Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Memorial Day special: Complaints and biases from the Greatest Generation

As we observe and celebrate Memorial Day, we will hear a lot of sentimental stuff, and that is OK with me. But we also pay tribute to those who laid down their lives by remembering them clearly, as they were, in whole, with the myriad virtues, flaws and characteristics of their time. I mention this ...

carlisle.army.mil
carlisle.army.mil
carlisle.army.mil

As we observe and celebrate Memorial Day, we will hear a lot of sentimental stuff, and that is OK with me. But we also pay tribute to those who laid down their lives by remembering them clearly, as they were, in whole, with the myriad virtues, flaws and characteristics of their time.

I mention this because, for my current book project, trying to understand how the Army went so badly off track in the 1950s, I've been researching the post-World War II force. I was struck by two things enlisted soldiers said in surveys conducted in November 1945. Asked about the statement, "On the whole, I think the Army has hurt me more than it has helped me," every group agreed, most notably 71 percent of high school grads over 25 years old. (P. 611, Samuel Stouffer et al, editors, The American Soldier: Combat and Its Aftermath, Volume II. Princeton University Press, 1949.) These guys did not like being in the Army.

A significant percentage also reported biases against blacks and Jews. Enlisted Army soldiers in Europe were asked about minority groups they personally disliked very much. "Among the better educated 10 per cent named Negroes, 8 per cent named Jews…Among the less educated 14 per cent named Negroes, 7 per cent named Jews." (P. 617) Follow-up questioning of those professing anti-Semitism brought out this critique: "They own too large a proportion of business, profiteer at the expense of non-Jews, and dodge the draft. If they do get in the Army, they land safe jobs and get a disproportionate share of discharges." (P. 638)

As we observe and celebrate Memorial Day, we will hear a lot of sentimental stuff, and that is OK with me. But we also pay tribute to those who laid down their lives by remembering them clearly, as they were, in whole, with the myriad virtues, flaws and characteristics of their time.

I mention this because, for my current book project, trying to understand how the Army went so badly off track in the 1950s, I’ve been researching the post-World War II force. I was struck by two things enlisted soldiers said in surveys conducted in November 1945. Asked about the statement, "On the whole, I think the Army has hurt me more than it has helped me," every group agreed, most notably 71 percent of high school grads over 25 years old. (P. 611, Samuel Stouffer et al, editors, The American Soldier: Combat and Its Aftermath, Volume II. Princeton University Press, 1949.) These guys did not like being in the Army.

A significant percentage also reported biases against blacks and Jews. Enlisted Army soldiers in Europe were asked about minority groups they personally disliked very much. "Among the better educated 10 per cent named Negroes, 8 per cent named Jews…Among the less educated 14 per cent named Negroes, 7 per cent named Jews." (P. 617) Follow-up questioning of those professing anti-Semitism brought out this critique: "They own too large a proportion of business, profiteer at the expense of non-Jews, and dodge the draft. If they do get in the Army, they land safe jobs and get a disproportionate share of discharges." (P. 638)

As Richard Danzig once pointed out as Navy secretary, this was the generation that defeated the Nazis, yet they had their own prejudices. He said this in encouraging his audience of naval officers to consider what shortcomings we might now be carrying that will cause our descendants to shake their heads.   

Meanwhile, here is a solid Memorial Day meditation from Alex Horton, who thinking back to his time in Iraq reminds us that the day is not about veterans, it is about those soldiers who never got to be vets.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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