Comment of the Day: “‘White Christmas’ Ethics Addendum: Battlefield Incompetence, Insubordination And More In The Holiday Classic”

To kick off the Not-Too-Early-To-Play-Christmas-Music Season, here is a Comment of the Day that adds another chapter to the Ethics Alarms commentary on “White Christmas,” the Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye musical film that is one of the five or six most resilient of the Christmas classics. The initial ethics analysis is here.

The post that spawned the latest take was a rare guest essay by Ethics Alarms veteran texagg04.

Now comes new commenter SykesFive to provide insight into the pivotal character of General Waverly, played by Dean Jagger. Among other things, he argues that one reason the general was so beloved was that he was poor general, treating the lives of his men as more important than his mission.

Here is his Comment of the Day on tex’s post, “White Christmas” Ethics Addendum: Battlefield Incompetence, Insubordination And More In The Holiday Classic:

I have a somewhat different take on this. I sometimes think I am the only person who thinks so much about the Waverly character.

As the scene opens, Major General Waverly is being relieved for frankly the only reason American unit commanders were relieved during the war: he didn’t take the objectives. That is failure. It could be lack of aggression or poor coordination or anything else, but ultimately it is failure and the commanding officer will pay the price. He will be shuffled off to a rear area command, or maybe just left to bum around the theater, and be out of the Army by the end of 1945 because his record will be so tarnished. He will be lucky not to revert to his prewar rank.

Waverly’s age suggests he was a company-grade officer during WWI and may or may not have seen combat during that conflict’s closing weeks, then spent decades idling in the interwar army. Apart from whatever happened in 1918, Waverly has no more combat experience than anyone else in the division. He is not an experienced commander by any measure. He had the right credentials–a few articles in service journals, no serious problems on his posts, and of course a West Point Ring–but had never really been tested as a field-grade officer. Again this is a common profile.This is a very common profile for WWII US Army division commanders.

So in 1940, let’s say Colonel Waverly seemed like a likely candidate for command of an infantry division in the expanding army. He did well enough with some trial commands–all during stateside training and expansion–and was promoted to one and then two stars. He seemed competent enough when the 151st Division was formed and went through let’s say nearly two years of intensive training in Texas or California or wherever. And so the division was sent to Europe in let’s say August 1944, then spent a couple months languishing in Normandy or the Pas de Calais region, during which time Waverly was a friendly presence at other officers’ headquarters as well as around his division. Bear in mind that at this point, and really for the whole war after the breakout from Normandy, the limit on American frontline strength was providing fuel and artillery shells. There were more men and tanks than could be sustained at the front.

Unfortunately, Waverly’s performance when the division entered first combat in, let’s imagine. November-December 1944, possibly in the later phases of the Hurtgen Forest or Roer River fighting, was simply intolerable. Waverly simply couldn’t bring himself to treat his men as expendable, but that is indeed the whole reason they were brought to Europe under his command: to be expended. His offensives plodded. Small units stopped when they came under fire and did not advance until artillery had obliterated the enemy position, which had likely been abandoned by then and new positions established. The division could only attack in one direction at a time. It never followed up adequately. So he had to go, and Major General Carlton–a younger man, someone’s protege–was tapped by the army commander. Quite likely a number of regiment and battalion commanders were also sacked.

The division rank and file’s perception of Waverly is somewhat different from the higher echelons’ and military historians’. Waverly was their father figure during training. He let them get by with some things but “kept them on the ball” in a way they appreciated, which may or may not have coincided with proper military discipline. In combat, he did not risk his men’s lives willingly, and indeed the 151st Division probably suffered comparatively low casualties in the Hurtgen or Roer campaigns. Sure, they didn’t take the objectives, but to the GIs that was better than taking serious losses like their neighboring units had.

The new commander, Carlton, is unfamiliar but is rumored to be a hard-charger who is indifferent to casualties. Surely he’ll get a lot of men killed after seeing the results of Waverly’s failure. He is not incompetent–in fact he may amass a great record–but to the men he will seem like a butcher, unlike the kindly Waverly. And indeed at reunions men who were privates and sergeants in the 151st Division will say that the division was never the same after Waverly left, because their small wars were worsened and the steady toll of casualties in 1945 will seem to be Carlton’s fault. Of course it was Carlton who led them when they and three other divisions claimed each independently to have liberated Dusseldorf or Fulda or Neuschwanstein or wherever, and it was Carlton who stayed in the army, commanded his branch school, and briefly commanded a corps in Korea.

Waverly is jaded by the whole experience in 1945. He refused to send his men to their deaths. That is why he sends that jeep down the wrong road–depriving the division of its leadership for hours–and envies the sergeant’s escape from the responsibilities of rank. That is also why he doesn’t really care about the men having some fun. Carlton is just going to get them killed anyway.

After the war, Waverly has taken a rather unorthodox career path and is struggling just to run an inn. His disaffection from the military life is even worse, but he has a soft spot for his men.

7 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “‘White Christmas’ Ethics Addendum: Battlefield Incompetence, Insubordination And More In The Holiday Classic”

  1. I’ll have more later, but in short: anyone who values the lives of the men absolutely before the mission, are guaranteeing that more lives will be lost later in pursuit of the mission which absolutely must be completed.

    So it’s a crap trade off no matter how much it feels good right now.

    • I’m unfamiliar with the movie, but from your description this sounds like a familiar problem: The seen and the unseen. We can see Waverly’s men, and how well they did during the series of battles in which he kept them out of the heaviest fighting. What is unseen is that those battles had to be won by someone. Every objective not taken, every enemy unit not attritted, had to be dealt with by some other soldiers who probably took heavy casualties. They’re a consequence of Waverly’s leadership too, but one that is much harder to see.

  2. And Waverly would have been promoted in order of seniority for the longest time, regardless of his own merit or the merit of his fellow officers.

    Many people don’t realize that was how the Army operated for the longest time.

    On a personal note, tex, I knew a man who served under Patton who echoes what you pointed out above. He told his buddies that Patton “didn’t care about his men” at all.

    Patton, of course, was a winning general. But it came at a cost, even considering his personal reputation for toughness.

  3. Just noticed this. Thanks for the positive attention.

    Making up backstories for movies is a hobby that my wife and I share. We watch this movie at least once a year, so by now we’ve come up with pet theories on just about everything in this one.

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