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“It is always impolite to criticize your hosts; it is militarily stupid to criticize your allies.”

This aphorism is merely one of many revealing nuggets in a reprint I ran across of a U.S. War Department pamphlet from 1942, called Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain. Whoever wrote it had a keen wit, a sympathetic but clear-eyed view of the British, and subscribed to more than a couple widely held prejudices of the time. He (I strongly suspect male authorship) had also either intuited or experienced the young American soldier’s propensity to brag, which is why the text continually skewers the notion that the GI is a hero simply for crossing the Atlantic and bailing out his clumsy British cousins.

Courtesy glossophilia.org

Courtesy glossophilia.org


The Instructions are meant, then, to caution against blundering into a social or political minefield through lack of empathy or understanding, thereby threatening the Anglo-American alliance, one ill-considered confrontation at a time. Covering everything from food (or lack of it) to the wage disparity between British and American soldiers to explanations of pounds, shillings, and pence, the pamphlet consistently warns against making assumptions based on appearances.

Some observations seem minor, yet are astute and thoughtful at heart, and you can imagine how ignorance might have led to hurtful or humiliating remarks. For instance, we’re told that London has no skyscrapers not because British architects couldn’t design them, but because the city was built on swampland. The shabbiness or disrepair visible in clothing, buildings, or public transportation results not from carelessness or lack of pride but from the way finite resources are funneled to the war effort.

Other observations have to do with manners or misperceptions. Where an American spectator at a ballgame might yell, “Take him out!” at a player who fails to perform to expectations, that’s bad form in Britain. The proper response is “Good try.” (I like that one.) Beer is brewed at below-peacetime strength “but can still make a man’s tongue wag at both ends.” (I like that one too.) Women in uniform aren’t ornaments but worthy contributors: “When you see a girl in khaki or air-force blue with a bit of ribbon on her tunic–remember she didn’t get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich.” What’s interesting here, though, is that, from what I’ve read, British men were no more likely than Americans to accord women their due and were probably even less so.

The crucial point, however, is that Instructions for American Servicemen repeatedly emphasizes that the American soldier is there to destroy a common enemy, not to clean up a mess that Britain made. The author acknowledges that Britain lost the first couple of rounds, but so did the United States; and the soldier would do well to “remember how long the British alone held Hitler off without any help from anyone.” Consequently, the populace has taken a beating, having lost sixty thousand deaths to German bombing alone. “There are housewives in aprons and youngsters in knee pants . . . who have lived through more high explosives . . . than many soldiers saw . . . in the last war.”

But to characterize the British as victims would have done them a disservice and encouraged pity instead of sympathy and respect. Rather, the author points to their toughness and worthiness as an ally. The text pays due tribute to the celebrated determination to remain cheerful under fire and further underlines the intent to pay back the enemy for what he’s done. Don’t be fooled by tendencies to be soft-spoken or polite, the pamphlet says: “The English language didn’t spread across the oceans and over the mountains and jungles and swamps of the world because these people were panty-waists.” Such were the mores of 1942, and the assumptions of what it meant to be masculine.

The nitty-gritty, though, comes in a brief section dealing with how to behave among people who have less money than you do. Don’t be flashy, don’t rub it in, and, if you wish to befriend a British soldier, don’t belittle his army or “swipe his girl.” These warnings are downright prescient, for the following years led to a British complaint that their American allies were “oversexed, overpaid, and over here.” No doubt this summation contained a world of stories; how could it have been otherwise?

I’d be curious if the British government ever published a similar pamphlet about their American visitors and, if so, what it said.