While You’re Being a Soldier, Be Sure You’re Not Just Being a Sucker (1939)

In 1939, the United States was at peace but war was already under way in Europe. Poland had been occupied, and France was to be next.

In America, boys played with guns and metal toy tanks.

In the fall, my brother, nine-year-old Chuck, was playing soldier with an army of boys in the city park just a block from our home in Inglewood, California, and Brick, who was living in San Francisco,  wrote him his objections.

In a five-page, single-spaced letter, of which this is only a part, he explained just what war was anyway.

(Undated; November l939]

Dear Charles:

Since you’re so busy being a soldier, I suppose you need some equipment or something. I don’t know exactly what branch of the service you belong to, but I’m sending Mother an extra dollar — one for you and one for Louis — and if you want to spend it for a tin helmet or a copy of infantry drill regulations or something else you need as a soldier, it’ll be OK. The same with Louis. Maybe if you can get a canteen to carry water in, that would be good equipment.

However, before you do, I think you and I ought to go into this war question and see exactly what it’s all about.

There are two kinds of people in the world, you know — those who get their heads blown off to make somebody else rich and those who get rich by having other people get their heads blown off by beating drums, waving flags and so forth. 

Brick explained the history of World War I.

All in all, ten million people were killed in the war. And none of them had anything, really, against any of the others — nor did any of them get anything out of it except the merchants and the bankers who stayed at home.

If you went out to rob a bank for a guy, you’d expect him to give you part of the loot, wouldn’t you? In fact, if you did all the work and took all the risks, you’d have a right to expect all the loot. But these soldiers who went over to rob the German banks and stores and farms and factories didn’t get any of the loot for themselves. The bankers and merchants and factory owners took it all.

That’s what war is all about. So while you’re being a soldier, be sure you’re not being just a sucker. 

Got it? It’s something like having an earache. There’s nothing grand and glorious about it — it’s just too darned bad if you have it, but if you do have it, you’ve got to have it lanced.

Being a soldier is a necessary evil like being a garbage collector or sewer cleaner, only it’s such a dirty job that they have to dress you up in fancy uniforms and medals and surround you with fancy words and flags and everything in order to get you to do it.

Don’t get the idea, either, that there is any one country that is a very fine country and another country that is a very bad country that ought to be destroyed. The Germans are a good people and so are the Poles and the Russians and the Italians and the French and the Americans and the Mexicans. And the English.

But the common people in each of these countries are prevented from finding out that they haven’t any quarrels with the common people of every other country and are persuaded to do foolish things. 

He Usually Lived With

We feel that England is doing a fine thing in fighting for Poland. But England has been the worst of all the countries in robbing other countries. For years she kept an army in India which is (and always has been) engaged in nothing except systematically robbing the Indian people of their money and jewels and even food and cotton for the benefit of the few rich companies which own England.

We all felt sorry for Belgium during the last war, but Belgium has been one of the worst countries; it has hundreds of thousands of negro slaves in Africa working night and day in the sun to enrich the few owners of Belgium. 

It won’t be very long now until you’ll be a Boy Scout. The Scouts are very fine, and you’ll have a lot of fun and learn a lot of things.

But the Scouts have frequently been used to train youngsters to act without thinking so that when they grow up they can be persuaded to go over and shoot some other ex-Boy Scout from some other country in order to enrich the wealthy people who put up the money to keep the Boy Scouts going.

So when you do become a Scout, I hope you remember to take the good things and just grin at the bad things they may try to teach you.

All of this is summed up in the word “patriotism.” It should be a very good emotion but it is frequently a very bad one.

He Usually Lived With

We have a very fine country and a very fine flag, but unfortunately our country has done and is still doing dishonorable things. That’s because my dad and the dads of my friends and the other ordinary people in our country aren’t smart enough to make the flag represent what they think but let it represent the selfish acts of a few rich and powerful people. 

When I pledge allegiance to my flag, I mean that I’ll try to make it represent the best that is in America, instead of the worst. That means not robbing other people in other countries and not using the flag to permit the robbing of Americans at home.

That’s what patriotism should mean and, if it does mean that to you, you’ll be a very fine American and, if necessary, a very fine soldier.

Do you get it? I think you do because you’re quicker to see things like that than most grownups. If you do get it, tell Mother what you want to buy with that dollar in the way of military equipment, and I’m sure she’ll buy it for you.

Because the only string on this particular present is the fact that you should understand what it’s all about before you buy it.

from Chuck,
undated; late l939]

Dear Dad,

After I got your letter I sez to myself, “I think I will quit the army,” so I tells that to the General, and he sez “an army without you would be no good” so we starts a newspaper.

Thanks for the buck. We are going to use it to buy a printing press ($l.50). We are having a lot of fun.

We have a job printer who is going to print us some letterheads. Of course, I know what letterheads are, but the other kids don’t.