Chickenshit!

Most veterans know exactly what the word “chickenshit” refers too.  I’d go so far as to say that even civilians deal with chickenshit on some levels, but anyone that has ever served in the military knows that the armed forces takes chickenshit and turns it into an art form.

Paul Fussell, the noted American historian and former 2nd Lieutenant in the US Army during World War II defined chickenshit perfectly: “Chickenshit refers to behavior that makes military life worse than it need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige… insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances. Chickenshit is so called — instead of horse — or bull — or elephant shit — because it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously. Chickenshit can be recognized instantly because it never has anything to do with winning the war.”

I think Fussell nails it.  For me personally, I experienced chickenshit both before and during wartime while in the Navy.  It served no real purpose other than to make me extremely disgruntled and dislike most of those that were of higher-rank than me, which seemed to be just about everyone.  The higher-ups had other ways besides chickenshit to really mess with our morale, including “being set up for failure.”  This involved being assigned a difficult to downright impossible task that either was or wasn’t really expected to be completed, but was given out mostly just to keep us busy. Normally this involved not being given the proper tools or instructions needed to carry out the task.  And of course you were expected to have the task completed by a certain deadline, which always meant “ASAP!”

BOHICA was closely linked with “being set up for failure,” and stands for Bend Over Here It Comes Again.  Now granted, I wasn’t drafted, which probably makes it even worse because I VOLUNTEERED to put myself in plenty of situations where chickenshit, “being set up for failure,” and BOHICA were the orders of any given day.  All three are designed to make life that much harder until you are seething with rage about the entire military establishment and all the civilians at home that don’t have to experience such degradations on a daily basis.  All of these forms of chickenshit during wartime will make a soldier wonder who their real enemy is.  In many cases all of these forms of chickenshit can be downright dangerous if they weren’t also perversely so damn ridiculous and funny. 

General George S. Patton was well-known for his spit-and-polish and strict adherence to Army code of conduct, and to many of his troops was the ultimate chickenshit artiste.  He went so far as to order his own frontline troops to wear ties and to shave-even if in battle!  As ridiculous as Patton could be, chickenshit had been around long before him, and continues on even today.  I recently read an article in the Washington Post from November 22nd about the US Army being at a “crossroads,” and uncertain about its “future roll.”  In it, a sergeant at Fort Bragg said that he watched several enlisted men get chewed out and yelled at for wearing Army-issued fleece hats on a cold morning in which the soldiers were running. Apparently, they were supposed to be wearing “baseball-style patrol caps,” and not their warmer fleece covers.  The sergeant was quoted as saying, “It’s cold.  They are cold. Let them wear what they want…but it is not the published standard, so everybody gets a butt-chewing.”  I don’t believe the sergeant had a problem with the published standard, just with the ridiculousness that there was no bending of the established rules to let the soldiers wear their fleece hats on cold mornings during PT.  Most of those soldiers were probably veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and have displayed devotion to duty and good conduct in their time of service.

I would agree with the sergeant that the strict adherence to the hat-of-the-day should be a non-issue, and these soldiers should be allowed to wear their fleece hats, knit caps, or whatever they have been issued to help stay warm on cold winter mornings. They’ve earned it.  It may take some time to re-write or re-word these idiotic standards, but some flexibility should be allowed and common sense automatically built-in. But of course, common sense is not the military way.  Americans are individualists at heart, but understand to some extent that in wartime, standards have to be adhered too. However, American intuitiveness and ingenuity have helped to win many a battle and the vast majority of the wars we have been involved in.  The armed forces has to adapt, overcome, and display a higher degree of common sense and cut out the chickenshit.

Book Review: The Liberator by Alex Kershaw

Alex Kershaw has written an outstanding tribute to one more courageous American of a generation full of very courageous Americans.  Felix Sparks was already a Depression-era survivor, army veteran, newly-married and soon-to-be-father when he becomes a relatively green 2nd Lieutenant of the 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division (“Thunderbird”).  He would fight the Germans all the way from Sicily to Germany.  In Sicily, Sparks experienced the loss of his entire company, good men whose names he had memorized.  In the Vosges Mountains, he demonstrated a cool bravery under fire that even earned the respect of the dreaded Waffen-SS.  If a reader were too, in their mind, compare Sparks’ leadership abilities and style to those of Major Richard Winters, the eventual commander of ‘Band of Brothers’ fame, they should probably not be blamed for doing so.  But unlike Winters, whom has come to be lionized to the point where there are no visible faults, Sparks has a temper which leads to occasional trouble with higher-ups, and a penchant for getting drunk when on the few leaves he actually received between combat.  Kershaw is able to show that Sparks was human after all and despite his great leadership and courage, was able to break down under the strain of near-constant combat, as most of us mere mortals would.

Kershaw writes about the chaos of combat well.  The details in the fighting in Sicily and at Anzio are not “big picture” history, but the ground-level type that seems to endear itself to readers.  Since most of the fighting men were not privy to the “big picture” either, this style serves the book well.  Kershaw also does a fantastic job in the chapters describing the fighting in the Champagne region in France and the later battles in the Vosges Mountains, both of which seem to be woefully neglected areas of World War II research, a point Kershaw does not miss when comparing them to the oft-written about D-Day invasion.

The strength and highlight of the book lies in the emotionally devastating arrival of the 157th at the notorious Dachau concentration camp inside of Germany.  Dachau had been the first such camp opened in Hitler’s Third Reich, and the horrors that awaited Sparks and his men laid bare the evil of Nazism and their absolute depravity.  Sparks temporarily loses control of some of his men while inside of Dachau, a few even going so far as to fire upon and murder some Waffen-SS prisoners.  The horrified Americans are later investigated by the US Army for war crimes.  That the victims were members of the SS does not automatically give the reader a sense of sympathy, but Kershaw does point out that most of those killed by the Americans had been wounded Waffen-SS soldiers that were supposed to be guaranteed rights as prisoners of war and had not been death camp guards, a distinction most American GIs were not terribly concerned with.  Sparks’ integrity and leadership in turn is questioned, especially after a misleading (and mistaken) remark from one of his own soldiers during the investigation leads some of the investigators to believe Sparks himself was involved.  That Sparks was not directly responsible for the murders isn’t definitively put to rest even after General George Patton theatrically tears up the charges.  It is only after the efforts of a Jewish-American veteran named David Israel, whom helped track down a member of a Signal Corps unit that had been taking photographs that day at Dachau, that it was proven that Sparks had indeed attempted to stop his men from gunning down the SS prisoners at Dachau. 

The weakest parts of the book are the passages that focus on Hitler.  These do nothing to add to the overall narrative about Sparks or the 157th Regiment fighting for survival in Europe.  The few concerning the enemy that do work are those involving Germans that directly went up against the Thunderbird Division, including Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, and Waffen-SS soldier Johann Voss, a man that respected Sparks’ heroic deeds one day in the Vosges Mountains so much that he refused to fire at him.  If Voss had, Sparks would not have made it home to see his wife and two year-old son, Kirk, whom he had only known through photos and letters.  Sparks’ later years are also touched upon, including his career in law and activism after the violent death of his grandson. The final chapter of the book is much weaker than the earlier chapters involving Sparks’ early life and nearly two-and-a-half years of combat, because the writing itself does not seem as polished.  They do, however, provide a window into the thoughts and actions of a man that had seen so much death, as well as his need to try and save others from such needless violence.

However, Kershaw’s overall abilities as a writer continues to improve, and his research is extremely impressive.  He personally interviewed Sparks and several Thunderbird veterans, and it is their contributions that Kershaw is able to weave into this well-crafted tale of death and devastation, of love and remembrance.  This is an incredible story centered around one American soldiers overwhelmingly tragic, but ultimately triumphant journey through the horrors of war.

The Liberator by Alex Kershaw

Remembering an NHL Talent Killed in World War II

Red Wings goaltender Joe Turner was killed in action in the Hurtgen Forest during World War II.

Anyone that knows me knows that I’m a big hockey fan, especially of the Detroit Red Wings.  However, it’s been extremely hard for me to hide my disgust with this season’s NHL lockout, and the apparent greed of both the owners and the players.  Below is a link to a story about one hockey player that put his own dreams on hold to give all for his country.  The article discusses the talented Red Wings goaltender Joe Turner, who was killed in December 1944.  Turner had just started out in his career with the Wings when he gave it all up to go fight the Nazis.  Incredibly, Turner was a native of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, but fought in the US Army.  With Veterans Day this Sunday, keep in mind how war destroys not only lives, but ruins any future potential talent, discoveries, inventions, and thought that could be contributed to mankind.  Let us also remember the veterans of all wars and how they gave so much of themselves for our future.  We owe them all a great debt that can never be repaid, so the very least we can do is try to live to our full potential.

Joe Turner’s Ultimate Sacrifice

Grand Opening of the Soldier Experience Gallery!

I should have put this out sooner, but today at 1600 (4pm for you non-military types), we are having the Grand Opening of the Soldier Experience Gallery at the United States Army Heritage and Education Center.  I was involved with some of the writing and editing concerning the history and artifacts that will be displayed in the exhibit, and I can say that my fellow co-workers here have all done a terrific job putting it together.  The gallery will feature stories of Army veterans from many of the conflicts America has been involved in, from the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and the more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  If you’re in the Carlisle, Pennsylvania, area and can make it out, please stop on in and join us.  It’s a really good-looking and informative exhibit!  I’ll try and get some photos and will add them in a follow-up piece later.

For more information, click on the link below:

Soldier Experience Gallery

It Was Seventy Years Ago Today…

 

No, not that Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play-instead, November 8th, 1942, was the opening of Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa by the Allies.  It would be the first time that the American army would go up against the Germans, something the British had been doing there for some time themselves.

Stalin had been pestering Roosevelt and Churchill to open up a second front and relieve pressure off of his forces in the East.  Roosevelt and many in the American command wanted to invade Europe, but it was still only 1943, and the British were aghast at such suggestions.  And even though the Wehrmacht was in the beginnings of its decline because Hitler had spread his forces too thin, were the Americans too green to confront a combat-hardened German army in France?  Some would argue that the first major battle in which the Americans faced the Germans, at Kasserine Pass, would say yes.  Due to Kasserine, Eisenhower had to fire General Lloyd Fredendall and put his mad dog Patton in charge.  As Rick Atkinson has said of the American Army in his book An Army at Dawn, and I’m paraphrasing more than a little here, the Americans learned several things in North Africa, but mostly how to fight and how to fight with hate in their hearts.  Yes, the Americans were exceptionally green, but the eventual defeat of German and Italian forces in North Africa led directly to the invasions of Sicily and then Italy, freeing up the Mediterranean and opening the way for the invasion of Southern France in 1944.

And speaking of Rick Atkinson, I found this link to a speaking event he is giving in Ogden, Utah, this weekend:

‘An Army at Dawn’ Author’s Speaking Event Coincides with North Africa 70th Anniversary

 

“The Real Inglorious Bastards”

Interesting article from the War History Online site (see link below).   The article concerns Canadian director Min Sook Lee, and her research involving real Jewish-Americans working with OSS after wondering if Quentin Tarantino’s revenge-fantasy film ‘Inglorious Basterds’ may have an actual basis in reality.  Lee was able to find some former OSS operatives that somewhat fit the bill, at least in their desire to kill Nazis.  I’ve defended the film in the past, despite its playing fast and loose with actual historical events, because I did find the film entertaining for all it’s eye-rolling, groan-inducing and ridiculous mirth.  What I’ve never understood, however, is why Hollywood continues to make these shoddy “history” films when they have so many exciting and true-life stories to draw from. 

After having read this article, I was reminded of Howard Blum’s book The Brigade:  An Epic Story of Vengeance, Salvation, and WWII, which told the story of Jewish soldiers in the British Army that took vengeance on Nazis after the war had ended.  Now there’s a story that should be adapted for a movie! 

“The Real Inglorious Bastards”

Navajo Code Talker Dies

Navajo Code Talkers in 1943.

The US Army Heritage and Education Center kicked off its Native American Heritage Month yesterday, November 1st, to honor the contributions American Indians have made to the US Army and to the nation. 

Sadly, on that note, I just found out about the death of George Smith, 90, a World War II Marine Corps veteran and one of the famed Navajo Code Talkers that served so honorably in World War II.  The contributions that these men made in the war effort against Japan cannot be understated.  They were all brave men and deserved to be recognized much earlier than they were.

Please click on the link to learn a bit more about Mr. Smith, another humble man from the WWII generation that rarely spoke about his service.

Navajo Code Talker George Smith Dead at Age 90