Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Business of Killing: American Military Training After World War II

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage, I discuss how the American military modified basic training after World War II to place greater emphasis on killing the enemy after it was discovered that a low number of soldiers in that war fired their weapons, even in close combat.

World War II had presented the United States Army with a unique problem in the history of armed conflict. After the war, the Army Air Force (the Air Force didn’t become a separate military branch until 1947) discovered that less than one percent of its pilots ranked as “aces,” meaning they had shot down at least five enemy planes. Aces accounted for up to 40 percent of all enemy aircraft downed. Most pilots, the command discovered, never shot anyone down. Another study found that only one in seven infantry soldiers used their weapons even in combat.

As military historian Gwynne Dyer notes, by the Second World War, “with the increased dispersion of infantrymen and their escape from direct observation by their comrades, their fundamental disinclination to kill had become the dominating factor, even when a unit was directly engaged in combat . . . Men will kill under compulsion – men will do almost anything if they know it is expected of them and they are under strong social pressure to comply – but the vast majority of men are not born killers.”

Dyer notes that basic training changed after World War II, becoming more violent and more centered on killing and dehumanizing the potential enemy. Early in training, American recruits were given “pugil-sticks.” Equipped with helmets and gloves, two recruits faced off against each other with sticks heavily padded on each end and then struck each other with those weapons until one of the men fell to the ground. Dyer, in his study of the language used by drill instructors at the Marine training facility at Parris Island, heard the DI shouting the following at recruits:

"You want to rip his [the enemy’s] eyeballs out, you want to tear apart his love machines, you want to destroy him, privates, you don’t want to have nothing left of him. You want to send him home in a Glad Bag to his mammy! Hey, show no mercy to the enemy, they are not going to show it on you. Marines are born and trained killers. You’ve got to prove that every day."

Post-World War II basic training camps built on earlier traditions of converting independently minded people into component parts of a fighting unit. Hair was shaved off, look-alike uniforms were issued and the recruit was not referred to by name, but by insulting labels given by the drill instructors, names that drew on racial slurs and mockery of the recruit’s physical and personality traits.

Before the recruit could assimilate into a new identity as a member of the Corps or the Army, DIs shattered many of the larger society’s norms. In this era when women were a tiny percentage of the armed services, drill sergeants encouraged misogyny, with women referred to generically by names like “sluts” or “Suzy Rottencrotch.” The sergeants defined war as the ultimate expression of masculinity and told recruits that real men killed the enemy.

“We are reluctant to admit that essentially war is the business of killing,” General George Marshall wrote in 1947. This was no longer the case on military training bases by the 1950s. During the Korean War, the Army estimated that 50 percent of soldiers fired their weapons in combat. By the Vietnam War, the military put killing the enemy front and center in training future soldiers. As one Marine Corps drill sergeant and Vietnam veteran told Dyer in an interview in the 1980s:

"The Vietnam era was, of course, then at its peak, you know, and everybody was motivated more or less towards, you know, the kill thing. We’d run PT in the morning, and every time your left foot hit the deck you’d have to chant, “kill, kill, kill, kill.” It was drilled into you mind so much that it seemed like when it actually came down to it, it didn’t bother you, you know? Of course, the first one always does, but it seems to get easier – not easier because it still bothers you with every one that, you know, that you actually kill and know you killed."


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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