“White Christmas” Ethics Addendum: Battlefield Incompetence, Insubordination And More In The Holiday Classic

 

A Special Guest Post by Texagg04

Ethics Alarms commenters who are honored with the annual “Commenter of the Year” title in the yearly Ethics Alarms awards have the option of joining the elite ranks of guest bloggers here. Texagg04 got the honor a couple years ago but never exercised his option. His recently posted, meticulously-researched and fascinating  multi-comment  addition to my 2012 post about the holiday film “White Christmas” seemed too extensive for a mere Comment of the Day, and I asked tex to edit it into a single post. He agreed, and what follows is the result. I recommend seeing the film (it’s on Netflix) either before of after reading his analysis. The 2015 update to the 2012 Ethics alarms “White Christmas” post is here.

—Jack

***

As the kids were watching “White Christmas” and I walked by, in passing, I noticed something amiss about the “military” feel of the opening scenes that seemed off ethically. So I copied and pasted the first website that claimed to be a script of White Christmas. I’m not sure what it was…if it was a working copy or a first draft, but it has significant differences from the actual filmed scenes. So, I’m forced to modify some of my assessment from the original three posts.

All the dialogue is transcribed *directly* from the listening to the movie, so I think I’m pretty close to word for word. The scene descriptions and action statements are modified versions of the script I got from the original website (which can be found here).

Before I go into commentary, I’ll insert the entire dialogue for perusal and familiarity. There are numbers to reference particular dialogue in my analysis at the end. Here are the opening scenes—General Waverly is played by Dean Jagger; Captain Bob Wallace is Bing Crosby, and Private Phil Davis is Danny Kaye:

Opening Scene in the Jeep as they hear the Entertainment show.

GEN CARLTON (To Adjutant): What’s this all about, Captain?

ADJUTANT: A little entertainment for the men, sir. Tonight’s Christmas Eve.

GEN CARLTON: These men are moving up tonight, General Waverly. They should be lined up for full inspection!

GEN WAVERLY (To Carlton): You’re absolutely right. (To Adjutant): There’s no Christmas in the Army, Captain.

ADJUTANT: Yes, sir.

GEN WAVERLY (To Carlton): There’s always a slip-up or two during a change in command. The men get a little loose. But I know I’m leaving them in good hands.

GEN CARLTON: (To Waverly): Thank you, General. (To Driver): Sergeant, take me to headquarters immediately! We’ll have those men turned out on the double!

The Sergeant looks at General Waverly.

GEN WAVERLY: Goodbye, Sergeant. Take the short cut.

SERGEANT: Yes, sir!

The jeep pulls off and makes a half circle. The Adjutant makes a gesture, as if to stop it. Waverly stops him. The Adjutant turns to him.

ADJUTANT: That’s not the way back to headquarters!

GEN WAVERLY: Joe, you know that, and I know that, but the new General doesn’t know it. Or he won’t for about an hour and a half.

ADJUTANT: That Sergeant’ll be a private tomorrow!

GEN WAVERLY: Yes… isn’t he lucky?

SCENE CHANGE TO ENTERTAINMENT SITE:

CAPTAIN BOB WALLACE and PRIVATE PHILIP DAVIS are doing a number on stage to entertain a mass of 200 or so soldiers. GENERAL AND ADJUTANT just starting to take seats, off to one side where they are not noticed by the performers. ABOUT 6 SOLDIERS seated in audience. They look off, see General, start to rise. The General notices them – motions for them to sit down again, indicating he doesn’t want attention called to himself. Captain Wallace sings “White Christmas”.

CPT WALLACE: Well that just about wraps it up, fellas. It’s certainly too bad General Waverly couldn’t be here for this little yuletide clambake ’cause we really had a slam bang finished cooked up for him. I guess by now you know the Old Man’s being replaced by a new Commanding General fresh out of the Pentagon…it’s not a very nice Christmas present for a division like us that’s moving up. The Old Man’s moving toward the rear. That’s a direction he’s never taken in his entire life. Well all I can say is we owe an awful lot to General Waverly and to the way…

GEN WAVERLY: ATTENTION!

Every man is at attention and every head has turned to where General Waverly has taken up a position near the front of the platform.

GEN WAVERLY: Captain Wallace, who’s responsible for holding a show in this advanced area?

CPT WALLACE: Well sir as a matter of fact it was…

PVT DAVIS: …me Sir! It was my idea sir. Uh, I mean when you gotta entertainer sir of the caliber of Captain Wallace, sir…I mean sir…it’s Christmas Eve, sir. And well, sir, I mean that if you were in New York, Sir, you’d have to pay six sixty or even eight eighty to hear a great singer like Captain Wallace, sir.

GEN WAVERLY: I’m well aware of Captain Wallace’s capabilities. Who are you?

PVT DAVIS: Er…Phillip Davis, sir. Private First Class, sir.

GEN WAVERLY: Well, at ease, Davis.

DAVIS: Yes, Sir!

WAVERLY: I said, At Ease!

DAVIS: Oh, uh, Yes, sir, thank you sir.

WAVERLY: This division is now under the command of General Harold G. Carlton, and I don’t want anyone to forget it — not that he’ll let you. He’s tough — just what this sloppy outfit needs. He’ll have you standing inspection night and day — you may even learn how to march. And if you don’t give him everything you got, I may come back and fight for the enemy. Merry Christmas!

ASSEMBLED MEN: Merry Christmas!

GEN WAVERLY: Well, I guess, all I can say is, how much I…what a fine outfit…How am I going… (to Wallace) don’t just stand there, how am I going to get off…?

CPT WALLACE: We happen to have a slam-bang finish…He turns to the musicians, gives the downbeat.

They play “THE OLD MAN,” which is sung by the entire outfit.

ARTY FALLS IN VICINITY…Soldiers crouch…then finish singing.

GENERAL AND ADJUTANT DEPART.

MORE ARTY FALLS, ON SITE…Men scatter. Captain Wallace and Private Davis try to get men to cover. Private Davis man handles the Captain to cover as a wall collapses where he had just been standing.

For starters, we see a mass of soldiers in an open air situation within effective range of enemy artillery fire. A single well-placed artillery round could eliminate approximately 200 soldiers — more than an entire World War 2 Infantry Company (whose authorized strength is about 190-195 men; but given this stage of the war and attrition, this could easily be 2-3 companies of EXPERIENCED soldiers). Someone in the chain of command KNOWS this to be true and authorized this gathering despite the obvious danger. We know for certain that the Adjutant knows what the gathering is, as he answers in line #2 precisely what is going on. But an Adjutant has no command authority, so someone else authorized the gathering. We have to assume General Waverly didn’t know until the Adjutant answered General Carlton’s inquiry based on General Waverly’s later questioning of Captain Wallace. We can’t ever be sure who actually made the decision to have the entertainment occur at that location since Private Wallace, breaking an incredible number of military bearing protocols, interrupts a Captain, to answer a General. This Private, Private Davis, accepts all responsibility for the decision to expose upwards of 2 companies-worth of men to devastating artillery fire.

This information leaves us with two options: Either it really was Private Davis’s idea to have the venue at that location, in which case, Private Davis’s commanding officer and the various commanding officers AND EVERYONE ELSE in their chain of command are colossally INEPT for agreeing to the idea. The second option is that Captain Wallace DID indeed make the decision to have the venue at that site, and now he’s standing there like a lump allowing a subordinate to cut him off mid-sentence, a military no-no, and then allowing the subordinate to take the heat of any potential censure that was forthcoming. Of course, since he’s a Private trying to cover for his boss, he’ll say anything, so I won’t even ding him for the horrible excuse that 200 men should be exposed to German artillery fire because CPT Wallace is a famous singer – we all know it’s worth dying to hear Bing sing…

But of course, even General Waverly doesn’t seem to mind that 200 of his soldiers are idling around with a population density rivaling that of Bombay, just one artillery strike away from having more in common with mist than with humanity. When HE discovered what was going on by the Adjutant’s answer in line #2, he should have immediately ordered the soldiers disperse and had about two dozen commissioned officers who had every ability to stop the farce standing in his headquarters receiving the most royal dressing down of their careers and maybe a few firings.

What possibly does General Waverly think outweighs the need to disperse a mass of soldiers within effective range of artillery? Why, a Christmas music concert of course! It is Christmas Eve, after all!  Now, the Army does a really good job bending over backwards for the morale, welfare, and recreation of soldiers, much more than was ever considered a military precedent. BUT, we learn from the dialogue, the entire division is on orders to “move up tonight.” This somewhat vague description could range anywhere from simply occupying a section of the line to relieve a unit coming back or it could mean they are initiating a major offensive operation. We learn, however, that this movement, whatever it is, is occurring in mere hours. Having experienced large movements of soldiers myself, I know that if a Division is stepping off in a few hours, the men down to the platoon level are ALREADY in their assembly areas doing final preparations. This is apparent to the new commander, General Carlton, who is astonished that the men aren’t doing their final checks of equipment and gear.

Which leads us to the next bit: General Waverly is none too concerned about the unjustifiable exposure he’s tolerating of his…well, now General Carlton’s men…as we know Waverly has just been replaced by General Carlton, who, trope-tastically, we learn is one of those wretched new leaders who is probably horribly incompetent. The movie lets us know early on that he’s a despicable piss-and-vinegar type when he is mad that the men are having Christmas entertainment. Never mind that we now know that Carlton is severely concerned about a huge mass of men within artillery range open and exposed as well as not anywhere near where they ought to be to initiate movement of the entire Division.

The movie also lets us know he’s a jerk because it pushes the whole “fresh out of ________” trope. The usual way this plays out is the “fresh out of West Point” or “fresh out of ROTC” smear applied to new Lieutenants who assume Platoon Leadership with little to no actual experience. Unfortunately, this doesn’t exactly play out on the General level. Yes, the General ranks expanded rapidly during World War II, but an individual didn’t become one by being a complete buffoon (and yes there are always exceptions — but General Carlton, who seems to have a sense of urgency that no one in Waverly’s sphere of influence seems to possess, does not seem to be the exception).

Never mind, we’ll go on with the traditional “smearing of the new guy who replaces the beloved experienced leader.” In the original script I copied and analyzed, the dialogue was OVERTLY insubordinate and actively undermining of the men’s confidence in their new commander. In the corrected dialogue, though cleaned up a lot, there are still hints of undermining the new guy’s authority before he even makes a decision as the commander. There’s General Waverly’s smart-ass “There’s no Christmas in the Army” jab as a response to Carlton’s concern about the location and timing of the entertainment event — which he says “knowingly” to the Adjutant, who, we must remind ourselves no longer works for the Waverly but for Carlton.

There is the extra-rotten move when Carlton, recognizing the imminent danger as well as the horrifying breach of schedule in implementing the plan of operations, indicates he plans to move to Headquarters immediately to begin rectifying the situation and is undermined either by the Sergeant driving Carlton or by General Waverly himself. The driver decides to undermine Carlton’s ability to fix the problem by taking an extra long route back to headquarters. Between a driver and a singing-private, this division is apparently full of the lowest-ranking guys thinking they know best when to leave a behind-the-schedule division exposed to enemy fire just so they can catch a few tunes from Bing. The only other possible explanation is that General Waverly, himself, with a nod-nod wink-wink, authorized the driver to follow the reckless plan to take an hour-and-a-half detour, which we assume will require another hour-and-a-half correction before Carlton can get to Headquarters. Just as with the Adjutant before, let’s again consider that this driver no longer works for Waverly, but for Carlton The Sergeant is being openly insubordinate.

Even if Waverly was not responsible for the three-hour diversion, he immediately became complicit when the Adjutant, in an apparent realization who his new boss is (Carlton), moved to correct the driver but was stopped  from doing so.by General Waverly

The last bit of insubordination and undermining  the chain of command comes from the subtle digs Captain Wallace makes during his speech. His “Fresh out of the Pentagon” disdain undermines faith that Carlton may be a good commander, followed by the snide “not a nice Christmas present” for the division is enough to get any soldier censured. Soldiers and peers WILL whisper about their leaders, but an open act of insubordination like that? Stamped out like a spark in a dry forest… I won’t even address the fact that it’s a COMMISSIONED OFFICER making the openly insubordinate comments and a CAPTAIN no less. He would be dismissed and transferred immediately.

But hey, I suppose Waverly recognized all their rotten conduct when he feebly tried to make things right by saying “hey guys, he’s a good commander, never mind all the stuff we said before and our attitudes we displayed before!” A few moments later, just to do Carlton some justice, the artillery shelling arrives…which is where Jack’s commentary on this movie begins.

14 Comments

Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Leadership, Popular Culture, War and the Military

14 responses to ““White Christmas” Ethics Addendum: Battlefield Incompetence, Insubordination And More In The Holiday Classic

  1. Thanks for fixing formatting and other grammatical issues!

    I noticed I referenced a “numbering system” early on that I ended up deleting from my earlier draft but didn’t correct the reference to it.

  2. I also now recognize I reference some military terminology with exasperation and it may not be apparent why that exasperation is warranted-

    A Captain is the 3rd level of Commisioned officer meaning they’ve been in the game for a while and proven their knowledge, experience and trustworthiness.

    A commissioned officer is a special level of “officer” who has take a specific oath and subjected himself or herself to some pretty serious inhibitions…the one of which in question here is very strict loyalty to their superiors.

  3. joed68

    “I know that if a Division is stepping off in a few hours, the men down to the platoon level are ALREADY in their assembly areas doing final preparations.”
    Exactly: hurry up and wait. I vividly recall sleeping on the floor at Cherry Point for literally days at a time, waiting to deploy somewhere (we usually didn’t know where until we were in the air). A great series that captures that “first to go, last to know” atmosphere of being an element in a regimental combat team is “Generation Kill”. The only thing I found to be unrealistic was the utter incompetence of a couple of the company commanders, and one O-3 platoon leader in particular. The marine corps would never have tolerated that.

    • joed68

      “Soldiers and peers WILL whisper about their leaders, but an open act of insubordination like that?”

      Yup. In various leadership courses, we were taught that our job was to help officers and senior enlisted do their jobs and look good, in return for their increased responsibility and accountability.

  4. bellisaurius

    There may have been an unofficial truce in action, unless they were near bastogne, of course. None are recorded for ww2, but it wouldn’t defy belief either.

  5. Wish this had generated more discussion.

    Meh.

      • THE Bill

        I think it didn’t because its a not a real world reference but “only a movie” .

        Although as I was watching The Bridge on The River Kwai last night I was wondering what you would make of the decisions and actions Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson. As much as I enjoy the movie that idiot would have been killed in his sleep by the other prisoners.

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