At War in the Century of the Common Man


February 12, 1991|By DONALD R. MORRIS

HOUSTON — Until the outbreak of the second World War, enlisted men were essentially nameless and faceless; officers, while entitled to more social respect, were also faceless -- until they reached flag rank, or broke aviation records.

You could turn the services upside down and shake them without finding a married man under the rank of sergeant; they were blue-collar workers and, in time of war, cannon-fodder -- in all nations.

Until Pearl Harbor, junior officers were forbidden by law to marry for five years after commissioning. West Point cadets and Naval Academy midshipmen were expelled if found to be married -- for ''lying,'' since all had to sign statements they were unmarried after every return from leave.

The British solved the problem by not paying officers enough to get married until they reached field grade; the dictum ran ''Captains mustn't marry, Majors may marry, Colonels must marry.''

In British ''colonial wars,'' until well into this century, enlisted men killed in action were buried under cast-iron crosses simply labeled ''Here Rests a Brave British Soldier.'' Officers usually had elaborate marble memorials paid for by the regimental mess.

If a soldier were killed, families weren't even notified unless ''on the strength'' -- officially recognized. The number of authorized enlisted wives was severely limited; they moved with the regiment, lived in barracks (with their children) and served as regimental laundresses.

During the first World War, families were notified -- by telegram (although no effort was made to withhold casualty lists before notification was confirmed) -- and newspapers usually published photographs of officers killed in action.

In France, entire cities tended to come to a fear-filled stop every morning while the mail was being delivered, with families calling up the street to neighbors if the postman carried any of the dreaded ''petit bleu'' envelopes; the government finally hired mature war widows, dressed in black, who in pairs delivered casualty notices.

After the war, all major combatants (except Russia, then in the throes of civil war) made major efforts to identify all the war dead, and to reinter them in impressively designed and tended military cemeteries.

During the second World War, Ernie Pyle was unique among war correspondents in carefully noting the name and hometown of ** every serviceman he interviewed; it made him famous.

Such magazines as Life would sporadically run picture stories featuring enlisted men, but usually to illustrate a general subject -- recruit training, the care of the wounded -- in individual, identifiable, terms.

America got its video news from the newsreels -- with three five-minute editions a week (which provided considerably more hard news than the sum of network and local TV coverage today); there was no time to name anyone, or interview anyone lower than nationally-known movers and shakers.

Servicemen's families received no coverage -- the standard media fare was railroad station scenes of couples (always nameless) in emotional farewell embraces, or of crowds cheering returning troop ships. The notion of intruding on a family with a Gold Star in the window by interviewing them in their private grief would have appalled the media and the public alike.

The change today is staggering; at least half the ''war'' coverage is cast in individual terms. National network television featured half a dozen ''Hi, Mom!'' greetings from enlisted men in every broadcast during the buildup.

Enlisted personnel and junior officers freely express their opinions on a variety of world issues on television; they frequently are given more ample sound-bites than the president or four-star generals.

Local affiliate ''home-front news'' is overwhelmingly devoted to detailed coverage of families of called-up reserves, replete with distracted (and preferably blubbering) spouses, bewildered children and parents, especially mothers. (In recent years, families of people killed in terrorist outrages, or taken hostage, have had hordes of TV crews parked 24 hours a day on their front lawns.)

Enlisted personnel are not only married, they tend to have large families. Single parents -- usually servicewomen -- have custody of children, including infants, while serving on active duty. (There have been real crises, not entirely addressed by the military or the parents, when both parents, or a single parent, have been suddenly deployed.)

This isn't ''news'' -- certainly not hard news. It's emotional masturbation, part and parcel of television's relentless hunt for distraught people in emotional shock -- but it has profoundly changed national attitudes toward the active-service employment of the military.

It is now, moreover, a stark fact of political life, which the civil and military leadership ignores at its mortal peril.

Let an airborne, flag-draped casket return to a continental military base, and a president will drop whatever he's doing to be on hand. The military has wisely canceled such ceremonies. If caskets start to arrive by the hundreds -- let alone thousands, as they well might, the media and the leadership will be well-nigh overloaded.

The Common Man is no longer common, male, nameless or faceless.

Donald R. Morris is a retired naval officer.

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