The Making Of The American G.I.

How patriotism, and a brutal lesson in Vietnam, shaped the modern U.S. warrior

  • Share
  • Read Later
Bryan Denton / Corbis

A soldier on patrol in Afghanistan's Zabul province.

There is something Kiplingesque about the modern American warrior. He is a volunteer and a professional, as the long-serving regular of Rudyard Kipling's day was. He is a patriot; his modern British comrades, patriots themselves but shy of admitting it, express surprise at the American warrior's outspoken devotion to flag and homeland. He feels a personal relationship with his Commander in Chief, the President, as Kipling's archetypal soldier, Tommy Atkins, seems to have done with his Queen. Above all, like Tommy, he ships out. Ordered to a strange corner of the world, often at the ends of the earth, he packs his kit, says his farewells and departs. He does not ask how long he will be away or where he is going or why. If the President gives the word, that is enough.

America's armed forces are becoming imperial without their country's becoming imperialist. There is an important difference. Empires take many forms. One is that of an entity that exercises power far from its base without assuming political authority. That promises to be the new American way. America has always been and remains profoundly anti-imperialist.

Offered the opportunity to exercise direct power--in the Philippines, in China, in Vietnam--America's military representatives on the ground always sought to foster domestic rule on the American national model. Whatever mistakes American commanders have made, even in Vietnam, that of trying to usurp power has not been one of them. Americans are incurably democratic, often to their disadvantage.

Hence the distinctive character of the American military. I first learned its flavor through my father, a soldier of the First World War. After that war, he served as a member of the army of occupation in defeated Germany. He made friends with doughboys. Their high-spirited and easygoing ways delighted him. When the G.I.s appeared in my corner of embattled Britain in 1943, I saw what had attracted him. G.I.s were ambassadors of their country: easy, outgoing, generous and above all, ready to make friends. So they did. Every unattached girl acquired an American boyfriend--60,000 G.I. brides went back to America in 1945.

Then, overnight it seemed, the G.I.s disappeared. They had gone to D-day to begin the liberation of Europe. It was a campaign that put American soldiers side by side with British, not always with happy results. Many of the British were veterans of the battles against Rommel in the Western Desert. They considered themselves hardened campaigners and thought the G.I.s amateurs. The Americans expended vast quantities of ammunition to gain ground and expected air support in every attack. They were also much more generously equipped than the British, regarded luxuries as necessities and seemed to have money to burn. American privates were better paid than British junior officers.

The G.I.s learned fast, but the British continued to regard the Americans as junior partners long after American divisions were teaching their German enemies lessons in mobility and maneuvers. It was the Americans who led the breakout from Normandy. It was American parachutists who seized all their objectives at Nijmegen and Eindhoven while the British parachutists were defeated at Arnheim in the same operation.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2