Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.
I’m now in my 60s, and I grew up an Army brat in the 1950s, so much of the social history and attitudes depicted so clearly and engagingly in this engrossing book are familiar to me — even though the author is speaking about a period a couple of generations earlier. Even though it changed dramatically during the forty years between the end of the War with Spain and the beginning of World War II, the Regular Army still is and always has been a deeply conservative institution. In times of national emergency, millions of civilians may volunteer and be drafted, but when the emergency is over they — the survivors, anyway — will take off their uniforms and go back to the civilian world. But the Regulars will still be there, like the rocks that reappear, unmoved, when the tide has flowed out again. During the late 19th century, the Army acted primarily as a frontier constabulary, fighting skirmishes against the Indians and maintaining order in Western communities (and suppressing labor strikes, unfortunately). The coming of war in 1898 brought a flurry of enlistments and applications for commissions, but the war itself didn’t last very long. The result, however, was an empire in Cuba and Puerto Rico, and especially in the Philippines, and the Regulars found themselves in the role of an imperial military force, not unlike the British Army in India.
There were also several regiments stationed in China as part of the international occupation force that followed the Boxer Rebellion. That period also provided practical experience for such future luminaries as Pershing, McArthur, Marshall, Arnold, and later Patton and Eisenhower — not unlike the role played by the Mexican War for future Civil War generals. During the few years just before the United States got involved in World War I, the Army underwent a managerial revolution — and “revolution” is not too strong a word — under the leadership of Secretary of War Elihu Root (strongly backed by Theodore Roosevelt), who pushed through a long list of much-needed reforms, especially the formation of a general staff to centralize military planning and coordinating. That was followed by the drastic overhaul of the Military Academy and the establishment of the War College. After 1918, the Army was practically in limbo for more than a decade, with its budget cut, little attention given to technical development, and promotions so glacial many ambitious officers and noncoms resigned in frustration. Under FDR, however, it became clear to most military planners that a new global war was coming and the mobilization that began in the late ’30s meant the Regulars were able to be halfway prepared by the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
As in his earlier book, The Old Army, to which this is largely a sequel, Coffman gives as much attention to wives and families as he does to the officers and enlisted men themselves, and I have to say it’s this that mostly interests me. To be the child of an officer c.1910 meant one or more transpacific voyages (lasting a month each way), and living in the exotic milieu of Manila or Tientsin. In the 1920s, the destination was likely to be Hawaii, which was being developed as the center of U.S. military and naval operations in the Pacific. It was, in many ways, a cloistered life; it was still largely that way overseas in the early ’50s, when I lived in occupied Europe. Things were a good deal different for the rank and file, of course, and even more so for non-white soldiers. The end of World War I coincided with a strong upturn in racial bigotry and discrimination, to which Coffman also gives full consideration, comparing it to the somewhat less strained earlier situation in which black officers like Benjamin O. Davis could built a career. Throughout the book, Coffman strews anecdotes and reminiscences from many published sources and from the hundreds of interviews he conducted with those who lived through the period, and there are a great many fascinating photos, mostly of the unposed snapshot variety, which makes them more true-to-life. The “all volunteer” Army of the 21st century is a very different world. This is a book that anyone with an interest in American military history, or in the U.S. in the 20th century generally, absolutely must read.