Reactions of a Reserve Officer


Of the thousand problems which face the reserve officer, that of discipline is probably the most interesting, the most perplexing, and the most novel. In general, he has not had much to do with it since he left school, and there his point of view toward it was most often hostile. The mechanics of it—the matters of justice, punishment, and reward—are simple enough, and at first he does not see beyond them. Presently, the more complicated elements of the problem confront him, and he begins to perceive that it is not a physical one, but almost purely psychological. Considered as a whole, it is made up of an infinity of details; it is a dangerously personal matter, for every case that comes before him for decision has contained in it the factor of his own personality, the factor of the offender’s personality, and the factor of the offense. If he tries to follow the easy platitude that he must treat all men alike, he is doomed; the object of discipline in the army is to get the best work out of each individual, and to produce at the same time an absolutely uniform result throughout the military unit. Instant obedience is imperative; it cannot be secured from all men in the same way.

The reserve officer, then, finds himself on the horns of a dilemma; he hesitates between the accurate individual treatment of men, which may make him appear unjust, and the unwavering adherence to mechanical standards, which will in the long run make him ineffective. From considering the problem an easy one, he passes to the stage where he believes it to be almost insurmountable in difficulty. Gradually the fog clears, however, if he proceeds with courage and tries to satisfy no man save himself.

Offenses divide themselves into two classes—the simple infraction of established regulations, for which the penalty is standardized, and the complex cases arising among men who are constitutionally hostile to the law simply because it is the law. The first class needs no lengthy consideration, for it causes no serious trouble, sets up no psychological reactions, and can be dealt with on a purely impersonal basis. The man dances, and pays the piper; the just corporate mind of his company will give him no sympathy, and in general he expects none.

The case of the chronic kicker is more subtle. Often he avoids breaches of regulations, and confines his activities to the undermining of the more important qualities of espirit de corps and morale. These qualities are the result of intelligence applied to discipline, and are incomparably more important to a command than discipline itself; the man who is constantly in clandestine conflict with them is therefore incomparably more menacing to an organization than the man who is frequently drunk and disorderly or absent without leave. On the other hand, the chronic kicker has often the makings of a good soldier, just as the leader of a gang of bad boys is often potentially an excellent citizen. Since it is the business of all officers to make good soldiers out of the material at hand, they must treat such men as individuals and not as military molecules. No two of them can be treated exactly alike; some must be beaten with rods, and others tickled with straws; some must be given positions of responsibility, and some must be used as kitchen police. In dealing with them, the officer’s knowledge of psychology, and his desire to achieve in his unit a sort of discipline which shall be constructive and not superficial, are of the highest importance to the service. Before he can proceed intelligently, he must make up his mind what he wants; that is, he must furnish himself with an adequate definition of discipline.

It has been, in general, most abominably defined. A writer in a recent magazine said that it was ‘doing what you don’t want to do,’ and italicized the statement because he was so sure he was right. If he was right, the mere fact that a man did not want to beat his wife would be proof positive that he ought to do it; and the streets in front of our jails would be full of crowds clamoring for entrance because they would rather live almost anywhere else. Printing the statement in italics is nothing less than a crime, because the man in the street habitually believes everything he sees in italics. It is doubly harmful in these days, showing as it does a hidebound misunderstanding of the drafted man and the drafted man’s mind: our soldiers are busy learning how to do what they want to do, — kill Germans, to wit, and get the filthy job finished as soon as possible, — and they have no time to bother their heads with speculations as to whether they want to obey orders or not. In fact they rather like the orders before they have been in the service many weeks. That they are disciplined requires no proof, since they have been in action overseas; undisciplined troops win no battles. The processes of discipline, pleasant or not as the case may be, are to them unimportant, because they know without thinking about it that discipline is a means to an end and not an end in itself—something the magazine writer does not seem to be aware of. The definition, moreover, is Teutonic. One of the most serious indictments against the Germans is that they have flagellated themselves like mediæval fanatics, till they enjoy pain for pain’s sake, and have degraded discipline, the fundamental condition of all success, until it has become with them a fetich thirsty for sacrifice.

And we are in more danger from Prussian ideas than from Prussian arms. The thorn-squeezing proclivities of the magazine writer above quoted appeal subtly to our Puritan instincts; we are still suspicious of everything that does not make us uncomfortable, and too often choose to plod because we are afraid to fly. There is nothing surprising about the high morale and unconquerable spirit of our draft army, unless it be our own surprise at the presence of these qualities. They were to be expected by anyone who has taken the pains to know the American spirit, which is exasperatingly slow to start, and absolutely refuses to stop till its end has been gained.

Unless he appreciates this fact, — and in general the new reserve officer does not appreciate it, — he will waste his energy in worrying about purely formal discipline. Being unfamiliar with military life, he is likely to forget that the entire army is now living under service conditions, with the probability of action constantly before its eyes. Even in the old army, where the type of private soldier was not usually so high, the guard-houses emptied themselves almost automatically when the regiment was ordered for active duty—in other words, as soon as the purpose of discipline became concrete and imminent instead of abstract and remote.

Undoubtedly, we were the most undisciplined nation on earth before the war; impertinence to policemen was a national characteristic. It is not altogether a paradox that the draft army has proved itself amenable: our contempt for regulations did not always imply a contempt for law. The personal experiences of most men had satisfied them that it paid to behave; even such inexcusable infractions of law and order as lynchings exhibit a sort of an inverted respect for the basis of all law, as well as a resentment at the tardiness and uncertainty of our courts. We were, and still are, casuistical: having always our personal ends in sight, and being beautifully certain of their virtue, we never bothered our heads about the means. If the means as well as the end were worthy, so much the better. As soon as one clear, unquestionable goal was set before the country, our individual concentration on our personal objectives became crystallized; the national purpose became the personal purpose of every man in the country, and of every man in the draft. In the past year, those of the people who are not directly under orders have accomplished marvels of self-discipline in the matter of food-consumption, contributions to all sorts of funds, and sacrifice of all that made the life of the individual worth the living. Similarly, the drafted men, with the national objective in mind, have wholeheartedly submitted themselves to the strictest sort of discipline, at the same time preserving their individuality. It is an amazing combination, to be sure; none have found it more so than our enemies. But, when it is analyzed, there is nothing startling or revolutionary about it; like everything else, it is a result of causes and not a miracle.

The causes and the result must both be appreciated by the young officer before he is capable of handling a draft outfit. He will run across all sorts of superior officers, most if not all of them competent in the extreme, and skilled in maintaining discipline. The more of them he works under, the better for him, for he will more quickly discover the golden truth that underlies their methods. At first, he may try to imitate one or another of them; then, as his experience grows wider, he will at last learn that imitation is the one broad and easy way to failure. No two successful disciplinarians are alike, unless they are so by chance; the uniformity of their results too often makes them appear so. Results must be uniform: that is of the first importance; otherwise we should have a mob instead of an army. But each man must try for them in his own way. He may be a success or he may be a failure, as the gods decree. The discovery of his own individuality is his only chance for success.


facebook share button twitter share button reddit share button share on pinterest pinterest

Add Reactions of a Reserve Officer to your library.

Return to the Gerald Chittenden library , or . . . Read the next short story; The Victim of his Vision

© 2022