The Army as a Concentration Camp

Reading this terrific piece about James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, I stumbled across this passage from Jones’s WWII, a nonfiction treatment of the Second World War:

Everything the civilian soldier learned and was taught from the moment of his induction was one more delicate stop along this path of the soldier evolving toward acceptance of his death. The idea that his death, under certain circumstances, is correct and right. The training, the discipline, the daily humiliations, the privileges of “brutish” sergeants, the living en masse like schools of fish, are all directed toward breaking down the sense of the sanctity of the physical person, and toward hardening the awareness that a soldier is the chattel (hopefully a proud chattel, but a chattel all the same) of the society he serves and was born a member of.

I don’t know how accurate a representation of military life Jones’s description is, but it sounds remarkably similar to Hannah Arendt’s account of the camps in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Once the moral person has been killed, the one thing that still prevents men from being made into living corpses is the differentiation of the individual, his unique identity….

The methods of dealing with this uniqueness of the human person are numerous….They begin with the monstrous conditions in the transports to the camps, when hundreds of human beings are packed into a cattle-car stark naked, glued to each other, and shunted back and forth over the countryside for days on end….The aim of all these methods, in any case, is to manipulate the human body—with its infinite possibilities of suffering—in such a way as to make it destroy the human person as inexorably as do certain mental diseases of organic origin.

It is more significant that those individually condemned to death very seldom attempted to take one of their executioners with them, that there were scarcely any revolts….For to destroy individuality is to destroy spontaneity, man’s power to begin something new out of his own resources, something that cannot be explained on the basis of reactions to environment and events. Nothing then remains but ghastly marionettes with human faces, which all behave like the dog in Pavlov’s experiments, which all react with perfect reliability even when going to their own death….


  1. Paul H. Rosenberg October 21, 2012 at 8:13 pm | #

    This was pretty much self-evident to all us dirty hippies back in the 1960s & was very much part of the core meaning/motivation/significance of draft resistance as I recall it. Destruction of the individual was mandatory. Physical death? Luck of the draw on that.

    Not just limited to military tho. See Mario Savio’s famous “machine” speech re UCB.

  2. troy grant October 21, 2012 at 8:14 pm | #

    In the military we accepted all those things as a rite of passage on the way to becoming a soldier. There was (is?) no other way to train people to follow orders and kill or be killed on command. There is nothing ethical about war.

    “Yours is not to reason why, yours is but to do or die” from Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson

    “You think you are dying for the Fatherland, but you die for some industrialists”. Anatole France

    “They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war there is nothing sweet or fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason.”
    Ernest Hemingway

  3. Gaurav Khanna October 21, 2012 at 9:50 pm | #

    Cory — thank you for the insightful post. It reminded me of “All Quiet on the Western Front”, which I first read in high school and re-read last month. It is a very difficult book to go through — Remarque’s powerful descriptions of the battle scenes make you squirm. But the novel’s real power are the themes of disillusionment and destruction of the individual that are woven throughout the narrative. As he writes in the preface of the book: “.. death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped the shells, were destroyed by the war.” I think of that statement every time I read about soldiers and the mental / psychological difficulties they have to deal with, even if they survive the battlefield.

  4. brahmsky October 21, 2012 at 10:47 pm | #

    If Hannah Arendt were alive today…she’d be spinning in her grave.

  5. William Rogers October 23, 2012 at 2:25 pm | #

    I was in the Army from 1969 to 1971, and based on my experience, Jones’ description of military indoctrination is accurate.

    The whole point of training as I recall was to make us feel less than human. I remember one drill sergeant in particular who never called me or my fellow trainees by our name; instead, preferred to address as “shithead”–as in, “Shithead, drop and give me 20.”

    The success of this approach varied. Some became good soldiers, but a lot of us became or remained slackers and malcontents

  6. Dan Floros October 24, 2012 at 9:08 pm | #

    As your readers are no doubt aware (its right there in the title), Mr. Jones’ book is about the largely conscripted Army of WWII, not the modern, volunteer forces. While his description of boot camp is certainly accurate, even quaint by modern standards, the comparison to a concentration camp implied in your post is hard to reconcile with the notion of free will. People do not volunteer to go to concentration camps. Servicemen, however, sign up willingly.

    I anticipate some argument about this. I won’t burden the thread with a rousing defense of recruitment practices, but as both a Marine veteran and current law student, I can say without reservation that the legal standard of competency to join the service is far higher than that to write a valid will, marry, vote, enter a binding contract, or consent to sex. The myth of the half-wit soldier is passe. Recruits are told again and again what they are signing up for, and attest to this in numerous signings, oath takings, and the like.

    In the case of the Marine Corps, there is no pussyfooting around the risk of death (indeed it is a selling point) nor is there any question about what goes on in boot camp. “We will break you down, destroy all that you are as an individual, and build you up again as a Marine,” they tell us, in almost exactly those words. Sublimation of the self, pain, suffering, psychological trauma- its all in the brochure.

    Most people find that kind of training unsettling. Perhaps they should. However, I find it unfair to compare the process of military indoctrination to organized genocide. The point of all that abuse from the “brutish sergeants,” all that breaking down of the self that Jones’ describes, is that it forms disparate individuals into a collective, held by one of the strongest bonds known to human societies. You’ll all just have to trust me when I say that no trade union or faculty poker club can compare.

  7. wembley October 25, 2012 at 12:55 pm | #

    Hey, Corey, I love your blog and I’m a huge fan, but seriously… whoah there. I get what you’re saying — boot camp breaks people down so they’re ready to kill other human beings — but the idea isn’t exactly new, and the fact remains, these guys get clothes, get food, and at the end of the day, may go on to kill some people… they won’t end the day, starving, naked, and systematically murdered. As a Jewish woman, this entry made me reel back and go, “Wtf.”

  8. Corey Robin October 25, 2012 at 11:05 pm | #

    I think you guys are mis-reading or at least over-reading me. I was mostly struck by the similarities in how these two were describing these very different situations. And wondering about how that idea of the obliteration of the individual was so pervasive in the 1950s. To the extent I wanted to make any comparison, it was to point out that the notion of breaking down the individual may not be quite as dramatic as Arendt thought. I never bought that argument re totalitarianism anyway; nor do I buy it for the military. There are many other reasons to think that Auschwitz was an abomination without resorting to that notion.

    • Dan Floros October 26, 2012 at 3:01 am | #

      Prof, your bridge between the two passages was this: “I don’t know how accurate a representation of military life Jones’s description is, but it sounds remarkably similar to Hannah Arendt’s account of the camps in The Origins of Totalitarianism.” Since that is all you offered by way of comparison, it is reasonable to assume that you are implying some degree of equivalence. I think that most commentators here, both pro and anti, assumed this was your point.

      But, taking it forward with your clarification, I’ll add this: the 1950’s was a time of great conformity for a variety of reasons. I think that the cold war- the great sorting of the globe into “us” and “them” played an enormous role in the “obliteration of the self,” in that common people on both sides felt that their civilization was under existential threat by the other. Nothing brings people together like the good old fear of death.

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