The divisions today between the elites and the other 90 percent of Americans remind me of a World War II cartoon by Bill Mauldin. Mauldin did hundreds of fabulous cartoons for the Army newspaper, "Stars and Stripes" during the war and those cartoons reprinted in his book, "Up Front," remain graven in my mind.
The cartoon I am thinking about has two American officers standing on a mountain top, probably in Italy. One officer says to the other: "Beautiful view. Is there one of these for the enlisted men?"
The officers were showing concern for the enlisted men, but it is a sign of the gap between them and the ordinary GIs that they imagine that the enlisted men care as much as they do about a view of the mountains.
The central figures in Mauldin's World War II cartoons were Willie and Joe, two war-weary, mud- and dust-smeared enlisted men who were not looking out at mountain tops. Quite the contrary Mauldin always drew them close to the earth — in foxholes, leaning against collapsing walls or slouching wearily and rain-soaked through littered battlefields and skeletal villages.
Willie and Joe were from no part of the U.S. in particular but inseparable because they needed each other. Once strangers, they shared the intimacy of shell holes, dry socks, liberated schnapps, places near a fire, and the tricks of survival. "I can't get no lower, Willie. Me buttons is in the way." They relied on each other because a buddy when you were under fire increased the odds of surviving and getting home.
The two begrimed GIs were not alienated from their officers as they seem to be today. What Willie and Joe wanted their leaders to do, however, was more practical than finding them views of the scenery. It was to get them winter clothes and boots, blankets and rations, cut them slack when they broke a few rules, and not take chances with their lives.
When I started thinking about Willie and Joe and those officers looking at the view, I wanted to lay out what I thought "enlisted men" want in 2020. My conclusion is that what they want from their leaders now is more complicated than it was for leaders and their men during World War II.
That generation of Americans was focused on survival and winning the war. Men like Willie and Joe and their officers came from different regions, classes and political cultures, but they shared the same simple desire to keep warm, fed and alive. The officers, the battlefield elites, could focus on clear tasks at hand to win the allegiance of their men and a mandate to lead.
It is much different in 2020. A friend of mine from Brooklyn who was drafted out of college in 1943 shared foxholes in 1944 with a pig farmer from Tennessee. They were buddies then with the same concerns. After the war, my friend says, most of the men went back to the people and ways of thinking that they had been comfortable with before the war. Today, after a 75-year period without a bloodletting like World War II, the concerns of the elites and the "enlisted men" are far more complex, multifaceted and harder to reconcile than when everyone was focused on surviving and winning the war.
It is not just warm socks and blankets in 2020. People with "old economy" energy jobs feel threatened by other Americans with better prospects in a greener economy. Young and old, men and women, vote for government with different priorities. Urban/rural and regional issues are more important than they were in the World War II foxholes.
Elites and enlisted men also are divided internally. Factions of both "classes" disagree on issues like race, gender roles, marriage, education, policing, guns, ethnicity, religion, immigration, health care, taxes, nationalism, internationalism, and the worth of allies and alliances. Advocates of austerity battle those who favor government spending. In short, important but smaller concerns than staying alive and defeating the Nazis predominate.
It is frightening to think that today's political chaos might be the result of 75 years without a major bloodletting. Peace seems to have disunited our country and indeed other democracies. World War II brought Willie and Joe together and softened the antagonism between officers and GIs, elites and the people. Peace seems to have done the opposite.
Paul A. London, Ph.D., is a Becket resident.