The Seventeenth Largest Army


The day after payday the company or troop or battery commander and the first sergeant, “Top” and “First” to those serving under him, canvassed the local lockups, collecting men incarcerated for slugging someone from another unit, insulting women, annoying merchants, breaking windows. The gates of the guardhouse or, for real malefactors, the stockade, opened. (James Jones’s From Here to Eternity tells what Private Prewitt found there.) Sometimes soldiers who’d broken down in crying jags about seeing home so clear took their payday money and went over the hill. It never worked out. They either turned themselves in after a while or got caught. From 1920 to 1932 any civilian law enforcement officer who turned in a deserter got fifty dollars; through Depression economies it went down to twenty-five dollars in 1933. Once back, the men did their bad time making big ones into little ones—i.e., smashing up stones with a sledgehammer—and then had the bounty money deducted from their pay bit by bit when they were returned to normal duty.

In those years, that long-ago between-the-wars day when corporals wore white gloves for inspection, running their fingers over wall lockers or the tops of doors in search of dust, it would have been a long job to find a civilian who had a good word to say about the enlisted personnel of the United States Army. As with the slightness of congressional appropriations, that was wholly in the country’s tradition. During most of the life of the Republic, the American army, it was said, had scarcely been American at all, composed as it was of Irish or German immigrants of a completely uneducated type. What Wellington had termed his men at Waterloo, the scum of the earth enlisted for drink and booty, would have summed things up for most citizens, as would a description once offered about Frederick the Great’s parading hosts: a jail on the march. “The Army would be a fine place if it were not for the enlisted man,” an old-time officer once remarked to Brig. Gen. George Van Horn Moseley, MacArthur’s deputy chief of staff. Nothing was less likely than that a ranker would be found a romantic outcast of the Beau Geste Foreign Legion type, gone off to join the colors to forget a tragic love affair or by reason of incapacity to pay bills at the club for running through Father’s inheritance.

And the men never even did anything either. British troops garrisoning the Empire at least performed a useful function by tamping down the natives whose outland disturbances called for a punitive column winding its way upcountry now and then. But the American soldier? Why did he even exist? All through the 1920s and into the 1930s, any newspaper reader knew, there were international disarmament pacts, strongly supported pacifist movements, laws laid down for the abolishment of armed conflict. The novelists told of the utter futility of 1914-18, and antiwar plays did well on Broadway and on tour. Yet here were a group of men maintained at public expense who spent their mornings at practice with bayonets, sidearms, rifles, carbines, and artillery pieces—95 percent of the time “dry runs,” to be sure, for ammunition cost money— or running their horses around.


Or they mowed lawns and clipped hedges and whitewashed stones abutting the post’s roads or outlining the parade ground. It all seemed so pointless to any civilian who gave it a moment’s thought—a tiny number of people, granted. Even more useless appeared what soldiers did after lunch. Save for rare field exercises, there was no training. Instead the afternoon hours were spent in open loafing or in sports activities. Sports were very big. Every unit had its team, boxing, baseball, and football, and many a staff sergeant got his stripes not through leadership ability or military skills but because he could hit like hell, humans or a ball, or throw a pigskin and land it on a dime. Such were actually semipro athletes. Their work was to do what would bring victory for the team and a good mark on the record of the officer who coached it.

When evening came, all hands assembled and marched out for the flag-lowering ceremony, the band playing, bugles blaring and drums pounding, men sparkling, the shouldered and then present-arms 1903 Springneids with wooden stocks glittering from hours spent rubbing in linseed oil, brass eyelets on web belts polished, every tunic firmly buttoned, each campaign hat secured just so by its chin strap, artillery mules and cavalry horses scrubbed and brilliant. The flag came down. Dismiss. The men of the seventeenth army of the world went to the mess hall to sit until the table corporal ordered them to commence eating. Potatoes were the staple of the meal, that and a stew of meat and vegetables called slum, some beans, some corn bread, coffee. From 1922 to 1927 the government allocated thirty cents per day per man for food. By 1938 it was up to forty-three cents a day.