Commentary Magazine


Clem Has Been Here

What do American veterans think of the rest of the world? On this question the experts split all the way from Smith, who knows that the main hope is Allied unity, to Jones who wants America to keep the peace with plenty of atom bombs. Of the GIs heard from so far, few have echoed the “pre-Pearl Harbor isolationist” expert, and yet, if he went abroad now, a survey of the inscriptions left behind by our troops might well delight him.

“Limeys are yellow . . . Dagoes are—. . . CLEM HAS BEEN HERE . . .—the DPs . . . Frogs smell . . .”

This is a fair sample of what American soldiers in Europe have read for years now, on tables, house walls, monuments or latrine doors. Wherever GIs passed on the long way home, Clem had been first, and everywhere his signature was ringed with abuse. Sometimes it was abuse of “the brass” or of certain of Clem’s fellows in the U. S. Army, like “niggers” or “kikes.” Mostly it was abuse of his allies, or of the liberated peoples. Never—well, hardly ever—was it abuse of the enemy. On the subject of “krauts” Clem had so little to say that he was rumored never to have seen one.

By now the folks back home have heard of Clem, too. They have seen drawings of the little fellow with the big ears showing over the rail of a transport; his antecedents have been discussed in the press. The 82nd Airborne Division has boasted of having the “real low down”: Clem, it said, came from an ad in Liverpool harbor. From afar, the 50 ft initials of Camell’s Laird Engineering Management read C-L-E-M. But most veterans will believe that tracking down Clem was too tough a job for even the 82nd. Perhaps he was once a GI from Arkansas who liked to tell the world where-all he had been. Perhaps he was no one and came from nowhere. What matters, about Clem as about anyone, is not so much where he came from as where he went, what he did, and what company he kept there.

It is interesting to compare Clem with his older buddy, GI Joe. This popular typification of the American soldier of World War II originated in the Army, too—in the training camps where strangers called each other “Joe,” as they had done as civilians. But the expression “GI Joe” was snapped up by the press and radio correspondents, and from their stories graduated into the refined spheres of the editorial page, the war bond poster, and the campaign rally. As a result Joe has since been on perfect behavior. He gripes but remains printable. He is the big brother of the oppressed, incapable of trading on his role as liberator. He never forgets that he won the war by fighting shoulder to shoulder, with his allies. The circumstances in which his name was publicized made GI Joe represent an ideal—the American fighting man at his best.

Clem was under no such compulsion. By the time his name got into print it was known to every enlisted man in the ETO. No Congresswoman ever spoke about Clem. In fact, with some exceptions of low grade, he shunned feminine company. He grew and flourished in spots where men are men and drop their inhibitions. If Clem happened to be the GI at his worst, there was no reason why he should not show it in this privacy. Wherever he appeared, he clung to his stubborn primitiveness and monosyllabic style. He would tell no more in any place than the fact of his presence, sometimes his present business, and his outspoken, bluntly phrased dislikes.

Unquestionably, the GI as Clem expressed more of his true feelings than he did as Joe. Some Americans are certain, too, that the latrine wisdom now pencilled all over Europe by Clem shows what the veteran really thinks, his real sympathies and antipathies. This logic skips a main point. Clem’s reactions were due to a lot of things, but rarely to thought.

An incident which took place in the Saar, shortly after V-E Day, illustrates the dangers of snap judgment. At a show, a GI chorus sang the national anthems of the four principal Allies before an audience largely drawn from a Pennsylvania National Guard division. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was heard standing and warmly applauded at the end. “God Save the King,” also heard standing, received scant applause, and the “Marseillaise” none at all. But to the “Internationale” the boys gave a spontaneous ovation which would have shocked their native Philadelphia suburbs unless they had known the story of the outfit. The division had gone overseas late in 1943, too late to see the English under fire; it had missed the invasion and seen the French only briefly at their worst moment, a few weeks after the liberation, and it had not seen the Russians at all. But it had fought its way toward them clear across Germany, and felt the enemy weaken at each Russian push. Next fall, back in the suburbs, those veterans will vote Republican and damn the Communists like everybody else. If anything remains from the days when they watched the Eastern line draw closer on the situation map, it will be little more than a vague friendly instinct. But overseas, only a few weeks after Germany quit, the memory was still strong enough to make them cheer what they would normally hiss at home.

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Clem’s philosophy stems largely from emotional reactions of a noncombatant army on foreign soil. The important word is noncombatant. Neither Clem nor his ideas were conspicuous in the fighting lines. He was distinctly a creature of the “repple-depple”—the Replacement Depot (which after V-Day became a Redeployment Center), usually a tent city located miles from nowhere and loathed by every GI who ever spent a week or a year in one. Here the soldier found himself “sweating out” an assignment or a shipment home, unable to make friends, not with any outfit, not on any payroll, not in Europe and not in the States. Repple-depples were hells, with the damned not soldiers but numbers—numbers acquiring neuroses. They were Clem’s home grounds and the most fertile soil for his way of thinking, or not thinking.

The favorite jibe against the “Limeys” was that they could not fight. Most frequently adduced as “evidence” was their delay in capturing Caen, the pivot of the Normandy breakout. But at St. Lô, where we lay in the hedgerows waiting for Caen to fall, there was little griping about this delay—certainly no more than about our own failure to take the all-important supply port of Cherbourg as fast as expected. We were too grateful to the British for keeping the counter-attacking Nazis off our flank to entertain any notion that they were “yellow.” It was only later, from replacements fresh from English camps, that we heard Caen cited in support of this notion, with the full aplomb of those who were not there.

To some extent this silliest of canards was a defensive reaction. When we occupied England—and for all practical purposes our visit was an occupation, though by consent—none of us had yet done any fighting. The English had been fighting for years, had whipped the Nazis in the air, at sea, and in Africa, and were justly proud of it all. Their pride hurt ours. After all, we were the big brothers. We had come to deal with the bully they could not handle. We were prepared to be nice to them, considerate and sympathetic, if a little condescending.

When we arrived, the island had beaten the Blitz. Goering no longer had many planes to send over, and he had no rockets yet. We did not actually see British civilian courage. We saw the ruins, of course, the meager rations and wide distress, and we felt pity. We also felt rich. We used to throw handfuls of silver to children and laugh goodnaturedly when they scrambled for the shillings, and the adults hated us for “throwing money after people.”

We had heard much, before we occupied England, about the horrible prejudices of an ossified society. We found a country where German bombs and a draconically egalitarian rationing system had cut deep into the old class lines and where a number of us were in fact surprised by the lack of prejudice and discrimination. The difference was not so great in regard to anti-Semitism (few American soldiers showed any open antipathy to the Cohns and Jacobowskys in their units), but in the attitude toward-Negroes it was striking. I remember an overnight stop in a blacked-out town in the Midlands which had been taken over by colored troops—“niggers” as Clem would say—and the row started by a GI whose name might have been Clem, when two of his colored compatriots in Uncle Sam’s uniform passed in the narrow street, with laughing British girls hooked under. And I remember the look on the girls’ faces when Clem started ranting about “those Limey—who don’t know better’n to mix with the black. . . .”

In general, if we got along all right in occupied England, a major part of the credit was due to the girls. At first they gasped at any breezy, “Hiyah, babe,” but they soon got used to that. With their own men gone for years, for no one knew how much longer, the girls of England welcomed a flood of boys who were friendly and brash and a bit scared underneath and craving feminine companionship. And thousands of them married Americans.

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Inherited prejudice, girls, comparative wealth, tact or the lack of it, and judgment of the extent to which others had contributed to victory: these were the five points determining the GI view of all foreigners. In the British case they worked out rather well. In France they did not. First, and worst of all, the French did not conform to preconceived American ideas, inherited from GIs of World War I. But the old AEF came to France just as we came to England—as friends relieving a fighting ally, a country which was hard pressed but still standing, where the poilus had been at the front for three years and the girls were happy to show the Yanks a good time. Our arrival in 1944 was different, and so were the French.

The ones in Normandy were battle-shocked. With their homes ruined and members of their families killed or wounded by our invasion, they did not show the enthusiasm we expected of the newly liberated. The Parisians were enthusiastic enough, at first, but injected a sour note into the heroes’ welcome by talking as if they had freed themselves. They ran about excitedly, wearing FFI armlets, brandishing pistols, and the prevalent GI reaction was, “Baloney.” The girls were not as advertised, either. No shortage of men had preceded our entry; there had been plenty of Frenchmen around, both resisters and collaborators, and a few hundreds of thousands of idle German soldiers. Besides, the return of the French war prisoners and deported workers was thought to be imminent. The girls were willing but often rather critical, opinionated, obstinate—quite unlike Mademoiselle of Armentières.

Too, the French had expected to be liberated, not reoccupied. When it appeared that the war would last awhile and that the Yanks would stay even longer, when the repple-depples sprang up everywhere and USFET took over the big ports and the big hotels and half of the Riviera as a playground for GIs on leave, when the French found out that they were still to have a foreign army in the country, comparisons became inevitable. They were not always favorable to our friendly occupation. When we used I.R.T. rush-hour tactics in the Métro, the Parisians gasped and moaned, “Même les Allemands ne poussaient pas comme ça—not even the Germans pushed like that!” It was upsetting to feel that in France, which we had fought to free, we were not even as welcome as in England.

Nor, finally, were we as rich as we had been in England. Goods were scarce in France and rationing had broken down under the pressure of a black market fostered by both the Germans and the Underground, who had used it against each other. To keep us from buying up what little was left, an exchange rate had been fixed under which an American private had to spend a month’s pay in taking a girl out to dinner. We suddenly were poor, and it was no great wonder that many started picking up some of the easy money offered by the black market.

Out of all this came the wave of GI Francophobia which in the end stirred the War Department into putting out a pamphlet by a best-selling author: “112 Gripes Against the French,” complete with answers—a remarkable advance for a form of literature whose native habitat was the latrine, and in which authorship originally used to be acknowledged only by Clem. From insufficient plumbing, and the untilled fields (to which the answer was not that French farmers were lazy but that they were in German prison camps), the gripes ranged to indignation over a French claim to have given Americans their Statue of Liberty. To this the pamphlet merely replied, “It’s true.”

The author did an excellent job, but its effect may be doubted. GIs will gripe against France and the French as long as they cannot amuse themselves there as their fathers did in World War I—and they will do that simply because this is World War II. However, it is doubtful whether even 112 gripes will lastingly affect whatever is American opinion of Lafayette’s country. Our boys in France have operated on the black market; they do hang out in bars and raid the dives of Montmartre. But they also study at the Sorbonne, take courses, in Biarritz under the Army Educational Program, and flock to the Opéra, the Comédie Française, the Louvre. And frequently these are the same boys who gave the Place Pigalle its new name of “Pig Alley,” and whose loud, if not too euphonious dawn-patrol choruses in the streets of Nice caused old French ladies to sigh through open windows, “Oh, ces Américains—”

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The odd reactions began in Germany. It was odd—unless you closely considered the background—for graduates of U. S. Army indoctrination courses to wonder why we ever had to fight such a fine people. It also was strange for men who had seen the concentration-camp movies, if not the real, unfumigated thing, to opine that all these so-called enslaved people really were “inferior” and needed stem rule by their betters. And yet such opinions have been heard around every displaced-persons camp in the American zone. It was certainly odd for an American officer in Berlin to tell a German girl that the Jews had started the war—an observation to which the girl, no less surprisingly, replied, “Don’t say such things here, please. They’ve got us into enough trouble.”

It was odd—unless you considered the background. And the background factors were the same as in the Allied countries: a noncombatant army, girls, money, inter-Allied vanity, and previous prejudices. Socialite and would-be socialite GIs felt that after all, people with German names were a better class than those with Polish, Czech or Greek, not to say Jewish names. And then there were the plumbing and the Reichsautobahnen, the cleanliness, the efficiency, and the war machine whose technical perfection and fanatic spirit soldiers admired—especially if they had not faced it in combat.

All these seeds of a liking for the enemy had been sown at home. They had lain buried during actual hostilities and really began to bloom only some time after the start of the occupation period. That in fact they did exist before was proved more than once by the rather shamefaced testimony of freed American prisoners—above all, those taken in the December breakthrough. They told about the first slave-workers they had seen, who gave them the V-sign as they were marched to the rear, and how they had despised these future D Ps and felt that they, the PWs, were way above such “scum.” They told of a sudden feeling of respect when the slave-workers walked past on the outside while they sat behind barbed wire. It took this demonstration of the relativity of liberty to make them think. And they told of their final conversion when the “supermen” starved and maltreated them and the “subhumans” gave them of their own starvation rations.

Not many GIs who were German prisoners will be pro-German or sneer at Germany’s victims. Nor will many of the combat troops who fought their way from the invasion beaches to the Elbe and the Alps. Most of them have seen too much on that way which they will never forget. But they are now mostly civilians, and the more numerous rear area units following in their wake saw very little, while the replacements which will soon make up four-fifths of the occupation force saw nothing at all. Last fall the replacements were polled by the Army, with results that were kept secret for months. Fifty-one per cent thought that Hitler “did the Reich a lot of good before 1939.” Thirty per cent preferred the Germans to both the French and the English. Twenty-four per cent were willing to concede a German right to rule Europe and 22 per cent were satisfied that the Germans had “good reasons” for their persecution of the Jews, with another Io per cent undecided. Even to AMG authorities the survey “appeared to indicate that the American soldier in some cases had fallen for the propaganda of Germans echoing Dr. Goebbels.” He certainly had—because he had seen little and been shown less.

These occupation troops found Europe a place where friends could be bought with a cigarette or even a chocolate bar. It worked everywhere, but it fetched the most pleasingly servile gratitude in Germany. Outside the Reich all sorts of people boasted of their part in our victory, whereas the Germans willingly acknowledged that they had been licked by American power alone. The black market also was more lucrative in Germany, and easier to get into. To make a killing in France, a man might have to embezzle Army stores and risk ten years at hard labor; in Germany he simply “liberated” automobiles, typewriters, cameras, jewelry and whatever else struck his fancy.

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The girls in Germany were in a class by themselves; and for the most part relations with German womanhood descended to Clem’s level; the writing space which he devoted to girls multiplied after D-Day. “We come as conquerors,” General Eisenhower warned his men as they moved into Germany. But in the approach to the other sex, the difference between liberators and conquerors was nil.

We found that, virtually uninhibited after years of Nazi education for free love, the girls in Germany were ready, willing and able to carry on the war for the Fatherland with weapons of their own—and that without distinction of age, looks, married status, wealth or social position, and with no more than a snicker for the Allied fraternization ban.

The case of a friend of mine is an illustration of the working of Goebbels’ feminine delayed-action bombs. Mac was a corporal in a combat unit, had been in the front lines since D-Day, had witnessed the SS atrocities in the Ardennes, had seen Buchenwald a day after its capture, and had learned to despise the Germans as much as any man I knew. He finally landed in a small Hessian town where he was to screen German war prisoners for discharge. Soon thereafter we met again, and he told me about his new girl. Her name was Grete and she was very pretty. Her husband was a PW in Mac’s cage; Mac would probably get his case. “I’m afraid,” he said, “I’ll have to recommend him, for discharge. There seems to be nothing we might hold him on.” Grete herself, he told me, loathed the Nazis, though her sister Liese was still proud of being one. It was a pity, because Liese spoke English fluently and was a good typist and stenographer. Mac had given her a dressing down, but without results. “Give me time,” she had said. “I’ve been a Nazi all my life. Do you want me to change in a week, just because you’re here now?” Mac told the story with a grim face, but in his voice was a touch of admiration.

Three weeks later he drove me over to his little town. Everything was going famously, he said. Grete’s husband had been discharged but it had made no difference. She did not like him, anyhow. Mac was her real love. Liese was now working for the Army. They had decided she was too capable to let her past political affiliations stand in the way of their using her. Efficient help was essential to reconstruction, and the Germans had to be shown that we could put them on their feet faster than the Russians, or they would all go Communist. Besides, we would need their help when the war with Russia came along.

A stalled civilian car came in sight on the Reichsautobahn. Mac slowed down, until he read the English inscription, “Jewish-operated vehicle.” Then he stepped on the gas. When I remonstrated, he laughed. “Don’t be silly—I bet he isn’t even Jewish. They’re all producing Jewish grandmothers now. I’d rather trust an honest Nazi and knew who I’m dealing with.”

In Mac’s town, on a wall of the house where he was billeted, I noticed an inscription which had not been there a month before. It said, in block letters, “CLEM HAS BEEN HERE.”

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In Germany, Clem could give free rein to the prejudices he had felt, but seldom expressed back home. In our Army anti-Semitism was not a serious problem (at least not in the European theater), while anti-Negro prejudice was a very serious one and often led to clashes. Yet it would be naive to conclude that there were no Jew-baiters among our troops. The difference in attitude was probably due to the segregation of colored GIs in Jim Crow units. Jewish GIs benefited from the company spirit, the comradeship that goes with every soldier’s pride in “the outfit.” But in Germany the boys met Jews who did not wear American uniforms but rags and yellow patches, Jews unmistakably marked as such, without rights or standing. Then it became very clear that serving in all ranks of the U. S. Army were men who did not like Jews any better than Negroes, and that others who had nothing against Negroes still did not like Jews.

Those were the officers who kept the Jews in their original, barely cleaned-up concentration and slave-labor camps and balked at executing General Eisenhower’s order to house these German victims by evicting Germans. Those were the enlisted men who waxed indignant—not over the Jews’ continued imprisonment but over having to pull guard at Jewish DP camps—and vented, their indignation on the inmates, as if these had not yet suffered enough. Of course, some of our Clems declared such miserable wretches weren’t kept locked up for nothing—the Poles in England had known the way to treat them—the British probably knew why they wouldn’t let them into Palestine—after all, that country belongs to the Arabs, tough guys, sort of like our own American Indians, and no one ought to try to take their country away from them—well, why not just give all the Jews to the Reds? Maybe the Germans weren’t so all-fired wrong . . .

It became a familiar line. How much energy was required of Headquarters to keep the line from becoming a policy is known to only a handful of men. But the fact that it did not become policy seeped all the way down to the latrine level. Though many unkind comments on DPs at large have since appeared around Clem’s signature, direct attacks on Jews so far have remained few and far between. Here is an almost unique case of voluntary self-censorship by an individual accustomed to the ultimate in freedom of speech, as befits a free American.

For that is what Clem is. We may call the tenor of his writings un-American; the fact of his writing them is strikingly American. We need merely glance at the works of similar type which the “krauts” left behind in France. There is-always of course the official anthology, complete with dirty remarks about enemies of the Reich, Jews or “Jew lackeys.” Yet mudslinging covers a mere fraction of the Nazi walls. The main space serves for positive, patriotic utterances. With hardly a slogan missing, it almost seems as though in the Wehrmacht physical functions too had suffered a kind of Gleichschaltung and been coordinated with the Fuehrer’s words and aims. A German soldier was a robot even in the latrine. Clem was free. Clem was an American.

Always and everywhere in World War II the GI was both Joe and Clem. He ran the gamut of American traits, good and bad. He was matter-of-factly heroic up front, and drunk and disorderly when out on a pass. He was smart and a sucker, generous and a racketeer, now eagerly appreciative of the values of the Old World, now boorish and vulgar toward its people. The “ill will” the boys are said to create abroad must be considered in the light of what used to be said there about Americans in peacetime. The same charges, almost word for word, are now made against the Americans in uniform. But if no permanent ill will resulted from earlier anti-Yankee outbursts, present criticism of the GIs is not likely to produce it either.

Allowing for changed conditions, the attitudes of the Americans also were much what they had been in peacetime—when in fact they had largely developed. Of the millions of jibes that Clem wrote on the walls of Europe, few might not just as well have been penned by some crabby, contrary, and often foul-mouthed pre-war tourist. Even Clem’s prime and singular purpose has been that of the disgruntled traveler: to get home in a hurry.

In a flood of gripes and abuse Clem has completed the Odyssey of the American soldier of World War II. He has sweated out transports in repple-depples and staging areas and ports of embarkation. He did his last KP here, cleaned his last yard there, spent his last day in the guard-house over yonder. He spat out his last K-rations, and after one of the last westward crossings of the Queens his name was found in two hundred places abroad. Griping, bitching, raising his own frustrated hell with pencil on private walls, he has reached the one and only goal he shared with millions of others. Clem has come home.

So Clem and his gripes reach the parting of their ways. Henceforth, the veterans will have to make up their minds about the world they live in. As GIs they could simply blow off emotional steam on a wall or latrine door, for the decisions were out of their hands; but those days are gone with the uniform. Clem, the ever-unreasoning, will meanwhile go to a GI Elysium and blissfully sweat out an eternal last night as a soldier. Unless his disembodied gripes should get out of hand and start another war, he will probably remain there.

 

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