LISTEN, SOLDIER !
A sergeant explains how all an army’s headword might be supplied by the privates and all the headaches suffered by the sergeant-ma/ors
to a famous - barrack-room platitude, a private soldier knows nothing and does everything, a sergeant knows everything and does nothing, and an officer knows nothing and does nothing. A quarter of a million Ptes. training for and/or engaged in operational duty with the Canadian Army agree that this is a just and conservative statement of the case, albeit a
trifle flattering to the parties of the second and third parts.
The purpose of the abridged manual for young soldiers which follows is not to dispute the point, but to suggest the way to a functional realignment in which all the headwork will be supplied by the privates and all the headaches suffered the
There are headaches in the Army.
It doesn’t matter how much enthusiasm a man has to start out with, or how much the opportunity of participating in the greatest adventure in the history of the human race appeals to him at first. There are times when, as a medium of bright and romantic reflection, Army life will have all the tinselly allure of a goitre operation. The author, who started out in the militaire as a private who envied sergeants and evolved, by more or less natural processes, into a sergeant who envies privates, has a theory that by obeying a few simple rules he won’t find in any of the standard books, any approximately normal human can avoid most of the rough spots and get over the others without permanently dislocating his peace of mind.
But. no soldier can stand off all the headaches if he fails for a minute to remember that the Army was not mobilized for the purpose of making its members happy. That’s my first rule for young soldiers. Any recruit who applies it consistently can forget the others.
Practically all privates, gunners, sappers, riflemen, signalmen and other members of the Army’s proletariat start out with the right idea. Whether they’ve been drafted by the government or their own sense of responsibility, they’ve all been drafted for what they rightly
appraise as a tough, unpleasant and highly necessary chore. When the attesting officer takes back his fountain pen, sticks out his hand, says, ‘‘Congratulations! You’re in the Army now,” the chances are the young fellow across the desk is already prepared for the worst.
His first week will be a long series of reassuring surprises. He finds his officers affable, his N.C.O.’s patient and astonishingly unprofane. The quartermaster goes to infinite pains to see that his new clothes fit. The main things he notices about Army food is that it is seldom garnished with parsley and there’s more of it. He is lodged in a warm, well-ventilated hut, equipped with running water, showers, a laundry room and comfortable beds. He gets cigarettes at cut rates. Free movies are plentiful. Bright canteens cater inexpensively to most of his other extracurricular needs. When he returns from his first route march, usually a two-mile quickie without pack, a junior officer inspects his feet for blisters and arranges to put him on light duty for a day or two if there’s any sign of impending trouble. He has Saturday afternoons and most of Sundays to himself. Late passes and week-end leaves are fairly frequent.
Having made these comforting first discoveries, the rookie is apt to emit a heavy sigh and murmur,
‘‘Heck! This ain’t so bad.” He’s right, too. But unless he remembers to add a mental reservation that supplying its personnel with small and unexpected amenities is only the Army’s secondary function, he is apt to be laying up a heavy store of sorrow for future delivery. Unless he remembers that those first agreeable contacts represent only a means and not an end he is in danger of falling into the habit of judging his subsequent experiences as much for their effect on his personal contentment as for their military value. For when the novelty wears off, the training schedule stiffens and discipline tightens, he is otherwise leaving himself a dead setup for the feeling that the Army is reneging on a full-time contract to Make Everything Nice and Homey. This brooding conviction, if it arrives, usually arrives sometime during the soldier’s third or fourth week of service and is technically known as the Second-Month Meemies.
Because of the shadow of Second-Month Meemies, I always feel just a mite dubious about a recruit who replies with a flow of hosannahs to the hackneyed question, ‘‘And how are you liking the Army?” One of the best, and incidentally, one of the most contented privates I know once shocked a solicitous dowager at the Sally Ann to the verge of prostration with his own highly personalized answer:
“Madam,” he said. “If I wasn’t in the Army I’d be a half-wit. And if I liked it I’d be a quarter-wit.”
There’s a guy who’s never going to let the Army throw him. He had the first hold.
The training day is divided into eight periods, each punctuated by a break. The wisdom of these frequent recesses is doubted by some instructors, one of whom was once driven to cry at a somnolent student: “The trouble with you is that you think a period is just the pause that comes between two breaks.” Far be it from me to deny a fellow soldier the luxury of the horizontal fatigue, but I am satisfied from experience that when embarking on this amiable project it is essential to post a sentry. It is considered very discourteous for a private to be found sleeping in the presence of an N.C.O. or for an N.C.O. to be found sleeping in the presence of an officer. Even hardened senior officers, who went through the terrors of France without missing a pulse beat, recoil in horror at the sight of a recumbent ranker. Frequently they feel driven, by some gnawing inner compulsion, to Take Steps.
During my first week of basic training, I drew the homey task of hut orderly. Working with the zestful energy of a Dukhobor housemaid, I finished the sweeping, scouring and dusting by 10 a.m., banked the fires in
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the three potbellied coal stoves, and dropped into a blissful trance on my iron cot.
When I awoke a company commander was glaring balefully at my tonsils. Springing quickly to attention, and undeterred by the fact that I wasn’t wearing a hat, I gave him my smartest salute.
“I worked hard and got finished early, sir,” I explained with what I felt to be justifiable pride. “I was just resting.”
“Rest,” the officer said expansively, “is a prime military necessity.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, trying to contain my enthusiasm.
“You enjoy rest?” he enquired sympathetically.
“Yes, sir,” I admitted. “I try to he temperate in all things, hut I must confess that I am deeply fond of rest. Well-earned rest, of course, sir.”
“Good,” he said, smiling amiably. “I will arrange for you to devote the remainder of the day exclusively to rest. You will now go over' to the coal pile and wheel the rest of the coal into the bin outside the hut. Then you will walk across the parade ground and pick up the rest of the cigarette butts. After that you will report to the kitchen and polish up the rest of the pots and pans.”
Ignorance Is Bliss
OFF CERS, and to an even greater extent, N.C.O.’s, derive an inordinate amount of childish glee from these broad plays on words. A soldier who admits he is musical is apt to find himself on the business end of a piano-moving detail. The bird who claims he can drive a car is a three to five shot to earn the distinction of introducing a mop and a fire bucket to a three-ton truck. My first sergeant gave me one of the most practical hits of advice I have received on any subject since I left my mother’s knee. “In the Army, you don’t know from nothin’, see.” The army will discover your talents quickly enough without relying on your own testimony.
My second rule for avoiding headaches in the Army is, Learn your job and watch the angles.
If you have the desire and capacity to learn, the Army will teach you anything from advanced mechanics to early Greek culture. Entirely aside from considerations of patriotism, a soldier’s surest safeguard against the dumps is, the knowledge that he is on top of his job. Watching the angles is merely a simple requisite of self-protection. When in doubt keep your mouth shut and the angles will usually take care of themselves.
It takes most soldiers about six months to learn the third commandment for themselves, the third commandment being, Don’t listen to rumors. During those six months the habitual consumer of inside information—straight from the washroom—is pretty sure to work himself into a perpetual lather of conjecture and anxiety. Soldiers are the most persistent touts in the world. In any given week it’s a dull regiment that can’t tout itself to Australia and back, with brief stopovers in Alaska and Hawaii and a special side-trip to England by way of Labrador.
Rumors fall into two classes— international rumors and local rumors. International rumors cause less commotion and consternation in the billets than the more prolific local rumors—“The camp is C.B.’d (confined to barracks) for a week” . . . “There’s three cases of scarlet fever in the next hut” . . . “The whole unit is going on a special forty-eight-hour pass next Friday” . . . “We’re having roast turkey for dinner” . . . “They’ve closed the wet canteens” ...
Whether they involve pleasant or unpleasant possibilities, all rumors are harmful, for the simple reason that all rumors are false. If you listen to them, the unpleasant ones get you in a high pother and the pleasant ones, when they fail to materialize, let you down like a rookie’s puttees. Every soldier swears the last rumor he listened to is—the last rumor he’ll listen to. But until he’s floored through sheer exhaustion, he still keeps sticking his chin square in the path of that sucker punch. One enlightened private decided he’d put an end to rumors in his unit once and for all by devising a rumor so fantastic that its sheer absurdity would forever discredit the whole pastime of gossiping. After breakfast he whispered to the man who slept in the bunk above him: “I just heard the Japs have landed a hundred paratroops twenty miles up the road.” At noon his bedmate saw the crusading private dashing furtively toward the camp’s rear entrance.
The second soldier stopped the first soldier.
“Where you going?” he demanded.
“Hurry!” the first soldier gasped. “That Jap division has just captured camp headquarters. I’m getting out of here.”
IN EVERY unit there is at least one man who thinks he can “beat the Army.” He has accumulated a ¡-mattering of ignorance from K.R. Can., the Army Act, the Rules of Procedure and a few more frothy volumes pertaining to military law. He knows his rights and nobody is going to push him around. Nevertheless, he not only can’t beat the Aimy; he can’t even tie it. My
fourth commandment is, Don’t try.
According to the Army’s version, there’s a reason behind every order and every rule. Occasionally the man who gives the order or enforces the rule isn’t sure of the reason behind it himself, but he’s pretty sure it’s got to be obeyed.
Generally speaking, the more annoying a private finds a thing, the ¡ more necessary that thing is to his own and his unit’s welfare. Shining shoes, for instance, and folding blankets, falling in for parades right on the dot, lining up for meals. Presumably the gentlemen of the High Command are well aware that these small facets of the larger regimentation are not too popular with us members of the working classes. But apparently they still consider them of importance in teaching each new pledge the lessons of cleanliness and exact and immediate obedience. It’s in dubious taste and more dubious wisdom for the recruit of two weeks’ standing to contemplate the Army’s ancient findings about the best way to arrive at these first objectives of ! training and dismiss them with the j raucous tribal cry.
Unless he has the time and the facilities to make a thorough study of it, the average soldier can save himself time and trouble by confining his reading of military law to Section 40 of the Army Act, the aíl-pervasivc, all-embracing statute under which he can be punished for any crime or misdemeanor from forgetting to sweep under his bed to doctoring the C.O.’s filet mignon with catnip.
Expansive, expensive Section 40, sometimes known as the N.C.O.’s j friend, provides appropriate penalties for “any act, conduct, disorder or neglect to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.”
When I advised, “Don’t try to beat the Army,” I was overlooking one thing. Some of the most conscientious soldiers I know still try by every device of cunning to beat church parades. Althoughthe chances of success are remote, the stakes are worth gambling for. Not j attending church parade is one of the | headiest of all military pleasures.
Much has been written and said about the hoary custom of beefing. Almost everybody agrees that a certain amount of yammering against the whims and dictates of authority is as vital to a soldier as milk to a babe. I can add only one word of counsel, Don’t beef in the hearing of persons above or below your own rank.
If you getto bean N.C.O. and begin to gripe in front of the privates, you are undermining the fiction of omnipotence in high places which is the prop and support of your own office. And it’s just bum diplomacy to beef before your superiors. In doing so, whether you mean to or not, you must convey the impression that you hold them personally responsible for the things to which you object. And it’s the height of tactlessness to preface a beef with the placating phrase, “I know you think it’s crazy too, sarge, so why do we have to—.” Even if the sergeant agrees with you, he is in no position to admit it, and your attempt to read his ingenuous little mind out loud isn’t likely to flatter him. By all means beef, but ' ! beef on your own side of the street, chum. In the dream regiment perfect domestic felicity is attained from I top to bottom as the privates huddle happily in the men’s canteen cutting ! up the sergeants, the sergeants, over in the sergeants’ mess, snarl into their beer as they debate the ignorance of the junior officers, the junior officers gather in the card room of the officers’ mess to expound upon the pigheadedness of the senior officers, and senior officers cluster around the bar to ; maul the politicians.
I suppose all the things I’ve men[ tioned about how to avoid headaches j I in the Army come under the heading of morale. This is another thing to ; remember, Morale isn't something the quartermaster can issue over the counter along with the battle web. It’s something you’ve got to go i out and get for yourself. In the long | run morale depends on the individual : soldier’s determination to take his i lumps while he’s in the Army so he j can get the hades out of it again into a j world worth being homesick for.
And boy! ’Has this Amy got! ! morale!