The volunteers came and went, and the Army changed not at all

Sunday, January 10th, 2021

The men of the Inmun Gun and the CCF were peasant boys, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War) — tough, inured to hunger and hardship:

One-third of them had been in battle and knew what battle meant. They had been indoctrinated in Communism, but no high percentage of them were fanatic. Most of them, after all, were conscripts, and unskilled.

They were not half so good soldiers as the bronzed men who followed Rommel in the desert, or the veterans who slashed down toward Bastogne.

They were well armed, but their weapons were no better than those of United States design, if as good.

But the American soldier of 1950, though the same breed of man, was not half so good as the battalions that had absorbed Rommel’s bloody lessons, or stood like steel in the Ardennes.

The weapons his nation had were not in his hands, and those that were were old and worn.

Since the end of World War II ground weapons had been developed, but none had been procured. There were plenty of the old arms around, and it has always been a Yankee habit to make do. The Army was told to make do.

In 1950 its vehicles in many cases would not run. Radiators were clogged, engines gone. When ordered to Korea, some units towed their transport down to the LST’s, because there was no other way to get it to the boat. Tires and tubes had a few miles left in them, and were kept — until they came apart on Korean roads.

In Japan, where the divisions were supposedly guarding our former enemies, most of the small arms had been reported combat unserviceable. Rifle barrels were worn smooth. Mortar mounts were broken, and there were no longer any spare barrels for machine guns.

Radios were short, and those that were available would not work.

Ammunition, except small arms, was “hava-no.”

These things had been reported. The Senate knew them; the people heard them. But usually the Army was told, “Next year.”

Even a rich society cannot afford nuclear bombs, supercarriers, foreign aid, five million new cars a year, long-range bombers, the highest standard of living in the world, and a million new rifles.


Before 1939 the United States Army was small, but it was professional. Its tiny officers corps was parochial, but true. Its members devoted their time to the study of war, caring little what went on in the larger society around them. They were centurions, and the society around them not their concern.

When so ordered, they went to war. Spreading themselves thinner still, they commanded and trained the civilians who heeded the trumpet’s call. The civilians did the fighting, of course — but they did it the Army’s way.

In 1861 millions of volunteers donned blue or gray. Millions of words have been written on American valor, but few books dwell on the fact that of the sixty important battles, fifty-five were commanded on both sides by West Pointers, and on one side in the remaining five.

In 1917 four million men were mustered in. Few of them liked it, but again they did things the way the professional wanted them done.

The volunteers came and went, and the Army changed not at all.

But since the Civil War, the Army had neither the esteem nor the favor of public or government. Liberal opinion, whether business-liberal or labor-liberal, dominated the United States after the destruction of the South, and the illiberal Army grew constantly more alienated from its own society.

In a truly liberal society, centurions have no place. For centurions, when they put on the soldier, do not retain the citizen. They are never citizens to begin with.

There was and is no danger of military domination of the nation. The Constitution gave Congress the power of life or death over the military, and they have always accepted the fact. The danger has been the other way around — the liberal society, in its heart, wants not only domination of the military, but acquiescence of the military toward the liberal view of life.

Domination and control society should have. The record of military rule, from the burnished and lazy Praetorians to the juntas of Latin America, to the attempted fiasco of the Légion Etrangère, are pages of history singularly foul in odor.

But acquiescence society may not have, if it wants an army worth a damn. By the very nature of its mission, the military must maintain a hard and illiberal view of life and the world. Society’s purpose is to live; the military’s is to stand ready, if need be, to die.

Soldiers are rarely fit to rule — but they must be fit to fight.

The military is in essence a tool, to be used by its society. If its society is good, it may hope to be used honorably, even if badly. If its society is criminal, it may be, like the Wehrmacht, unleashed upon a helpless world.

But when the Wehrmacht dashed against the world, it was brought to ruin, not by a throng of amateurs, but by well-motivated, well-generaled Allied troops, who had learned their military lessons.

Some men, of kind intention, are always dubious because the generals of the Wehrmacht and the men of West Point and V.M.I. and Leavenworth read the same books, sometimes hold the same view of life.

Why not? German plumbers, Americans plumbers, use the same manuals, and look into the same kind of water.

In 1861, and 1917, the Army acted upon the civilian, changing him. But in 1945 something new happened. Suddenly, without precedent, perhaps because of changes in the emerging managerial society, professional soldiers of high rank had become genuinely popular with the Public. In 1861, and in 1917, the public gave the generals small credit, talked instead of the gallant militia. Suddenly, at the end of World War II, society embraced the generals.

And here it ruined them.


  1. Kirk says:

    In this, I think that Fehrenbach got things mostly wrong.

    The root of the problem stems from the same set of fallacies that did in the traditional Republican Roman army system. The powers-that-were failed to understand the system they worked within, and systematically set about destroying it.

    In Rome, it was the Boni that chose to destroy the backbone of the Republican armies, the rural citizen class. They bought up their lands, and turned them into slave-run latifundia, turning out the small farmers that served most effectively in the legions. This necessitated the Marian reforms, which set the stage (and, not least, the necessity…) for Caesar to do as he did.

    Similarly, the creatures running the “system” at the end of WWII failed to comprehend a bunch of things, not least of which was the necessity to maintain a capability-in-being for conventional ground warfare. The illusory capacity for nukes to fundamentally change the nature of things fooled most of them into believing that there’d be no real need for conventional forces, any more. Then, reality got its vote, and we found out differently.

    Where they really went wrong was in failing to recognize that the US had willfully and with premeditated effort chosen to supplant the previous international system of empire, which was something that would entangle us in taking up the unappreciated role that the British Empire had filled. From the perspective of Washington DC, it all looked like a lark. Reality? LOL… If only we’d been smart enough to recognize that the idiot at the head of things is always going to be targeted, always going to be the bad guy in international terms. What we should have done, instead, was to prop up the Brits and then used them as puppets in keeping international order.

    Unfortunately, they all thought they could do better, failing to recognize that world power is basically a thankless task. Someone has to do it, and if you don’t take up the burden, then the “someone” will be a Stalin, a Mao, or a Xi. Who will properly ‘eff up the job, given enough time. God knows what the world would look like today, given total Soviet victory under Stalin… More than likely, we’d all be living in a world-wide version of one of those bankrupt and collapsing “closed cities” dotting Eurasia.

    Anyone foolish enough to let ideology make decisions for them is incapable and untrustworthy for any position of power. Unfortunately, that includes the vast majority of people who are in power, and interested in wielding it–The first thing that ought to disqualify you from any of these jobs is the fact that you want one of them.

    Which is a failing of our system, I am afraid.

  2. Kirk says:

    Couple of thoughts on what Fehrenbach is saying here, which I think has been misinterpreted by many.

    You have to recognize that Fehrenbach saw himself “one of them”, the corporate elite that is the officer corps. That’s who he identified with, despite the fact that he’d had time in the ranks. As such, he was unable to admit or recognize that the real failing of the Korean War-era Army was down to the leadership, both political and military. In a very real sense, the leadership cadre betrayed the trust of the nation and the implicit compact that they made with the men they took in as draftees and volunteers.

    Which is not to say that they were entirely responsible for the whole thing–After all, the politicians and civilian leadership were the ones who were actually responsible for defunding and hobbling the conventional forces. But, the cadre-men did nothing to protest it, or counter-act the ill effects they could all see.

    It isn’t the job of the men making up the enlisted forces to do that. That’s the duty and purpose of the officer corps, and that is who failed the nation and the men they accepted authority over. In a real sense, they betrayed their trust and sold it out for career and a mess of pottage.

    There is too much attention paid to the officer corps in popular culture and opinion. It is thought that they are “the Army”, when the reality is, they really aren’t much more than hired help that does the administrative scut-work and fills some leadership roles, often very badly.

    The “real Army” is more a collective organism that effectively runs itself, often badly. It exists out there in the units, and is a collective organism consisting of the men that make it up and actually run it. The officers are there mostly as organizational mahouts, and even the senior NCO cadres aren’t really all that much effectively involved in consciously making the beast do what it does. Mostly because few of the upper cadre levels really, truly understand the beast. They don’t know how it works, and they don’t know how to make it do the things they need it to do, either.

    When you get down to it, the same is true of all too many of our institutions. Go ask an IBM executive how things really work, out in one of their plants. They’ll fill you full of BS about the organization charts and business plans, but they won’t be able to tell you why that one specific plant out in Boulder keeps screwing up shipments down on the loading docks, or how to fix the issue permanently.

    It’s a social phenomenon endemic to our era and society; we have anthropologists who run all over the world studying marriage customs of stone-age tribes, yet we don’t have a solid handle on what goes on in an infantry platoon, or how you go about making a good one. All that is tribal knowledge of the participants, and the officer class has not one damn clue how it works, or how they affect it with their decisions and policies. They do and say things in a haze of half-consciousness, not really understanding what even the first-order effects are going to be, let alone second- and third-order ones.

    I think a large part of this stems from the late 19th Century trend towards what we might term “academizing” everything in daily life, and ignoring that which has not passed through the sloppy minds and paws of the academic elite that knows all, sees all, and really understands nothing of that which they’ve pronounced upon.

    And, these are the “elite” we’ve entrusted with running our society, theorists and ideologues all, with no practical men or women amongst them, nobody who will pragmatically observe and say “Well, that didn’t work… Let us try something else…”.

    Which is why Seattle is inundated with the homeless, and we’re spending more and more money every day, in order to “address the crisis”.

    At some point, I fear, the “rest of us” are going to grow weary of these incompetents, and do something about it. Whether it’s “Irish Democracy” or a paroxysm of violence like we’ve never seen before, it’s going to happen. You can’t keep this up, and eventually all the balls that the juggler has up in the air are going to come crashing down.

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