Today's guest post comes from Tom Army, who received his B.A. from Wesleyan University (1976) and M.A.L.S. from Wesleyan University (1982). Army is doing graduate work at UMass Amherst on the "correlation between the North and South's different market economies and educational systems prior to the Civil War and the effectiveness of Union and Confederate engineering during the war."
On November 10, 2010 the New York Times ran an Op-Ed arguing that as the American military debates the role of the armed forces in future conflicts, planners should look to Thomas Jefferson and his “Army of Nation-Builders” as a compelling model. The author of the article, Dominic Tierney, an assistant professor of political science at Swarthmore College, cited the establishment of the military academy in 1802 by President Jefferson, and the role of West Point-trained engineers and topographical engineers in forging a new nation, Tierney pointed out correctly that these “West Point graduates left their scientific and engineering mark on America.” For the 21st century, Tierney continued, we need a “multipurpose army” to fight conventional and irregular wars and to develop the skills necessary to become effective nation-builders. Tierney wrote that American soldiers “who are helping Afghans build greenhouses, grow crops and better feed cattle are not losing their identity as warriors—they’re following in the footsteps of our earliest soldiers.”
Besides whether or not it is appropriate for the United States to be involved in the nation-building business, the problem with the Tierney thesis is that his use of the Jefferson model does not stand up to historical scrutiny. As army engineers of the 19th century built canals and dredged harbors, the infantry, cavalry, artillery, and supply branches were poorly trained and unprepared to meet the initial challenges of the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. Focusing on nation building undermined the army’s ability to fight.
Throughout the 19th century the regular army was hard pressed to meet the changing nature of warfare. For example, in April 1861 there was not an officer in either army who had led anything more than a regiment. After the war the military’s unpreparedness was a theme army reformers such as Emory Upton and Frederic Louis Huidekoper attempted to address. In 1915, Huidekoper, founder of the Army League of the United States, published The Military Unpreparedness of the United States: A History of American Land Forces from Colonial Times until June 1, 1915. After hostilities erupted between Mexican and American forces along our southern border, Huidekoper noted, “The attempts made to assemble one paltry division of Regular troops . . . afforded to the world the edifying spectacle of a great nation composed of one hundred million people virtually destitute of the means to make the few soldiers whom it could muster efficient as a fighting force.”
An important reason why the Regular Army was ill prepared to fight our 19th century wars was twofold. First, military engineers eventually became civilian engineers such as George McClellan, and they contributed technical skills to our burgeoning economy. To train these men at the public’s expense was justifiable. Second, we abandoned infantry and cavalry officers to western outposts guarding the frontier and fighting Native Americans because they were judged to have less value than the engineers. Americans celebrated the citizen-soldier and this military ideology dated back to Lexington and Concord. Standing armies were European and aristocratic by nature. Volunteers and militia who fought to defend freedom, liberty, and democratic virtue could defeat regulars.
Lawmakers and citizens throughout the 19th century expressed this cultural attitude. John A. Logan, a former Union Army general, wrote about his faith in an army of volunteers. Published one year after his death, The Volunteer Soldier of America (1887) attacked professional armies as, “undemocratic, un-American, and almost unnecessary; caste-ridden, cliquish, hidebound.” It was not until 1881 that Congress established the School of Application for Infantry and Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1901 the Army War College was created and in 1903 a modern General Staff was organized.
The world today is very different from the 19th century and so is the army. Warfare has changed so dramatically that our armed forces must continue to plan for a multitude of contingencies, and planners need to debate, anticipate, and train for future conflicts. The military does not want to find itself in the same situation it found itself in Iraq and Afghanistan. It took us six years of fighting and dying before we figured out how to fight an insurgency. Finally, if we do consider nation building we can draw from the extensive civilian resources at our disposal. If nation building becomes part of our foreign policy and war aim, we need to teach others how to do it. Doing it for them is counterproductive. The lessons of the Vietnam War clearly speak to this issue. But that is a story for another time.