The Seventeenth Largest Army

The great American military issue of the day was the horse.

Their meal ended, soldiers sat around the dayroom reading magazines purchased by the company fund, listened to the radio, talked about last payday, talked about next payday, played cards for matchsticks, told each other they were getting out at the end of this hitch, talked about making corporal. At the overseas posts, in Tientsin in China where the 15th Infantry had been stationed for decades by protocol arrangements growing out of the Boxer Rebellion, and in Hawaii, Panama, and the Philippine Islands, the routine was the same except that in the last three locations one’s brawls took place under tropical moons and often featured the United States Navy as preferred enemy. When, after months at sea with no place to spend money, the fleet made port in Subic Bay or Pearl Harbor, the bars and whorehouses catering to servicemen tripled their prices. That left the soldiers out in the cold. This led to exchanges of opinion between men in khaki and men in bell-bottom white that concluded with the appearance of the shore patrol and the white-legginged and brassarded provost marshal’s people, with batons rising and falling on any convenient skull. Overseas duty had one important attraction: Things were inexpensive. There was a Panama place beloved by generations of soldiers where a man could get for half a dollar American a woman who would service him in a manner many of her Stateside counterparts refused, plus a glass of rum, a cigarette, and a shoeshine. Simultaneously.

It is hard, it is almost impossible, to talk about the officers in the same breath as the soldiers. As commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee often wore an old colonel’s uniform, and Grant, we know, was in private’s attire with blouse buttoned in the wrong holes and lieutenant general’s stars sewn on at Appomattox. For the Army of between the wars such doings and concepts were inconceivable. Pershing was the model, Pershing who was the only soldier the public knew (how many today can name one of his subordinates?) and who positively glittered in his shining boots with gleaming spurs, polished Sam Browne belt, flawless brass and silver insignia, fitted breeches, and stern garrison cap. An officer was an Officer. And a Gentleman. They had all taken it in at the Point along with Duty, Honor, and Country.

They lived on a plane utterly remote from the men they commanded, always addressed in the third person. Will the lieutenant sign the report now? If the captain will step this way. (Familiarity breeds contempt, and so the word you for enlisted personnel was outré .) The Army’s officer corps of some twelve thousand dwelt in what was both a formal country club—and an informal old boys’ world. Dress blues, dress whites, sabers with glittering chain of nickel, shoulder braid, knowing how to put a horse over a jump, good form at tennis and at the bridge table, holding liquor like a gentleman, ability to tell a story well, rigid attention to courtesy calls and the leaving of cards on silver trays, and perfect posture— all co-existed with being openly flat at the end of the month (but up-to-date on bills, for a letter from a collection agency would bring a calamitous black mark on your record), boozing, fear that a superior’s wife wouldn’t care for your bride or that your kids might fuss, childish jokes at dinner with friends in your quarters, use of profanity unheard in the civilian world, substitution of the radiator for a chair and the floor for a table when household furnishings were late in arriving at a new post, and the perpetual, lifetime use of nicknames for friends made when young with whom the decades were served out—Ike, Brad, Georgie, Hap, Tooey, Skinny. (Old-timers still referred to Pershing as Nigger Jack for his early service with one of the two segregated cavalry regiments, even though during the World War the papers cleaned it up to Black Jack.)