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. Continue reading