Its transformation is married to Anniston’s future.
But travel back to the summer of 1946, one year after the end of World War II, to a Fort McClellan still vital to the United States’ military. Harry Truman was in the White House. The Cold War was in its infancy.
That summer, 2,200 young men came through Anniston’s train station each week on their way to Fort McClellan, almost 9,000 a month. They were recruits headed a few miles north to the post’s Infantry Training Replacement Center, where they’d learn the ins and outs of soldiering in an Army whose role had changed from liberators to occupiers.
That same summer, the New York Times’ magazine sent a writer, Gilbert Bailey, to detail life in the post-war Army. Fort McClellan soldiers graced the magazine’s cover. And today, more than 50 years after he wrote it, Bailey’s essay, “Portrait of GI Joe Jr.,” is a fascinating look at the dawning of America’s modern military, Washington’s arguments about a postwar Army, and Anniston’s role in it.
“Soldiers are being turned out faster at McClellan now than at any time during the war,” Bailey wrote. Let that sink in, too. Once trained, these young men would be sent to Japan or Germany to replace combat veterans eager to return home, their time in the Army complete. (That replacement, Bailey wrote, was “boy for man.”) The war was in the past, but America’s military occupation of Japan and Germany had just begun.
In detailing GI Joe Jr. in Anniston, Bailey visited a classroom where officers were training recruits with a film, “Why We Occupy Japan.”
Fifty-four young men were in the class.
Only two were veterans. None were sons of World War II veterans.
Eighteen had brothers who’d fought in Europe.
Twenty-one had brothers who’d fought in the Pacific.
Forty-three had uncles who’d fought in the war.
“The star of the show here is the American eighth-grader of the class of ‘41,” Bailey wrote. “He is 18.6 years old. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he was still playing marbles and throwing spitballs at the teacher. Not much like the character who was created in the American image as GI Joe; he is, in fact, his kid brother.”
The picture Bailey painted isn’t unlike that of today, as the Obama White House moves the United States farther away from its twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; one is technically over, the other winding down. Unless troops are used elsewhere — the war hawks’ calls for intervention in Syria or Iran — America’s military will be warless, again. Its role, its manpower and its funding are today’s constant arguments.
In 1946, Bailey described a meeting in the headquarters at Fort McClellan in which the sounds of war training could still be heard in the distance: M-1 rifle fire, machine-gun fire, the marching of soldiers. Yet, “We can no longer train people as we did in wartime,” a colonel told Bailey. “Someone would get killed. People wouldn’t stand for it now.”
Peace had altered Fort McClellan procedure. No combat training with live ammunition in basic training. No training in flame throwing, bayonetting or live hand grenades. Less time practicing with rifles, more time learning how to shoot a pistol.
“Should the peacetime GI be trained for peace or trained for war?” Bailey asked. “The answer is worked out, or works itself out, in the form of an uneasy compromise between the Army’s natural assumption, the possiblity of war, and the nation’s anti-militaristic mood.”
McClellan 1946 could be America 2014, with twists. In one place or another, we’ve been at war since 2001. We’re tired of it. At Capitol Hill and the Pentagon, the eternal debate on the way forward with our military can be overwhelming: How big should the Armed Forces be? Who should win the battles over the military’s billion-dollar budget, Republicans or Democrats? Is America safe with a contracted military?
Off and on, Anniston’s post roiled through these discussions for nearly 100 years. When America needed soldiers, Fort McClellan spurred to action. When wars ended, it faced drawdowns. The end result was the earthshattering decision in 1995 to close Fort McClellan, for good, four years later.
Bailey’s soldier is an Anniston-trained young man of another era; today’s military, all volunteer, diverse in gender and race, is a different, though comparable, breed. Those planning the next version of America’s peacetime Army should invite in GI Joe Jr., get to know him, and see what they may learn.
Phillip Tutor — email@example.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.