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Excerpts from Jarrell’s Letters Describing Army Life

On Being Politicized by Army Life
(Letter of June 8, 1943, to Amy Breyer de Blasio)

[De Blasio was the eldest daughter of a well-to-do Southern Jewish family living in Nashville, Tennessee; Jarrell had courted her when she was at Vanderbilt, studying to be a physician. This letter was written after he had been in the army about five months.]

I get more political every year; the army makes you more so, and confirms all your hardest beliefs. This you is strictly me: 99 of 100 of the people in the army haven’t the faintest idea what the war’s about. Their two strongest motives are (a) nationalism, pure nationalism (they find it easy to believe that German generals are paid $30 a month – they find it easy to believe anything about foreigners) and (b) race prejudice – they dislike Japanese in the same way, though not as much as, they dislike Negroes. They feel neither gratitude nor affection for our allies – they’d fight Russian tomorrow, for instance. They have no feeling against the Germans – they dismiss all information about them as "propaganda." This propaganda is their own response, frightening and invariable, to anything they haven’t always known (and they have known almost nothing). The innocent idealism and na´ve whipped-up hatred (which collapsed into fraternizing when it really encountered the enemy in the first World War) were a good deal better than this. I believe nationalism, so far from dying out as people once believed, is going to reach heights it’s only in isolated cases attained before – in the first World War there was a real queer feeling of solidarity between the "workers" of the opposing armies; how little of that is left.

I sent a couple of anti-army poems to the New Republic; it turned them down on "ideological grounds," but was evidently embarrassed, because it invited me to send a poem to an anthology of "leading American poets" they’re having in August. I wasn’t mollified by the leading, and maliciously sent them "Soldier (T. P.)," much more anti-army than my preceding two. The ones I’m enclosing on green paper ["Port of Embarkation" and "Absent with Official Leave"] are proof from Poetry; the editor (who’s just got a medical discharge after a few months in the army) was in a good position to appreciate them.

From "Letter to Amy Breyer de Blasio" 8 June 1943, in Mary Jarrell, ed. (with Stuart Wright), Randall Jarrell’s Letters: An Autobiographical and Literary Selection (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985) 103-104.

On Army Training and The Life of Discipline
(Letter of March 1945 to Allen Tate)

[Allen Tate was a powerful poet-critic who was at the time an editor of the Sewanee Review.]

I had a pretty good time when I was flying, except for being over worked; we’d get up at 5:45 and our last class was over at 10:30 at night. Often we’d fly twice in an afternoon; we got to praying for rain. Half of us were army people and half were kids being trained for navy combat pilots. All my friends were in the Navy bunch; they’re mostly in the Pacific now – my second best friend there, the best pilot in our whole class, was killed flying a Corsair. I’d flown about thirty hours, most of them solo, when I was washed out. It was a very great piece of luck for me.

As soon as I was washed out they applied for me as a ground instructor and I started helping with the classes; but the army (of course as I know now) paid no attention and sent me on to Sheppard Field. I was lucky to get there when I did – six weeks later and I’d have been made a gunner. As it was I went through basic and then stayed about six weeks more waiting to go to Link school [a "Link" training air plane was an indoor model that simulated flying conditions and was used in preflight classes] – during the time I worked as an interviewer in the classification department, and got to talk to a great many washed-out cadets, besides the regular drafted people. Sheppard was an unusual nightmare even for the army: we normally spent over four hours a day just standing in line – mostly in darkness, since we got up at 3:30 sun time in the middle of the winter. Your main feeling about the army, at first, is just that you can’t believe it: it couldn’t exist, and even if it could you would have learned what it was like from all the books, and not a one gives you even an idea. (Even the dumbest people – I’ve asked them – agree.) Did you read that article in Politics about the German concentration camps, called "Behavior in Extreme Circumstances"? Most of what he says applies (to a much lesser extent but very specifically) to basic and school fields in the army. Anyway, summing up, I think the army teaches you more about people and the State than anything else I know; prison might be as good in a simpler Society – but not any more. You know, [Dostoevsky’s] The House of the Dead [an account of Dostoevsky’s time in prison for political crimes] would probably be the best book for people to read before they get in the army.

I went on to Chanute, where I stayed seven months. … The general atmosphere was very prison-campish, but what I minded most was just physical pain and exhaustion, since beside all the school, physical labor jobs, and everything else we did two hours a day of running, duck-walking, crawling on our stomachs, inventive calisthenics (obstacle courses, oddly enough, were considered a rest), and anything else the P. T. Sergeant we unluckily had could think of. I felt so strongly about everything I saw (the atmosphere was entirely one of lying, meaningless brutality and officiousness, stupidity not beyond belief but conception – the one word for everything in the army is petty) that, stiff, sore and sleepy, I’d sit up at night in the day room – all the other lights were out – writing poems, surrounded by people playing pool or writing home or reading comic-strip magazines.

The army enlisted schools are bad beyond belief. For the first couple of years of the war the general in charge of all the air corps enlisted schools (all except the cadet schools) was a man who’d been last in his class at West Point, missing flunking out by .000, or something like that; consequently, he distrusted examinations, lectures, or anything else normally associated with education. As a result in our schools formal lectures were forbidden; at one time use of the blackboard was forbidden. Nobody was washed out of any school for being helplessly stupid, not understanding anything, not doing any work (you could get washed out only for going AWOL or quarreling with the school officials); everybody sat on till the end of school and left with the same diploma. I’ve had crew chiefs tell me that they couldn’t trust their mechanics straight from school to do anything but wash the planes.

From "To Allen Tate," March 1945, in Mary Jarrell, ed. (with Stuart Wright), Randall Jarrell’s Letters: An Autobiographical and Literary Selection (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985) 119-120.

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