they treated the manpower issue–The roots of the disdain for the draftee vs. Regular Army types stems from the pre-WWII realities. If you weren’t a committed institutionalized soldier, they simply didn’t care about you–You were literally a dime-a-dozen outside the gates. Replacing you was easy–Tell the recruiting sergeant your slot was open. During the draft era, same thing, only with a draft board.

    Regular Army types, or long-service enlisted were treated differently, of course. They weren’t the Christmas help, they were valuable cadre-men. Much of the pre-WWII enlisted force went on to become senior NCOs or officers during the war, but were carelessly discarded back to civil life or returned to whence they came in the enlisted force.

    I knew a guy they commissioned for WWII (been a Staff Sergeant just before Pearl Harbor), threw out of the commissioned ranks after VJ Day, who spent ’45-’50 as a squad leader/platoon sergeant, then got another commission in Korea when he was the only remaining soldier with experience in the unit after their first disastrous brush with combat, then sent back to the enlisted ranks during the aftermath of the war. He’d made it to captain, that time. Then, shortly before he retired, they cranked up the Army for Vietnam, and glory-day, guess what? Made him a lieutenant again, and he wound up retiring as a Major right before they were going to RIF (Reduction in Force) his ass after the war was being wound down. He never did get to most of the staff schools or college, but he did know exactly how to run anything under a battalion in size. All that guy wanted was to be a soldier; period. Nothing else, and he could have cared less in what capacity or where they wanted him to serve.

    That was the “Old Army” professional soldier. Disdainfully referred to as “lifers”, as though they were long-term inmates of a prison by the “Christmas help”, who really did not understand their ethos or culture.

    What Fehrenbach is really describing here is a disastrously improvised Army desperately trying to adapt to a new, enlarged mission with very little in the way of really intelligent people running things who fully understood it all. We went from a cadre frontier-based Army scattered around the West and a few overseas possessions to one that fought a global war, then to one that was expected to provide garrison and full-time Imperial soldiery for a nascent global mercantile empire. It’s a wonder they managed it as well as they did, but Fehrenbach really didn’t want to cut them any slack.

    And, an awful lot of the problem is that nobody wants to study the detailed nitty-gritty of how these things really work. Go ask the average Army infantry officer to tell you precisely what makes for a superior infantry platoon, and how to go about creating one. The vast majority are going to spout platitudes and buzzwords back at you, while simultaneously demonstrating that they really don’t even comprehend the definition of such a thing, let alone how to go about manufacturing one from whole cloth.

    The men running our Army and Marine Corps know the organizational charts to a “T”; what they don’t know is the minutiae of what actually works to bond men under fire, and make them do the things they need to do. This is manifest when you start looking at how they actually run and administer the units, from personnel policy to doing training with them. A lot of the things you need to know and do stem entirely from poorly-understood and hardly passed-on tribal knowledge out in the ranks, and nobody bothers to try to study it or systematize the whole thing in any significant way.

    If you look at the way Heinlein describes the training of Mobile Infantry in Starship Troopers, you’ll see an idealized view of how things should work in an initial entry training environment. Unfortunately, that ain’t how we do things in our Army–There is no system, no plan, no real recipe for producing fully acculturated and bonded soldiers. They pay an awful lot of lip service to it all, but the reality of it? LOL… Create with one hand, tear down with the other. I think we did better with everything decentralized the way it was back in the 1930s, where the commander really was a low-level god, and held responsible for everything in the unit. Poorly-trained and unfit soldiers could only come from one source–His own work. Now? You can blame a myriad of responsible parties from the recruiters to Training and Doctrine Command and their massive overhead of a training base that really doesn’t produce trained and acculturated soldiers in any real sense.

  3. TRX says:

    The Amazon link says:

    “The book that former Defense Secretary James Mattis recommends as America faces the threat of conflict with North Korea.”

    Mattis did a carefully-managed “combat” tour to get the requisite check-mark in his resume, but he was a paper pusher for the rest of his career.

    Man, I’m really impressed by his endorsement…

  4. Paul from Canada says:

    There used to be a thing, which was a true lifer. A man who served regardless of rank or position, for who the regiment was his life.

    I recall a passage from one of my collection of SAS alumni biographies, where the author mentions the drunk, perpetually promoted/demoted guy who was a nightmare in peacetime, total pain-in-the-ass, but who totally brought it when it really mattered.

    George McDonald-Fraser mentioned one of these types (“Whee Wullie”), in his semi-autobiographical stories about his time in the Fraser Highlanders as a 2Lt just after the war.

    This is a type the modern military does not countenance, but used to be an essential component back in the day.

  5. Kirk says:


    Mattis is definitely a “god who failed”, so far as I am concerned. I had great hopes for him, but he’s proven to be yet another political animal wearing a uniform–As they all are, these days.

    I think officer selection and training need to be drastically revamped, based on what the system produces. All the guys I really respected and who were great human beings as well as excellent officers…? All, and I do mean all of them, wound up with extremely limited careers, none reaching flag rank. Most got out well before they even made field grade.

    Best company grade officers I knew and worked for all wound up ending their military careers before really becoming a part of the institution. Most burned out on the BS very early on, and just said “F**k it. If you’re not gonna be serious about things, neither am I…”.

    The ones who stayed were either institutionalized mediocrities, or outright careerist incompetents. None were really soldiers, none really understood or cared to understand the institution or the men who made it up. Apparatchiks and nomenklatura, all.

    The utter lack of interest in things like basic soldier skills like shooting, hunting, hiking… Anything at all that might have military application? Almost a generality, these days. They’re all soft-bred city boys, in general. The officer who even has a hobby like mountain climbing or hunting is unusual enough to draw commentary and sometimes even ridicule from his peers. It’s a strange, strange world we’ve built in the US military, these days.

  6. Kirk says:


    The sort of soldier you’re talking about wouldn’t last out an enlistment contract, these days. He sure as hell wouldn’t be commissioned.

    The culture of the military has irrevocably and irrecoverably changed. There is no room, any more, for men who seek service as a vocation and a life; if you don’t treat the military just as a job, a means to an end in life, you’re unusual enough to draw commentary, most of it negative. The people running the services these days regard men like that as objects of suspicion, and treat them accordingly.

    I think the whole thing really changed about the time that they decided to transition the NCO corps over from mostly career bachelors that lived in the barracks full-time, cheek-by-jowl with the troops, to married family men that came in for working hours only. When you live with the troops, the unit is your focus, your life, and there is nothing else. That breeds a different attitude, and a totally different outlook. Nowadays, only the very most junior of NCOs live in the barracks with the troops, and if you’re above the grade of Sergeant and still unmarried and living on-post, you’re an anomaly that they don’t know what to do with. Single senior NCOs living off-post or out of the barracks are another unusual thing that they don’t know what to do with–There are almost zero accommodations made for bachelor enlisted quarters suitable for senior NCOs on any US military base, these days. There might be a forgotten building or two, tucked away and out of sight for the socially failed, but that’s about it.

    Everything we do militates against creating really strong units. Nobody today identifies with them the way they used to–You will see, in coming years, how few reunions there are for today’s serving soldiers. That’s a sign, right there–No real “regimental associations”, no bonds created by years of service together. Most of the guys I knew and worked with, over the years could best be described by the term “rotating cast of thousands”. I have one real friend I really keep in touch with, and he’s on the other side of the country, and we only really communicate on the phone every couple of months.

    To a degree, the anomie is probably better, the way we do it. Who cares when they deactivate an old unit you may have served a few years in, on some foreign shore? It doesn’t hurt a bit, knowing they cased the colors and sent them to storage. You have limited investment in that identity, and really only pay attention on the periphery of it all. You don’t identify as a member of that unit much past your departure, and what limited pride you take in it vanishes very quickly.

    Which is a sign that we really don’t have a clue about what we’re doing with these things, or how to create units that evoke life-long commitments of that nature. The US Army has always been utter shiite at doing that sort of thing, and deliberately so, I suspect. We never created the sort of strong regimental identities that the Brits were always so good at, mostly because we refused to have a real standing Army. It’s always been a force-in-waiting, meant to do the bare necessities of military scut work during peacetime, and expand massively during war with conscripted civilians that would pass through the institution like a snake’s meal. For good or ill, that’s a fact.

    We could do better, but then that would mean we wouldn’t be us, wouldn’t it? The US military has always been like this, and probably always will be, the institutional features set down in its DNA from the post-Revolutionary period and never really changing.

  7. Altitude Zero says:

    Interesting observations,Kirk, always interested in what you have to say.

    On a related topic, I have always thought that the organizers of the American Army of WWII probably don’t really get the credit that they deserve. In 1938, the US Army was smaller than that of Romania, had obsolete equipment, and was in no way ready for a world war. By 1945, the US Army had over ten million serving all over the world, and had produced citizen soldiers that were about as good as any in the world (yeah, according to some studies done, it took 1.2 American or British soldiers to equal one German – from where they started, that wasn’t bad). Doing this in what was and is probably the most un-militaristic country on Earth (note, not pacifist or unwarlike, just un-militaristic) is quite an accomplishment. Yes, the WWII military had huge problems, but considering where it started,it was quite an accomplishment.

  8. Ezra says:

    During World War 2 there were about 15 million men in the ranks, of which only about 1 million were volunteers.

  9. Paul from Canada says:


    Interesting that you mention regimental societies and the like. Commonwealth countries still have them, but they are dying as well.

    The example I cited from the George McDonald-Fraser books is a perfect illustration of that “family”. The character was a large ill-disciplined drunk in the barracks, constantly in the brig.

    As a junior officer, GMF was astounded that when the local provost collared him for drunk and disorderly, and was planning to have him court-martialed at a high level (Brigade or Division), the C.O. pulled strings and called in favors to have him returned to the unit and tried and punished there.

    GMF asked why the C.O. had gone up to brigade and used up favors, surely the battalion should be happy to be well rid of him. The adjutant replied that the colonel would have gone higher still if necessary. It was explained that he had done some particularly heroic things during the desert war, but most importantly, he was part of the family, and the family looked after its own, end of story.

    There used to be a thing called a career private. A man who didn’t fit in outside the army. Who never married, or if he did, it ended spectacularly. Who was occasionally promoted, sometimes as high as Sgt, often because he was an excellent and skilled field soldier, but who always got busted down for drinking, or fighting.

    They were rare, but you find reference to them from time to time in memoirs, particularly in the British Army. Men in their forties, still privates, living in the platoon bay with the newer, younger soldiers.

  10. Kirk says:


    I think we discussed the Dutch/Serbian incident where the Serbs started slaughtering pigs near the Dutch troops in order to intimidate them, and the effect it had on the Dutch.

    Which goes to highlight the differences between what amounts to a civilian gendarmerie vs. a real professional army. The British Army of Fraser’s era would have turned Wee Willie loose on the Serbs, and done unto them the precise opposite of what they intended. Had I been there and been running things instead of the usual naif nebbishes we have for company grades in these sadly diminished times, I’d have had a word with one of my Samoans, and told him to make with the “hungry-hungry cannibal” act, and I’d have counted it a success when the Serbs formally complained to the UN that I’d had my barbaric subordinates attempting luau-with-long-pig on their troops…

    That’s part of why you keep the Wee Willies around. The general attitude of madness can be a very useful thing to have in the tool box.

    Of course, the touchy-feely types would find that horrifying. Me? I’d have looked into finding some skeletal remains from wherever, and made it look like my Samoans had been barbecuing… End of the day? The Serbs would have left my guys and whatever they were doing the hell alone, if only out of respect for the insanity of it all.

  11. John Dougan says:

    There aren’t enough details, but if you want a non fictionalized example, look over the wiki page for Ernest “Smokey” Smith. You will see he was promoted to corporal *9* times, and indeed was again a private when he won his VC.

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