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Dwight Macdonald

Sparks in the News

(23 December 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 94, 23 December 1939, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Understatement Dept.

“Experiments in how best to entertain soldiers back of the Maginot Line have shown that movie shows come first, cards second and games like dominoes third in popularity ... Few men show any disposition to read books, possibly because there is always too much interruption.” – news report in a recent N.Y. Times.

Death, Inc.

In previous columns, I have noted how the former sharp distinction between war and peace has become blurred in our age, until by now war has been absorbed into the normal, everyday routine of life under capitalism.

This seems to hold true of both the bourgeoisie and the workers in this war. As to the former, the British Government announced a few weeks after the outbreak of the war that it would pay compensation for all damages to civilian life, limb and property “due to action by or against the King’s enemies”. In announcing this policy, Sir John Simon, Chancellor of the Exchequer, explained: “The risk is one which affects us all and a particular person or a particular property which is struck is a casual victim of the general peril which the State is engaged in doing its best to resist.” Thus war is officially recognized as one of the normal hazards of doing business under capitalism, and the shopkeeper whose windows are shattered by German bombs can collect from the State for them just as if the damage had been done by His Majesty’s police officers in the discharge of their duty.

The British business man can also insure himself – with private firms – against the hazards of peace. “Armistice insurance” is now one of the regular forms of insurance in London. For a premium of ten pounds on every hundred pounds worth of business, a business man can fully insure himself against all losses which might result if the war ends in the next two months. For every additional month after that, he must pay ten pounds more.

For the workers as well, this war has taken on something of the character of normal peacetime activity. In the last war, workers began functioning as soldiers only when they put on their uniforms. This time in uniform they still retain the character of workers engaged in some vast industrial undertaking. Thus one recent news item from the Maginot Line read: “So great are the distances that the troops actually ride to work on bicycles. We passed details of them pedalling up from their living quarters to gun positions ...” The phrase, “ride to work,” is significant.

Another report describes the new field uniform of the British Army:

“The Highlanders whom General Gort visited were in their picturesque uniforms ... The day was one of the last occasions on which these and other Scottish troops will appear in the field in their traditional uniforms. The change is being rapidly made from the peacetime uniform to ‘battle dress’ – a most unromantic but eminently practical costume for combat, consisting of a one-piece khaki overall with a zipper fastener down the front and snaps at the trouser bottoms to keep out the mud.”

Kilts and tartans give way to zippered khaki overalls. The soldier has become a mass production worker who wears overalls and rides to work on his bicycle. If the war drags on this way much longer, whole industrial towns may spring up behind the lines, inhabited by families of soldiers. The infantry “worker” will kiss his wife goodbye in the morning and tramp, or cycle, off to “work”, a rifle on one shoulder and a well-filled lunch box and thermos of hot coffee under the arm. The thoroughly tamed trade union bureaucracies in France and England will then raise some inspiring new slogans: TIME AND A HALF FOR OVERTIME IN THE TRENCHES! NO OFFENSIVES ON SATURDAY AFTERNOONS AND SUNDAYS!

Anthology of War Poetry, No. 1

Bernarr MacFadden, publisher of pulp magaazines, last year offered a $1,000 prize for an official song for the U.S. Army Air Corps – hitherto songless. I reproduce below the first verse of the winning ditty, officially approved by Major General Henry H. Arnold, chief of the Army Air Corps:

Off we go into the wild blue yonder,
Climbing high into the sun;
Here they come zooming to meet our thunder,
At ’em boys, Give ’er the gun!
Down we dive spouting our flame from under
Off with one helluva* roar!
We live, in fame
Or go down in flame
BOY! Nothing’ll stop the Army Air Corps!

* NOTE (by publisher of song): For radio, substitute “ter-ri-ble”.

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