A Historian Looks at the Army
Russell F. Weigley
Download the PDF
The golden anniversary issue of the Military Review obviously presents a suitable occasion for a historian’s retrospection. Unhappily, the 50th anniversary year of the Military Review also finds the US Army fallen upon a time of troubles. The troubles cannot help but color the retrospection although they scarcely need to be cataloged again here.
To approach the Army’s current troubles from the historian’s view, it is enough to say by way of beginning that the war in Vietnam has more than confirmed all the misgivings about unconventional war that Sir B. H. Liddell Hart expressed in his chapter on “Guerrilla War” appended to the 1967 edition of his book Strategy. There, Liddell Hart warned against the West’s involving itself in unconventional wars, fearing that, in “replying to our opponents’ ‘camouflaged war’ activities by counter-offensive moves of the same kind,” any possible gains would be “outweighed by the political and moral ill effects on the future. The disease has continued to spread.”
The disease to which Liddell Hart referred was the moral disease that he found in unconventional war because such war teaches men “to defy authority and break the rules of civic morality” and tempts troops in foreign lands to the undiscriminating “violent action that is always a relief to the nerves of a garrison in an unfriendly country.” “Violence,” he said, “takes much deeper root in irregular warfare than it does in regular warfare.”1
Unfortunately, at the time of this journal’s commemorative occasion, the Vietnam war has brought in its train ills of the kind Liddell Hart foresaw, embittering the US Army’s relations with the society that it defends, but on whose support it must also depend, and obliging the Army to doubt even its, own moral integrity.
In such a time of troubles, the historian can bring only small consolations. The one small consolation that he can offer now is that, for the US Army, the times have almost always been troubled, yet the Army has always survived. The ills brought in train by the Vietnam war may be especially aggravated troubles, but they may also only seem to be especially bad because of their contrast with the brief honeymoon between Army and Nation which immediately preceded them-the time in the early 1960’s when the John F. Kennedy administration agreed with the Army that greater ground combat strength was required for the Nation’s safety, and Army and administration cooperated in a rebuilding and readying of the Army.
The honeymoon of the early 1960’s may have been tentative and less than fully trustful, as well as brief, but, in terms of the Army’s usual relations with the civil government and civilian society throughout American history, it was a honeymoon indeed. Historically, in the US democracy, the Army and its values have tended consistently to seem so alien to the rest ·of society that, for the Army, the times have almost always been troubled. The tensions between Army and society have been great enough that, for American soldiers attempting faithful service to the values of both, even dilemmas of moral integrity are not altogether new or merely related to Vietnam.
Throughout American history, the consistency of the Army’s feeling itself a neglected stepchild is impressive. Evidence of the feeling runs through all periods of our past except for the occasional spasms of major warfare. With the society at large usually preoccupied with other problems rather than military defense, the feeling has usually reflected reality, and the Army usually has been, rightly or wrongly, in fact, a neglected stepchild. The time when the Army was neglected in favor of an almost exclusive reliance on the doctrine of nuclear massive retaliation is of recent memory.
Between the World Wars, the National Defense Act of 1920, which was supposed to permit profiting from the experiences of World War I and to hold the Army in reasonable readiness for another mobilization on the scale of World War I, became through neglect an instrument of little utility.
During the 1920’s and 1930’s, the Army prepared industrial and manpower mobilization plans for. another continental war on the scale of 1917-18 with its efforts dogged by a national policy that practically denied any possibility of the United States waging such a war again. The principal strategic contingency plaris of the interwar era-the Orange plans for war with Japan-held out to the Army the lugubrious prospect of the sacrifice of the Philippine Islands garrison at the outset of the war, with no real hope of rescue.
Still earlier, before World War I, the US Army was so tiny a force compared with the armies of the other great powers that officers writing in service journals lamented the inability of the United States to “maintain an organization or discipline comparable to that of little Japan.”2 When, in 1911, the neglected Army attempted to assemble its first modern tactical division, the “maneuver division,” the task proved almost beyond its capacities; to concentrate 13,000 troops required 90 days and yielded an understrength division full of organizational anomalies.3
The assembly of the maneuver division resembled all too much the earlier chaotic mobilization for the Spanish-American War. It showed that, despite the reforms of Secretary of War Elihu Root prompted by the Army’s difficulties in the war with Spain, the Army had, by 1911, received little of the means to improve its operations in the field.
Guard the Frontier
Before the Spanish War, the 19th century Army had enjoyed at least the advantage of serving a clear purpose generally understood and accepted by the American public, and directly related to national policy and to the fulfillment of the national destiny: to guard the frontier against the Indian tribes. Never, except in the two World Wars, has the Army, since 1890, been able to benefit from so general a popular understanding and approval of its principal function, or from the selfesteem of so clear a role in the service of national policy, as it did before the Indian wars ended with the action at Wounded Knee Creek.
Except in the World Wars, the Army’s subsequent services to national policy have been less obviously necessary and direct than in the Indian wars, and less readily understood and accepted by the voters. Even in the long era when the Army could enjoy the assurance of purpose and usefulness implicit in assuring the westward march of the United States across the continent, tensions still plagued its relations with the society at large; the means given it were almost never proportionate to the magnitude of its responsibilities; and, if we are to judge from the desertion rates, the morale of its enlisted soldiers could .hardly have been worse.
In 1889, the average enlisted strength of the Army for the yea.r was 24,110. There were 9,599 enlistments and 2,814 desertions during the year; the desertions represented 11.6 percent of the total enlisted strength of the Army and 29.3 percent of new enlistments. The desertion rate might have been assumed to be high partly because of the isolation and drabness of life on scattered Army posts across the western plains. However, location and climate seemed to have nothing to do with it, the rate being about the same east or west of the Mississippi, at cold or warm posts, in healthy ones or unhealthy ones.
In words that will sound familiar to present-day readers, the Secretary of War recommended that, to attempt to reduce desertions, “Unnecessary restraint should be removed and the soldier’s life in post be made as comfortable and pleasant as possible.” But writing thus in 1889, the Secretary at least was encouraged that desertions had shown a downward curve since 1883 when the average strength of the Army had been 23,335, enlistmen ts had numbered 8,990, and there had been 3,578 desertions- 15.3 percent of the total strength of the Army and 39.7 percent of the enlistments.4
In the 19th-century Army, improvements in this problem were always slight, and the desertion problem had been with the Army from the beginning. Before the Civil War, in 1853, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis had reported that the normal annual turnover in the then existing Army of about 10,000 could be expected to include 1,290 discharges at the end of enlistment, 726 discharges for disability, 330 deaths, and 1,465 desertions. In 1826, there were more than half as many desertions as enlistments.
The morale of officers in the Old Army of the Indian-fighting years often seemed hardly better than that of the enlisted men. Officers resigned while enlisted men deserted, but the problem of replacing the legally departed officers was, of course, even greater than that of filling the places of the illegally departed deserters.
In 1835-36, when there were from 680 to 857 officers in the Army, 117 resigned their commissions. In 1847, during the Mexican War, of 1,330 graduates of West Point from 1802 to 1846, there were 597 still serving in the Regular Army, with a few others in the 10 new regiments just being raised and some in the volunteer regiments. Through most of the 19th century, promotion was slow and held in the lockstep of seniority, with no retirement system to relieve the service of superannuated officers and encourage the young.5
The small, constricted, often discontented officer corps became notorious for its internal feuds and quarrels which often erupted into court-martial proceedings. Captain Winfield Scott set an unhappy pattern for himself and for too much of the Army by getting himself court-martialed soon after he was first commissioned. He was sentenced to loss of rank, pay, and emoluments for a year after he called Brigadier General James Wilkinson, the senior officer of the Army, a traitor, liar, and scoundrel. (There was merit in at least the latter two epithets which itself says something about the condition of the service.) Scott went on to a long career distinguished almost as much for the frequency of his appearances before military tribunals as for the outstanding leadership ability he showed between quarrels.6
The officers might squabble among themselves, but the conditions that made them quarrelsome and hastened the resignations of many were largely those imposed on the Army by the society outside. Much worse than boredom were the hypocrisies in which the Nation expected the Army to participate. The overwhelming weight of evidence indicates that most of the Army attempted to perform faithfully its duty on the Indian frontier, not only to protect whites from marauding Indians, but to guard the lands reserved for Indians against encroachments by unauthorized white settlers and traders.
At the same time that it tried to protect the Indians, the Army did not make Indian policy, and it found itself having to carry into effect policies that it was sure would have disastrous results for both Indians and whites, and to assist Indian Bureau agents whose very honesty it distrusted.7
Major H. Clay Wood, Assistant Adjutant General of the Department of the Columbia, would insist in a report to Washington that the Nez Perce Indians of Chief Joseph had never signed away their tribal homeland in the Wallowa Valley, that attempts to claim they had done so in a treaty of 1863 were fraudulent, and Wood’s department commander, Brigadier General Oliver 0. Howard, could endorse the report.
Both Wood and Howard soon found themselves members of a five-man commission to negotiate with the Nez Perces, obliged to deny their own recent conclusions and to insist that the tribe abandon the Wallowa country for a much smaller area on the Lapwai Reservation. An incident of the consequent forced migration precipitated the Nez Perce War of 1877.
After suffering defeats at the Indians’ hands, General Howard, in October, found himself again negotiating with Chief Joseph whose people the troops of General Howard and Colonel Nelson A. Miles had at length trapped. Once more, Howard tried to deal as fairly as he could with the Nez Perces, assuring them that, if theyr surrendered, he would treat them with honor; see that they were subsisted through the winter; amd- move them to the Lapwai Reservation in the spring.
Chief Joseph surrendered, but the Government again ignored Howard’s judgments and this time his promises. The Nez Perces were removed to a malarial tract in the Indian Territory far to the south. Brigadier General George A. Crook, who tried similarly to deal honorably with Crazy Horse and later with Geronimo only to have his assurances ignored by Washington, and other officers as well, would have found Howard’s experience familiar.8
A still deeper moral dilemma lay behind the Army’s inability to sustain the honor of its officers’ promises. This dilemma lay rooted in the question of the ultimate purpose of the post-Civil War Indian campaigns. Before the Civil War, Government policy toward the Indians had settled upon the goal of creating an Indian Country in the western part of the Great Plains, an area then deemed unsuitable to the white man’s uses.
After assisting in the forced removal of the eastern tribes westward, the Army found its task along the border of the Indian Country to be that of patrolling a quasi-international frontier- a relatively simple or at least straightforward mission albeit the Army’s manpower resources were never equal to the extent of territory to be patrolled.
After the Civil War, however, the pressure of westward settlement, mineral strikes in the Indian Country, and the building of the transcontinental railroads destroyed all possibility of a permanent Indian Country closed to white settlement. Henceforth, if the Indians were to live at all, they must live among the whites; no place remained to which to remove them. If they were to live among the whites, their military power must be totally subdued. Given the tenacity of the Indians’ determination to retain their historic way of life and the fierce military prowess of the Plains tribes, the method of breaking their military power least costly in white lives was likely to approach being that of exterminating them as a people.
As early as 1868, General Ulysses S. Grant, Commanding General of the Army and about to become President of the United States, was driven by Indian ferocity to exclaim that westering emigrants would be protected “even if the extermination of every Indian tribe was necessary to secure such a result.”9 The frustration of trying to keep open the Bozeman Trail had already driven Lieutenant General William T. Sherman, commanding the Military Division of the Missouri, to threaten: We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children. Nothing else will reach the root of this case.10
Such sentiments found their not surprising counterparts in action in Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer’s slaughter of Black Kettle’s Cheyenne on the Washita River in 1868, the 6th Cavalry’s massacre of fugitive Cheyenne at the Sappa River in Kansas near the end of the Red River War in 1875, and the mowing down of the men, women, and children of Big Foot’s band of Sioux by the 7th Cavalry in the “battle” of Wounded Knee in 1890.
How could Grant’s and Sherman’s extermination policy be reconciled with the laws of war? And what was the soldier of scruple to do in the face of such a policy and its sometimes literal execution? As early as the Seminole and Mexican Wars, Colonel Ethan . A. Hitchcock had thought of resigning in revulsion at similar violations of what he, a scholarly officer, interpreted the laws of war to mean, but Hitchcock had decided that his dedication to his profession as a soldier required him to swallow his scruples and continue in the Army. Other officers’ diaries might reveal thoughts similar to Hitchcock’s.11
Yet, if a soldier of conscience such as Colonel Hitchcock suffered a sense of guilt over the Army’s conduct of its wars against peoples deemed inferior and over his own part in it, a more ruthless soldier such as General Sherman might well have responded to any challenge of his military policies with the observation that the overriding national policies left him and the Army little choice as to how they would handle the Indians.
The Nation demanded that its continental domain be made safe for white settlement. To open the whole continent to settlement as completely and quickly as the Nation wanted required the destruction of the Indians’ military power and of their way of life, for the two were so closely related, and the way of life, especially of the Great Plains tribes, was so incompatible with proximity to the white man’s agriculture that the Indians’ warmaking lances and their culture had to be broken simultaneously. To accomplish this breaking against a proud people’s resistance may well have been impossible without ruthlessness beyond the usual boundaries of civilized war. At any rate, the Government and public seem to have thought so.
In the Seminole War, Winfield Scott tried to fight much as he would have against a European foe, but did not make progress rapidly enough and was transferred from the theater. Major General Thomas S. Jesup transformed a conciliatory policy toward the Seminole into a harsh “no quarter” policy under pressure from Washington. Lieutenant Colonel William J. Worth was sustained in command and promoted to brigadier general as his reward for the harsh campaign which finally concluded the war by burning the Indians’ villages and crops to give them no alternative except peace or starvation.12 In the later wars against the western tribes, it was the civil government in Washington that assured the nullification of the conciliatory efforts of generals such as Howard and Crook.
That angry military critic of the US civil government and its policies, Colonel Emory Upton, blamed the civil government’s misguided military policies for the necessity to resort in crisis to “criminal disregard for the rules of civilized warfare.”13 Upton used this phrase in another context than that of the Indian wars; he was writing specifically about the use in the War of 1812 of militia who amounted to nothing more than armed civilians whose efforts to resist the British could be cited by the enemy as justification for attacks on property.
However, his book The Military Policy of the United States, implies that, in general, the desperation induced in wartime by the lack of adequate preparation for war prompted departures from the proper code of war. AB he said in his discussion of the War of the Revolution:
The army could point with pride to its subordination to civil authority and to its devotion to liberty. More than this, it could justly claim that the dictatorial powers conferred upon its commander—arbitrary arrests, summary executions without trial, forced impressment of provisions, and other dangerous precedents of the Revolution—were the legitimate fruits of the defective military legislation of our inexperienced statesmen.14
The belief that faulty policies on the part of the civil government drove the soldier into moral dilemmas thus became another part of Upton’s broad indictment of a Government under which:
[When soldiers’] mistakes are summed up and their deficiencies considered, it will be found that the underlying causes were inherent in a military system which was a creature of law.15
Bad law resulted because:
Military legislation was thus largely made to depend upon the combined wisdom of a body of citizens [Congress] who, in their individual experience, were totally ignorant of military affairs.16
Colonel Upton pessimistically implied that the faults of the US military system were not likely to be corrected, and the major prescriptions for change that he recommended were not likely to be adopted because the roots of the US military troubles lay deep in the US Government and society: in excessive and misguided civilian control of military conduct and policy and in a public opinion that insisted on it.
Uptonian military commentators at the tum of the 19th into the 20th century stated their pessimistic conclusions about the fate of the military in the US democracy still more explicitly than did their mentor. Captain Matthew F. Steele, the later historian of American Campaigns, said that the influence of democracy could not be utilized to create a good Army. The Military Service Institution of the United States in 1905 awarded the first prize in the annual essay competition for its Journal to a paper that concluded:
National characteristics, which become governmental ones in a democracy like ours, make it impossible to organize and discipline an effective army from the point of view of military experts.17
The World Wars were to prove that this utterly bleak conclusion was unfounded. After the World Wars, the bitterest critic of the Influence of the US Government and society on the Army could hardly say any longer that it is impossible for the United States to organize and discipline an effective Army.
Yet the unstinting support that people and Government gave the war effort and the Army in the two World Wars and the relatively generous military appropriations of the cold war may have blurred the perception that, judging matters from the soldier’s viewpoint and taking into account the evidence of the entire span of American history, Upton and his followers were not altogether wrong to be pessimistic about the prospects for the Army’s relationship with democratic America.
The history of the United States suggests that this relationship is bound to be, except in the occasional moments of general war or of generally acknowledged crisis such as the cold war, one at best of public and governmental indifference to the Army and to military needs beyond the most obvious ones, and frequently of indifference expanded and hardened into suspicion. Even at our present distance in time from the founding of the American Republic, it is still not for nothing that the Founding Fathers came out of a tradition of deep hostility to the military, a tradition which held that:
…unhappy nations have lost that precious jewel liberty … [because] their necessities or indiscretion have permitted a standing army to be kept amongst them.18
The American people continued to pride themselves on the tradition of peaceful policies they supposed they represented and, through most of their history, on the smallness of their armaments. The half-forgotten convictions of the fathers of the Republic often influence present-day attitudes and policies all the more stubbornly because, while they have deeply marked our national institutions and beliefs, being half-forgotten, they cannot be faced directly and dealt with in open debate like the headlines in today’s newspaper.
What of the cries, heard so loudly and frequently in public discussion today, that there is an excessive military influence in the Government and has been since World War II, and that, consequently, the country has abandoned its antimilitary heritage? It is true enough that, under the impact of World War II and the cold war, the attitudes of American civilian statesmen were, in a sense, militarized.
Our involvement in Vietnam demonstrates that the cold war developed an inclination among American civilian leaders to seek military solutions to international problems, the principal early impetus toward the Vietnam involvement having come from civilian leaders over considerable military reluctance.
If the tendency to rely on military solutions was in truth excessive in US national policy during much of the quarter century after World War II, it was still also ·true that civilian statesmen remained thoroughly in control of US policymaking during that quarter century. The often-heard accusations that the Pentagon made US policy have found no confirmation in hard evidence and are unlikely to, and, if there has been an American militarism, it has been, at its highest and most influential levels, a civilian militarism.
If national policy has been militarized, furthermore, the phenomenon has not been one from which military men can necessarily take much comfort. A militarized national policy has not been supported consistently with balanced military forces of strength appropriate to the responsibilities implied by the policy. In the context of US politics, any militarization of the attitudes of civilian statesmen seems almost certain to be a temporary occurrence. Under the impact of disillusionment over Vietnam, the phenomenon is now fading fast, and the attitudes of the young hardly encourage its perpetuation.
All in all, for the health of the Nation, it is clearly a good thing that the latter sentence can still be written. If we appear to be returning to the historically customary American situation in which the civilian government and population both regard the military with distrust, then, for the Army, the times immediately ahead are not likely to be much happier than the present. Nor, given the evidence of the past, are any times in the United States likely to offer a prolonged period of respite for the Army, from the prevailing social attitudes of indifference toward the military at best and suspicion or even hostility at worst.
For the American military man, the primary utility of the study of history is probably not the search for “lessons” of tactics and strategy in the increasingly distant campaigns of the past. Rather, the chief utility may well lie in the aid which history can give toward an understanding of the place of the military in American society. When military men lament that they find themselves in an inhospitable society, they will draw from American history only the small consolation that, for the Army, it has always been thus.
If they search history in pursuit of understanding, they may find in it the comprehension and the wisdom to become still better soldiers than that greatest American soldier-historian, Emory Upton. They may find in history, as Upton did, the conviction that, in an inhospitable world, the American soldier can still remain faithful to his first duty, to maintain at least the integrity of his own institution, the Army, and its values:
Wherever the Regular Army has met the enemy [said Upton], the conduct of the officers and men has merited and received the applause of their countrymen. It has rendered the country vastly more important service than by merely sustaining the national honor in battle. It has preserved, and still preserves, to us the military art; has formed the standard of discipline for the vast number of volunteers of our late wars, and, while averting disaster and bloodshed, has furnished us ·with military commanders to lead armies of citizen soldiers, whose exploits are now famous in the history of the world.19
It can be hoped that modern military men may also find in a critical view of the Army’s, as well as the country’s, history that sympathy for the values of civilian society which Emory Upton never discovered, and the consequent possibility of improving the Army and its relationship with the rest of the United States.
We are today, psychologically at least, in a postwar period. Our job is to rebuild the dignity, pride, and motivation of all components of our Army. After every war there has been a tendency toward a drop in morale, esprit, and prestige for the man in uniform. We must work to overcome this tendency, because of its deleterious effect on both the man in uniform and the public. The dedication of the soldier and the confidence of the people in him are principal ingredients of our national strength. The Nation will be the loser if, over the long term, the dignity and pride of the soldier are undermined.
— General Ralph E. Haines, Jr.
- B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy, Second Revised Edition, Praeger Publishers, N. Y., 1967, pp 380-82.
- Lieutenant Colonel James S. Pettit, 8th Infantry, “How Far Does Democracy Affect the Organization and Discipline of Our Armies, and How Can Its Influence Be Most Effectually Utilized?,” Journal of the United States Military Service Institution, XXXVIII, 1906, p 9. For examples of similar views, see Russell F. Weigley, Towards an American Army: Military Thought From Washington to Marshall, Columbia University Press, N. Y., 1962, Chapter IX.
- William A. Ganoe, History of the United States Army, Appleton-Century, N . Y., 1936, pp 439-40; Walter Millis, Arms and Men: A Study in American Military History, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, N. Y., 1956, pp 202-3; Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Education of a General, 1880- 1939, The Viking Press, Inc., N. Y., 1963, pp 112- 14.
- Report of the Secretary of War, 1889, pp 7-9.
- Leonard D. White, The Jacksonians: A Studyin Administrative History, 1829-1861, The Macmillan Co., N. Y., 1964, pp 197-200, 202-3.
- Charles W. Elliott, Winfield Scott, the Soldier and the Man, The Macmillan Co., N. Y., 1937, pp 30-36.
- On the Army and Indian policy before the Civil War, see Francis P. Prucha, The Sword of the Republic: The United States Army on the Frontier, 1788-1846, The Macmillan Co., N. Y., 1969, and Robert M. Utley, Frontiersmen in Blue: The United States Army and the Indian, 1848- 1865, The Macmillan Co., N. Y., 1967, especially Chapter XVI of the latter for the problems of policy. On the post-Civil War period, see Robert G. Athearn, William Tecumseh Sherman and the Settlement of the West, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Okla., 1966.
- Ralph K. Andrist, The Long Death: The Last Days of the Plains Indian, The ·Macmillan Co., N. Y., 1964, pp 298-300, 302-17; Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., The Patriot Chiefs: A Chronicle of American Indian Leadership, The Viking Press, Inc., N. Y., 1961, pp 305-40.
- Athearn, op. cit., p 228, quoted from The New York Times, 16 October 1868.
- Lieutenant General William T. Sherman to General Ulysses S. Grant, 28 December 1866, quoted in 39th Congress, 2d Session, Senate Executive Documents, II (Serial 1277), Number 16, p 4; also in 40: 1 Senate Executive Documents (Serial 1308), Number 13, p 27.
- Ethan A. Hitchcock, Fifty Years in Camp and Field, Edited By W. A. Croffut, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, N. Y., 1909.
- Elliott, op. cit., pp 288-310, 322-31; John K. Mahon, History of the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842, University of Florida Press, Gainesville, Fla., 1967; Prucha, op. cit., Chapter XIV.
- Brevet Major General Emory Upton, The Military Policy of the United States, Third Impression, US Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C., 1912, p 116.
- Ibid., pp 61-62.
- Ibid., pp 256-57.
- Ibid., pp 4.
- Letter from Captain Matthew F. Steele to Journal of the, United States Military Service Institution, XXXVIII, 1906, p 358; Pettit, op. cit., p 38.
- Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1967, p 62.
- Upton, op. cit., p 145.
Russell F. Weigley is Professor of History and former Chairman of the Department of History at Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A graduate of Albright College, Reading, Pennsylvania, he holds a Ph. D. in History from the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught at that university and also at Drexel University and Dartmouth College. In addition to various articles in historical journals, he is the author of the History of the United States Army. In 1969-70, he held a Guggenheim Fellowship for his current research project, a History of American Strategic Thought.
Back to Top