“Single Striper” Review

3-star rating
"Single Striper" book cover

Having read some of Steve Smith’s previous work, I was looking forward to a wild and wacky account of the first part of his two year hitch in the post-Korean War Army of the late 1950s. That expectation was only partially met.

My overall impression is that Smith was deeply disappointed in this part of his Army experience. Rather than a time of adventure and challenge leading to wisdom and maturity, he found it to be a time of boredom and drudgery, interrupted by pointless meanness, sometimes bordering on cruelty. It’s not clear when he adopted the draftee’s cynical distrust of officers, sergeants, and “lifers” generally—that is, the soldiers who were serving beyond their initial enlistment—but it’s clear that he did.

That’s not to say that this distrust was unearned. In his view, most of the officers were distant, lazy, and cared about little except advancing their careers. The non-commissioned officers (NCOs) were often worse: petty tyrants and martinets, intent only on making the lives of the draftees under them as miserable as possible. There were a few who did not live down to this low standard, but they were the exceptions.

Smith deserves some credit, however, for not portraying himself as an angel, innocent of all fault. He doesn’t hide the way he and his closest friends slouched through their training, avoided work whenever possible, and mistreated a boy name Collings who followed them through their basic and technical training and on to their first permanent duty assignment in Germany. (Today the young man would likely be diagnosed with mental or emotional problems and would not be accepted into the Army.) When Smith finally gets the chance to break free from his group’s assigned Morse Code operator duties, he tries to explain away their treatment of Collings by claiming that he still held a “rough affection” for their “scorned little brother and whipping boy.” This reader found that claim of affection hard to believe.

Nor does Smith hide his glee when he finds a way to escape the most tyrannical NCO for a life of ease as a trumpet player in an Army band and an intramural baseball player for another base’s team. That escape meant abandoning his friends to face the rest of their tours in the hands of that same NCO. Then and now, Smith has a hard time expressing his remorse.

In summary, Single Striper is an unvarnished look at one draftee’s experience of an Army without a mission. In some ways, it parallels Danny Williams’ memoir, Damian and Mongoose, which chronicles some of the corruption and lack of discipline in the US Army in Europe after the Viet Nam war.

Veterans of the Army during the late 1950s, especially those who were draftees, will probably find a lot to relate to in Single Striper, the first of Smith’s three-part series about his two-year enlistment. Those veterans are his target audience. For other readers, the book provides a view of an alien world.

One comment to “Single Striper” Review

  • Steve Smith  says:

    I found Ross’s critique pointed and sharp, but also highly edifying. For example, I didn’t realize that I was unhappy during my tour. In fact I felt quite alive. I regard it as the best time of my life. That’s why I wrote about it, not to chastise the service, since it is common knowledge that the corps is sluggish and bureaucratic, and driven by insecure people seeking advancement in obsequious ways. Which I felt was funny. Laughter was our mode of dealing with it all. The reviewer didn’t seem to get this, but maybe you will. Ta . . .

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