For over three decades, the US military has been the envy of the world and has remained one of the most respected institutions in American society. While the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with corruption and extremism in the ranks, have stolen some of the luster, it is remarkable how few citizens seriously question the role of the military in American society. In those rare moments when Americans view the military as an institution, they often perpetuate ahistorical and naive views that prevent any meaningful discussion of the subject. Banal idioms like “support the troops”, “these colors don’t work” and “don’t use the military for social experiments” are examples of this uncritical approach.
In his ambitious new book, The United States Army and the Making of America: From Confederation to Empire, 1775-1903, Robert Wooster focuses on the evolution of the US Army as a social institution and seeks to answer two fundamental questions with contemporary implications, How became the US military became the powerful, professional, and respected institution it is today, and why has thinking about the role of the military in society changed over time?
Wooster’s book is remarkable because it succeeds in answering these far-reaching questions on two different levels. First, it is meticulous academic work that clearly delineates a wide range of complex and evolving issues in US military policy. Taking readers through US history, the narrative clearly shows that military policy was a product of the political concerns of the moment. Issues such as the authorized strength of the army, wages, pensions, the construction of forts, roads and other infrastructure projects, the introduction of various weapons and much more are placed in their historical context. This allows readers to better understand how different parts of the military establishment were created and how they have evolved over time. If that were the only thing the book achieved, it would be remarkable and worthwhile. However, the book is much more than a chronicle of US military policy.
On a deeper level, Wooster’s book examines the fundamental debates about the role of the military in American society and America’s role in the world. In this much more complex and ambitious endeavor, this book also succeeds in making the past relevant and accessible to the contemporary reader. The story that emerges from this is a deep split between rival political factions, distrust of government power, a myth of the American founding that (mis) shapes politics, and a military that has often failed to adapt to its growing responsibilities.
Starting from the founding generation, this book develops the central theme that military policy was a direct reflection of the convictions of politicians and political thinkers. Because of their experience with the British and their understanding of history, the early patriots were particularly suspicious of standing armies, militaries, and the taxes required to support them. The real threat to the young republic was not foreign enemies, but the threat from within. As James Madison, a proponent of stronger central government, stated, “The constant fear of war … has the same tendency to make the head too big for the body … [sic] a foreign danger, the instruments of tyranny have always been at home … All over Europe, under the pretext of defense, the armies have maintained, enslaved the people. “
As a result, the constitution’s drafters (one-third of whom were veterans) believed that local militias were preferable to standing armies, and deliberately created controls and balances that made it difficult to build and maintain permanent armies unless there were a real consensus between the all political groups and the three branches of government. In addition to restricting national armies, the designers also feared that individual states would accumulate dangerous levels of power, interfere in foreign entanglements and perhaps even attack or threaten other states. For this reason, the constitution forbade states to raise standing armies or naval forces and declare war, a clear indication that the founding generation of professional military and unrestricted power was deeply suspicious.
In connection with the popular myth of the “minutemen”, these fears and the governance structures they inspired led to military amateurism for decades. While European-style armies were necessary to achieve independence, Wooster does an excellent job tracking how popular myth incorrectly attributed victory over the British to the militias. Coupled with suspicions of professional armies, this false and populist view of the American Revolution had a profound impact on the military. While it is commonly claimed today that the military should not be politicized or used as a tool for social experimentation, the more interesting fact is that the military has always been a highly politicized organization used as a tool to advance a variety of political agendas.
This pattern of military politicization, combined with a deep distrust of the military and standing armies, shaped the development of the American army for the remainder of the 19th century.
The Jeffersonians provide a vivid example of the politicization of national defense resulting in inconsistent politics. Philosophically, the Jeffersonians had spoken out against the creation of military forces as a threat to freedom. While in the political minority, they adhered to these principles and had consistently obstructed attempts by the Adams administration to expand federal power in general and military power in particular. After their tenure, however, the Jeffersonians used the loot system to reward their supporters with military positions, used the military to explore and expand the border, established the United States Military Academy at West Point to train future generations of professional officers, and and sent the Navy (which they refused to fund) to carry out the first raid in US history against the Barbary pirates. If the Jeffersonians were given power and opportunity, they could not resist the temptation to use the military for their own ends, philosophical ideals that advocate limited government will be halted! After the Jeffersonians lost their power, they suddenly became ideologically purer, refusing to use military power and maintaining standing armies on the grounds that they led the way to tyranny.
This pattern of military politicization, combined with a deep distrust of the military and standing armies, shaped the development of the American army for the remainder of the 19th century. In this context, topics such as federalism, sectionalism, westward expansion, Native American relations, taxation, and debates about slavery take on new meaning. Indeed, according to Wooster’s interpretation, the inconsistent military policy of the young republic was neither due to neglect nor incompetence, but a direct consequence of the constitutional structure and the broken political landscape. Fears that a standing army could be deployed by political rivals combined with the belief that citizen soldiers could respond effectively to the current crises to ensure that there was never a sustained political electorate to build and maintain a professional force. As a result, the small cadres of the military were often unable to carry out military reforms, and the American armed forces had an inconsistent battle record from relying on unreliable militia forces and ad hoc volunteers.
This pattern of amateur armies with mixed results continued until after the Spanish-American War. The poor performance of American ground forces in this conflict and increasing foreign engagements eventually led to a political consensus and a series of reforms in military training, equipment, doctrine, organization, and leadership. While the U.S. Army continued to struggle with professionalism, funding, and other civil-military relationships in the decades to come, it eventually evolved into an institution that was less overtly politicized, increasingly professional, and more recognizable to today’s audiences.
While military, political, and intellectual history students will find much admirable in this book, it is worth asking the obvious question: How does this book help us better understand the problems of our time? Wooster does not say so explicitly, and the answer to that question may be something of a Rorschach test to the reader. Indeed, it would be fair to look at this book from a variety of perspectives, including: a great moral story about the consequences of broken politics; a critique of American exceptionalism; or a way to better understand the unique intellectual traditions of American political thought.
From this reviewer’s point of view, this book is extremely valuable because it reminds us of two simple truths: people are political beings, and ideas have far-reaching consequences. Both ideas are so simple it is easy to forget, but these are the very questions that are fundamental to engaged and enlightened people.
From this point of view, it is understandable that modern Americans should politicize the military. We always have and always will. We are no less human than our ancestors. One can only hope (perhaps in vain) that when we understand how and why we got here, we can see that the debates we have and the choices we make today are our warriors and the nation for will shape for many years.