“An Expeditionary Army”

For most of its long history the US Army existed without conscription (the draft).  What is now the Regular Army was created by Congress in 1775.  Colonial militia units began in the mid-17th century.  Many of these units are now in the National Guard.   In fact, some of the units of the Army National Guard are older than the oldest unit of the British Regular Army (The Coldstream Guards – 1660)

The first time the country drafted men for military service was in the Civil War (WBtheS).  Both sides drafted them in that war.  The US Army started drafting in 1863 just after Gettysburg.  That draft lasted the two years until Appomattox.  The draft returned in 1917 for about two more years.  Then it returned in 1940 and continued until after WW2 when it was abolished and then re-authorized for Cold War purposes so that an army adequate to the task could be built.  The draft then continued for around 25 years until it "went away" in the early 70s.  Draftees were always primarily destined for the Army, but not always.  Contrary to service mythology the Navy, US Marine Corps and Air Force all took people out of the draftee "stream" when it suited them. 

How many years in all was it that the US had an Army made up partly of draftees and partly of Regulars?  It looks like around 35 years to me.  This means that for 35 years out of about 200, we had draftees in the standing army.  For 165 years we did not have a draft, did not have draftees in the Army.  What did we have?  We had the militia (not drafted) and the Regulars (certainly not drafted). 

The Regulars (in John Ford’s phrase, "the 50 cent a day professionals in dirty shirt blue").  Who were these guys?  The mythology of America has long held that they were ,as Wellington described their British colleagues, "the scum of the earth, enlisted for drink.."  Oddly enough, British troops liked Wellington.  Perhaps he had as few illusions as they.  Scholarship has demonstrated that in the enlisted ranks American Regularas were always much the same, half immigrants (often with European military service) and half native born farmboys and "mechanics" as they were then called.  The latter had enlisted because they had got tired of the farm or the factory.  Some found the idea of soldiering "adventurous," or perhaps they just wanted to get away from "pa."  (See Don Rickey "Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay" 1974)  In the small Regular forces of the United States such men predominated until the Second World War. 

These soldiers fought a lot.  A close inspection of the history of the US will demonstrate that until the Second World War the Army (like the Marine Corps) was more or less continually involved in small scale warfare in between the big wars.  The US Marine Corps played a prominent role in Haiti and Nicaragua but their very small numbers until World War Two insured that the Army would do most of the fighting.  The Mexican War, the everlasting Indian Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, the Phillipine Insurrection, The Moro War, The Vera Cruz Expedition if 1914 and the Mexican Punitive Expedition, were only a few of the many expeditionary campaigns in which regular soldiers and their marine comrades carried the load.   In those days there wasn’t a lot of difference between the men in the two groups.

These soldiers lived a life apart from the civilian world.  The junior enlisted men (the great majority) all lived in barracks.  The government fed them, clothed them, housed them, treated their illnesses and wounds, punished them and paid them.  When they became too old to soldier, the enlisted soldiers could take up residence at the "Old Soldiers Home" in Washington and live out their days among old friends.  While in service they were not allowed to marry until they became sergeants and then only with the agreement of their commanding officer.  They drank when they got a chance, whored as opportunity presented itself and smoked (the worst of all sins) when they had the makings.  They played cards, often Pinochle,  As Kipling said of his own, "Single men in barracks, they ain’t no plaster saints."  Not boy scouts, not at all, but they sure did fight.

The Second World War changed all that.  From the beginning, a new army was built that numbered in the end 12 million and which deliberately was made to reflect the modern, industrial nature of American society.  Unit identities were downplayed.  Soldiers were treated as though they were inter-changeable replacement parts in a giant attritional machine.  This was a machine that was fed live bodies at one end and which produced dead bodies at the other.  Leadership became sloppy and lazy because the draft always produced more human material    The fine art of leading soldiers became much less important.  This model army produced victory in WW2 in a struggle which had massive public support and which could be waged as a quasi industrial project against outnumbered and outproduced enemies.

The system began to falter in Korea in a war to which a lot of Americans were less committed.  Without public commitment the fighting spirit of drafted soldiers rapidly erodes.  Vietnam finished off this model army.  It was clear by 1972 (when I returned to VN for the last time) that line US troops remaining in country were no longer reliable.  Elite American units (professionals) were still what they had always been but line brigades of infantry were "finished" and needed to be withdrawn from combat as soon as possible.

In reaction to this institutional disaster, a new force was built on the principle of voluntary service in the ranks and the imposition of progressively higher standards of health, physical condition, intelligence, education and behavior.  An important part of this program was the insistance on middle class standards of morality and the retention of people who conformed to those standards in terms of family life and responsibility.  This re-build of the force was largely succesful after some early problems.  The politically necessary decision to have a large number of women soldiers resulted in the phenomenon of a plethora of single mothers in the ranks, but the system adapted to that by insisting that they conform to all the rest of the system’s standards.  The Regular Army that we have today, the people whom you see on TV news every night are the products of that system.  They are, in many ways, more representative of their fellow Americans (except the rich) than any other Army we have had.  Why?  Because they were recruited to be that way.

Rumsfeld and company claim to like that Army, but are about to do things that will change its inner content and nature immensely.  What are they going to do?

The US Army has an old, old tradition of garrison life in large military communities in which units live together on Army posts which are essentially self contained towns.  It is a tradition peculiar to itself and not present in European armies.  This tradition is derived from the experience of the frontier in which Army posts were self contained because often there were no towns. It is the normal Army way of life, and within those communities families can be raised and a semblance of normal life maintained.  After WW2 the Army took that tradition overseas with it, and has maintained it ever since.  It still does.  When the 1st Armored Division deployed to Iraq, it deployed from its German garrisons.  Its families stayed there in their homes, its children continued to attend the same schools with the same kids and teachers.  When the division returned from Iraq, it returned to its homes, wives, children and neighbors in Germany.  This is the stability needed to attract and hold the kind of representative Americans who now man the Army.  Marines come from a different tradition, derived from life aboard ship in small detachments often gone on long deployments.  Marines are somewhat different in their psychology, but I am talking about the Army of today, to some extent of the enduring culture of the Army.

Rumsfeld and company plan to change the basic pattern of Army life to something very different.  They intend to withdraw the Army to US bases where the force will be divided into the smallish BCTs discussed here yesterday.  Having done that, they intend to create small, bare bones bases in Eastern Europe, Africa and similar isolated places where no families will be allowed, where there will be minimal creature comforts and the troops can "concentrate" on training and soldiering without the "distraction" of dealing with family life.  BCTs would rotate from permanent stations in the States to forward bases like these every couple of years for six months at a time.  In other words a life of repeated and routine separation from family would be the norm.

The marines pretty much live like this at present and always have.  Their long time presence in strength in Okinawa was typical in a life often unaccompanied by family members.  Their routine deployments on board ship for six or eight months at a time create a "monastic" spirit which is reflected in many ways in their thinkiing.

US Army troops in Korea have been there without dependents since the end of the Korean War.  This experience is so "out of tune" with the tradition of Army life that duty in Korea has been loathed by generations of Army people.   

What will be the result of a transformation in social patterns as radical as this?   Well, it may take a while, but the middle class, family oriented people who have been carefully and deliberately recruited for the past thirty years will gradually leave.  They will stop re-enlisting.  They will retire early.  Junior officers with young families will resign and find something else to do, something where they can spend time at home.

The soldiers who will people the Army after the family men depart will be people for whom soldiering is more important than family.  The resulting force will be more like the Airborne, more like the US Marines, more like Special Forces. They will be more like the "old breed," John Ford’s Army.  They will be more consciously apart from civilians.  They will be closer to the "ideal" of "warrior."  Their units, their traditions and their craft will be all important to them.  They will be superb fighters.

I wonder if America will be comfortable with them.

Pat Lang

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24 Responses to “An Expeditionary Army”

  1. Ckrisz says:

    Great post! I was wondering if Rumsfeld’s reforms and basing decisions have already achieved an institutional momentum of their own, or if this trend could possibly be reversed by succeeding Administrations? Is there any thought at the higher levels of the military with regards to alternatives to this?
    Also, I’d like to hear what you think about Tom Ricks’ theory about the separation between military and civilian spheres:

  2. Pat Lang says:

    You sound like you don’t want an Army made up of people for whom family is less important than soldiering. Is that true?
    Ricks? His reporting on the military would be better if he had ever served.
    The process of socialization of recruits which he marvels at is quite normal and should be expected. War as a trade demands attitudes, chatacteristics and standards different than those required in civilian life. Those who will follow this trade will be different. The question really is “how much different?” And how will the American people deal with soldiers like the one(presumably a marine) who wrote to me this morning to say that marines don’t care what the American people think of them.
    Actually, I think he is mistaken given the amount of time and trouble that the US Marine Corps devotes to its public relations. pl

  3. Diana says:

    “In other words a life of repeated an routine separation from family would be the norm.”

  4. Ckrisz says:

    COL Lang,
    I would like to see a military whose main body (the Army) remains connected to American society in a fundamental way. I understand that the military operates on a different set of values, but they should not be values that the military (or society) comes to see as fundamentally at odds with those of wider American society. I think we all understand the dangers of that.

  5. Pat Lang says:

    Which values do you have in mind as fundamentally “at odds with those of wider American society?”

  6. Pat Lang says:

    I know what Janissaries were. What’s the connection? pl

  7. Diana says:

    Sorry, I was asking a question a bit too cryptically. Since you mentioned the “monastic” quality of these non-family-man troops, I am asking whether this is the creation of a janissary-type corps.

  8. Pat Lang says:

    There are a lot of examples of in history of soldiers who are of this type. I tried to point out that we had an army more like this and it had no particular ill effect.
    My question was not about the soldiers. It was about the civilians. pl

  9. James McKenzie-Smith says:

    Dear Sir,
    Trivial historical note. The Royal Monmouthsires are far older than the Coldstream Guards, having been founded in 1539. In terms of precedence, they are the oldest Regiment in the British Army. The Honourable Artillery Company, founded in 1537, is older but was on the Parliamentary side during the civil war, and so lost its precedence.

  10. Pat Lang says:

    Not trivial to me.
    Are the Monmouthshires still in existence?
    Our oldest unit is the 182nd Infantry Regiment of the Massachusetts National Guard. It was founded in 1636 as the “North Regiment of Militia.” It still exists and, I believe that one of its battalions has been has been deployed in the present unpleasantness.
    The oldest Regular unit is one of the batteries of the 5th Artillery Regiment which is known honorifically as “Alexander Hamilton’s Battery.”
    Patrick Lang

  11. James McKenzie-Smith says:

    Dear Sir,
    The Monmouthshires still exist, and are currently a combat engineering unit in the TA.

  12. McGee says:

    Hi Colonel,
    Don’t know if you’d seen this review yet of “The Sling and the Stone” on fourth generation warfare (4GW) by Marine Colonel Thomas Hammes at the National Defense University? Seems appropriate to this discussion:
    I personally doubt we stand a chance of ever ‘winning’ a 4GW conflict without a massive investment in language training and instruction in local culture and history. Unless of course we in the future confine ourselves to fighting small english-speaking countries…. Cheers!

  13. Ckrisz says:

    COL Lang,
    I think I expressed myself incorrectly. I am concerned to what extent the military defines itself in opposition to what it views as American societal values: materialism, individualism, careerism, etc. If those in the military feel little but contempt for civilian society and its leadership, this is a dangerous trend. If middle class America increasingly sees the military as an unviable career path, then civilian society may return that contempt.
    Remember that the American military during the period before WWII was not viewed as a respectable, middle class career. This resulted in both civilian distaste for the military and correspondingly low budgets.
    I think too much of a return to an expeditionary-style force would have negative repercussions for the U.S. in both civilian and military sectors.

  14. Pat Lang says:

    So, you don’t come from an Army family?

  15. Pat Lang says:

    I know the author and have discussed his book with him.
    The idea that somehow warfare and the world have changed is just silly and indicative of a lack of historical knowledge. pl

  16. Pat Lang says:

    James McKenzie-Smith
    Dear Sir,
    Very interesting. You have ruined one of my favorite trivia points. How will I dine out in the future?
    I must point out, though, that we kept many Confederate units in our Regimental System and they are in the National Guard. For example, The “Stonewall Brigade” is now the 116th Infantry Regiment of the Virginia National Guard.

  17. searp says:

    It seems to me that this may be inevitable. If we stick to a relatively small Army and a high optempo, then life in the services will become very difficult indeed for family men and women.

  18. Ckrisz says:

    COL Lang,
    Not a U.S. Army family. My father and maternal grandfather were career Taiwan military (grandfather fought on KMT side in Sino-Japanese War, Burma Theater, and Chinese Civil War) before emigration to the U.S. Thus the dangers of a divorce between the armed forces and the civilian population are perhaps keener in my mind than they would be otherwise.

  19. Pat Lang says:

    Interesting. My family has served since 1861. Some Army, some Navy.
    My uncle John was Chief Quartermaster of USS Panay, sunk by the Japanese on the Yangtse in 1937. He also held a master mariner’s license and a commission as a Lieutenant Commander in the Chinese Navy acquired when an earlier ship of his was loaned to the Chinese government for survey work way up the river.
    His picture is in the Navy Museum in Washington for the Panay incident. pl

  20. Pat Lang says:

    Since your grandfather served in Burma I should have asked if he was in the 38th ROC Division under Sun Li-Jen.
    General Sun was one of the most distinguished graduates of VMI and a great friend of General Stilwell.
    Pat Lang

  21. Ckrisz says:

    Yes. My grandfather served as a lieutenant commanding an infantry company in the New 38th Division, later absorbed into the New First Army. Sun Lijen was the only commander he had in the KMT Army where he and his soldiers actually received their full pay. After Sun was arrested by Jiang on trumped-up charges in 1955, my grandfather was one of many who resigned his commission in protest and was thrown in jail for a year.
    COL Lang, that is some interesting info about your uncle. He must have had some pretty amazing stories to tell.

  22. Pat Lang says:

    you may have know Geneal “Pat” Wan who, I believe may have served with Sun. I can never remember General Wan’s Chinese firse name, but his classmates at VMI always called him Pat. I met him when He visited West Point on a couple of occasions to visit his father’s grave there.
    My uncle John was a fabulous character. He was an infantryman in the Canadian Army in WW1 and then went into the US Navy. He spent many years in China on several gunboats, among them, Panay.
    He had two Navy Crosses, 14 Purple Hearts, and the Japanese Order of the Chrysanthemum (second class). He was retired for wounds after WW2.

  23. ckrisz says:

    COL Lang,
    Perhaps you met Gen. Wen Ha-hsiung, former commander of the ROC Combined Services Force General Headquarters? I think he was also responsible for translating the official ROC history of the Sino-Japanese War into English.
    Your uncle sounds like he lived the fullest of lives! Truly remarkable.

  24. Ian Welsh says:

    A smaller less powerful army is more in line with what the founders had in mind and an army which is less family oriented will actually be more deployable, as Pat notes. The prior post is more troublesome, as it indicates an army meant to fight brushfire wars. But then the question should be re-asked – why does the US need an army the size (and cost) that it has now. Who is it meant to fight? The Neocons have a couple answers to that, but neither of them (China or brushfire wars) should be very comforting to those who believe the US should largely stay out of the affairs of other nations.

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