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Barry Pearson

The Soldiers' Point of View (Part One) 


Copyright Barry Pearson and used by permission


Both folklore and oral history involve the spoken word, and both come into being only when there is a listener or interviewer present.  Generally, folklore within this context includes the legends, tales, songs, customs, beliefs, language, and attitudes that soldiers share and repeat at different times and in different places. On the other hand, the narratives that constitute oral history are personal accounts or individual stories. Although we may oversimplify, we could say that folklore speaks for the group, and oral history speaks for the individual.

Folklore is the soldiers' common lore; it is repeated because it is representative. We can study folklore to gain insight to the shared experiences and values of the soldiers' lot. In a sense, folklore mediates between individual and group experience by providing a common, collectively understood vocabulary of attitudes, images, or examples that serve as shared reference points. Folklorist Barre Toelken has pointed out that, "Since folklore is comprised of those artistic expressions most heavily governed by the tastes of the group, we should be able to find in folk performances a continual tableau or paradigm more revealing of cultural worldview than we might find in the expressions created independently by individuals."1

Oral history, by contrast, is precisely those "expressions created independently by individuals." It describes experiences from speakers' lives, or events they witnessed or perhaps heard of at close hand. Stories told as oral history may be repeated by the speaker and, through periodic retellings, shaped into better art or entertainment, but they are not retold by many speakers. If the stories are told by many different speakers they become less personal, more general, and become folklore. Historians sometimes discount individual accounts of the past as too subjective, too personal, or too narrowly focused to be of much use, and indeed some stories may not prove to be much more than anecdotes. Nevertheless, oral history provides valuable insights into how participants remember their wartime experiences, what they choose to talk about, and what they believe others would like to hear. Of course speakers have biases toward events that have made an impact on their lives, but their commentaries draw authority from their participation, personal feeling, and an in-group awareness of what events meant to then and to those who were there.

Contrary to the overviews that historians construct, personal narratives provide brief flashes of insight into human experience and personal concerns; the world they portray is circumscribed by immediate experience by a relatively small group of actors--co-workers, authority figures, and, of course, the enemy. Soldiers' interests may not be the same as those of the historian, economist, sociologist, or philosopher, but their oral histories describe real human reactions to the experience of war. As survivors, soldiers pass on the lessons they have learned through their oral histories, and we should pay attention to what they have to teach us.

Folklorists and oral historians use similar techniques to gather data. Through fieldwork, both seek out informants to interview about a specific subject. As interviewers, both serve as a sort of editorial presence, selecting specific questions and determining which responses to include in the presentation of a subject. Both strive to recreate the individual voice of someone whose words can illuminate the subject being studied.

To simplify for the sake of comparison, historians are most interested in the information or content imbedded in a speaker's testimony and the speaker's attitude toward the event described. Literary scholars are also interested in the content and attitude the speaker's account, but they pay particular attention to the artistry of the account--how it is put together and how effectively it portrays the events or conditions described. Folklorists share these concerns with content, attitude, and artistry, but they also consider the traditional dimension of the narrative. For example, a folklorist would ask how the material articulates traditional patterns of language and thought. Folklorists seek to discover the extent to which an oral history narrative approaches folklore; they are especially attentive to the stories, narrative elements, customs, beliefs, or values that are held in common by a group of people.


Before World War II eminent folklorist B. A. Botkin described folklore as:

...a body of traditional belief, custom, and expression, handed down largely by word of mouth and circulating chiefly outside of commercial or academic means of communication and instruction. Every group bound together by common interests and purposes, whether educated or uneducated, rural or urban, possesses a body of traditions which may be called its folklore. Into these traditions enter many elements, individual, popular, and even "literary," but all are absorbed and assimilated through repetition and variation into a pattern which has value and continuity for the group as a whole.2

Botkin's definition identifies some key issues. First, he addresses the informal mode of communication that characterizes the way folklore is passed from one person to another. Second, he notes that every group possesses folklore to some degree. Third, he notes that folklore draws from popular culture and even fine art, but he understands that these materials are reshaped once they enter the tradition and conform to the group's value system or worldview, including its artistic and social rules.

Oral Tradition

Folklore depends on tradition for its dissemination and for the way in which its form and contents are shaped. Oral tradition is the process by which members of a group pass on information through verbal channels, generally without recourse to the printed word. But it also involves learning through informal systems of observation, imitation, and participation; musicians may learn, for example, by listening to and watching other musicians and then practicing what they observed on their own. Thus, stories or beliefs are passed from person to person and generation to generation.

An item of folklore is considered to be traditional in form and content when it conforms to a set of rules governing its structure, style, and content. Folklore such as jokes or songs can be repeated more or less intact, and thus recognized by their plots. But folklore also implies the presence of a value system that respects and maintains certain artistic products. These products are kept alive, reworked, and passed on because they conform to the group's artistic and social sensibilities. The rules and values that shape the way something is made or performed constitute the traditional style of the group that perpetuates the traditions.

The Folk Group

Folklorists approach a subject through the people who perpetuate folk traditions, those who share and pass on a body of traditional lore. The term, "folk group" is commonly used to describe any group of individuals who share common traditions. Folk groups can be large, as with regional or ethnic groups, they can be tied together by religion or age, or they can share working contexts, as do cowboys, coal miners, truck drivers, and soldiers. These groups usually have a sense of identity that has been shaped by a common history and a common set of experiences, training, rituals, rites of passage, trials, or dangers. As mentioned previously, they also share a body of artistic or stylized expression that they appreciate, use, and pass along.

Forms of Folklore

Folklore includes a wide variety of forms, some spoken or sung, others enacted, and still others that are made (barns, dolls, instruments). Some forms, such as storytelling, are best understood as performance. Through storytelling we encounter a tale teller and an audience whose response largely determines whether a story has been successful and, by extension, whether it will be retold. As we will see, folklore changes over time, and tales and songs exist in multiple versions. The differences between versions demonstrate how a group reshapes materials to suit its current needs and artistic values; they also reflect the process of oral tradition.

Folklore is a tool, a key that helps to unlock the meaning of events. It helps us to understand not the overview of an event sought by the historian, or the artistry valued by the literary critic. Rather, folklore helps to reveal an event as it was perceived and described by its participants; their interpretations, whether or not they were witnesses, pass on a meaningful story, offer us multiple versions of the past that may prove to be encoded in symbol, artifact, or straightforward commentary. As a supplement to more concrete historical data, folklore provides a human dimension. Its primary importance stems from its ability to articulate feeling--to focus on the daily life of the average soldier and reveal his attitudes toward the events that touch him.

As a cultural document, folklore can be trivial or terrible, comic or heartrending. It may describe unbelievable brutality, elicit laughter, or both. It may be true, or it may be artistic--a metaphor for experience. In any case, folklore records examples of what people remember and talk about concerning a particular subject--in this case, war. Although the contributors quoted in this piece remain anonymous, they are real people and the words you will read are their own. You might think of them as average--the type of people that don't write historical accounts. Yet their actions have contributed to history, and they have left a record of their participation in their personal accounts and in their folklore.

Before we proceed further, let us consider briefly the three sources of folklore we will be working with: legends, folktales, and folksong.


Legends are narratives that are told as the truth. They may not actually be true in a historical sense, but both the teller's and the listener's attitude toward the account presupposes that the event actually occurred. Therefore, the fact that such accounts are believed demonstrates that they incorporate attitudes or beliefs held by those who pass them on. As jazz historian Frederick Turner notes, "Unlike historiography which must attempt to sort out probable truths from available evidence, legend deals solely in The Truth as it is felt by those who celebrate the legend."3 Sometimes referred to as belief tales, legends provide examples of a belief in action, usually in a straightforward, unadorned, just-the-facts manner. For example, let's consider a training camp narrative from the Vietnam era:

Nothing much else happened in Pensacola except that they obstacle course that was used primarily for sending the goof-offs on a...inspirational run, you might say. That is, if you messed up in class they were sent to the obstacle course. We heard the stories about how they used to run the obstacle course with live machine guns firing overhead. And then they got around to the part where some guy was crawling through...concertina wire...and happened to bump into a rattlesnake....And of course he forgot about the machine guns and jumped up right away and was cut down.

Sounds plausible, doesn't it? But that's the nature of legends. Further investigation, however, proves it to be just one version of a traditional scare story that has frightened boot camp rookies in at least three wars. This legend doesn't simply scare inductees, however, it also teaches them that the training they have to put up with is, in fact, deadly serious business. Traditional legends like this one have a life of their own, but they tend to become localized when repeated d embellished for dramatic effect.  Legends also detail the exploits of larger-than-life heroes and villains, from Sergeant York to General MacArthur.

Folktales differ from legends in that they are generally recognized as fiction, and told primarily as entertainment.  In military lore, jokes or anecdotes are the most common form of folktale, and despite their obviously fictional status, they also articulate values and beliefs, common fears and dangers. The following example is a vintage folktale from World War II that deals with a serious subject--desertion:

The going got just a bit too hot for a little lad in the front line trenches and he suddenly decided to take a run-out powder [run away]....He sneaked out of the trench and...began running....Suddenly, in the pitch blackness, he ran full tilt into somebody who, it was immediately apparent, was an officer.

"Where the devil are you going?" cried the officer.

"Why, Lieutenant, ah--" began the frightened soldier.

"Lieutenant!" echoed the officer in amazement.

"Maybe you're a Captain...," began the private.

"A Captain!" cried the officer.

"You can't be a Major, could you?" essayed the private.

"Major!" came the reply...."Damn it all, man, can't you tell a General when you see one?"

"General!" gasped the private. "Glory be, have I run that far?"4

Although a tale like this is obviously told for amusement and would generally be understood as fictional, it also tells us about the soldiers' value system, especially their attitude toward rear-echelon officers--in this case, the higher the rank, the further the officer from the actual fighting.  This tension between enlisted men and their officers is manifested in other forms of expression as well. Such common attitudes and ideas characteristic of folklore tend to show up in more than one genre, from legend to tale, to folksong, and to simple folk belief.


For our purposes, folksongs may be defined simply as the songs that soldiers sing.  Ideally, these songs are perpetuated in a tradition where, regardless of origin, they are embraced by a folk group and passed from person to person.  As a result, song will probably change over time, possibly because some forget the words, or more likely because members of a folk group reshape the song to suit their needs or tastes. For example, The traditional complaint "I Don't Want No More Army Life," is changed here to suit the Air Force:

The coffee in the Air Force,
They say is mighty fine,
Looks like muddy water,
And tastes like turpentine.

            CHORUS: I don't want no more of Air Force Life,
            Gee, Mom, I wanna go,
            Gosh Mom, I gotta go,
            Please Mom, I wanna go home....

Navy people sing the same traditional song, with appropriate changes in the text:

        They say that in the Navy,
        The biscuits are so fine,
        But one dropped off the table
        And killed a pal of mine.

            CHORUS: I don't like Navy life,
            Gee Mom, I want to go
            Right back to Quantico,
            Gee Mom, I want to go home....5

Despite their internal differences, both examples are two distinct versions of a very popular folksong that say and do essentially the same thing. Each version has been changed slightly to serve the purposes of the group that sings it.  The song works because it is easy to make up new verses or alter the language to reflect the language used by different units, such as the Coast Guard, the Marines, or others.  A comparison of these two songs provides a fine example of how folklore can maintain a certain continuity of form and content and reshaped to suit the needs of taste of the group that preserves it.  As the needs and tastes of the group change, the song can be changed.


Certain differences will become evident as we look at the oral history narratives and traditional lore of World War II and Vietnam; after all, as folk wisdom has it, the United States won World War II and lost the Vietnam War.  We can, however, focus on the similarities of the soldier's experience over some thirty years.  By examining soldiers' folklore and oral histories we can learn about soldiers' value systems, their network of relationships, and the way they view their war-time experience. By looking closely at continuities of experience and methods of communicating experience we will be able to address the question, "What is it like to be a soldier?"

There can be no single answer to that question because no two people are exactly alike, or respond to the same situation in exactly the same way.  Soldiers' folklore and oral histories come from individual soldiers, each with his own unique personality and historical background that includes ethnic, regional, family, and religious biases.  Each soldier has his own preconceptions about soldiering as it is derived from propaganda, popular culture, and personal attitudes toward war and the specific enemy.  After a war is over, each soldier is influenced by his war-time experience and history's interpretation of his mission in war.

Folklore should be regarded as neither cute nor quaint, nor as if it were designed for children.  It is neither invalid, untrue, or dying.  Rather, it is coarse, vibrant, and honest.  Folklore serves those who use it; if it doesn't, it changes or dies.


For most soldiers of both World War II and the Vietnam War, military service was a short-term departure from civilian life.  Thinking back on their wartime experiences, veterans display mixed emotions--nostalgia for their younger days, pride in having survived the trials of training and combat, and in the case of Vietnam, a certain bitterness about the conduct of the war and the treatment they received upon their return home.  Most soldiers also feel a strong sense of kinship with those who shared their wartime tribulations and understand what they went through.

Soldiers are likely to recall people as much as they recall events: fellow inductees; barracks mates they trained with; tough lifers, the professional, long-term soldiers who taught them; drinking buddies; and especially the small group they fought beside and sometimes saw die.  From induction through training to combat, a soldier often presents his world in terms of a small band of friends and co-workers who perceived themselves to be a single group against the rest of the world.  Members of the group learned the same lessons and applied them to the common problems of survival and winning the war.

Generally, soldiers' folklore articulates the tension between the individual, the barracks, or the combat group, and the monolithic military structure.  Facing constant pressure to conform to the military structure, each soldier seeks to maintain a personal identity and resist any authority that appears to threaten it.  At the same time, each recognizes the need for collective effort and, whether in basic training or overseas, develops a network of friendships or communal ties within the smaller group of co-workers to whom he owes his primary allegiance.  The small group serves as a buffer between each soldier and the rest of the world, including military authority and the enemy all are supposed to fight.

Although soldiers and veterans have many other concerns and talk about many other subjects, most would recognize their experiences as part of a collective lore which they consciously or unconsciously embrace.  Despite their individual voices we can discern a collective ethos that reflects their common experiences and the shared traditions that define them as soldiers.  A profile of the soldier's life is necessarily circumscribed by such traditions as they influence the subjects of soldiers' accounts and their attitudes toward those subjects.

At the same time, oral format and the constraints inherent in an interview situation also have an impact on a soldier's account of his experience.  Restricted by these conditions and unsure of what the audience understands, a soldier seeks points of mutual understanding.  Working within the oral context, a soldier must limit his account to include things he can narrate effectively and what he believes his audience can comprehend.  As a soldier looks back on his experience, he feels the need to tell a cohesive, understandable, focused narrative that forces him to concentrate on relatively few events or anecdotes.  Since a soldier often recounts events in a single interview that may have occurred over a period of days, weeks, or months, his audience may get the impression of immediate transformations--from rookie to veteran, from would-be-hero to cagey survivor.

Moreover, certain events acquire greater symbolic meaning after the fact, some because they make a good story, and others because they serve as a transition from one condition to another.  An account may be retold simply because it is visually evocative or has a dramatic or entertaining quality.  This is the artistic aspect of the soldier's story that we can view as a blend of history and oral literature, tradition, and individual vision.  As an individual exerts artistic control over the events or subjects he chooses to recreate, he imparts meaning to his experiences.  Therefore, these events or subjects serve not only to connect the soldier to the changes in his life, they serve to connect his experience to our awareness as well.


Although no two soldiers' experiences are identical, most soldiers go through similar stages of development and face similar problems.  First there is enlistment or induction, then basic training, and then assignment stateside or overseas; in wartime, that can mean actual combat experience.  Living in close quarters with a group of fellow recruits or trainees all going through similar rites of passage, a soldier can hardly remain immune from the traditional lore around him.  Torn between the demands of the military establishment and the need to be accepted by his co-workers, the soldier learns several different sets of rules to satisfy the army, his own companions, and last but not least, himself.

Induction: "Greetings.  This is your Uncle Sam."

Since 1940 a common soldier's first encounter with military life has been the prospect of enlistment or the draft. Enlistment may be thought to offer the opportunity to leave home and participate in an exciting and meaningful venture. Whether caught up in the passion of the moment, looking for a way to better themselves, hoping to escape unhappy marriages, or simply finding ways to get off of the farm, Americans have long volunteered to serve in the military. During World War I and after peacetime conscription was introduced in 1940, others enlisted to escape the specter of the draft.

Americans have never been happy with a forced draft.  Perhaps you recall the 1863 Civil War draft riot that occurred in New York City or the resisters of the Vietnam War Era. Even when most people in the country support a war effort and concede that a draft may be necessary to ensure its success, the idea of being forced into the military--and into a particular job in the military--violates the personal freedom on which Americans pride themselves.

It should come as no surprise that folklore about the draft reflects traditional antipathy by demeaning and poking fun at the system. Characteristically, the draft board, draft notices, and the general physical examination are portrayed as part of an impersonal, voracious machine eager to seize any human body regardless of physical condition.  Both of the following narratives illustrate this point.  The first narrative is derived from the World War II Era, the second from the Vietnam Era.

After a visit to the draft board, the nearsighted man complained to his friends, "Brothers, let me tell you what happened at the draft board....A blind man came in led by a seeing-eye dog.  They not only put the blind man in l-A [acceptable for military service] but they took the dog too.6


There was a one-armed inductee who went all the way through basic training because he couldn't get anyone to listen when he complained about only having one arm.  Finally, one day a sergeant found him on a work detail and said, "You see that man filling up that bucket of water over there?  Well you go over and tell him when its full because he's blind."

Both narratives--the first a folktale told as a joke, the second a legend told as true--employ the motif (a narrative element or idea) of the handicapped soldier to portray the military draft as comically inept and insensitive.  The similarity between the narratives suggests a continuity of these attitudes about the system over the decades.

Other examples of folklore celebrate the exploits of draftees who are unwilling to submit to the system.  Viewed collectively, they present a picture of the draft as a system the clever can escape but the disabled cannot.  Several popular legends portray soldiers who pretend to be crazy to escape compulsory military service:

This character rides an imaginary motorcycle all over camp...He mounts it, gives a kick or two, and starts off, holding the handlebars and put-putting with his mouth. Called in by the C.O., he rides into his office, screeches to a halt, jumps off, and salutes smartly. The C.O. puts him in the hospital for observation, and the soldier rides happily up and down the corridors. At length the hospital psychiatrists decided he must be loony and granted his discharge on a section eight (insanity).  He mounted his motorcycle, rode to the hospital entrance, parked it by the gate, and walked off.

"Hey, don't you want your motorcycle," the orderly yelled after him.

"No thanks, I don't need it anymore," answered our hero.7

The legend above was collected during World War II. The next legend presents the same subject as it resurfaced during the Vietnam Era:

I know a true story about a guy who got hold of a number of psychiatry texts and copied or paraphrased poetry written by psychotics.  He took the poetry with him to his physical and wouldn't let anyone look at them or even touch them.  Finally after acting real weird, he was convinced to let a psychiatrist look at what he claimed to be his poetry.  The psychiatrist got all excited because he was familiar with poetry written by the insane.  So he pronounced the guy unacceptable.  He said it was a text book [sic] case.

Although these legends come from the experience of Americans in two different wars, their motif is traditional. Both illustrate the theme of bucking the system; they share the motif of escape from military service through feigned insanity.  But the section eight discharge is far more the exception than the rule.  These legends, perhaps best commemorated in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, celebrate the exploits of those who, by acting crazy in an insane society, achieve their goal and demonstrate that they are saner than anyone else.

Such legends are perhaps best appreciated by soldiers undergoing the rigors of basic training since they can identify vicariously with the protagonists described in the legends.  But they also have a universal appeal.  Although the public generally disapproves of evasion or flight as undemocratic or as a sign of cowardice, most enjoy tales of a clever trickster who bucks the system.  Perhaps it is a simple case of rooting for the underdog.  Similar accounts have been attributed to other wars and collected from other countries as well.

Let us pause to consider how these legends about draft evasion display a continuity of tradition despite two distinctly different sets of historical circumstances. We can speculate that draft evasion stories and the draft evader took on different functions during these two wars, reflecting their very different levels of popular support at home.  For Americans who opposed the Vietnam War, especially draft-eligible college students, the draft evader became, perhaps, an admirable antihero that inspired those who wished to avoid military service.  Legends that had provided vicarious entertainment for the storytellers and listeners of World War II provided more serious educational lessons and models for their sons during the Vietnam Era. The fact that certain stories and motifs we now recognize as traditional circulated during both eras indicates that they may not have held the same meaning to the people who passed them along.

It should be noted that the draft evasion stories of the Vietnam War did not always end in escape.  Sometimes the strategies backfired:

This guy drank fifty cups of coffee to try to get out for high blood pressure, but he still got accepted.  Later on after an accident he saw another doctor, who took his blood pressure again.  The doctor told him, "How did you ever get accepted in the first place with blood pressure so low?"

These legends represent a collective antipathy toward the draft; they focus more on escaping military service than with becoming a soldier. More often soldiers tell of beating the system through other strategies to get into a special branch of the service or to avoid unpleasant duty.  Consider this final personal account, which is more of an oral history than folklore.

My dad wanted to be a pilot or at least get to fly but he knew he couldn't pass the vision test because his left eye was so bad.  So when he took the test they asked him to read the chart with his right eye.  So he covered his left eye with his left hand and read it.  Then they asked him to read it with his left eye, the bad eye.  So this time he covered his left eye with his right hand and read it again with his right eye.  And they didn't notice, so they passed him.

Despite the different attitudes toward the draft that were expressed in the legends and narratives of World War II and the Vietnam War, the fact remains that most draftees entered the system, and most Americans supported it.  The average soldier may or may not have welcomed the experience, but most felt powerless to stop the machinery of the draft once they were inducted.  They probably reacted with a sullen compliance as they were shuffled through the system and sent along to learn what soldiers need to know.

Basic Training: "You had a good home but you left."

Once inducted, the soldier finds himself shipped off to a basic training camp.  There, according to stereotype, he receives a terrible haircut, an ill-fitting uniform, and is otherwise stripped of his sense of individuality.  Thrown together with a disparate group of fellow recruits, each soldier faces the problem of coping with the military system.  This involves learning two sets of sometimes mutually contradictory rules.  On one hard, each soldier needs to satisfy the military establishment personified by his sergeant and instructors, and on the other hand, he needs to be accepted by his peers.  There are at least two types of initiation here: one involves the military as a whole, and the other involves the soldier's immediate group of barracks mates or fellow trainees.  Ironically, acceptance into the latter group was often predicated by an outward rejection of the former.

The recurring story of the trainee who encounters a snake while crawling through an obstacle course, stands up, and is cut down by live ammunition is one legend about a soldier's initiation into the army during basic training.  Now let us focus on folklore about the soldier's other initiation--into this peer group.

Earning the acceptance of a soldier's peers involves learning the rules of barracks life.  Sociologist Larry Ingraham describes this process in his study of the barracks community, The Boys in the Barracks:

To be incorporated into the barracks a new man had to present himself as an approachable "regular guy" and he had to abide by the commandments of barracks living: he had to be willing to let everyone do his own thing; he had to accommodate himself to the dress and housekeeping standards of the barracks; he had to verbally scorn the Army at every opportunity; he could not invoke formal military authority or squeal on his buddies; and he could not steal from his comrades.  Those who were not regular guys or who could not live by the commandments had to go it alone.9

Soldiers also must prove that they can take a joke, and many veterans tell of pranks they were subjected to as rookies.  In the prank's classic form, the newcomer is instructed to perform an impossible task using a nonexistent but credible-sounding device, such as a sky hook or prop wash.  Often times the rookie may be tested in other ways to determine whether he has assimilated in-group knowledge. For example, he may be called to fall in for a short-arm inspection.  Whatever the ruse, the result is usually humiliation.  This process is a form of initiation, for after the rookie experiences the prank, he

perpetuates the tradition at the expense of new recruits.

While these pranks may seem cruel, they are a form of play that reinforces the rule that one needs to know what's going on to survive.  Pranks also test the recruit's ability to "take it" and keep cool in a tight situation, qualities that will prove essential in combat.

The young soldier may be inexperienced in dealing with strangers, and initially, he may have little more in common with his barracks mates than shared space and work.  Over time, however, and through shared experience friendships develop. Peer allegiance provides emotional support in an unfamiliar and sometimes frightening environment.  The soldiers share barracks folklore about the other initiation they're going through, such as dealing with the military establishment.  Their legends and tales, which they tell for entertainment, often exemplify the theme of an individual's fight against military authority.  Let's consider two humorous legends:

When I was in basic we were all supposed to know these general orders and once a friend of mine....Well, a high- ranking general was inspecting them and they were all standing at attention.  So the general was looking them over and asking them questions.  So he stops in front of my buddy and looks him up and down and asked him if he knew what the seventh general order was.  Well this is something that everybody is supposed to know but my friend was really crazy so he finally answered,  "You got me.  But here's one for you.  What was Tom Mix's horse's name?"


It seems that a personnel clerk at the post headquarters of Fort Dix was lounging around one day when the phone rang.  He picked it up and said, "Yeah?"

A voice at the other end asked, "Yeah? Yeah? Is that any way to answer a phone, young soldier?"

The clerk asked, "What's it to you?" and the by-now enraged voice said, "Do you know who this is, young soldier?"

        "No," he answered, "I don't."

        "Well, this Colonel Gall, the Chief of Staff."

        "Oh yeah? Well, do you know who this, Colonel?"

        "No I don't," the colonel answered

"Good," snapped the soldier. "Fuck you!" And he slammed down the phone.

Both legends depict minor victories in confrontations with authority; the first is a public act of disrespect performed before the soldier's peers, and the second is an private act of aggressive rebellion.  In each case the soldier's actions would win the respect and admiration of his peers.  According to an old adage, "There's a right way, a wrong way, and the army way."  As we can see from barracks folklore, however, there is also a traditional rejection of the "army way," perhaps even an anti-army.  Other accounts involve challenging authority on a physical level, a theme that recurs in narratives concerned with combat.  Consider this legend:

Before karate instruction, the instructor always challenges anyone who thinks he can beat him.  Once a small guy from New York City answered the challenge.  He threw a wide punch at the karate instructor and was flipped into the sand.  As the instructor approached him, he came up with two handfuls of sand, throwing it into the instructor's face.  The boot [recruit] then grabbed the instructor by the ears and rammed his head into a tree.

Here we encounter another common theme--the enlisted man winning a contest through unorthodox or nonregulation behavior.  Without stretching the point, we see the underdog recruit beating the system by, literally, beating his instructor.  Sergeants and instructors commonly play the role of villain in the soldiers' lore.  As the object of both fear and ridicule, these authority figures embody the values of the regular army, of the system, and are therefore natural enemies of the inductees.  Traditionally tough, insensitive, and inflexible, they hand out punishment and, in some legends, even kill recruits.

There are stories concerning one Drill Instructor [DI] who marched his men into the swamp.  He was drunk and decided to harass his men one night, so he got them out of bed and marched them right into the swamp.  Many of them were beaten, and the DI was busted after a congressional investigation.

Folksong also serves as a vehicle for ridiculing authority.  Here is a parody of the popular song "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?"

        Five foot one, weighs a ton,
        I.Q. of just thirty-one.
        Has anybody seen the sarge?

        Out of shape, watch him gape,
        Walks around just like an ape.
        Has anybody seen the sarge?

        Now if you run into,
        A soldier who's
        Dressed in O.D. [olive drab]
        Wearing brown, in the town,
        Bet your life it isn't me.

        Cause he's R.A. [regular army] all the way
        He has thrown his life away.
        Has anybody seen the sarge?10

This brief sample reiterates the motif of trainees at odds with their sergeant that we have seen in other forms of folklore.  This theme, and those of beating the system by demonstrating superior knowledge, unorthodox techniques, or by strategically acting stupid recur throughout barracks folklore.  The fact that the soldiers enjoy hearing and repeating these stories indicates that the stories reflect and reinforce their value system.  Popular culture vehicles from Sergeant Bilko to Stripes have brought these traditional themes from the barracks into public knowledge.

Let's turn to another form of barracks folk expression.  Known as cadence calls or chants, work songs serve as a rhythmic "soundtrack" for marching and other forms of drill.  Generally, they demand group participation, coordinate group action, and encourage a sense of unity and identity.  Likely as not obscene (a common characteristic of soldiers' lore), these calls articulate common concerns different from those we have already discussed.  Read these four examples; the first two are in call-response form, the second two are chanted in unison.

        Leader: You had a good home but you left.

        Everyone: You're right!

        Leader: You had a good home but you left.

        Everyone:  You're right!

        Leader:  Jody was there when you left.

        Everyone:  You're right.


        Ain't no need in lookin' down
        Ain't no discharge on the ground.
        Ain't no need in turnin' back
        Jody's got your Cadillac.

        I don't know but I've been told
        Jody's wearing your one-button-roll [a type of suit]
        Lift your head and hold it high
        Company C is passing by.

        We don't care if you don't sleep
        Sit on the bunk and tap your feet.11

        Hidi, hidi, Christ almighty,
        Who the hell are we?
        Zim, Zam, Goddamn,
        We're the infantry.
        We're Captain Ward's Rangers,
        Rangers of the night.
        We're dirty sons of bitches,
        We'd rather fuck than fight.
        Hidi, hidi, Christ almighty,
        Who the hell are we?
        Zim Zam, Goddamn,
        We're the infantry.

        I'd rather be a pimple,
        On a syphilitic whore,
        Than be a second louie [lieutenant],
        In the Quartermaster Corps.

Referring to the first fragment, you may wonder who Jody is.  Drawn from black folk tradition, Jody represents the generic man back home taking care of a soldier's girlfriend while he is conveniently away.  A concern about what's going on back home is another common theme of soldiers' folklore. These examples contrast what was left behind with the soldiers' present condition. These chants use a sort of ironic humor to poke fun at the soldiers' tribulations.  There is also a sense of unity, shared experience, and common concern implicit in them. In fact, the last example stresses group identity and pride in one's outfit, albeit in uncouth language.

Cadence calls are designed to promote unity of thought and action.  They show us the soldier and his unit in the process of constructing a group identity.  They also present a fine example of how folklore functions.  Beyond simple time keeping, cadence calls instruct the soldier about how to carry himself. Moreover, they use aggressive, ironic humor to undercut loneliness.  As group expression, they preach stoicism and discourage self pity.  They often incorporate in-group language and abbreviations that are only understandable to the participants, thereby reinforcing the idea of the unit as a collective body.

Other traditional cadence calls take the form of aggressive bragging. Consider this cadence:

        The girl I marry's gotta be,
        Airborne, Jungle, UDT,
        Virgin daughter of an AOC,
        Five hundred points on the PFT.

[Airborne: jump qualified; Jungle: jungle operations; UDT: underwater demolition team; AOC: air officer commanding, in charge of a cadet squadron; and PFT: physical fitness test, five hundred points is maximum]

Like the soldiers' folksongs we examined earlier, cadence calls are extremely stylized forms of expression.  They have relatively simple rhymes that can be updated or changed to suit the occasion:

        I want to be a Recon [reconnaissance] Ranger,
        I want to live a life of danger.
        I want to go to Vietnam,
        I want to kill some Viet Cong.

Or more up to date:

        I want to go to Israel,
        Send some Arabs straight to hell.

As with other kinds of folklore, cadence calls serve several different functions.  They continue in tradition because they continue to work and give a certain degree of pleasure by turning unpleasant tasks into a form of play.  For us, they provide clues to how individuals deal with the common problems they face in becoming soldiers.

All told, this cursory look at draft and training camp lore shows us a fairly consistent pattern in which soldiers resent and resist military authority.  Although they may acquiesce in the demands of military life, their folklore glorifies those who oppose or beat the system.  We can also perceive a pattern of in-group initiation at the barracks level, and with the cadence chants, an increasing awareness of group unity.

The Final Initiation: Combat

After the initiations of barracks life and basic training, the soldier must undergo still another initiation--the experience of combat itself.  On the battlefield, the soldier must learn a new set of rules to survive and be accepted into the fraternity of front-line soldiers.  Until this rite of passage occurs, the soldier remains an outsider. For some soldiers, the initial combat experience is a sort of trial by fire, a shock that alters the way they think about war.  For others, it is a personal test of their ability to stand firm in the face of danger.

In an oral interview, World War II veteran Robert Rasmus recounts his personal transformation in the course of a single day's fighting.  As he approached the front, he remembered recognizing that he would be tested.  He recalls:

I was [a] skinny, gaunt kind of momma's boy.  I was going to gain my manhood then.  I would be liberated from the sense of inferiority that I wasn't rugged.  I would prove that I had the guts and manhood to stand up to these things.

Rasmus observed the differences between himself and his fellow rookies and the tried combat veterans he encountered.  By the end of the day, he realized he had made it and been changed in the process.  Afterward, he could assume the role he had formerly observed:

We were passing people who were taking over from us, another company.  We had one day of this.  Our uniforms were now dirty and bloody and our faces looked like we'd been in there for weeks.  Now we had the feeling.  You poor innocents.12

Perhaps more articulate than his peers, Rasmus provides in his account a personal version of an experience shared by all combat soldiers.  Most soldiers can tell us of their first time in battle because it stands out as a juncture in their lives. Other battles, perhaps more noteworthy or historically more important, may follow, but their first experience of combat has a deeply personal meaning as a rite of passage.-

The Soldiers' Point of View, (Part Two)



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