The Young Man's Mental and Physical Approach to War

The Young Man's Mental and Physical Approach to War

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An address at the University of Dayton Commencement
May 10, 1942
by James G. Conzelman


It is customary upon an occasion of this kind to congratulate the students on a successful completion of certain University curricula. It is customary also to congratulate those parents and relatives who have sacrificed, in so many ways, that young men and women might walk in the bright beam of education. The graduate is told that while the adventure of life is a challenging one, if he works, if he speaks the truth quietly and clearly, he may hope for his share of personal happiness.

To the graduates of nineteen hundred and forty-two, this sacrifice and this challenge are a pale prelude to the demands of a world at war. Instead of job seekers or home makers, you suddenly have become defenders of a familiar way of life, of an ideology, a religion and of a nation. You have been taught to build. Now you must learn to destroy!

This transition will not be an easy one. A Democracy is reasonably honest. And Democracy makes of us a reasonably pacific people, assisting the ever-moving process of civilizations in submerging our instincts for war and aggression. We are not a nation of haters and we are not in the habit of thinking in terms of violence.

Besides, we are not a people normally equipped for physical violence. Our athletic programs have developed mental alertness, agility, initiative and a competitive sports spirit possibly superior to that of our enemies. Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of the American Medical Association Journal, recently said that American youths are superior in strength to those of the Axis powers. I have no reason to doubt this, but I feel that such a favorable comparison came about through use of a peacetime measuring stick. Men whose natural physical resources have been augmented by long pre-war preparation certainly are stronger soldiers and better soldiers than those with superior physical gifts who have known only civilian life.

Our enemies have the benefit not only of this physical preparation but a mental one as well. They are steeped in a nationalistic and fanatical flame that makes execution of the ruthless methods of total warfare a natural and desirable objective. In sports, no matter how alert, agile and clever an athlete may be, he invariably will be defeated by an opponent only slightly less skillful and less imaginative, who has a superiority in strength and endurance and a will, a cold-blooded will, which thrusts aside all rules to win. So it is in war!

Today, the young men of our country who enter combat service face the problem of toughening up, not only the body, but also the mind. Our military authorities must indoctrinate soldiers and sailors into purposeful wartime thinking, as well as train their bodies for the realities of war. To achieve this, there should be on the part of every young man a thorough familiarity with bruising body contact. This body contact is imperative. It accustoms the man's head, torso and legs to the shock of physical collision and, by repetitious experiences, adjusts his mind to acceptance of these shocks.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of young Americans are not by nature and inclination a part of what we might call the body contact group. Approximately only 20% would qualify. Now this body contact group enjoys the smash and clash of driving bodies. Its members play football; they box or wrestle; they play hockey and soccer or participate in other sports where opponents come together in physical violence. If they lack the good fortune of growing up under a municipal or school sports program, if they miss the opportunity of entering the supervised sports field, with its emphasis on individual emotional restraint, these youths often select for an outlet, street fighting or gutter brawling.

The remaining 80% of our young men might be classed as members of the non-body contact group, a group which doesn't enjoy the class of bodies. These fellows play baseball, tennis or golf. They might perform on swimming or track teams. Perhaps they don't care at all for sports and avoid exercise in any form. Regardless, they represent four fifths of our nation's youth. It is this group in particular which in wartime faces a severe fracture of peacetime habits and peacetime thinking.

Remember, this like or dislike for body contact has nothing to do with courage. Courage is a mysterious quality, touching at times the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, the wise and the fools in a bewildering method of selection. While the body contact group might enjoy the casual fight more than the non-body contact class, the latter frequently needs only the stimulus of a principle to battle with a fervency equal to or greater than its more belligerent brothers. Courage is a matter of the individual himself, not of a class or a group.

Two of the greatest heroes in the present war, Aviators Colin Kelly and Edward O'Hare, were not members of the football or boxing teams at West Point and Annapolis, their respective schools. They were not body contact men. Yet, even in a country blessed with a long list of historic, heroic deeds, these young men instituted almost a new order of courage.

While there are no limitations upon courage itself, there are definite limitations on what courage can accomplish without adequate training and condition. The American scene of sports, I am sure, has demonstrated completely to all of us, on many occasions, the futility of courage without a background of arduous physical preparation. The corollary follows that, in a war-time demonstration of courage, the degree of courage conceivably might depend on the degree of sound physical condition.

Exercising for good health and exercising for hand-to-hand fighting are different maters entirely. I have no doubt that soldiers, through setting up drills, long marches and rigorous work in labor battalions, might develop into excellent physical specimens. Tanned by the sun and ruddy from outdoor life, these soldiers, marching along with full pack, might seem to the average observer to be the epitome of glowing health condition.

Yet, place one of these soldiers in a boxing ring, with its lightning flashes of attack and defense. Let him face the flailing arms of an opponent who, although no cleverer than himself, has had experience in peacetime hand-to-hand fighting or in some body contact sport.

Lacking proper condition in the muscles of his neck, abdomen, arms and legs, the soldier is unprepared for fighting at close quarters, unprepared not only physically but mentally as well. Because he lacks special development of his neck muscles, a solid blow snaps back his head, and there is a brief moment of unconsciousness. This causes only slight pain, but the effect on the mind of the soldier is one of deep mental confusion. To the uninitiated, violence is terrifying. Because he rarely has taken body shocks, he can not draw on past experiences which would indicate why the blow affected him as it did, and why, actually, it could cause only minor damage.

But let this same soldier continue boxing through several weeks and he will accustom himself to shock. His mental reactions become calm. He has been hit before and he's used to it. He begins to develop the proper psychology toward violence; the kind of soldier needs a casual acceptance of physical and mental shock.

Many times on our football field we have seen the two hundred and twenty pound tackle dive through the air and bring down a one hundred and fifty pound runner with the ball. The fans in the stand wonder how the light man can stand it. What makes the little fellow jump to his feet immediately and, with a wide grin, run back to his position? Experience, that's all. Experience in violence. He is physically and mentally poised when he faces body contact, for he knows what to expect.

Sports have been called the antidote for fatalism. John Tunis, sports analyst, maintains that the deep objective of games really is to train one's reflex of purpose, to develop a habit of keeping steadily at something you want, until it is done. He quotes the famous English surgeon and philosopher, Wilfred Trotter, who said: "I think the greatest contribution the English have made to the valuable things of world culture is this: An interest in struggling for an unpredictable goal. As you go eastward from the British Isles, you run into cultures of gradually increasing susceptibility for fatalism. The Englishman's games have made him less fatalistic and, as a result of the discipline of sport, he will keep struggling even though his intellect would indicate his cause to be lost."

This observation by Dr. Trotter would seem to be a justification for the continuance of amateur, collegiate and professional sports during the war. Perhaps a more important justification would be the effect their abandonment might have the boys fourteen to eighteen years old. Selective service officials are authority for the statement that fifty percent of the men called in the first draft were physically unfit for combat service. This emphasizes how vital it is for the next few years at least that these young fellows approaching draft age have sound, vigorous bodies with a zest to win. It would be unfair to them and to the cause for which they will be asked to fight if we were to permit them to come up to draft age in the unfit fifty percent.

We know that youngsters, in the beginning, participate in sports largely through a desire to emulate some athletic hero. In their early years this hero might come from the same street or the same neighborhood or school. As they develop an interest in sports pages and as they themselves cultivate certain minor athletic skills, these boys switch emulative eyes from the close-to-home heroes to those of national stature, to a Gene Tunney, a Joe DiMaggio or a Sammy Baugh. It is this attempt to follow a superior or famous athletic pattern, plus the thrilling pursuit of victory in competitive sports, that stimulates a boy to strive for physical perfection. And it is this fitness with the supplementary quality of ordinary courage that assists in the successful prosecution of war.

All competitive sports, body contact and non-body contact, are excellent media to develop coordination of mind, eye and body, to improve reaction time, and to emphasize teamwork and the fruits of an all out effort. The regimented health program of the floor mats, the cross bars and the rings of a gymnasium lacks inspirational force and has value only as a supplementary routine. It is body contact sports alone that breed a familiarity with violence. War is violence.

You might ask, "Why place such importance on body contact and hand-to-hand fighting when modern warfare on the ground largely is mechanized and, in the air, is a matter of lying skill and daring?"
Training methods in our own and England's armed forces might answer such a question.

With centuries of military tradition, England recently decided to discard an old theory. It was announced that in the future England intended to place less emphasis on the close-order-drill type of training and more on the development of hand-to-hand fighters. In the Malayan campaign the Japanese method of infiltration and encirclement by small units made fighting at close quarters the rule rather than the exception.

Those intrepid men of the English Commando units, whose astonishing sorties into German occupied territory have been heralded in the press, could testify, adequately, to the importance of hand-to-hand fighting. Their methods of surprise landing and attack places heaving emphasis upon individual ability and individual resourcefulness and training. Because their movements are based upon meticulous timing, and because the unknown quantity often bobs up to upset time schedules, the Commando must be intelligent, thoroughly trained and physically able to operate without benefit of a guiding officer; and he must be a free swinging, free shooting fighter who can meet on better than equal terms any enemy who surprised him at his job.

General George C. Marshall recently said that Americans already are training with the Commandos. An inference might be drawn that when an attempt is made to establish a European front, the Commando type of military operation will play a significant part.

I don't suppose there are many times in modern warfare where an aviator comes to grips with the enemy in a hand-to-hand struggle. Yet, the United States Navy has broken all precedent in its preparation for Aviator Cadet training. Naval authorities feel that the recruits to be inducted, in general, come from a soft, lazy peacetime life. They believe these young men must be fitted mentally and physically to meet and defeat our enemies - enemies who have been thoroughly schooled in a wartime mental and physical system from childhood. So the Navy has set in motion for Naval Reserve Aviation centers, one of the most intensive rigorous and comprehensive programs of physical and mental training, that civilian or military life ever has seen.

These induction centers, located at North Carolina, St. Mary's of California, Iowa and Georgia Universities, provide a routine devoted largely to this type of training for future pilots. Even before he sees a plane or a flying field, the cadet must spend at least 50% of his time, during a three month period, in body building. He is boxing and wrestling, learning rough and tumble fighting and tricks of jiu-jitsu, all the while receiving instructions in the realities of war, which mean - no rules. He plays football and participates in other sports for coordination, accustoming himself mentally and physically to violence, learning how to take it and give it. Here again is an excellent example of the use of body contact sports as an agency to develop mental poise in the face of physical shock. Correct mental attitude, as much or more than physical condition, is the objective of this Naval Reserve Aviation program.

Naval officials believe that in many instances, the previous system of military training occupied the minds of recruits so completely with the maze of unquestionably necessary, technical subjects that the basic motive to destroy our enemies were left to develop as they may.

Yes, the basic motive of war is to destroy our enemies. It may seem reprehensible to inculcate a will to destroy into our amiable young men by accentuating this grim reality; but war is reprehensible.

Time is short. The enemy occupies United States territory; he holds many Americans as prisoners of war; he threatens the shores of our continent.

You men who graduate today have a definite obligation to your country, to your homes and to yourselves. Avoid dangerous apathy. The present calls for action. Avoid criticism of your Government. Like all Democracies confronted with sudden war, it has made mistakes. Let's forget them.

Prepare yourselves for combat service. Before induction, whether it be days or months away, concentrate your efforts on a rugged physical and mental approach to war. After induction, meet the rigorous life of training camp with determination and spirit. Pledge yourself to its work, its play - and its monotonies. Cultivate an acquaintance with violence; challenge it - meet it - laugh at it!

Sometimes a truth comes to use, clearly and unmistakably, in simple terms and from a simple source. When it does, it impresses and penetrates far more than all the exhortative efforts of the great or the famous. Such a message came in 1918 from the stricken fields of France, where lusting brigandage then, even as today, periled the hopes and lives for all free people.

Martin Treptow, an Iowa boy, had made the supreme sacrifice at Chateau Thierry. On the flyleaf of a diary found in his pocket, he had inscribed his conception of his duty to his country at war. He wrote: "America must win this war; therefore I will work; I will save; I will sacrifice; I will endure; I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me - alone."

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