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James M. Fenwick

Off Limits

(15 March 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 11, 15 March 1948, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

The Wac and the Wave Program

In a recent article in which he raised a modest alarm at the growing militarization of the United States, Hanson W. Baldwin, the military analyst, made an acute observation.

“There are,” he said, “some purely military measures which ... give a few of our officers – particularly those of our ‘civilian components’ – some disquiet. We are, for instance, planning to perpetuate the wartime Wacs and Waves and to put women into uniform permanently as part of our armed forces – something that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago, and an act of far-reaching psychological importance.”

Baldwin is of course right When he says that such a policy would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. The tide of post-World War I disillusion was then running high. No serious effort to increase the size of the army would have had the slightest chance of success – nor was one attempted. At that time the thought of proposing the addition of women’s units hardly came within the realm even of speculation.

The army was very small, was entirely volunteer, and was largely composed of the flotsam and jetsam of society. The size of the armed forces was governed in good part by the low esteem in which the military life was held, the availability of civilian jobs, and – from the point of view of ruling class – the geographical isolation from the smouldering fires in Europe, a false estimation of the entente forces, and a lack of understanding of the scale of the next war. The problem of augmenting the “manpower” of the army was not even posed.

There also existed at that time considerable respect for the disabilities of women caused by their physiological makeup, their role as bearers and nurturers of children, and their position as homemakers. That there was, also a considerable portion of Male Superiority in all this goes without saying.

The Changing Times

In the past twenty years all of these conditions which militated against the creation of such institutions as the Wacs and the Waves have largely disappeared.

Cynicism about war has been supplanted by cynicism-plus-numbed-acceptance. This has been indeed, on the one hand, by the monumental growth of the capitalist state’s powers of physical, mental, and psychological coercion, and, on the other, by the decline of socialist opposition to war and its replacement by Stalinist methods. The inability to oppose war as a whole means the inability to oppose its constituent elements such as the Wacs and the Waves, for instance.

The world-wide commitments of the United States hate destroyed the small army concept. It is recognized that the next war will be more nearly total than the last. England and Germany established the pattern with women units in World War II. Since the manpower commitments promise to be so exceptionally large in World War III, it is important that at least a token Wac and Wave organization be set up now to facilitate the conscription of women which will be inevitable later.

One of the superiorities of capitalism over feudalism was the enhanced status of women which it permitted. The decline of capitalism in the past twenty years has undermined many of the good aspects of standards and practices in regard to women which have been set up. The establishment of the Wacs and the Waves is in part an example of this trend. To the extent which a rational intellectual, psychological, sexual, and marital life is possible under capitalism, institutions such as the Wacs and the Waves inhibit it. It is true that the military life destroys many old fetishes. But it offers little in return other than a brutalizing military atmosphere.

Positive Aspects

There is a little matter of dialectics involved here, however. With all its iniquities, the factory system removed women from the stultifying company of children, stoves, husbands, and mops, and brought them in touch with the real world.

The Wacs and Waves performed the same service in World War II. Therein lies the reason why more than one girl with a taste for freedom joined the armed forces during the war. It allowed her to break out of a world of soap operas, doting parents, hysteria, simple-mindedness, and The Ladies’ Home Journal. It gave her in some small measure what the women of Europe have experienced in tragic fullness: a sense of the provisional character of existence in our epoch. It raised their social awareness a little.

Life in the Wacs and the Waves will bcome even more instructive in the future – especially when these services are forced, as they will be, to resort to conscription. The smug complacency of so many American women, based on the unparalleled productive capacity of U.S. capitalism – and so revolting when contrasted with the fate of women abroad – will be submitted to rude shocks. Their social consciousness will be awakened as it never could be under normal conditions.

But these positive aspects of the Wac and Wave program have only latent value in themselves. For their force to be felt will require the intervention of socialist ideology. Otherwise the program will indeed be solely “an act of far-reaching psychological importance.” That is to say, in proposing to establish the Wacs and the Waves as permanent institutions in the armed forces U.S. capital is clearly declaring its intention to draw the womanhood of the country into the next holocaust.

Everything, everywhere for the flames!

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