22. January 2005 · Comments Off on Original G.I. · Categories: General, Military

As best as can be determined, the term “G. I.” is an abbreviation for “government issue”, and according to historian Lee Kennet, it was first a term of mild contempt, originating in the insular, peacetime American military. While small, it was a proud, professional and penny-pinched force, and those who were serving in the Depression era military contemptuously regarded their issued uniform clothing and accessories as shoddy, poor quality, not worthy. It was a point of honor for careerists to do better, and so they laid out their own funds for quality tailoring, better-quality boots, and fine bespoke accessories. (This is still done, especially when new uniforms are approved, but not available at the BX/PX Uniform sales— those who want to look very, very strac will order items out of various catalogues which specialize in this.) Looking militarily sharp was everything, down to the sergeants and privates, and in those hardscrabble days, when the Army could pick and choose, it was about all there was. That and the pride that comes of being among the elect, or as they would come to think of themselves after 1942 as “the Old Army”… which was defined by the military magazine “Yank” as “ a large group of first-three-graders who spent the pre-war years thinking up sentences beginning with ‘By God, it wasn’t like this in the ______”.

And it wasn’t… because of the draft, which ballooned the Army and the other military services to proportions not seen since the days of the Civil war, eighty years previous. Draftees or patriotically motivated volunteers or every variety in between, the “new Army” arrived with a different set of expectations, one of them being that they would not put up with much of that military chickenshit. Attitudes about deference to officer rank, to saluting, and to going overboard with the military sartorial splendor of the “Old Army”… no, issue kit would do, none of this fancy-nancy parade ground soldiering.

The cultural clash between the old corps and the new wartime influx was marked and noted almost immediately, with the old peacetime army NCOs scorning the new elements as “GIs” or “government issue”, meaning “second-rate, unprofessional soldiers”. But the new Army took it as a badge of pride, chanting cadence counts like “It won’t get by if it ain’t GI”. Just get the damn job done, with that they were issued, was the attitude; once that done, you won’t see me for dust in this-here military machine. So, they eventually stormed the Omaha beaches and crossed the Rhine with their government issue, and took back the Pacific Islands, one by one over the following three years. All during the war, though, officers of the Old Army school like Patton, fretted over how slovenly and unmilitary the G.I.s would tend to look if left to themselves… the Army that they won WWII with, was so very unlike they had been schooled with, in the hard two decades after the first world war.

“Oh,” said my daughter recently about one of her friends, “He’s a 9/11 baby.” That is, someone who had enlisted into the forces after 9/11, into a military where it should have been impossible to get around the understanding that a military was an organization dedicated to killing those designated as the enemies of this country, and blowing up their stuff. Someone who had— like those who swarmed to enlist after Pearl Harbor— enlisted into a wartime military… but a military whose initial core was formed over a scaffold of officers and NCOs who remembered how it had been…before.
“Only Sgt. ____ and I remember how it used to be, “my daughter lamented, during the same conversation. “Deployments used to be cool, and fun. We like to go on them… now, it’s either Afghanistan or Iraq.”

A peacetime military does have those discrete charms; and make no mistake, for about ten years, it was a peacetime military. The Soviet Union imploded with a pathetic whimper, not the terrific bang expected when I enlisted. There was a certain fatalistic expectation of mushroom-shaped clouds, all during my first few years, and a low-level degree of terrorist activity aimed at those in uniform, then Desert Storm, and then… everyone shaking their heads in the brilliant sunshine, wondering where all those threats had gone. The only thing we were left sure of, was that there was always a use for a military…and that it was a good thing to stay in top form, to practice the skills, and clamor to go on those deployments, and polish those boots, and carry on with what we had always done, against the day when we would be called on again… just as they had in those days of the “Old Army”.

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