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The New York Sun

Birth Of An Army


June 1, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

Historians frequently trace the emergence of America as a global power to World War I, when President Wilson mobilized a mighty army to help rescue the alliance led by Britain and France. Edward Coffman believes the story really begins in 1898, however, when the battleship Maine sank in Havana Harbor and America stumbled into the Spanish-American War.

He makes a persuasive case, especially considering that a central consequence of our victory in that "little" war was an overseas empire that stretched from Puerto Rico to the Philippines. It is only one of the many genuine insights that appear in this wonderfully readable and thoughtful history of the U.S. Army.

In little more than 400 pages, Mr. Coffman describes how an often-reluctant nation supported the evolution of the Army from frontier constabulary to a force capable of the Normandy invasion. In doing so, he tells the story of some remarkable leaders, from Secretary of War Elihu Root - who knew by 1898 that the Army would soon be doing a lot more than trading buckshot with Native Americans - to the pantheon of military heroes who led American soldiers into World War II - Eisenhower, MacArthur, Patton, and Bradley. He also provides a social and cultural history that examines the Army's role in everything from public hygiene to race relations.

Some of the most interesting parts of this book describe Army wives and children coping with long separations and daunting hardships. A palpable sense of sacrifice and community pervades these passages, which gives the whole book an elegiac quality not unlike a Ken Burns documentary. Mr. Coffman relies heavily on letters and diaries from the period to create distinctive and representative characters and to carry the narrative forward.

Mr. Coffman understands the power of unintended consequences. The defeat of Spain in 1898-99 resulted in a permanently exposed flank in the Philippines, which itself resulted in a greatly expanded military presence in the Pacific and military competition with Japan. In 1957, in the midst of the Cold War, 90-year-old Lewis S. Sorley, a distinguished veteran of the Indian Wars, described the impact of the Spanish-American War in mournful terms: "It was really a very fateful experience, for it destroyed forever our quiet home life, and projected us into the role of world power which has developed into the tragic responsibilities with which we are laden today."

Others might counter that the emergence of the United States as a force for freedom and a counterweight to the 20th century's totalitarians was quite simply indispensable. Still, the enormous sacrifices along the way have been undeniable, and Mr. Coffman's book pays eloquent tribute to the men and women who paid the price.

From 1899 through 1916, the Army fluctuated in strength from 64,000 to 107,000. Though this force was much larger than what had prevailed throughout much of the 19th century, it was still small compared to the forces of the other Great Powers. Germany and France each had more than a half million men under arms, and Britain's peacetime regulars numbered 250,000. Even tiny Switzerland had a larger regular force than the United States, with 140,000 regular soldiers in 1914.

In fact, as World War I got under way, the belligerents on both sides were contemptuous of the U.S. Army. Mr. Coffman quotes an American military attache in St. Petersburg on the "universal belief that our Army is not worthy of serious consideration."

In what should rank as one of the grossest miscalculations in modern history, the Germans were so confident that America was not a military factor that they opted for unlimited submarine warfare on Atlantic shipping, knowing it would lead to a U.S. declaration of war. Congress enacted a draft, and an immediate mobilization resulted in the expansion of the force from 200,000 (including 67,000 in the National Guard) when war was declared in 1917 to 4 million in uniform by war's end. The Yanks had finally arrived.

It would be a brief debut, however, as "public desire to cut government expenditures and traditional antimilitary attitudes combined with the dominant isolationist mood to reduce the Army to point that it was negligible as a world power." For most of the period between 1920 and 1939, the total force numbered fewer than 138,000 men.

On September 1, 1939, George C. Marshall took the oath of office as chief of staff of the Army. So anti-military was the public mood at the time that he wore a civilian suit to the ceremony, as did the adjutant general who swore him in. Later, General Marshall would describe his first two years as the hardest of his career. It is hard to believe that in November 1940, with war raging in Europe and Japan ripping up much of China, the United States had 170,000 inadequately equipped men in three half-organized divisions.

Marshall persevered and, with FDR's support and the reintroduction of conscription, the army was reborn. By the end of November 1941 there were 1,644,210 officers and men in 29 infantry, five armored, and two cavalry divisions, as well as 200 air squadrons (there was no separate Air Force at the time). As Mr. Coffman notes, "The years, such as 1923, when Americans spent six times as much annually on soda and confections as they did on their Army was over."

World leaders will gather next month in the midst of a string of little villages in Northwest France. They will toast and remember a generation of Americans from small towns and large cities who 60 years ago rushed on to the beaches under heavy enemy fire, liberated Europe, and saved the world. "The boys of Pointe du Hoq" President Ronald Reagan called them in a memorable speech at another D-Day remembrance. There is no sadder or more honorable place than those endless fields of white stone that are the American cemeteries in Normandy. They fairly brim with the spirit of the U.S. Army's Regulars.

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