Politics & Policy

How the U.S. Army Came of Age

Graduating cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point, 2013. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
In the early 20th century, the U.S. Army’s ‘Root reforms’ transformed the service by institutionalizing professional military education and creating a general staff.

In June 2007, at a seminar at the U.S. Military Academy, I spent a pleasant evening speaking with a young Army captain who was completing his Ph.D. in history at Duke University, working on a topic of great interest to me: the Root reforms of the U.S. Army in the early 20th century, which “professionalized” the service by institutionalizing professional military education and creating a general staff.

That officer was J. P. Clark, and his research has culminated in this magnificent new book, Preparing  for War: The Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815–1917. In this work, Clark shows us how history ought to be written — not only illuminating the past but providing a useful way to think about the future.

Clark set out to address this question: What were the main drivers of the Root reforms, “arguably the most far-reaching in the history of the U.S. Army”? The scholarship of military transformation offers three broad theories of change: 1) Some external impetus overcomes recalcitrant military conservatism; 2) internal forces, e.g., competition for resources, create change from within; and 3) external shocks, such as defeat or the emergence of new technology, compel change.

Clark argues that although elements of each cause were present during the late 19th century, none by itself can explain the transformation of the U.S. Army during this period. Superficially, the Root case seems to suggest an external cause. A civilian outsider (Secretary of War Elihu Root) took the ideas of an unconventional military thinker (Emory Upton) regarding such issues as professional military education and a general staff and imposed them on a recalcitrant military (embodied by the commanding general, Nelson Miles). But, as Clark shows, the situation was much more complex.

When Clark started to examine the factors underpinning the Root reforms, he attempted to shoehorn the small, pivotal group of reformist officers at the time into the traditional binary taxonomy of “conservatives vs. reformers.” However, he soon came to understand that the real divisions within the officer corps were generational, resulting in confusing cross-currents that could not fit adequately into that binary.

The attitudes of the Root-era reformers were the result of forces at work when they were commissioned. Too young to have served in the Civil War, they were nonetheless profoundly influenced by that conflict:

This generation had not led corps or divisions in pitched battles but companies and batteries patrolling the frontier or guarding the coasts. Torn between dreams of grand campaigns and the reality of leading small, dusty detachments, that generation was further buffeted by the social, cultural, and technological dislocations that marked the transition from the 19th to the 20th century. Like others of the Gilded Age, they were on the cusp of great change but not ready to abandon old notions.

Clark’s story begins with what he calls the “foundational” generation, the veterans of the War of 1812, joined by others throughout the antebellum period, mostly graduates of the military academy at West Point and epitomized by Winfield Scott, Zachary Taylor, and Edmund Gaines. This generation’s experience was characterized by the dispersion of small detachments over vast spaces, slow promotions based on seniority, and linear tactics.

The professionalism of this generation was built upon the belief that military competence was a product of character, common sense, and natural aptitude. While those innate qualities might be refined through experience or study, they were largely beyond the ability of the Army as an institution to construct. Since there was no need for advanced theory, the training of officers was limited to such technical skills as engineering and gunnery. The Mexican War did not change this pattern. The separation of regulars and volunteers did not change the way the former conceived of professionalism.

The Civil War generation thought of war in an entirely different manner, but not owing to any changes in institutions. It was primarily the experience of this generation — William Sherman, Phil Sheridan, John Schofield, and a little-known but very influential officer, Emory Upton — that shaped its outlook. The experience of this cohort featured pitched battles between much larger bodies of troops, as well as a changed relationship between regulars and citizen-soldiers. (Although regular units and volunteer units fought separately during the Civil War, many regular officers were rapidly promoted to command large formations of volunteers.)

Culturally, the attitude of this Civil War generation, especially its indifference to professional expertise, did not differ substantially from that of its predecessor generation. With the exception of Upton, this cohort continued to see military education as the foundational generation did: focused on technical “schools of application” rather than preparation for higher command based on the Prussian model of a war college devoted to the education of officers in strategy and operational art.

The resulting deficiencies of Civil War generalship led some veterans of the conflict to conclude that military professionalism required such education in strategy, high command, and staff duties. Foremost among these was Upton, whose impact was limited during his lifetime but who would wield great influence on later generations, thanks to the Root reforms. But, for the most part, the Civil War generation rejected the idea that such education was essential to professional competence; to accept it would have suggested that they had not been up to the job during the greatest challenge of their lives.

The third cohort, Clark’s “composite” generation, includes officers commissioned from the end of the Civil War to about 1889. It was this generation — Arthur Wagner, Eban Swift, and others — that confronted the Root reforms. As noted before, although the Civil War had expanded their horizons regarding the magnitude of war, their experience differed little from that of soldiers during the antebellum period. Although many of them believed in the need for reform, there was no consensus regarding the form it should take. As a result, writes Clark, “the officers responsible for implementing the Root reforms often worked at cross purposes, each shaped by his quite different professional experiences.”

The “progressive” generation, officers commissioned after 1890 — George Marshall, Bruce Palmer, and others — adopted a more coherent, more energetic, and more regulated form of professionalism. While this generation was influenced by changes internal to the Army arising from the Root reforms, e.g., the establishment of a general staff and a system of professional military education, the dominant factor was societal: the aggressive centralization and bureaucratization associated with the wider Progressive Era.

One implication of this narrative is that institutions are only one factor affecting the conception of professionalism. External influences are at least as important. As Clark notes, from 1812 to 1914, the Army “changed less by design and more because it was pulled along by larger forces.”

he implication of Preparing for War is that although the Army — or any organization — can learn from past generational conflicts, there are limits to what it can do about those of the future.

It is important to note that Clark’s account contradicts a major premise of the dominant narrative regarding the evolution of U.S. military professionalism: that of Samuel Huntington in his 1957 book, The Soldier and the State. Huntington maintained that it was separation from society, born of civilian neglect and geographic isolation in the late 19th century, that allowed military professionalism to flourish. But Clark shows that it was actually the Army’s ties to society, and especially the impact of the Progressive movement, that gave rise to the new professionalism.

In a recent essay for Parameters, the journal of the Army War College, Clark has sought to apply the framework of Preparing for War to the Army today. In doing so, he questions the argument of Andrew Bacevich, who, in an influential 2008 essay in The Atlantic titled “The Petraeus Doctrine,” employed the traditional taxonomy pitting counterinsurgency “crusaders” against conventional-war “conservatives” to explain recent doctrinal debates within the Army. Clark instead argues that today’s debates are better understood as the interaction of three new generations: the “superpower” generation, officers commissioned in the mid 1980s and earlier; the “long war” generation, officers commissioned after the mid 1980s; and the “nascent” generation, the junior officers of today.

The implication of Preparing for War is that although the Army — or any organization — can learn from past generational conflicts, there are limits to what it can do about those of the future. From his own experience as an Army officer, Clark is not optimistic. His account of the Army from the War of 1812 to the U.S. entry into World War I demonstrates that bridging the gap between differing generational frames of reference is not impossible, but it is difficult — because the things that make the Army what it is (doctrine, regulations, education, and operational planning) rarely make explicit the assumptions, often generational, on which they are based.

This, he argues, allows the old and the young to talk past each other. Indeed, that was my own experience in Vietnam. While there are limits to what the Army can do about generational conflict, Clark argues, “the most insidious divides are those that go unnoticed.” Thanks to Preparing for War, an attentive Army leadership will at least recognize that these divides exist.


Barack Obama’s Military at the End of His Administration

Military-Industrial Complex Myths & Realities

How World War I Shaped American & the World

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.


The Latest