Soldiers to Citizens
By Suzanne Mettler
Oxford University Press
Whether they had been urban or rural residents, millions of World War II ’s GIs deeply absorbed values during their military service that shaped their lives after the war.
They learned discipline; discipline day and night; discipline under fire, discipline in mud and snow; discipline under the most dire and dangerous conditions. They learned, no matter how impossible and threatening the situation, to achieve an objective assigned by an Army authority: and this hard-earned learning experience made all the difference in their subsequent lives.
So thousands of them, especially those who had been educated/ disciplined in the Army Specialized Training Program, a college program that was later truncated, went on to towering achievements under the subsequent GI Bill of Rights.
Among those who served in World War II were two U.S. Presidents, two U.S. Supreme Court justices, nine Senators, at least six Representatives, as well as a raft of outstanding actors and scholars.
I was among those who not only was once enrolled in the ASTP but later thronged the colleges in the postwar period, during the return of huge flocks of ex-GIs. And this book assiduosly seeks to recount who those GIs were and what they did.
But as earnest and dedicated as this account by Suzanne Mettler seeks to be, it never gets close to the real impact of military service on the returning GIs.
The fact is that of the millions of American youths who joined or were inducted into the military branches, most came out markedly disciplined and directed. I cannot offer a more startling example of this transformation than the fact that in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army, all infantrymen wore ties in foxholes—yes even while artillery rained down and their clothes were filthy rags. A commissioned or non-commissioned officer’s word was law — even with a soldier’s life on the line.
Not that these young infantrymen didn’t bring intelligence and talent into their military careers; but they learned the singular lesson of being able to achieve under the most dire conditions — with all hell bursting around them. So it could be expected that intelligent survivors of such a menacing environment would feel privileged to have survived, and so steered the rest of their lives with grit, direction, as well as intelligence — and above all with dedication and discipline.
So very few (much fewer than average) flunked out under the GI Bill, and in fact hundreds of thousands went on to higher schooling, professional careers as teachers, lawyers, engineers, journalists, and government officials.
This book deserves kudos for its unflagging scrutiny, for its enlightened orientation, its earnest research, as well as for its unpretentious scholarship. But the question that should have been put by the author to the members of the Greatest Generation was unfortunately never posed. It is: “What in your military career contributed to your success in later life?”
Especially if they were in the Third Army in World War II, especially if they served in combat, and especially if they acquired skills that enabled them to survive the war, the answer would have been encompassed in one word: “discipline.”
That word, and that concept, never appear in this exhaustively researched and written book, and it is that flaw that undermines its otherwise penetrating and informed inquiry into one of the greatest government programs ever adopted.