Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

‘The Old Army Game’: A novel portraying the occupation U.S. Army of the 1950s

One thing a good book, whether a biography or novel, can do is take you partway into another time or place and give you a feel for them. By that measure, George Garrett’s The Old Army Game , about the American occupation force in Trieste, Italy, in the early 1950s, is a good novel. I’d ...

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627987_ricks3_166.jpg

One thing a good book, whether a biography or novel, can do is take you partway into another time or place and give you a feel for them.

By that measure, George Garrett's The Old Army Game , about the American occupation force in Trieste, Italy, in the early 1950s, is a good novel. I'd never heard of Garrett until I saw a reference to him the other day as a good chronicler of the Army of the 1950s -- what the historian Brian Linn calls "Elvis's Army."

I found his style a bit noir-ish, but enjoyed much of it. One of my favorite passages is a new artillery battery commander introducing himself to his troops:

One thing a good book, whether a biography or novel, can do is take you partway into another time or place and give you a feel for them.

By that measure, George Garrett’s The Old Army Game , about the American occupation force in Trieste, Italy, in the early 1950s, is a good novel. I’d never heard of Garrett until I saw a reference to him the other day as a good chronicler of the Army of the 1950s — what the historian Brian Linn calls "Elvis’s Army."

I found his style a bit noir-ish, but enjoyed much of it. One of my favorite passages is a new artillery battery commander introducing himself to his troops:

"I’ll be a son-of-a bitch! You freaking guys! You are without a doubt the crummiest collection of decayed humankind I have ever laid eyes on, so help me God. We deserve each other. If you want to be soldiers, try it. See if I care. First Sergeant, take charge of this so-called battery. I’m going to get drunk."

The whole battery cheered him.  

Here are some of his best lines:

–". . . common sense is as hard to find in the Army as anywhere, maybe harder."

–"If you’ve got to loaf, loaf gracefully."

–"Old-timers are the guys who always seem to have dry socks and cigarettes even in a rainstorm."

–"Most of the brains in the world are busy working on new ways to hurt people."

–"When it’s plain ordinary garrison work, then it’s a matter of knowing when to goof off and when not to."

–"There’s nothing like having a lot of athletes to screw up an outfit."

–"Stitch was yellow all right, but not in the usual way. Not the way most people might think. He was trigger-happy yellow, the way I figured. He would be the kind of guy who would shoot prisoners in combat when he didn’t have to. . . . . You would never want to stick him out on your perimeter defense with a machine gun. He would be blasting away at shadows all night and nobody would get any sleep."

–"I put on the best-looking uniform I had. . . . locating every ribbon my records said I was entitled to wear. (That’s the one time you really need them — at a court-martial.)"

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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