During World War Two, the four branches of the United States military that effectively defeated worldwide Fascism were not the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.  For the American soldier, the four branches were racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and misogyny.  This troubling perspective is revealed by reading both fiction and non-fiction composed during and immediately after the war.  Current readers will say, “Those books are dated,” or “They don’t hold up well,” or “That’s just how it was back then,” which means one of the four problematic branches from the tree of intolerance has been exposed.  To speak ill of the war veterans not only appears unpatriotic but treasonous.  Honoring the troops has become a national pastime, but does that also mean we must support the way in which those soldiers were trained?

For the white, 18-year-old males who flocked from small American towns to kill Japs and Krauts, there needed to exist a superiority over the enemy.  Before going into war, these young men had years of training while being raised in America.  And whom did they practice on?  Blacks, gays, Jews and women.  In many stories of these soldiers, there is the constant theme of premeditated oppressive and violent behavior towards “minorities” before launching into battle. 

For example, consider Ensign Bill Harbison in the short story, An Officer and A Gentleman from Mitchener’s Pulitzer Prize winning Tales of the South Pacific published in 1946.  While stationed on the island of Efate, Bill attempts to rape Nurse Nellie Forbush but she whacks him in the head with a coconut.  Later, on his second attempt, his assault is interrupted by a native islander and thus Nellie is saved “with great relief and yet some regrets.”  This repugnant and dated view conveys that even had he succeed, she should have been grateful for his attention because of his good-looks.  This sentiment is often reinforced by the time-honored defense of any past indiscretion, “That’s just how it was back then.” 

As for recalling the past, I find it odd that soldiers will often quote the Classics as a way of justifying their actions while hoping to temper the horrors of war.  Horace, Homer, Herodotus.  Shakespeare had fun with this when Falstaff says, “Discretion is the better part of valor.”  Perhaps a more accurate saying for sailors and grunts would be, “Indiscretion is the better part of cowardice,” because a drunken sexual assault on a woman while carousing a foreign port is not a one-time, excusable indiscretion. 

It’s called training.

In S.E. Morison’s momentous 15-volume “History of United States Naval Operations in WWII”, the author often described the Japanese soldiers as “savage” and “sneaky” whereas the German Wehrmacht was “strong” and “well-trained”.  Even though both nations were enemies, a racial bias existed against the yellow-skinned Japanese that could not be found for the white-skinned Germans.  One could argue that the Americans hated the Empire of Japan for their dream of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere and for the sneak-attack on our precious Pearl, but then why send a greater amount of military resources and troops to Europe rather than to the Pacific Theater?  Maybe because we needed to stop white people (the Germans) from killing other white people (the Brits & the Russians), whereas we didn’t really care about yellow people (the Japanese) who were massacring other yellow people (the Chinese).  This racial bias led to the imprisonment of both Nisei and Issei Japanese-Americans within internment camps on the mainland but not German-Americans from Duluth or Italian-Americans from Brooklyn.  (As a side note, only 1% of Japanese people on Hawaii were sent to internment camps, even though logically they might have been considered a greater threat to national security.  However, the other 150,000 Japanese residents of Hawaii were left alone, most likely so as not to disturb the Territory’s economy, because in Capitalism, the dollar outweighs prejudice.)    

Morison also recounts the simultaneous sinking of two destroyers, one American and the other Japanese, in the Solomon Islands during the struggle for Guadalcanal.  American sailors unloaded their machines guns at “any dark heads bobbing in the water until an officer order them to stop before an incident occurred.”  I suspect he meant before any of the American “colored” mess attendants and cooks were shot by their own men.    

Anti-Semitism can readily be seen in literature of the Thirties and Forties by labeling Jewish characters as "greedy," "dishonest," and "those dirty-Jews".  Also disturbing was the popular rhetoric of Father Coughlin's fascist radio programs, F. Scott Fitzgerald's mention of "a little kike" and FDR's "New Deal" being slandered as the "Jew Deal".  Don't forget the S.S. St. Louis being forced to wander the high seas longer than Moses.  

Homophobia is rampant in John Hutchinson’s autobiographical Bluejacket when he relates an incident in San Francisco before shipping out on the battleship U.S.S. North Carolina.  He was groped by a gay man in a bathroom and after yelling, “You queer son of a bitch!” the author gives a detailed account of beating-up the man.  The author then explains, “I can’t stand homosexuals (I refuse to call them ‘gays’) and loathe their very presence . . . antipathy towards homosexuals ran deep in all Navy rates and ranks.  Homosexuality was considered a loathsome disease, a failure of masculinity and morality.”  A threat to masculinity that needed to be subjugated in order to prepare for war.  He ends the chapter by glorifying his numerous sexual conquests, as though exerting his virility was a means of repelling any threat to his masculinity, synonymous with combat effectiveness.

This is not uncommon in history.  Generals have often “warmed-up” their troops before heading into battle.  Training can only take a man so far before he needs the experience of blood.  During the First Crusade when Pope Urban II radicalized Christian Europe, the Crusaders practiced by massacring Jews in the Rhineland before laying siege to Jerusalem.  British soldiers of the Revolutionary War practiced beforehand on Indigenous populations during Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763.  Southern men who would later serve in the Confederate Army during the Civil War learned the soldier’s craft by hunting and killing escaped slaves.  And Colorado volunteers serving in the Union Army practiced on unarmed Cheyenne and Arapaho women and children at Sand Creek.  The British first tested chemical weapons on the Kurds before World War One.  Japanese soldiers bayoneted women and children in Manchuria in 1931 years before the Marco Polo Incident with Chinese troops.

Perhaps this is why the best soldiers were often bullies in school who beat on weaker children because, obviously, fighting is the best way to learn how to fight.  Even more important is fighting and winning.  Victory can be ensured when thrashing a target that is perceived as weaker, such as a terrified woman or an effeminate gay man looking for a quick hook-up or Jews trapped on a boat or a Black man who has been programmed by society not to fight back.  Ultimately, this type of repeated victory bolsters a soldier’s self-worth and esprit de corps.

So, when history remembers the “Greatest Generation”, I have to wonder how they became so. 

For young, white American men to defeat tyranny, they first had to defeat their neighbors because, “That’s just how it was back then.”