Friday, 11 May 2012

Army Games

The Doctor: You know Jo, I sometimes think that military intelligence is a contradiction in terms. (Doctor Who, Terror of the Autons)
The Doctor: Among all the varied wonders of the universe, there's nothing so firmly clamped shut as the military mind. (Doctor Who, Battlefield)

Here is James Thurber's comment on his time in military service here when at Ohio University. Like most of Thurber, it is full of self-depreciating humour, although there is also a note of cynicism about the training used - "It was good training for the kind of warfare that was waged at Shiloh but it had no connection with what was going on in Europe.". Incidentally, the Battle of Shiloh, also known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, was a major battle in the Western Theater of the American Civil War, fought April 6-7, 1862, in southwestern Tennessee!

There was a CCF (Combined Cadet Core) at the secondary school I was at, and it had been compulsory that everyone did at least one year. Fortunately for me, unlike James Thurber, a change of Headmaster meant a change of policy, and that was dropped. I used to see the "square bashing" where the ex-army soldier who were teachers had a chance to relive glory days vicariously. They were usually called something like Colonel Mustard, or Major Laugh, and they could be seen standing and shouting while the boys drilled. I was glad to avoid it.

Like Corporal Jones from Dad's Army, I suffer from an inability to keep pace with others, and I can't see that I would have been able to keep step with the others. When I clap, when music is playing, and everyone is clapping, I invariably clap out of time with everyone else. A friend of mine ran the Scottish Country dancing club at University, and after half an hour of trying to teach me the steps for a Ceilidh, said in exasperation, "you have absolutely no sense of rhythm."

When I was thirteen, my mother formed the misguided notion that I should learn ballroom dancing, so off I went to this school in town, once a week for about a month for an hour, where I learnt how to avoid stepping on girl's toes, and that a slow shuffle in a crowded room can just about be mistaken for a waltz. I used both to great effect at the Marble Arch Hotel that Christmas, when I plucked up the courage to ask a girl for a dance, and just about managed to avoid stepping on her toes, while I ambled around the dance floor.

Anyhow, here is Thurber, telling us of his days in military drill, in his usual inimitable fashion. I'm glad I didn't have to do it; I would have been at least as bad as him if not worse.

Knowing the Drill
by James Thurber

Ohio State was a land grant university and therefore two years of military drill was compulsory. We drilled with old Springfield rifles and studied the tactics of the Civil War even though the World War was going on at the time. At II o'clock each morning thousands of freshmen and sophomores used to deploy over the campus, moodily creeping up on the old chemistry building. It was good training for the kind of warfare that was waged at Shiloh but it had no connection with what was going on in Europe. Some people used to think there was German money behind it, but they didn't dare say so or they would have been thrown in jail as German spies. It was a period of muddy thought and marked, I believe, the decline of higher education in the Middle West.

As a soldier I was never any good at all. Most of the cadets were glumly indifferent soldiers, but I was no good at all. Once General Littlefield, who was commandant of the cadet corps, popped up in front of me during regimental drill and snapped, "You are the main trouble with this university!" I think he meant that my type was the main trouble with the university but he may have meant me individually. I was mediocre at drill, certainly that is, until my senior year. By that time I had drilled longer than anybody else in the Western Conference, having failed at military at the end of each preceding year so that I had to do it all over again. I was the only senior still in uniform. The uniform which, when new, had made me look like an interurban railway conductor, now that it had become faded and too tight, made me look like Bert Williams in his bell-boy act. This had a definitely bad effect on my morale. Even so, I had become by sheer practice little short of wonderful at squad maneuvers.

One day General Littlefield picked our company out of the whole regiment and tried to get it mixed up by putting it through one movement after another as fast as we could execute them: squads right, squads left, squads on right into line, squads right about, squads left front into line, etc. In about three minutes one hundred and nine men were marching in one direction and I was marching away from them at an angle of forty-five degrees, all alone. "Company, halt!" shouted General Littlefield, "That man is the only man who has it right!" I was made a corporal for my achievement.

The next day General Littlefield summoned me to his office. He was swatting flies when I went in. I was silent and he was silent too, for a long time. I don't think he remembered me or why he had sent for me, but he didn't want to admit it. He swatted some more flies, keeping his eyes on them narrowly before he let go with the swatter. "Button up your coat!" he snapped. Looking back on it now I can see that he meant me although he was looking at a fly, but I just stood there. Another fly came to rest on a paper in front of the general and began rubbing its hind legs together. The general lifted the swatter cautiously. I moved restlessly and the fly flew away. "You startled him!" barked General Littlefield, looking at me severely. I said I was sorry. "That won't help the situation!" snapped the General, with cold military logic. I didn't see what I could do except offer to chase some more flies toward his desk, but I didn't say anything. He stared out the window at the faraway figures of coeds crossing the campus toward the library.

Finally, he told me I could go. So I went. He either didn't know which cadet I was or else he forgot what he wanted to see me about. It may have been that he wished to apologize for having called me the main trouble with the university; or maybe he had decided to compliment me on my brilliant drilling of the day before and then at the last minute decided not to. I don't know. I don't think about it much anymore.

1 comment:

James said...

Military intelligence was certainly alive and well in the early 1950s, when the US Army ran the signals intelligence organisation at Fort Meade (before it became the NSA).

One December day one of the privates came to the site carrying a glass containing a jellied substance. The gate guard, when told it was jellied vodka, pointed out the prohibition on alcoholic beverages on site; the private said that it was not a beverage. The supervisor wearily waved the private through. According to those who knew him, Private Tom Lehrer(yes, that Tom Lehrer)'s vodka Jello made the day go with something of a swing.