“What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?”

September, 2017


In 1966, as Vietnam was ramping up, this WWII comedy was a hit in theaters. I thought it raised a good question.

Most people (nine out of ten) who serve in the military are doing the kind of work that is common in civilian life. Unless they happen to be close to the violence, they are not in danger. They are just a cog in the bureaucracy needed to run any large organization.

When “What Did You Do in the War, Daddy” came out I sat, thousands of miles from the growing action in Vietnam, at my desk as Company Clerk at the Boston Army Base. One of my jobs was to put people on 45 days of active duty if they failed to come to meetings. With a war going on, no one wanted to go to active duty, even for 45 days, so I had not yet done one of these.

Then one weekend a guy in the unit whom I barely knew came in and told me that he would no longer be coming to meetings and I should not try to help him avoid going on active duty. Indeed he wanted to be assigned to active duty as soon as possible.

“Never heard that before. You nuts?” I said. “What’s going on?”

“I had an auto accident and lost my spleen, so I applied for a discharge. I was turned down because you can serve in the Reserves without a spleen. However you cannot be without a spleen on active duty. So if I get assigned to active duty, I bet they will discharge me.”

I thought that was even more stupid than some of the stupid regulations I had come across, but I had learned to go with the flow, even when it didn’t go with the flow.

So, for the next five meetings, I dutifully sent this guy a certified letter, return receipt requested, ordering him to return to his Reserve meetings. I gathered the receipts when they came in and when I had all five, I filled out the long, triplicate form to put him on 45 days active duty using my Royal manual typewriter and two pieces of carbon paper.

I got the CO’s signature and sent the form to the unit above us. Two weeks later it came back with a note saying that I had made a mistake on line 2 of the form and I would have to do it over. I was not happy about that as I was a lousy typist (Army trained) and it took forever to fix mistakes in triplicate.

I sent in the new form, and two weeks later it came back with a correction to line 5. Apparently they stopped reading when they found a mistake, so I got them one at a time. This went on for 52 weeks until finally they accepted the form.

I didn’t hear anything more about it for months. Then one day at a meeting I got a call from the guy I had put on active duty.

“How did it go?” I asked.

“I got orders to report to Fort Devens. I drove up and reported in and the first thing they did was give me a physical. I flunked. No spleen. They sent me home and I’m waiting for my discharge papers.”

Not long after that I was sitting at my desk at Fort Devens at the beginning of two weeks summer camp and, as it was quiet, I was reading “Catch 22” the famous World War Two novel about all things idiotic in the military.

In one scene in the novel, Yossarian, the hero who is sure he’s going to die when his B-17 gets shot out of the sky, comes running into the office where the Company Clerk, ex-sergeant Wintergreen, is working. He shouts “There’s a dead man in my tent!”

Turns out that one of the replacements newly assigned to the unit has died in transit, but his stuff got delivered and put into Yossarian’s tent where he was assigned. Yossarian sees this as a very bad omen, and wants that stuff out of there. Wintergreen refuses to discuss the matter at all, making Yossarian even more crazy.

“Why wouldn’t Wintergreen discuss it?” I thought. Why didn’t he just process the guy out like any other casualty?

I picked up the Army Regulations for Morning Reports, which were handily sitting in a bookshelf next to my desk. The Morning Report is like a profit and loss statement for a business, except it deals in people, not dollars.

If someone comes in, they sign in and are listed on the report. The total number assigned to the unit is then upped by one. If someone gets transferred, they sign out and are also listed. The number assigned to the unit is then reduced by one.

Those who die while assigned are also listed and an explanation is included. Those who are sick are listed as well, and totaled at the top of the form with the other numbers, resulting in a net number of a people on duty that day.

This report is used to calculate pay and benefits. It is an important piece of paper.

But the regulations show no way of dealing with someone who dies in transit. He would have signed out of his other unit, so their total would have been reduced by one, but he never signed in at the new unit so their total would not have been increased by one. If Wintergreen enters him as dying, his total number would suddenly be off by one every day. That’s not good.

His solution is ignore-ance. That’s the way the Army operates.

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