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Book Review - Preparing for War: The Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815-1917

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Book Review - Preparing for War: The Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815-1917

Sam Wilkins

Preparing for War: The Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815–1917, by J.P. Clark, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2017.

The US Army, emerging from combat experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, is reimagining its professional systems of officer education, training, and personnel management. Generational differences define today’s Army. There are baby-boomer generals who came of age in the Cold War and quasi-peace of the 1990s, field-grade officers who spent their entire careers in low-intensity conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and millennial Company grade officers torn between limited counterinsurgency experiences and training for high intensity combat. Similar cultural cross-currents and differing foundational experiences also shaped the development of the U.S. Army during the 19th and early 20th century. J.P. Clark’s masterful examination of this period, Preparing for War, combines collective biography, military anthropology, and military history to illuminate the uneven tapestry of how military professions change.  

Clark, an active duty Army strategist and former professor of history at West Point, illustrates the complexity of military transformation over this 102 year period. Clark’s story begins with what he calls the “foundational generation” of Army officers, men like Winfield Scott whose professional careers were defined early through their service in the War of 1812. Scott, exemplary of his generation of gentlemen regulars, saw the 1812 experience as the “touchstone on which the temper of our army had been thoroughly tried, so that it had now been easy to select the pure metal from the dross.”  Scott’s generation defined success largely as the personal measure of an officer’s innate talents as illuminated by command in battle. Culturally, Scott’s Army was defined by its minuscule size, the constant monotony of frontier posts, and sclerotic promotion rates. Emerging professional institutions like West Point shaped the service, but focused largely on technical expertise, not preparation for larger command or staff responsibilities. Additionally, due to a glacial seniority-based promotion system, the first West Point graduate would not wear general’s bars until 1860. In tiny frontier posts, where military officers would remain at the company grade for 20-25 years, Clark rightfully asks “what use was Jomini?”

The Civil War permanently and irrevocably changed the culture of the US Army. The story of the US Army’s “composite generation” is one of officers torn between their heady experiences at the head of massive volunteer formations and subsequent return to command of small detachments of regulars at far flung outposts. “The regulars,” Clark notes, “could not simply return to their antebellum state after such a transformational event.” For younger officers like the fiery and ambitious Emory Upton, who at the young age of 24 became a Brigadier General, preparing the Army for large scale conflicts became a life’s purpose. Upton realized, from his own experiences witnessing the incompetence of Civil War generalship, that few generals, or the staffs that served them, had any qualifications for the role. Upton’s desired reforms, a general staff system, a merit based promotion and education system, and reform of the militia system, were out of synch with political and cultural realities both inside the Army and within wider American society.

The postwar “composite generation” struggled with the same kinds of environmental and cultural difficulties as their antebellum predecessors. These included small posts, slow seniority-based promotions, and limited educational preparation for higher staff and command. “Torn between dreams of grand campaigns and the reality of leading small, dusty detachments,” Clark writes, “that generation was further buffeted by the social, cultural, and technological dislocations that marked the transition from the 19th to the 20th century.” Civil war titans such as William Sherman and John Schofield, who led the service during the Gilded Age, recognized the value of large volunteer formations from their Civil War experience but continued to focus training on technical matters and command of small units rather than command and staff preparation to lead large, but at the time non-existent, combined arms formations.  These commanders did not share Upton’s affinity for reform and consequently were content with minor modifications to the existing professional institutions. Inherent conservatism and what Clark cleverly labels “military socialism,” a collectivism that resisted efforts to introduce meritocratic evaluation systems or discharge poor performers, also stymied most efforts to generate personnel systems that rewarded excellence in the field and in the educational realm.

The bumbling performance of the Army in the War with Spain highlighted the same deficiencies that Upton sought and failed to reform during the post-Civil War period. The war began with a disastrous mobilization process that highlighted the inadequacies of the War Department’s bureau-centric system and the lack of a general-staff like capacity for pre-war planning. Led by obese and over-age general officers, the Army also performed poorly in the field. Brigade and Division-level staffs, which largely did not exist or train in peacetime, unsurprisingly were unable to coordinate rapid combined-arms movements. National Guard formations, lacking standardized training, manning, or equipment, mobilized and performed exceptionally poorly in a war characterized by military clumsiness. This external shock led to the Dodge Commission of 1899, a panel designed to study the failures of the war and recommend changes. The Commission’s recommendations and general public outcry over the mishandled war effort led to the eventual appointment of Elihu Root, a New York corporate lawyer with no military experience, as Secretary of War later that year.

“Practical men,” John Maynard Keynes once observed, “who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some…academic scribbler of a few years back.” The Root reforms, which included the creation of General Staff in 1903, reorganization of the National Guard,  and changes to the branch, promotion, and educational systems, largely followed the template outline by Upton. These reforms transformed the Army from a continental frontier force to a first rate international power. When championed by Upton 25 years prior, these reforms were seen as undemocratic and impractical. The Root reforms, however, were not uniformly resisted within the Army. The Army in 1899, while led by conservative composite-era Generals like Army Chief of Staff Nelson Miles, consisted largely of officers commissioned after 1889. These officers embodied Progressive era values of rational organization, specialization, and centralization. Consequently, this “Progressive generation” embraced the Root reforms and sustained them long after his tenure. The Army was able to change, Clark correctly concludes, because society had already changed.

Clark’s assertion that emerging professionalism reflected external society more than internal isolation stands in stark contrast with the views put forth by Samuel Huntington in his 1957 work, The Soldier and the State. Huntington states that the Army emerged as a professional institution because of its isolation from larger society in smaller frontier outposts. Clark disagrees, arguing that the Army was never truly isolated from cultural, social, and political events. These wider events, he argues, influenced the outlook of Army officers more than any Army-programmed doctrine, training, or education. Differing global events and evolving cultural values created schisms between generations of officers’ views of how to best prepare for war.

The officers born into the Root era “came to professional maturity in a far different army than the other three cohorts.” Freed from the duties of garrisoning the frontier, a task that prevented officers of the foundational, Civil War, and composite generation from participating in large combined arms training events, these officers regularly participated in larger combined arms exercises designed to prepare for conventional war. Most importantly, the education system divided officers by merit and provided the most gifted with a common doctrinal understanding and advanced preparation to lead and staff large formations. Clark glowingly describes how the elite of this generation formed the “Leavenworth clique” that filled critical command and staff roles in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) of the First World War. In Cuba, officers struggled to coordinate the movements of three under-sized infantry divisions with minimal combined arms. A mere two decades later in September 1918, officers bonded by a common educational experience and doctrinal lexicon effectively coordinated the combined arms attack of the 600,000-man 1st Army at Meuse-Argonne. Clark appropriately caveats his glorification of the “Leavenworth clique” with comments about the doctrinal foolishness of open-warfare, riflemen-centric tactics. The irony of the Root reforms, he quips, is that they produced a standardized and cohesive group of officers who uniformly shared incorrect beliefs about the tactical conduct of modern war.

Clark’s unabashed admiration of military intellectualism and distain for conceptions of the Army profession grounded in technical expertise or heroic narratives is evident throughout Preparing for War. Clark’s concept, of generations of officers defined by experiences, contrasts the recent work of Brian McAlister Linn. In his spectacular 2008 work, The Echo of Battle, Linn groups US military thinkers into distinctive camps. However, unlike Clark, Linn’s three groupings, Heroes, Managers, and Guardians, transcend generations of officers.  Guardians see warfare largely as a technical and scientific subject to be practiced by a small corps of experienced professionals.  The Heroic tradition views war in its simplest terms as an armed struggle between humans where discipline, willpower, and innovative abilities determine the victor. Linn’s final camp, the Managers, includes men like Upton and George Marshall, who believe that success in modern war is dependent primarily on an ability of a highly educated officer corps to mobilize and synchronize massive formations of largely untrained citizen-soldiers. In Preparing for War, Clark demonstrates a clear affinity towards the managerial school and dismissiveness towards muddy-boots views of the military profession. 

Clark’s work, like the best works of history, subtly illuminates current conditions. He provides intellectually and historically grounded understanding of today’s military profession. The Army of the 19th and early 20th century, he correctly identifies, changed “less by design and more because it was pulled along by larger forces.” Clark avoids platitudes of “generational conflict” within the service while correctly highlighting how different military experiences, such as the Civil War, and cultural conditions, such as the progressivist drive to organize and improve for efficiency, shaped the perspective of generations of Army officers. These unique circumstances and cultural beliefs defined the professional opinions of each separate generation of Army officers.  Military reform of the future will be shaped by the experiences of the Long War generation as well as the larger cultural beliefs of “digital-natives” who came of age after the millennium. While it is unclear what shape tomorrows Army will take, Preparing for War represents a critical tool to understanding the future of the Army profession.

About the Author(s)

Captain Sam Wilkins is an active duty Army Special Forces officer. The views published above do not reflect the perspective or policy of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, or 1st Special Forces Command. Follow him on twitter @SWilkins11