Every last man on K.P.

Patton’s appreciation of tough but unglamorous work—and a bleg for a speech from the Left that does as well or better.

Harold’s fantastic post rightly emphasizes that those who grouse at a few hours’ unexpected arduous labor should think about the lives of those who do it every day.

Harold stresses the policy implications of this: a decent society would do much more to provide those who labor with good health care, occupational safety, an adequate wage, and retirement security.  But there’s something more we need to do: give regular, prominent and explicit recognition to everyone who does a necessary job of not particularly high status.  To my mind, doing this and meaning it is the difference between real leadership and a baron by some other name giving orders to people he or she thinks of as villeins.

Let’s not flatter ourselves: those of us on the Left, broadly speaking, don’t always do this better than than our counterparts on the Right.  (A bleg to prove me wrong follows after the jump.) I’m not sure I know of a socialist or even liberal version of the practice as convincing as Patton’s—real, not sanitized—speech before the Allied invasion of Europe.

[Warning: Being an actual WW II Army speech, this contains lots of profanity.  The text is after the jump.]

An Army is a team. It lives, sleeps, eats, and fights as a team. This individual heroic stuff is pure horse shit. The bilious bastards who write that kind of stuff for the Saturday Evening Post don’t know any more about real fighting under fire than they know about fucking! We have the finest food, the finest equipment, the best spirit, and the best men in the world. Why, by God, I actually pity those poor sons-of-bitches we’re going up against. By God, I do.

All of the real heroes are not storybook combat fighters, either. Every single man in this Army plays a vital role. Don’t ever let up. Don’t ever think that your job is unimportant. Every man has a job to do and he must do it. Every man is a vital link in the great chain. What if every truck driver suddenly decided that he didn’t like the whine of those shells overhead, turned yellow, and jumped headlong into a ditch? The cowardly bastard could say, ‘Hell, they won’t miss me, just one man in thousands.’ But, what if every man thought that way? Where in the hell would we be now? What would our country, our loved ones, our homes, even the world, be like? No, Goddamnit, Americans don’t think like that. Every man does his job. Every man serves the whole. Every department, every unit, is important in the vast scheme of this war. The ordnance men are needed to supply the guns and machinery of war to keep us rolling. The Quartermaster is needed to bring up food and clothes because where we are going there isn’t a hell of a lot to steal. Every last man on K.P. has a job to do, even the one who heats our water to keep us from getting the ‘G.I. Shits’.

…One of the bravest men that I ever saw was a fellow on top of a telegraph pole in the midst of a furious fire fight in Tunisia. I stopped and asked what the hell he was doing up there at a time like that. He answered, ‘Fixing the wire, Sir.’ I asked, ‘Isn’t that a little unhealthy right about now?’ He answered, ‘Yes Sir, but the Goddamned wire has to be fixed.’ I asked, ‘Don’t those planes strafing the road bother you?’ And he answered, ‘No, Sir, but you sure as hell do!’ Now, there was a real man. A real soldier. There was a man who devoted all he had to his duty, no matter how seemingly insignificant his duty might appear at the time, no matter how great the odds. And you should have seen those trucks on the road to Tunisia. Those drivers were magnificent. All day and all night they rolled over those son-of-a-bitching roads, never stopping, never faltering from their course, with shells bursting all around them all of the time. We got through on good old American guts.

Many of those men drove for over forty consecutive hours. These men weren’t combat men, but they were soldiers with a job to do. They did it, and in one hell of a way they did it. They were part of a team. Without team effort, without them, the fight would have been lost. All of the links in the chain pulled together and the chain became unbreakable.

Though I admire the speech, it has some problems.  The biggest one is that I had to do my own sanitizing—not of profanity, but of Patton’s particular flavor of social Darwinism.  Unlike him, I don’t want “yellow cowards” to be “killed like rats” so that they don’t “go home after this war and breed more cowards.” Beyond this, the speech obviously was very macho and failed to recognize women (though at the risk of getting in trouble, I think that the latter is largely excusable in this context: yes, Patton could have recognized Rosie the Riveter as well as women keeping households going on the home front, but it’s probably bad psychology when talking to a team—in this case an Army of all-male combat troops—to recognize too many people who are not actual members of that team).  Given that WW II troops were segregated, it also failed to recognize Blacks, and Patton would probably not have felt like recognizing them if they had been there.  And the social Darwinism, which is actually obtrusive in context, reveals a shortcut that Patton didn’t have to take but—being Patton—did: building up the team by tearing down those of its members who can’t live up to expectations.

Consider this a bleg.  I’m looking for a left-of-center speech that does as well as Patton, or better, by the following criteria: (1) like Patton’s, it displays eloquent and concrete respect directly to those who do unglamorous but crucial work (not abstract or ideological calls to solidarity or hatred of the ruling classes but direct appreciation for the work done); (2) it includes, or at least does not conspicuously exclude, any group of people involved in that work; (3) it manages to make successful team members feel good without showing contempt for the weak or incapable.

Ideally, I’d also like the speech to recognize—as Marxists often don’t—the fact that managers and other professionals are also essential parts of the team.  (While I can’t stand academic administrators who get paid very well for doing nothing, the few true financial wizards at UCLA who keep the university going in spite of massive cuts deserve nothing but praise, and I don’t mind their being paid more than I am: if not for them, I wouldn’t get paid.)  But given that managers and professionals get a lot of respect as it is, I’ll settle for (1) to (3).  Any suggestions (preferably as links, so the comments will still be readable)?

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

16 thoughts on “Every last man on K.P.”

  1. Not sure if this quite hits the spot, but from Jesse Jackson’s 1988 speech at the Democratic Convention:

    Most poor people are not lazy. They are not black. They are not brown. They are mostly White and female and young. But whether White, Black or Brown, a hungry baby’s belly turned inside out is the same color — color it pain; color it hurt; color it agony.

    Most poor people are not on welfare. Some of them are illiterate and can’t read the want-ad sections. And when they can, they can’t find a job that matches the address. They work hard everyday.

    I know. I live amongst them. I’m one of them. I know they work. I’m a witness. They catch the early bus. They work every day.

    They raise other people’s children. They work everyday.

    They clean the streets. They work everyday. They drive dangerous cabs. They work everyday. They change the beds you slept in in these hotels last night and can’t get a union contract. They work everyday.

    No, no, they are not lazy! Someone must defend them because it’s right, and they cannot speak for themselves. They work in hospitals. I know they do. They wipe the bodies of those who are sick with fever and pain. They empty their bedpans. They clean out their commodes. No job is beneath them, and yet when they get sick they cannot lie in the bed they made up every day. America, that is not right. We are a better Nation than that. We are a better Nation than that.

  2. Thanks for the link, Swift Loris. It is a lovely speech. I have my doubts about guest worker programs, but I suppose in theory there could be one that wasn’t awful.

  3. Alain de Botton (yeah, yeah, pseudo-intellectual, not a real philosopher, not a representative of the left; whatever) had a speech at TED in 2009 in which he spoke on this theme — that people do work other than the work “we” do are frequently just as skilled in their way, just as interested in doing a good job, and deserve just as much respect.
    I will grant that his words were refreshing simply because they are so rare.

    You can find it by going to iTMS and doing a search for “Alain de Botton”. I’m not going to post a link because that’ll probably get me marked as spam.

  4. Along the same lines as koreyel above, there is a great video of Leonard Cohen singing _Solidarity Forever_ on YouTube.

    (Once again no link because, emboldened by people above with successful links, I tried to include one and the comment was vanished. So search YouTube for Leonard Cohen Solidarity Forever)

  5. Maynard, to embed a link, do the following (and I can’t guarantee this will work; I had to look up how to represent angle brackets):
    Say you want to link to the site http://www.site.com, using the text “Here is a link to site.com“; then, you’d type:

    &lta href=”http://www.site.com”&gtHere is a link to site.com&lt/a&gt

  6. Well, that didn’t work. I guess trusting a random Google hit wasn’t the way. Anyway, if you replace my square brackets in the following blockquote with angle brackets, that will work.

    [a href=”http://www.site.com”]Here is a link to site.com[/a]

  7. Woodie Guthrie, though he’s from a different era. Bill Moyers, though I don’t have a specific link.

    I don’t disagree that talking about working people is somewhat out of style but the statement that “those of us on the Left, broadly speaking, don’t always do this better than than our counterparts on the Right” left me scratching my head. Who on the right has anything nice to say about working people?

  8. Just for the record, Warren, the first is HTML escaping – that’s for whan you want to see characters that would otherwise be interpreted as HTML, assuming e software allows it, which this ancient blog obviously doesn’t. But the effect on a blog that allows such things would be to make it look like HTML without actually functioning as such. The second thing you posted isn’t HTML at all, but rather some pseudo-markup used by some message boards. Never seen a blog that uses it, but there probably are some.

    Just embed a link, and describe it in needed. This is old software, as is goes.

  9. That Patton speech was great. But one wonders – is any of this more than blather without the rubber-meets-the-road improvements in lives? Like decent pay, benefits, pensions, etc? Ooooh… I said pensions!

    Because I recall the time I proposed to a conservative, in a conversation about trade schools vs. college, that we don’t respect the working class in this country. She assumed to remind me that I would sure respect a plumber when he came to fix my broken pipe. Well, that was my point. Not only do we not respect their work, but in terms of pay, physically demanding labor is often valued less – certainly the less skill it requires. Anyway, many of the traditional tools we have had for guaranteeing some measure of wage equality (unions, minimum wage, health care, regulations, etc.) are hated by the very same people who would champion such oratory.

    I realize there are nuanced arguments for how unions, minimum wage, health care mandates, etc. all end up hurting the lowly worker. But those aside, there is a substantial degree of meritocratic pablum out there, in which each man is measured not by his work, but by his wage. And that there is no real inequality in making less, because that is simply what one deserves, according to the wisdom of the market. So if you can barely pay your rent, can’t afford health care, work in unsafe conditions with no job security and no retirement benefit – well it’s your own miserable fault. (You just need to work harder and you too can be like Rush Limbaugh with your fat suits and thick cigars.)

    All of this ends up doing two things: it avoids offering any prescriptive measures for change, and reminds us that there need be no real change anyway. Things are fine just the way they are. Except they aren’t, really. So the class anger – which is real – is magisterially woven into a narrative about cadillac union memberships, wine and cheese college elites, public pension cartels and anyone else getting “payed off” by a Democratic party less interested in social justice than funneling taxpayer money to liberal interest groups and rubbing their pagan social mores in the faces of mustachiod Nascar mechanics.

    What’s interesting to me about this set-up is that it offers a tragic salve: it recognizes that there is an injustice out there, but buries the blame in a phantasmagorical, Freudian blend of class resentment and cultural fundamentalism, none of which actually gets at the real truth. Public pensions are not to blame for the fact that pensions don’t exist anymore. Unions are not to blame for the fact that so many people are without health care. The minimum wage, child labor laws and regulations are not the reason that all of our jobs have gone overseas. Well, actually they are. But that’s just sad.

  10. And let’s not forget that even the Patton speech, in its own way, is far to the left of the nihilistic garbage from the current right that is coming to be called “mainstream”. The general’s position, as Patton tells it, is to get the hell out of the way of the regular soldiers. Imagine a Blankfein or a McConnell saying that.

  11. Eli: I pretty much agree with everything you said. My point was that while the Left is infinitely better than the Right at showing objective regard for working people through policies that improve their wages, health care, and security, the Right sometimes does just as well or better at verbally *expressing* respect. And they get to run some of the class resentment, perversely, because of that. Now, I could be wrong about the verbal part, and I’d actually be pretty happy to be wrong–hence the bleg.

    paul: you’re right too. Though it would be interesting to see if military commanders are as contemptuous of ordinary soldiers as captains of finance and Republican politics are of ordinary workers. I suspect not, actually.

    The rest: I’m going to wait another day or two before I judge all of your (and future commenters’) worthy contributions to my bleg, and post again next week.

Comments are closed.