Why Do Veterans Organize?
Why Do Human Beings Want to Be Joiners?
IF THREE MEN were shipwrecked on a desert island, somebody has said, it wouldn’t be long before two of them found they had something in common and started a club from which the third was excluded. The bond which draws human beings into social groups is a common interest or experience which others cannot or may not share.
Americans have been called a nation of “joiners.” Those interested in a common past join genealogical societies like the Sons and Daughters of the Revolution, or nationality groups like the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, or—in the field of strictly personal memories—alumni associations and explorers’ clubs and guilds of former pipe-organ pumpers. Those with common interests in the present and future join together in labor unions, taxpayers’ associations, consumers’ leagues, political parties, Rotary clubs, and chambers of commerce:
Since man is a “clubable” animal, with a liking for the warmth and friendship of his fellows, organizations of both types go in for lots of social activity, with clubhouses, conventions, reunions, rallies, picnics, luncheons, and anniversaries. But behind each lies a sense of like-mindedness, stemming either from sentiments about the past or joint concern about today and tomorrow.
Veterans have both these interests. Friends in war are friends you learn to depend on. They have gone through the same mill, talk the same language, have a common stake in the future.
Of course, being a cross section of our great population, they are within themselves a pretty mixed lot. And so, inside their ranks, they break up into smaller groups. There are the Disabled American Veterans and the Military Order of the Purple Heart; the Catholic War Veterans and the Jewish War Veterans; the Italian-American, the Lithuanian-American, and the Polish-American War Veterans. But in spite of all these divisions, veterans have a great deal in common.
The big initiation
First of all, from the day of their induction servicemen begin to accumulate a large body of memories that sets them apart from civilians for all time to come. The endless standing in line, shivering naked in medical examiners’ rooms, inoculations, GI talk and chow and clothes and sense of humor, practical jokes and roughhousing, the know-how of Army life and habit, the tough amalgam that the Army makes out of all sorts and conditions of men—all this changes the marching step of humdrum civilian as nothing else ever can. Nobody who has not gone through the wringer can understand it.
Before he knows it, the rookie begins to respond. He starts to feel more at ease with other soldiers than with civilians. When he gets a pass and goes off to town, he somehow drifts into the company of his pals and messmates, making them his partners in eating and drinking, sight-seeing and adventures. All of them understand each other in a growing spirit of solidarity that is the main aim of Army training. They look alike, and in many ways begin to think alike.
The password to this group is of the fact that a fellow came from Texas or Michigan, that he went to a certain school or church, played baseball or sailed boats—but that he belongs to the Army. The stay-at-home, the over-age, the 4-F, all failed to make the grade in this biggest club of like-minded Americans. And the veteran, who bears its stamp, is never going to forget it or fail to have a certain kinship with others who know what Army life was like.
Seeing the elephant
After the Mexican War of 1846, veterans who had fought under Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, climbed Chapultepec Heights, and walked through the Halls of Montezuma had a word for it, a now-forgotten bit of American slang. They “had seen the elephant.” Travel on foreign soil, the hardships, anxieties, hopes, and fears of old campaigners had given them a new range of experience. Those who had seen the elephant—like a boy at his first circus or a hayseed who’d visited the city—naturally came back feeling more mature, a little superior to the stay-at-homes. They had become men beyond their years. They had learned a lot about the world, about themselves under fire, and about the ability of human beings to “take it.” They would’ never be quite the same again.
This attitude is common to all veterans, now more than ever. A global war is a great many things. It is, among others, a huge educational experience, where men learn at an accelerated pace about new technologies, geography, foreign languages, the races of mankind, and their own behavior in crisis. They have seen not only Paree, but Berlin and Tokyo, the Arctic Circle and South Seas, built bases on distant shores and accumulated experience in fighter planes at the rate of four hundred miles an hour. Many of them have dealt in life and death, under the grim alternative of killing or being killed. Millions of young Americans have gone through varying degrees in this initiation into the veterans’ organizations of the future.
The backward view
Pride in one’s outfit is one of the strong reasons why veterans organize. The average GI probably hasn’t given much thought as to how his fighting service will look to future historians—any more than did the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord, or the boys in Blue and Gray at Shiloh and Gettysburg, or the devil dogs and doughboys at Belleau Wood and the Argonne. Tomorrow it will be Guadalcanal and Tarawa, Bizerte and Salerno, Hurtgen Forest and Bastogne. Historians and novelists will be writing about them for the next century; school children will study these new records of American enterprise and bravery. And the veteran, for many years, will be their living symbol. “The days I spent in the Army are the proudest of my life,” runs like a theme through the files of every veterans’ magazine.
The soldier in uniform overseas idealizes home; but after he has laid away the old OD he comes more and more to idealize what happened to him in the Army. Distance lends enchantment. He once did his share of bellyaching about a lot of things that were snafu, the Spam and K rations, the brass hats, and the rear-echelon, as has been a soldier’s privilege since the old Stone Age, or at least since Caesar’s Legionaries. Then he brooded more about footslogging through the mud, about the rats and lice, than the history he was making. But once out of it all, a man finds the haze of fond recollection gathering over these incidents—like the doughboy of 1918 who cursed the French cattle cars, but came home to found a Legion club of “Forty Men and Eight Horses.” And at his reunions, these gripes and discomforts are likely to loom larger in the veteran’s mind than a bridgehead on the Rhine. For these are more comfortable subjects—whether for his sense of humor or his sense of modesty—than the really decisive events.
The spirit of reunions
In the long years of peace ahead, a veteran’s war service is linked with his own lost youth, its sense of strength and adventure, and a life simplified and relieved of petty responsibility. He also remembers its intervals of boisterous fun and freedom from petticoat government. He begins to think of himself and his friends as “old soldiers,” “old-timers,” veterans in a literal sense, and to find himself using phrases like “I remember when,” and “in my time.”
And yet, in his reunions, the veteran tries to recapture his youth. Under the intoxication of being “with the boys” again, he is apt to act like the lad he once was. The carnival spirit of veterans’ reunions is something that puzzles, even annoys, the outsider. Everybody has witnessed the high jinks of American Legion conventions—of steers driven through hotel lobbies and paper bags full of water dropped from windows on the heads of luckless passers-by. Even the last reunion of the handful of ninety-year-olds of the Blue and Gray, at Gettysburg in 1938, consumed forty-two cases of whisky in eight days—according to one of the sponsors. A newspaper editor reported that “the old warriors found the effects to be so beneficent that, when the reunion ended, they demanded a small flask apiece to see them home. The phials were provided.”
The fun of veterans’ conventions cannot be overlooked. Many attend these get-togethers for the sake of fraternal and convivial good times. Once they were young, and in recollection of the jokes they cracked and the misery and death they faced together, they meet again in a holiday mood—knowing that if a fellow chooses to play the fool, his old buddies will probably join in.
The Army was a man’s world, and the symbols of that virile day are precious. Sixty years ago in a paper for Civil War veterans a wistful letter, signed by “Comrade Morse,” complained that regimental rallies in his state were turning into henpecked picnics. “What chance does a man have’ to reune with his old comrades, if he has the care of a wife and two or three small children on his hands? ... Women and children are good things ... but at a reunion of old soldiers they are as much out of place as a hen in a flower garden.” Not very chivalrous, but his attitude is understandable.
This robust spirit has often led veterans’ organizations to take special interest in promoting sports. Such was the American Legion’s effort to legalize and clean up boxing, based on the rules of the Commission on Training Camp Activities, and the still earlier influence of Civil War veterans in making baseball the “National Game.”
We have drunk from the same canteen
Veterans organize from some of the same impulses which create fraternal orders everywhere in America. Young men, who in civilian life might have become Elks or Odd Fellows, on getting home from the war join an organization of veterans. They want a club run by fellows of their own generation, not “old men,” and of course the war, as the biggest experience in their lives, is the one great tie that binds their generation together.
Average Americans looking for companionship and a good time, “joiners” by disposition, and young professional and businessmen—doctors and dentists and lawyers whose practice has suffered in their absence, or insurance and automobile salesmen not unmindful of “contacts”—these are the backbone of most youthful veterans’ organizations in the average American town, where, rather than in the large city, such clubs become a real civic power. Stressing the fraternal spirit, some local chapters or posts develop rituals of their own: initiation ceremonies, passwords, secret grips, “mysteries” with a touch of hocus-pocus that is taken half seriously.
The generation that had fought the Civil War knew some verses, often repeated at reunions:
To every veteran “his war” remains biggest and best. New England veterans of the Continental Army (like many civilians up Boston way) looked down their noses at “Mr. Madison’s war” in 1812. As for the lasting imprint of the Civil War, there is the story of General Joe Wheeler, old Confederate war horse, leading his men against the Spaniards at San Juan Hill in 1898, waving his sword and shouting, “Come on, boys! We’ve got the damn Yankees on the run!”
Today, quite probably, certain veterans of World War I—relegated to the side lines by short wind and hardened arteries, and critical like all bystanders—would refuse to admit that this was a bigger show than theirs. Some, at least, back at the 1942 convention of the Legion, grumbled a little about throwing open their membership to newcomers. But they were outvoted by others who wanted to expand the Legion upon a broader base and give it a transfusion of new blood.
World War II was in fact so big that the experiences of its veterans vary as much as if it had been several separate wars. The man who served in the ETO, as against the man who served in the Pacific—each believing that his war was tougher—stands apart from the soldier who never got overseas at all. Comparisons will be talked about and argued in veterans’ clubs for a long time to come and give rise to many gibes and boasts. Each man, of course, served where Uncle Sam ordered him to serve, and in the winning of a global war there is credit for all. But sense of friendly rivalry among outfits always plays its part when veterans get together.