Cultural Views of American Soldiers during World War II by Cody Benke

There isn’t much that people don’t know about World War II; its battles and carnage are well documented. The atomic bomb that came from this war had the biggest impact, as it would change post-war policies and how countries dealt with one another.  Though these subjects are obviously important, there is another topic that shouldn’t get swept aside and should be considered, especially for an America nation that had used an isolation policy for so long leading up to World War II.  The cultural views that American soldiers had entering the war would affect how they thought of the places and people they encountered, and would be changed by what they saw and experienced.  Two collections in the University Archives & Special Collections (UASC) demonstrate the attitudes and experiences of soldiers during the war, the Kenneth McCutchan and Chris Nix collections.

Though soldiers were not allowed to keep journals or diaries many did, with men like Ken McCutchan providing a unique look at how American soldiers viewed the war in times outside of the battlefield.  Another soldier, Chris Nix Jr. would be trained as a paratrooper for an invasion of Japan that never occurred, but the people and culture he encountered in Japan would give him a greater experience than the invasion-that-never-was could have.

Raised as a farm boy in Oregon, Nix was told during training that he would be turned into a cold-blooded killer, and would be glad later on that he never had to become that, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t see death. Instead of corpses lying on the ground, Nix saw this death in the form of a defeated Japanese crowd watching him and the rest of General Douglas MacArthur’s honor guard in Japan after the end of the war in the Pacific.  In Nix’s words, the crowd “…looked like their world had ended.”

The diaries and information kept by Ken McCutchan during his time in the war provides a great source of American soldiers and how their views on culture were changed by the experience of war.  When McCutchan was stationed in North Africa, it gave him a chance to view Muslims and Arabs for the first time.  Knowing that soldiers would be confused by the new culture, the War Department issued pocket guides about North Africa (as well as one for Paris, which dispelled the rumors of wild women, among other things). In the guide, information about Islam and Muslims in general is mentioned, including how to eat properly with them and how to avoid insulting them.  One image shows McCutchan perhaps embracing this new culture, as he sends a postcard back to his mother with him on a camel enjoying himself.

North Africa, 1943

North Africa, 1943

However, McCutchan’s views on culture would be wiped away by the things he experienced, thanks in no part to the isolation policy that America had been using.  Though the American government tried to prepare the soldiers for going overseas with the guides, it didn’t provide anything for the huge cultural differences they would encounter. One of these cultural differences was how they treated women as good for nothing more than labor and birthing, with suggestions to warn women when entering a house so they cannot be seen. These cultural differences would lead to resentment with the soldiers, with many holding the natives in a negative light.  McCutchan described the Arabs as living in deplorable conditions with their animals.  McCutchan noted the good things of Islam at one point, such as their determination to adhere to Islamic rules (while some did consume alcohol most did not, which was a big rule for them to follow).  However, McCutchan wrote down that he considered it a “…soul-withering faith…” which must have made it hard to consider them anything but strangers.  But McCutchan’s negative views of these people are gradually altered, with him noting after celebrating Easter that it was the same here as it was back home. These feelings would grow stronger as the natives experienced more of the war in the form of casualties.  Men would bring their children to medics after they stepped on mines and would get blown apart.  This would give the soldiers a look at death they may not have seen before, with McCutchan, knowing that war was brought to these people, noting that “…It is the poor innocent natives who will suffer most from this war. They will be killed for years to come by mines that will be left here undiscovered.”

MSS 004-3-18_001

As McCutchan moved around to various towns in France, they were viewed in the same suspicious light by the French as the Americans viewed them and other Europeans.  Many French believed that America was nothing but a land of gangsters and crude, uncivilized people.  McCutchan expressed the viewpoint that these people wanted nothing more from American than money and men.  Despite these issues, McCutchan saw the opportunity that these various cultures can come together at some point.  He wrote to a Reverend back home that even though barriers to language and culture exist, there is an understanding among the people, and hopes that the world will realize this common ground.   While many soldiers probably began feeling this way, the US military was determined to destroy Nazi Germany at its roots.  A pamphlet sent out towards the end of the war directed soldiers in how to handle relations with Germans.  Condemning them all for what the Nazis had done, the pamphlet iterates the monstrous nature of Germans and forbade all but the most necessary communications with them until they have redeemed themselves in the eyes of the world.

MSS 004-3-19_002

 World War II and the destruction it caused would forever change the world as we know it today.  Entire military policies are devoted to atomic energy with countries rushing to get their hands on as many bombs as they can, with nations such as Israel being created in the aftermath.  However, the cultures that American soldiers experienced, and brought with them, should have a role in discussion as well.  How much of our policies would be shaped or copied from what we saw European nations doing?  For the soldiers, who only knew of American life, these new experiences would doubtfully change how they viewed the rest of the war as well as the rest of their lives. This can be seen in the records kept by soldiers like Ken McCutchan and Chris Nix Jr which are located in the archives, along with other war related collections.

January, 2014

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