The Amrican G.I.
FROM DISPARATE ROOTS BUT UNITED BY PATRIOTIC COURAGE,
U.S. SOLDIERS PRESERVED FREEDOM AROUND THE WORLD
BY COLIN POWELL
As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I referred to
the men and women of the armed forces as “G.I.s.” It got
me in trouble with some of my colleagues at the time. Several
years earlier, the Army had officially excised the term as an
unfavorable characterization derived from the designation "government
issue." Sailors and Marines wanted to be known as sailors and
Marines. Airmen, notwithstanding their origins as a rib of the
Army, wished to be called simply airmen. Collectively, they
were blandly referred to as “service members.”
I persisted in using G.I.s and found I was in good company.
Newspapers and television shows used it all the time.
The most famous and successful government education program
was known as the G.I. Bill, and it still uses that title
for a newer generation of veterans. When you added one of the
most common boy's names to it, you got G.I. Joe, and the name
of the most popular boy's toy ever, the G.I. Joe action
figure. And let's not forget G.I. Jane.
G.I. is a World War II term that two generations later continues
to conjure up the warmest and proudest memories of a noble war
that pitted pure good against pure evil--and good triumphed.
The victors in that war were the American G.I.s, the Willies
and Joes, the farmer from Iowa and the steelworker from Pittsburgh
who stepped off a landing craft into the hell of Omaha
Beach. The G.I. was the wisecracking kid Marine from Brooklyn
who clawed his way up a deadly hill on a Pacific island. He
was a black fighter pilot escorting white bomber pilots over
Italy and Germany, proving that skin color had nothing to do
with skill or courage. He was a native Japanese-American infantryman
released from his own country's concentration camp to join the
fight. She was a nurse relieving the agony of a dying teenager.
He was a petty officer standing on the edge of a heaving aircraft
carrier with two signal paddles in his hands, helping guide
a dive-bomber pilot back onto the deck.
They were America. They reflected our diverse origins. They
were the embodiment of the American spirit of courage and dedication.
They were truly a "people's army," going forth on a crusade
to save democracy and freedom, to defeat tyrants, to save
oppressed peoples and to make their families proud of them.
They were the Private Ryans, and they stood firm in the thin
For most of those G.I.s, World War II was the adventure
of their lifetime. Nothing they would ever do in the future
would match their experiences as the warriors of democracy,
saving the world from its own insanity. You can still see them
in every Fourth of July color guard, their gait faltering but
Their forebears went by other names: doughboys, Yanks, buffalo
soldiers, Johnny Reb, Rough Riders. But "G.I." will be forever
lodged in the consciousness of our nation to apply to
them all. The G.I. carried the value system of the American
people. The G.I.s were the surest guarantee of America's commitment.
For more than 200 years, they answered the call to fight the
nation's battles. They never went forth as mercenaries on the
road to conquest. They went forth as reluctant warriors, as
citizen soldiers. They were as gentle in victory as they
were vicious in battle.
I've had survivors of Nazi concentration camps tell
me of the joy they experienced as the G.I.s liberated them:
America had arrived! I've had a wealthy Japanese businessman
come into my office and tell me what it was like for him as
a child in 1945 to await the arrival of the dreaded American
beasts, and instead meet a smiling G.I. who gave him a Hershey
bar. In thanks, the businessman was donating a large sum of
money to the USO. After thanking him, I gave him as a souvenir
a Hershey bar I had autographed. He took it and began to cry.
The 20th century can be called many things, but it was most
certainly a century of war. The American G.I.s helped defeat
fascism and communism. They came home in triumph from the ferocious
battlefields of World Wars I and II. In Korea and Vietnam they
fought just as bravely as any of their predecessors, but no
triumphant receptions awaited them at home. They soldiered on
through the twilight struggles of the cold war and showed what
they were capable of in Desert Storm. The American people took
them into their hearts again.
In this century hundreds of thousands of G.I.s died to bring
to the beginning of the 21st century the victory of democracy
as the ascendant political system on the face of the earth.
The G.I.s were willing to travel far away and give their lives,
if necessary, to secure the rights and freedoms of others.
Only a nation such as ours, based on a firm moral foundation,
could make such a request of its citizens. And the G.I.s wanted
nothing more than to get the job done and then return home safely.
All they asked for in repayment from those they freed was the
opportunity to help them become part of the world of democracy--and
just enough land to bury their fallen comrades, beneath simple
white crosses and Stars of David.
The volunteer G.I.s of today stand watch in Korea, the Persian
Gulf, Europe and the dangerous terrain of the Balkans. We must
never see them as mere hirelings, off in a corner of our society.
They are our best, and we owe them our full support and our
As this century closes, we look back to identify the great
leaders and personalities of the past 100 years. We do so in
a world still troubled, but full of promise. That promise was
gained by the young men and women of America who fought and
died for freedom. Near the top of any listing of the most important
people of the 20th century must stand, in singular honor, the
General Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, is now chairman of America's Promise. (then Secretary