Elvis’s Army

Elvis’s Army

Cold War GIs and the Atomic Battlefield

Brian McAllister Linn

Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2016, 464 pages

Book Review published on: June 23, 2017

To the casual observer, the 1950s could be seen as a lost decade for the U.S. Army. The military history of the twenty years between the end of World War II and the commitment of ground troops to Vietnam is dominated by the rise of Hyman Rickover’s Navy and Curtis LeMay’s Air Force, with little thought or attention being given to Matthew Ridgeway’s and Maxwell Taylor’s Army. To the American public, at the time, the Army appeared to be a Luddite leftover of the gravel-bellied infantry age in a glittering new era of jets, missiles, and thermonuclear weapons. Even the era’s major conflict, the Korean War, brought the Army little glory and even less respect.

In Elvis’s Army: Cold War GIs and the Atomic Battlefield, Brian McAllister Linn succeeds in resurrecting this “lost decade” of Army history by offering a deep, nuanced, and brutally honest assessment of the U.S. Army of the early atomic era. Do not let the book’s title distract you, for this is far from a frivolous work. Linn masterfully chronicles the Army’s painful, and largely unsuccessful, effort to reinvent itself as a high-tech and relevant force at a time when the growth of nuclear weapons and the Air Force only seemed to highlight its obsolescence. To Army leaders, at the time, the choices seemed stark; either carve out a niche for the Army by demonstrating an ability to operate on a nuclear battlefield or suffer the slow budgetary death imposed by the Eisenhower administration’s “New Look” defense policies.

Linn’s work is a masterful blend of institutional and social history. He traces the Army’s internal struggle with the rapid demobilization of forces following World War II, its painful efforts to expand the force to fight in Korea and to deter the Soviets in Europe, and its quixotic quest to create a logical and workable “Pentomic” doctrine and organization for waging an unthinkable war. The Army’s ultimate folly was its unerring certainty that it could give the nation the ability to wage limited nuclear war and that its soldiers could fight and win on battlefields where atomic weapons were expected to be launched with tactical impunity.

The great strength and originality of Elvis’s Army is Linn’s examination of the social dynamics at play within the army of the 1950s. Although he praises the Army’s desegregation efforts, he notes that it was less successful in many of its other personnel policies. To field advanced weapons systems and rebrand itself as a tech-savvy fighting force, it was incumbent upon the Army to attract and retain educated officers and soldiers, and to provide a career path that identified and promoted talent. To accomplish this goal, the Army embraced the emerging Madison Avenue methods of marketing and other means of selling itself to the American public. In one of the most far-reaching “talent management” personnel reforms its history, the army also pushed for a half pay after twenty years of service retirement option and the adoption of an “up or out” promotion policy. Unfortunately, these policies could not change the perceptions of the public, potential recruits, or junior officers that the Army was a hidebound dead-end institution with little to offer the youth of America except for a brief period of toughening and civic obligation before they went on with the rest of their lives. The best and brightest recruits went to the Navy and the Air Force, and the Army had to make due with conscripts whose education and skills seldom matched the technical skills that the Army needed. In other words, the Army wanted and needed Buck Rodgers but got Beetle Bailey and Sergeant Bilko.

This is one of the most important books printed on the history of the U.S. Army in the past decade. Not only does Linn offer a detailed analysis of an understudied period of the Army, but he also provides a wealth of issues for today’s military professional to ponder. History does not repeat itself, but certain challenges, such as how to create a force and doctrine to meet emerging threats in a period of dynamic technological change and tight budgets, are enduring. As the current Army wrestles with issues of rising peer competitors and recruiting talent to wage cyberwarfare and other new forms of conflict, Elvis’s Army provides its readers ample food for thought.

Book Review written by: Lt Col. Richard S. Faulkner, PhD, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas