The moral struggles of Sgt. Bilko

"New Recruits"


Sgt. Bilko in The Phil Silvers Show

April  2011 by Al Barger

"Men, when the United States Army put these stripes on my sleeves, they also put something on my shoulders:  responsibility."  Sgt. Ernest Bilko says this in his first ever speech to his men in The Phil Silvers Show - as he's trying to squeeze them for yet a little more money to keep a losing poker game going.  Thing is, he actually does have some such sense toward his men.  That's the dynamic that makes Sgt. Bilko a literary character and not just a clever sitcom caricature.

He might pinch his troops for a buck or two in a crap game, or raffle tickets.  Sometimes he enlists them as honest co-investors in various schemes which might honestly loose money.  But he's not trying to rip his men off or betray them.

The chaplain says "Bilko, you're a gambler, a sharpster, a promoter.  You're everything I'm here to prevent soldiers from becoming.  Tell me, why do I like you?...I don't know why I worry about your soul.  You'll probably talk your way into heaven."

The padre then somewhat accidentally set Bilko up for a test when he convinced Col Hall to give Bilko a crew of innocent young new recruits.  Soon, Higgins, the goody-two-shoes leader of the new recruits is giving Bilko all their money to hold.  Bilko tries to reject this offer. "I'm only human."

But Higgins is adamant that Sgt. Bilko is the man. "The chaplain said that if we ever needed anybody to turn to, someone we could trust, we could always trust Sgt. Bilko"

The best part of the episode, and the thing that set up the animating tensions in the character, was Bilko in his room with the money.  He moves it from place to place, he starts to head off with the money to join the big poker game and win back the money he had been cheated out of, but he can't.  His men have trusted him with their money.  It's tearing him up, but he can't betray his men.

Eventually Bilko returns the money to Higgins, and has his underlings stand guard.  The chaplain shows up at the door briefly to give Bilko an attaboy.  Bilko goes to sleep with good cheer and a clear conscience.

Sgt. Bilko sleeps with a clear conscience


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