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The Consent of the Governed?

by Delbert R. Gardner

Americans are so steeped in the principle of democracy that they will seldom forget it even as members of the armed forces in wartime.  I saw a serio-comic demonstration of this fact during World War II when I was an aircraft armament specialist with an Eighth Air Force bomber squadron.

Our armament section was dominated by a tyrannical master sergeant, with the tacit approval of the often-absent armament officer.  It wasn’t that the sergeant was tough but fair–we would have accepted that.  Fairness was foreign to him; favoritism was his rule.  To every complaint about unequal treatment, he gave a stock response, delivered with a sardonic smile: “In case you didn’t know it, there’s a war going on.”

One day the crew of about 25 men decided they had endured enough, so they held an election.  Except for two or three of the sergeant’s favorites (who wisely abstained), every man voted for the removal of the sergeant.

“All right, I’ll go,” growled the sergeant.  He was obviously not convinced that he deserved the ouster; nevertheless, like any defeated American candidate for election, he accepted “the will of the people.”

The armament officer, a young first lieutenant who spent most of his time in town, was equally accepting of the democratic process.  “What about me, fellas?” he asked humbly.  “Do you want me to go too?”

We were magnanimous.  “Naw, you can stay, sir,” said one man, and we all nodded agreement.  “Your problem is just that you’re not around much and you let the sergeant run everything.”

The lieutenant gratefully vowed to correct that fault and departed to inform his superiors of the decision of the troops.  To our surprise, however, he was back within an hour and standing in our midst with his feet planted wide as if bracing for an assault.

“You guys are trying to commit mutiny!” he asserted.

“Mutiny?” chorused several men in disbelief.  “We’re no traitors!  All we did was take a vote!”

“That’s what I tried to tell them in headquarters.  They kicked my butt all over the place and told me to get back here and tell you who’s boss!  The Old Man says he’ll court-martial every last one of you unless you drop this thing and get back to work!”

“Get back to work?” I asked in tones of injured innocence.  “Who ever said anything about not working?  We always meant to keep on loading bombs and cleaning guns to help win the war.  All we wanted was a change in sergeants!”

“I know, I know,” said the lieutenant.  “But that’s the same as mutiny, they say.  It’s in the Articles of War.  So you’d better just forget it, if you know what’s good for you!”

We all looked quizzically at each other and muttered expressions of misunderstood martyrdom—words such as “So this is what we’ve been fighting for—to be called mutineers for wanting to vote like any loyal Americans!”  Then we went back to our jobs.

That was the end of the matter, we were sure.  A month or so later, however, the lieutenant was quietly relieved of his post; and the officer who replaced him was conscientious and businesslike.  We were still stuck with the sergeant—I suppose the exigencies of wartime could less spare his knowledge than that of the lieutenant—but his tyrannical will was subdued under the watchful eye of the armament officer.

Only in the American armed forces, I am convinced, could there have been such an outcome to the troops’ democratic initiative in a wartime theatre of operations!

A veteran of World War II who served in the Eighth Air Force (467th Bomb Group (H), 790th Bomb Squadron), Dr. Delbert R. Gardner (www.gardnercastle.com) taught English literature at Keuka College and wrote/edited U.S. Army training materials for TRADOC at Ft. Eustis. Over sixty of Dr. Gardner’s poems and stories have appeared in publications such as Veterans’ Voices; Second Air Division Association Journal, Eighth Air Force; El Portal; Mystery Weekly Magazine; The Literary Review; Poetry Digest; American Poetry Magazine; and more.

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