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James M. Fenwick

Off Limits

Part I
The Brutalization of the American Soldier

(24 December 1945)


From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 52, 24 December 1945, p. 3.<<br />Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


Early last September, I, along with 450 other men, left northern Bavaria for eventual redeployment home. Bavaria is hauntingly beautiful, but now most of it is an indescribably complete and depressing ruin. Everywhere wander children, old men and women, and young, mutilated Wehrmacht veterans, picking their way through the rubble, trying somehow to live.

On one occasion we stopped beside a freight train loaded with displaced persons. We all got out of our freight cars to stretch. Standing on the loading platform beside a pitiful heap of personal belongings was a young woman. One of the men of our unit walked up to her, coolly lifted her dress over her head, and slowly inspected her as if she were a slave on the block.

The woman stood there in her filthy underclothing, afraid to move or object, torn with rage, tears and shame. Only my buddy and I protested.

“Put that woman’s dress down!”

The soldier turned to us, still holding up the dress, spit casually and said: “What the hell’s it to you?”

Yes, yes ... what was it to us?
 

The War Has Debased All Human Values

That little incident defines very well the plight of millions of people in Europe today. Certainly at no time within the memory of living man has the value of human life sunk so low. And it demonstrates very well, also, the brutalization which has taken place of an unfortunately large number of American troops in Europe.

It is a little surprising, even for a class-conscious veteran, to return home and find how little actual knowledge exists on the conduct of the American soldier in Europe. And it is equally surprising, when stories are printed in such magazines as Life or even Politics, to find how cautiously the argumentation is advanced and how carefully the documentation is adduced in support of the facts.

For there is not a GI who was in combat in Europe who cannot tell scores of stories which are so vile that many soldiers endowed with a sense of human decency have come to feel that mankind is essentially bestial and irredeemable; the French and Belgian press have been full of denunciations of American soldiers – a harbinger of a full-scale political revolt against American imperialism’s domination of Europe. In Germany, where the Americans have behaved many times worse, the Germans are in no position to protest.

*

“You Are Worse Than the Germans!”

A French professor in Paris who had formerly been a liaison officer with the British, who had lived in both the United States and England, and who bitterly, disliked the Germans, once told a group of us that in their personal relations with the French the Germans were models of correctness compared with the Americans. A Belgian Trotskyist in a small mining town who can by no means be accused of chauvinism, summed up the situation by saying: “The American soldiers treat us like conquerors, not like liberators.”

Yet what soldier who was there can forget those bright summer days of late August and early September 1944, when it almost seemed that the war had meaning? Everywhere were crude signs hung across the houses: “Thanks to our Liberators!” “Long Live the Americans!” Everywhere crowds thronged the streets, offering tomatoes, pears, apples, cognac, wine, mint drinks and bread. Everyone was laughing, clambering up on the vehicles and kissing the Americans, even while shots were stiil echoing in the streets. Children were held up to touch the fabulous Americans as they passed by. The FFI (French Forces of the Interior) appeared in the open, proudly wearing their tricolor brassards. The long night was over. The Hitler empire, which was to endure for a thousand years, was falling to the ground in dust.

Hardly a year later one of the common jokes current in Paris was, “The Americans liberated us from the Germans. Now who’ll liberate us from the Americans?”

What happened in the interim?

(Part II)


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