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James M. Fenwick

Off Limits

Part II
The Brutalization of the American Soldier

(31 December 1945)


From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 53, 31 December 1945, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


During the war the American press was filled with horrifying stories of the devastation and the brutality accompanying German and Russian military operations, That the facts were, in the main, not manufactured but true, proves once again how far the retrogression of humanity has proceeded, even in comparison with the depths attained by World War I.

But if the American capitalist press were honest (what a bold thought!) it would have exposed and condemned similar acts on the part of the American army. While quantitatively and qualitatively these acts did not reach the levels of bestiality to which German fascism sank, they did violate every civilized norm achieved so painfully by thousands of years of human struggle.

The vileness of the conduct of a large number of American soldiers in Europe is one of the chief factors which are currently creating a wave of hatred against Americans in allied and enemy countries alike.
 

The Years of the Locusts

The Germans, of course, being the enemy, received the full force of American brutality, whether it was the product of official strategy or of the individual soldier. It is now admitted that the allied bombing of Berlin, like the German use of flying bombs or rockets against London, served almost no strategic purpose. Children, old people, and women formed an unduly large number of the victims. It was terror bombing.

The capitalist press, whose cultural level is well exemplified by such an ingeniously sadistic comic strip as Dick Tracy, frequently denounced the cultural vandalism of the nazis, who destroyed the Tschaikowsky museum, melted down ancient Belgian church bells, and committed other crimes against universal culture.

Our record is little better. Elements of my regiment occupied buildings of the University of Bonn, formerly one of the most renowned schools of the world. Karl Marx, among others, studied there. What allied bombings began, our ground forces completed. Scientific equipment was looted, books and valuable research were destroyed. Similarly, Beethoven’s birthplace, likewise located in Bonn, is now a mass of wreckage.
 

“Lootin’ Is Verbootin’!”

Looting was almost universal among officers and men alike. German prisoners, as a matter of routine, were stripped of cameras, watches, money (“You won’t need that anymore!”), jewelry, cigarette lighters, gloves, and even photographs of wives, mothers, and sweethearts.

The first measure after capturing a town was to loot it. Some looked for cognac, some sought money, the pious stole Bibles.

So avid became the looting fever in our regiment that sometimes Germans would be holding the second floor of a home while our troops would be looting the first floor. On one occasion three German half-tracks shot up a town our forces had just taken, surprising the men while they were looting and before they were dug in. Officers, having exceptional opportunities, were in many cases exceptional looters.

Looting became so commonly accepted that barracks bags became known as “loot sacks.” The attitude toward it became summed up in a cynical, stereotyped dialogue: “What you got there? You know lootin’s verbootin’!’’ “I didn’t loot this – I LIBERATED it!”
 

Man’s Inhumanity to Man

Brutality toward Germans was common, especially during combat. Every combat soldier knows that German soldiers were oftgn mercilessly beaten while being interrogated. Frightened, disarmed prisoners were many times taken into the woods or into a shed and shot.

German civilians were treated with arrogance and brutality. Often, aged German couples were given half an hour to evacuate their homes so that their house could be occupied by our troops. Where were they to go? With what? That was their problem. Food from mess halls were thrown away before it would be given to Germans. I have seen small children, who were trying to salvage food from garbage cans, driven away with riding crops. Ravenously hungry displaced persons, their hands stretched out imploringly through the fence surrounding the mess were treated similarly.

The standard greeting to a German woman was, “Wieviel?” – “How much?” They were constantly subjected to obscenities and suggestive acts which if committed on an American street would invite a beating or commitment to a psychiatric ward. Taking advantage of the crushing economic chaos, soldiers purchased sexual pleasure on the crudest barter basis, in which chocolate, C rations, soap, or tobacco were used as the medium of exchange. The relation was on the meanest level, the woman customarily being referred to as “my pig.”
 

An Unendurable Friendship

The situation was hardly better in Allied countries. Houses in combat areas were similarly looted. French and Belgian men were either ignored or treated almost like enemies. In cities like Reims or Paris, which were leave centers, French women were treated on the streets as if they were universally prostitutes. Prostitutes were themselves often beaten, cheated or robbed. Private homes were broken into by soldiers demanding to see the girls. Drunkenness was common. It was not unusual to see GI’s stretched out cold in subway stations. Mirrors were shot out in bars. Frenchmen were beaten up with the slightest provocation. In short, American troops behaved like conquerors.

Even with his own comrades, particularly if they were from another outfit, the American soldier behaved contemptibly. This was especially evident in the attitude taken by white soldiers toward Negroes. Fights, ganging up on Negroes by whites and shootings were almost a nightly occurrence in areas where Negroes and whites were billeted near each other.

What is the reason for such conduct? Is human nature inherently and irrevocably debased? Why did so many American soldiers in Europe behave in a fashion that made persons possessed of a sense of even common decency avert their eyes in shame?


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