There are all sorts of great bits of military lingo and slang that eventually fall by the wayside. While FUBAR has survived through to modern day, SNAFU and TARFU have been mostly forgotten — even though all three were popular slang and had characters in WWII-era GI cartoons named after them. Snafu was even voiced by Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny.
One old terms that seems to have fallen out of popularity is “dog robber,” which, today, is occasionally used by a handful of general’s aides and adjutants to describe their own job, though that wasn’t the original meaning of the term.
“Dog robbers” is the U.S. Army equivalent of the British slang term, “batman,” which refers to an officer’s personal valet or orderly, one step removed from the butler. So, while the aides-de-camp were assisting the general with the actual task of conducting battles and campaigns, the batmen and, later, dog robbers, were cleaning uniforms, running errands, and scrounging for any personal items their officer might need.
Think Woodhouse right before the massacre in the German trenches.
French Foreign Legion Capt. John Hasey was hit by a burst of machine gun fire in his face and had to be nursed back to health. In his biography, Yankee Fighter, he gave credit to his “dog robber” for keeping him fed before the ambush and helping him reach aid after.
My own platoon was there, with Blashiek, my faithful batman — or dog-robber, as he is known in the United States Army; and when I say “faithful,” I mean exactly that. For six months that tough Polish soldier had cared for me as carefully as any Southern mammy, fed me fresh mule meat when I was starved, and tactfully neglected to let me know what it was. He helped carry me back to a First Aid station outside Damascus when my jaw was shot away and my chest and arms were sprayed with machine-gun fire. It was upon him that I leaned when my legs began to wobble.
These were usually enlisted troops, and their assignments weren’t limited to general officers. Lieutenants could have a batman, especially if they were from a rich family and hired a civilian to work for them, but the practice was most common with captains and above.
This makes it obvious why the term began to fall out of use in the U.S. With the country’s generally dim view of aristrocracy, assigning enlisted soldiers to provide hygiene and personal support to officers feels a little against the country’s values. As this position largely disappeared from the military, the term lost popularity.
This is a photo from when King George V visited the New York National Guard. Guess if the king was visiting, I might want a valet, too.
(New York National Guard)
But it did survive. How? It evolved to encompass more of the staff members around the general, especially the aide. And, it reverted back to its original meaning.
See, the U.S. Army didn’t come up with the term. It started to become popular in the military in the Civil War for an officer’s servant, but its first documented use was actually in 1832 to describe a scrounger.
As the servants disappeared, scroungers got the title again instead. James Garner, a famous actor and veteran, actually played a dog robber in the 1964 movie The Americanization of Emily and later told Playboy Magazine that he had been a dog robber (the scrounger type) in the Korean War.
And James Garner’s character got to have sex with Mary Poppins. And that was after he admitted to being a dog robber and a coward — not bad.
According to Garner, he had served in an Army post office and bartered for the materials to make a bar, a theater, a baseball diamond, and a swimming pool.
That would make him a dog robber on the level of Milo Minderbinder (for all you Catch-22 fans out there).