A. J. Liebling: “Mollie and Other War Pieces” (1964)

Besides the Jews, the Corps [Franc] had hundreds of political prisoners from labor camps in southern Algeria—Spanish Republicans who had fled to Africa in 1939, anti-Nazi Germans who had come even before that, and French “Communists and de Gaullists,” to employ the usual Vichy designation for dissidents. . . In the Corps Franc, they were at liberty to march and fight until they dropped. They were also a fair number of Mohammedans, good soldiers, who had joined to earn the princely wage of twenty-three francs a day. . . I remember a former carabinero who had fought in the Spanish Loyalist Army, and a baked of Italian parentage from Bone, in Algeria, who said, “I am a Communist. Rich people are poison to me.” 320–321

Corps Franc

Corps Franc

This passage from A. J. Liebling’s Mollie and Other War Pieces reminds us of how broad the anti-fascist alliance was in the 1930s and 1940s. Leibling focused a great deal on the French resistance and the French home front in his World War II writings. France was his second home after New York City and he seemed to never tire of going there. The fall of France and the return to Paris (The Road Back to Paris) defined the major arc of the conflict. A group like the Corps Franc was made up of thousands of the defeated and colonized, but participated in this anti-fascist struggle. Although Liebling does not quite get to this point, I do think there were the seeds planted for some alternative post-war worlds. One thing that is clear in this reading is that it was by no means the will of many of the participants on the allied side that capitalism would emerge from the war triumphant. It was not the values of empire and capital that won the war (although sometimes their mechanized logic did seem to shape the conduct of the war).

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Mollie and Other War Pieces came out in 1964 and, along with The Press, was one of the works left incomplete at his death. Mollie and Other War Pieces is mostly collection of his war correspondence, picking up where The Road Back to Paris left off, starting in the North Africa campaign, continuing to D-Day and the defeat of Germany in France, and ending with a lengthy description of a war crime in rural France that seems small when compared to the scale of the war, but summarizes Liebling’s view about the moral necessity of fighting fascism. The story on the soldier Mollie open the book. “Mollie” was a Russian-American soldiers who was killed in action in North Africa. He was a memorable soldier, given the handle Molotov by his comrades. He was a good solider, a bit extravagant in his living, but also politically radical and often in trouble (one report has him court-martialed a couple dozen times but always getting off). Liebling goes back to New York and digs up the personal history of Mollie and finds that he was a union man (but negligent about his dues) and sustained a rather infamous life. I think this piece is important to read for its insight into the diverse points of view that made up the US Army during the war and the radical politics of so many soldiers coming out of the Great Depression.

It cheers me to think there may be more like him all around me—a notion I would have dismissed as sheer romanticism before World War II. Cynicism is often the shamefaced product of inexperience. He has become a posthumous pal, thought I never knew him when he was alive. He was full of curiosity—he would have made a great explorer—and fond of high living, which is the only legitimate incentive for liking money. He had faith in the reason of his fellow-man, as when he sensed that the Italians at Sened were no more eager to fight than he was. The action that earned him his Silver Star cost no lives. It saved them. (342)

Several soldiers pass through Liebling’s narrative of the war which values perhaps similar to those of Mollie. Liebling spends a great deal of time looking at the French home front where we similarly find a great diversity of political perspectives, but a strong tendency toward the left among the anti-fascist forces. He discusses collaborators as well, but his focus is on the resistance. His section on the free French press during the occupation is wonderfully fascinating if only for the evidence that it was largely a movement of the left. These resistance movements against the Germans fed into traditional French revolutionary politics.

In another village, also in Brittany, an officious gendarme tried to make the farm wives stop baking, because the farmers are suppose to deliver all their flour to the government. Enraged women dumped him into a horse trough. In the Yonnee departments, farmers hide requisitioned horses and cows; in Loir-et-Cher, the farmers deliver no eggs, insisting that the hens stopped laying in 1940. In Seine-et-Oise, the peasants have formed committees to demand high grain prices. Everwhere the peasants unite to hunt informers, just as farmers in Iowa, not long ago, used to chase process serves. La Terre holds up the example of the scorched earth set by the Russian peasants. (452–453)

Liebling builds up these stories about the French resistance to the fight to liberate Paris on the eve of the American arrival to the city. This did not prevent appreciation for the Americans who helped make the liberation possible but did allow the Parisians to “feel they earned it [liberation].” (524)

Libération, 23 août 1944

The book also contains Liebling’s description of D-Day, which he observed from a boat in the English channel. While of interest to those who want to see another perspective on that big battle, I am more interested in seeing the war from the margins, fought not by generals and states but by the motley crew of anti-fascists. This side of the war—the one that did not just fight for the idea of liberty but tried to live in their actions during the war—needs to be told more often.

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A. J. Liebling: “The Road Back to Paris,” (1944): Part Two, The Values that Won the War

If one American division could beat one German division, I thought then, a hundred American divisions could beat a hundred German divisions. Only the time was already past when Germany had a hundred divisions to spare from the Russian front, plus God knows how many more to fight the British, plus garrison troops for all the occupied countries. I knew deep down inside me after that that the road back to Paris was clear. (308)

liebling

In The Road Back to Paris, A.J. Liebling is interested in the values that won the Second World War (or in 1944 made victory inevitable). His approach to the war was patriotic but not irrationally so. If he could not resist pro-American statements that come off as rather shallow, such as his claim that American soldiers would do well in the war because of how competitive Americans were on the basketball court, he was in the main an internationalist and much of his war journalism is trying to get at the underlying solidarity of working people that won the war. Nowhere is this made clear more than in the central events of the book, Liebling’s trek back to the United States on a Norwegian cargo freighter in the winter of 1941. It is placed centrally in the book. It is also a central in the sense that when he set out America was not in the war, but when he returned to New York it was. Finally, it is thematically central. Through the sailors on the freighter we learn about the values of the working people who won the war.

I opened this post with the final passage in the book, which rightfully reduced war to a number games. Earlier in the text, while following the Americans in North Africa, Liebling pointed out that Washington wanted a 100% mechanized war. The result of a bureaucratic conflict, run by technocrats applying cost-benefit models. Of course, this is part of the ideology that won the war, a rather inhuman technocratic logic. But I do not think that was all that was at work nor would it have been enough. More impressive is the massive international democratic solidarity, rather striking in a world that was becoming progressively less free during the first half of the century. The first half of the book spent time describing the rising tide of fascism in France and such sentiments were even positioned in in the army (and we know similar movements were power in the United States during the Great Depression).

The Chapter “Westbound Tanker” is a window into this solidarity and a discussion on bravery during a war run by actuaries. While the 1%–2% loss rate on trans-Atlantic freighter voyages was something Liebling himself could brush off, only making one voyage. For the sailors who were committed to the service in the merchant marine during the war, this was an oppressive fact of life, without dramatically affecting their performance. A similar experience was shared by bomber crews that strangely listened to melancholy music before missions. In addition to the risk, they faced rapid changes in destination and a general uncertainty about the future. The war was out of their hands; the same was true for the soldiers.

When you are in a convoy it is sometimes impossible to remember whether a thing happened yesterday or the day before yesterday or the day before that. You watch the other ships and you read whatever there is to read and you play jokes on the ship’s cat. (195)

If  Liebling’s reportage is to be believed, the time was also spent getting to know each other. Liebling reveals the histories and stories of many of these common, unheroic (in the classical sense) sailors. Christmas dinner became a time for sharing experiences, stories, songs, and drink. Mostly Norwegian (the ship was ordered to Allied ports when the Germans invaded Norway) but had crew members from other allied nations. Ideologically they were diverse as well, with some communists on board, but these were not barriers to the crews solidarity, which was quite strong and reinforced as often as possible with drink and merriment and trying to catch a glimpse of “bathing girls” while cruising past Miami Beach. What is coming through to me, more than anything else, is just how much the war was fought by a motley crew.

Liebling’s arrival in North Africa (with gout as a symbol of his relative privilege) leads to some interesting observations. One is that a fascist apologist ruling clique in North African towns (Oran in Algeria is highlighted) being put into a revolutionary situation by the mere presence of this motley crew. Before 1939, this town was a center of radical leftist politics and the fall of France made it possible for the bosses to solidify their rule. In a model copies again and again, capital found undemocratic systems—especially fascism—quite useful in entrenching their power. A result of their triumph, Allied sympathies were high in the town among these suppressed leftists. Of course this situation seemed to exist across North Africa and led to the creation of the seemingly impressive “Corps France d’Afrique.” “Jews, Moslems, foreigners held in concentration camps, former soldiers of the Foreign Legion, and anybody not formally enrolled with a regular class of the Army Reserve could volunteer in a new catch-all organization . . . which was promised immediate service in the front lines.” (231) I wonder if this was modelled off the International Brigades in Spain. The fact that we may have here a model for a broad anti-fascist movement involving such a diverse group in the Muslim world makes it worthy of future study.

French troops in Oran

French troops in Oran

There is no reason to think that the grassroots organization, solidarity, and resistance that struck Leibling as so power worked to be an effective counter to the growing bureaucratic nature of the war. The fact that actuarial tables at insurance companies had to be reformulated when the war broke out should be morally troubling, but it is likely just a sign of the times. Insurance companies knew how likely it was a sailor would due on a voyage, just as commanders new how likely it was soldiers would return from a particular mission. War had become a number games. (As Ambrose Bierce taught readers decades earlier war become a numbers game in the nineteenth century.) These are competing sides of the allied war efforts and even if the number games won the war, it is the diversity and solidarity that allowed many on the Allied side to begin to imagine a very different world.