Dear YANK:

Not so many months after they returned from the last war, many of our fathers and older brothers and friends had already forgotten the mud, the trenches and the fatigue, the blood and the fear of battle. They could remember only the camaraderie.

Our fathers forgot the hellish symphony of shells, but the music of “Mademoiselle and Armentieres” stuck in their minds.

In a vague sort of way, the veterans of World War I realized that they had lost something besides time, in the years they’d been in the Army—and that they’d earned more than the mere plaudits of crowds watching them parade. But most of them, those who were comparatively healthy at least, totted it up in terms of wealth. And when they asked to be reimbursed, the vast majority asked for money.

They got their bonus, but in a sense they lost their war. And then, with the advent of World War II, they realized that their own war had been lost, they never realized that they had a large share in losing it.

The veterans of this war will not, of course, forget the camaraderie any more than did the veterans of the last. The men who fought in World War II will get together, as their fathers did, to shoot the bull about times past, about India, Sicily, Iran, Normandy, Guadalcanal, Okinawa or wherever.

Although they have no common song the equal of “Mademoiselle” to sing, they’ll have their ditties and they’ll sing them. Some of them will get roaring drunk. And there’s nothing wrong with that.wwii veterans homecoming

But there is a dreadful danger that these meanings will degenerate into nothing more than this—that the average veteran of this war, like the average veteran of the last, will let others plan his veterans’ programs—if any—for him. There’s a terrible possibility that all of us will forget. Not that we’ll forget merely the agony of battle or even the constant, minor humiliations of an EM’s garrison life—for these things it’s probably best for us at least partially to forget if we are ever to become useful citizens again. The great danger is that we’ll forget the reasons why we fought the war.

We must not forget that we fought, if only indirectly and sometimes unconsciously, for the right of peaceful people to live out their lives in pursuit of greater liberty and happiness; against tyranny which would subjugate not only our minds and bodies but those of the whole human race; against fear—the fear of death and the other forms of fear that eat away the mind.

We must not forget that we fought as the free citizens of a democracy, although the Army sometimes failed to allow us to realize it; and that unless we continue that fight for freedom and democracy now and in the future, with the physical battle won, the struggle for which so many of our friends gave their lives will be tragically lost.

Lest we forget all this, I suggest that each man readying himself for the return to civilian life plan a program for himself, a kind of set of resolutions that he can refer to from time to time in the months after he becomes a civilian again. It should be a program that he and his fellow veterans can demand of America in place of, or at least in addition to, any specific individual benefits. It should be a program that will make veterans as a group a potent and meaningful force in America’s future.

I don’t pretend that my program is complete. But I believe each point in it is important and one that every veteran should be able to—and should-subscribe to. My program would run something like this:

1)      The men who fought and died for America were of many races and religions. Negro and Nisei, Catholic, Protestant and Jew all fought valiantly together. You might say, if the Constitution didn’t already stress it, that this alone earned them the right to recognition as equals. Let’s see that they get it.

2)      In the Army we were thrown together with people from all walks of life, farmer and union laborer, small manufacturer and professional man. We learned that most of the men we worked with were not malingerers, and that men who are can come from any group. We learned to respect the other fellow’s point of view, to accept what he said, even when we disagreed, as his honest opinion. So even when we disagree with, say, the union man when he goes out on strike, let’s realize that he’s doing it from honest conviction—and maybe real need. Let’s recognize our fellow citizens’ right to security and a living wage.

3)      We were all fed up with the bull that was thrown at us in the Army, too often, about little things—the importance of saluting, for example—and the big things involved in the war. They only reflected, as we realized confusion back home—confusion, ineptitude and politics in the Army and even more, in Congress. More and more of us came to think that much of the bull that is slung in the Army, and on the floor of Congress as well, is the result of corrupt, unthinking political rule—corrupt not in the sense of grafting but in the sense of being in office merely for personal advantage, for what can be gotten out of it. Let’s not stand for old-line politics. Let’s get into politics ourselves—get in at the bottom, in cities, in the districts of cities. You can’t build at the top without rebuilding the rotten underpinnings. Let’s demand political straightforwardness.

4)      Last of all, let’s fight to democratize the Army and follow the fight through logically. Almost all of us will join veterans’ organizations. Let’s not forget what we learned in the Army about the lack of democracy we all found so galling. Our organizations can fight for a change. But they should do more. Let’s not allow our organizations to degenerate into mere drinking and singing societies. Let’s have them lead the fight for the democratic spirit throughout the U.S. and the world.

Let’s demand these things, when we ask for reimbursement, as veterans, for what we’ve lost—and for winning what we’ve won—and make our tentative victory a certain one.

—Cpl. Ackerman J. Michaels


For Further Reading Check Out:

The Greatest Generation

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