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The armies that took the field in Europe at the outbreak of war in 1914 resembled nothing so much as a medieval knight's broadsword: formidable in appearance but poorly balanced and poorly tempered, unable to hold an edge. Their structure reflected the nineteenth century's development as an age of systems: bureaucratization and administration, control and specialization. The dominant intellectual modes of everyday activity remained positivism and Darwinism. Both depended on structuring and classifying: understanding wholes through mastering parts.


Continental Europe obtained its soldiers by general conscription systems. Two or three years of active service were followed by variously structured terms in the reserves. Even Britain, with its long-service army geared to extra-European deployment, was constrained to fill the ranks of its expeditionary force with reservists, to an average level of 50 percent in the infantry. On mobilization, everyone was expected to report for duty, take his place in the ranks, and march forward to victory. Patriotism and numbers would make up for any minor shortcomings in skills.

Reality proved far more grim. Peacetime training had been on the whole mechanical: perfunctory and superficial. Reservists quickly forgot most of what they learned. Perhaps that was to their advantage, because so much received wisdom proved irrelevant when confronting industrial-strength firepower. Leadership was equally deficient. The cadres of professional officers and noncommissioned officers, kept relatively small for economic and social reasons, were swamped by the influx of mobilized civilians that bloated armies to three and four times their strength in a matter of days. Their casualties were disproportionally heavy as they sought to inspire and instruct. Effectiveness declined correspondingly, especially at the small-unit level.

War ministries, general staffs, and senior officers had not been blind to their armies' flaws and shortcomings. Desperately seeking any advantage, no matter how small, armies before the war paid increasing amounts of attention to each other. In turn they tended to imitate each other, from details of organization and equipment to general patterns of training and doctrine. This produced comprehensive symmetry: a pitting of like against like that worked against decisions on the tactical and operational levels.

Europe's military planners sought to compensate at the levels of policy and strategy. Immediate mobilization in a crisis would be followed by immediate movement to the front, coordinated by elaborate, constantly revised schedules constructed around railroad networks. Generals of proven professional competence would exploit the opportunities gained by being first with the most.

Reality again proved unobliging. What the nineteenth-century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) aphorized as "fog and friction" threw grit into the machinery of mobilization and concentration. Generals stumbled as blindly as captains through mazes of uncertainty. Within weeks not only had the battle lines become static, but prewar planning and artifice had reached a dead end.

The armies of World War I were saved by an unexpected event. Instead of, collapsing in the face of adversity, as widely expected before 1914, Europe made unprecedented human and material resources available to its governments and its generals. Societies developed "war cultures" sustaining and affirming their sacrifices. Predictably, armies responded by emphasizing mass warfare. They developed enough administrative competence in everyday matters to sustain compliance in their ranks. They adjusted their doctrines to what seemed endless supplies of shells and endless streams of replacements: blood and steel alike became cheap on all of the war's multiplying fronts.

The net result was the loss of millions of lives and the consumption of millions of tons of resources for nothing remotely resembling proportionate achievements. World War I was a long war relative only to prewar anticipation. By the standards of previous conflicts with similar stakes and matrices it proceeded at jazz tempo. Far from being the blinkered, obscurantist institutions of popular myth, the armies were almost obsessively flexible and innovative, if only from desperation as they sought to end the fighting at something resembling acceptable cost.

Signs of overstretch were clear by mid-1916, and armies responded by turning to technology. Increasing amounts of material were transported by internal-combustion engines. Trucks and tractors began replacing horses and mules even at the front. Operational technology developed in even more spectacular fashion—not merely in the familiar areas of tanks and aircraft, but also in the traditional combat arms of the infantry and artillery. Light machine guns and portable mortars, new fire control techniques and improved munitions, reshaped the battlefield by 1918.

The new form of warfare did not involve replacing men with machines. Rather, it was both machine intensive and personnel intensive. Its most complete development was the all-arms "managed battle." Introduced by the French and British in the war's final months, it harmonized artillery firepower, direct and indirect air support, tanks to crush wire and boost morale, and infantry able to help itself by improvisation. The result was a pattern of lurching forward, regrouping, and lurching forward again, always at the price of heavy casualties. It nevertheless represented an exponential advance from 1915.

Adaptation to industrial war had a human aspect as well. The heavy, blunt methods of the war's early years fostered a sense of helplessness before technology that would find eloquent postwar expression in such films as Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927). Traditional images of war had been pastoral. By 1918 the tropes had become mechanical, borrowing images from mines and factories to build on prewar fears of the machine as Moloch, devouring what remained of humans' sensibility. Simultaneously every man in uniform, whether the innocent German volunteers of 1914 commemorated in the myth of Langemarck, which had them singing as they charged into the British line, or the lemming-like privates depicted in so many British narratives of the Somme and Passchendaele, became a liability in warmaking.

That was only part of the story. Mass warfare produced victims. Machine warfare as it developed after 1916 nurtured warriors. Traditional images of the soldier were constructed around courage and discipline. Now in the British Expeditionary Force men from the Dominions acquired a positive reputation for being able to think, act, and cooperate on levels that were alien to their counterparts from the deferential societies of the British Isles. The German assault battalions and the Italian arditi (elite assault troops) developed as a means of institutionalizing imagination, initiative, and intelligence: establishing a community bonded in blood by the "front experience." The French army expected an infusion of the warrior spirit from African contingents as yet unenervated by materialism and introspection. Men such as the German writer Ernst Jünger (1895–1998) and his Italian counterpart Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863–1938) followed the opposite path, seeking to transcend the machine by interfacing with it. For more than a century Europe's armies had been constructed on the postulate that ordinary men could go to war, then resume their civilian lives, with a minimum of adjustment. That certainty, like so many others, was called into question by the experiences of World War I.


Armies, even losing ones, usually find reasons to congratulate themselves once peace breaks out. World War I was an exception. The defeats had been catastrophic, the victories ugly. Europe's military establishments approached the future with a single emotion: never again—at least, not in the same way.

Public and political opinion favored such meta-alternatives as pacifism and disarmament. Armies sought more effective ways of warmaking. The German general Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff (1865–1937) asserted that future war required permanent mobilization in peacetime of the state's entire human, moral, and material resources, under a leader with dictatorial power, with critics facing silence or incarceration. Closely examined, however, the wartime experiences of Europe's major belligerents indicated practical limits to national mobilization, no matter how extreme the threat. Neither military nor civilian bureaucracies had proven able to establish and implement priorities. No permanent balances were struck among the state's armed forces, or within them. Civilian needs continued to exist apart from the war effort. Total mobilization, in short, wherever attempted, seemed to have been more disruptive than productive—at best efficient rather than effective.

In contrast to pre–World War I symmetry, four distinct approaches to organizing war developed after 1918, each intended to avert another spiral into ineffective efficiency. The first reduced armies to a secondary role. It was based on paralysis: striking at the taproots of moral and material resources from war's developing third element, the air. Here Britain took the institutional lead. It had embarked on a strategic air offensive as early as 1916 under the auspices of the Royal Navy. In the postwar years its independent Royal Air Force insisted that regular and repeated bombing attacks would disrupt production and undermine confidence no matter what the bombs hit. Warmaking from above was disproportionately attractive to British strategic planners and policy makers. It fit the prevailing concept of a limited-liability approach to Europe in a context of "imperial overstretch." It incorporated a high-tech dimension element that seemed unavailable to continental powers constrained to devote most of their spending to ground forces. Above all, it offered a "clean war" push-button alternative to the hecatombs whose sites of "memory and mourning" were metastasizing under the auspices of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The second paradigm of interwar planning was management. Here France assumed pride of place, developing a centrally controlled grand matrix integrating foreign policy, defense budgets, military planning, and psychological conditioning designed to make the state's next war the focus of its people's consciousness and will. The army was conceptualized as a cadre force whose carefully crafted tables of organization allowed most of its active units to triple themselves immediately on mobilization. Fixed frontier defenses culminating in the Maginot Line, and a developing mobile force of motorized and light armored divisions, would shield the fatherland, while its national army prepared the massive offensive that would decide the war.

Plans for that offensive were predicated on the conviction that victory would not be easy. It would require coordinating the disparate elements of modern war, mobility, firepower, and battlecraft, to produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The "managed battle" and the "managed campaign" were not exercises in button-pushing. A French commander was not a bureaucrat but a symphony conductor, expected to bring his own touch to the "score" of the plan and the "players" executing it.

The managed battle was also expected to control and focus the application of France's limited resources, a contract to the continuous and costly improvisations of 1914–1917. The French army's self-defined benchmarks of interwar effectiveness were based on management: improving the training of reservists, the qualifications of senior officers, the structures of logistics, and the networks of communications. It was a system conditioned at all levels to think inside the box—and to compel an enemy to enter that box on the French army's terms.

The third approach to interwar warmaking emphasized shock. The German offensives of 1918, despite their limited strategic success, attracted significant postwar attention. Some Italian military planners considered reorganizing the kingdom's army into no more than a dozen or fifteen divisions. Kept at full strength, given state-of-the art equipment and cutting-edge training, unleashed offensively at the beginning of the next war, they would be Italy's insurance against another eleven battles of the Isonzo (1915–1917).

Projected costs and institutional conservatism inhibited the development of the concept. North of the Alps, however, a German army reduced to a hundred thousand men by the Treaty of Versailles (1919) was correspondingly willing to experiment with new ideas and new approaches. Flexibility was facilitated by the Reichswehr's nature as a long-service volunteer force, where routine and boredom were deadly sins. German soldiers' growing emphasis on mobility, maneuverability, and initiative also reflected an absence of alternatives. The Reichswehr faced a situation in which waging effective war against any likely enemy for any length of time was impossible. The underlying principle of its operational art was less to seek victory than to buy time for the diplomats to seek a miracle. That meant keeping the army as a force in being, not wearing it down in costly frontal attacks or hopeless last stands.

The Truppenamt, successor to the Versailles-banned German General Staff, grew increasingly convinced that the next war would be decided by campaigns of maneuver. The internal-combustion engine was a Reichswehr force multiplier from the beginning. The battalion of trucks assigned to each infantry division developed into an increasingly comprehensive mobile-war supplement to the cavalry that—by Allied fiat—made up almost a third of the army's combat strength. By 1929 theoretical training programs existed for still nonexistent tank regiments. War games and maneuvers became increasingly abstract, postulating artificial force structures and troop levels whose doctrines were based on mobility, surprise, and flexibility. Officer training stressed thinking ahead of the enemy and taking risks against odds.

The rearmament, which began even in advance of the rise to power of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), fleshed out materially a concept of war based on shock. This mechanization in reverse meant capacities were adjusted to doctrine rather than the other way around, in which machines determined their uses. As it developed, what those who faced it called Blitzkrieg was not built around a small professional force of the kind advocated across the Rhine by Charles de Gaulle 1890–1970) in Vers l'armée de métier (1934). Nor did it involve a homogenized mass army on the pattern of imperial Germany. Its offensives were carried out by a high-tech elite within a mass—a functional elite based not on Aryan race or Nazi ideology, but learned military skills. The elite faced traditional elite risks: overheating and overextension. These were, however, unlikely to become serious problems should "the craft of war" and "the art of policy" synchronize as they had done in the days of Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) and Helmuth von Moltke (1800–1891).

It was in that context that the German army perceived common ground with Adolf Hitler. His repeated description of the Reich as resting on "two pillars," the German army and the Nazi movement, led the generals to take him at their interpretation of his word, assigning him the role of establishing political and diplomatic conditions for the Wehrmacht's killing stroke. But should shock fail to generate awe, should Germany's enemies fight on rather than negotiate or collapse, military overstretch was a looming possibility.

A fourth culture of war developed around ideology. The Red Army of the Soviet Union (USSR) was from its beginnings an ideological institution. Its roots were in the Russian Revolution's Red Guards. Throughout the Russian civil war (1918–1920) it depended on Communist enthusiasts to revitalize flagging zeal at times of crisis. As it took permanent form in the 1920s, the Red Army was structured to wage a future war that was not a contingency, but a given. The capitalist states surrounding the Soviet Union sought its destruction because of their own class dynamics. Preparing for war was thus a pragmatic imperative. The Red Army incorporated party members and accepted party supervision at all levels in order to develop and increase necessary ideological consciousness. It became a cutting-edge instrument of social and cultural modernization, mixing workers and peasants in a military community intended to produce New Soviet Men on assembly lines.

The direct success of this ambitious effort was decidedly limited. At the same time the Red Army's commanders increasingly perceived the operational limitations of politicized enthusiasm. A rising generation of technocrats such as Mikhail Tukhachevsky (1893–1937) called for the development of comprehensive military mechanization supported by a developed industrial base. Such a "New Model" army could export as well as defend the revolution. It could preempt wavering and suppress doubt by delivering early victories—won on enemy territory. It would validate the ideology that was the Soviet Union's ultimate source of legitimacy, creating enthusiasm not by compulsion or indoctrination, but directly: showing what the Soviet Union could do to its enemies. The modernizers insisted that mechanization Soviet-style vitalized rather than challenged the importance of the masses under arms. The projected strength of the mobilized Red Army in the 1930s was over 250 divisions—hardly a Praetorian elite. Nor did machines challenge the Red Army's revolutionary character. Only class-conscious proletarians could make optimum use of the material innovations created under communism.

The transformation of Tukhachevsky's mechanized mass vanguard of revolution into a hamstrung giant by the purges of Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) was a temporary phenomenon. The brute-force operations of 1942–1943 rapidly gave way to a way of war no less sophisticated than those of contemporary Western armies. The multiplication of mass by impulsion, however, retained its ideological matrix until the Soviet Union itself disappeared.


From September 1939 to December 1941, the debate over styles of soldiering seemed to have been definitively resolved in favor of the German model. In the course of becoming the master of Europe, Germany's army defied paralysis, confounded management, and trumped ideology. On the other side of the world, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor a Japanese army cooperating closely with air and naval forces offered contrapuntal lessons in shock and awe as Japan conquered an empire on a shoestring.

So impressive were these victories that the rolling back and eventual crushing of the armies that won them is still widely considered remarkable. In particular what has been called "Wehrmacht penis envy" continues to inform much popular writing. Time and research have produced a more nuanced understanding. The defeat of France in June 1940 emerges as a consequence less of German mastery of a new way of war than of battles lost because of Allied miscalculation of Germany's operational intentions and Allied failure to match German operational effectiveness. Many German as well as French soldiers panicked on the battlefields of 1940. French military systems were sufficiently competent, and French strategic plans sufficiently sound that the alternative of a French victory parade down Unter den Linden in Berlin was a real possibility.

Beginning with the aborted invasion of Britain in 1940, the German army found itself forced into an increasingly random framework of improvisations. Its original bag of tricks emptied somewhere on the high road between Smolensk and Moscow. What remained was a material demodernization that fostered a psychological demodernization. Willpower and ferocity became not merely desirable but necessary force multipliers. Nazi ideology assumed a central role by explaining and justifying the sacrifices demanded of the ordinary soldier in terms of a racial war for Germany's survival. War and warmaking became ends in themselves—and correspondingly self-defeating.

The paradigm for armies in the World War II era was instead established by an unlikely outsider in the military sweepstakes. The United States' war effort was based on power projection and versatility. The United States dispatched significant forces everywhere in the world, in every theater except the Soviet. Even on the eastern front, Lend-Lease aid was vital to the Soviet war effort. U.S. infantry stormed a half-dozen European beaches. The United States committed entire divisions to South Pacific islands barely on the map in 1941, then built an infrastructure to sustain them. The United States committed a division-strength task force to the Burma campaign and sustained a military presence in the Aleutian Islands. Other combatants did some, or many, of these same things. No one did all of them.

The United States was correspondingly unique in creating nearly from scratch two entirely different armies. The one deployed in Europe was optimized for large-scale, high-tech ground combat, and modified everything from its divisional organizations to its standard tank in order to deal more effectively with a German opposition that never ceased to be formidable. In the Pacific, by contrast, army ground forces depended for deployment and sustainability on a navy that by 1945 possessed in addition to its ships one of the world's largest air forces, and in the U.S. Marine Corps a ground component of more than a half-million of the war's most formidable fighting men.

Despite the differences between and among operational theaters, the U.S. Army waged a homogeneous global war, creating systems that proved successfully applicable everywhere in the world. It began with an assembly-line system for mass-producing divisions from nothing by taking small cadres from existing formations, then providing "fillers," draftees deliberately drawn from all quarters of the country, and training them to a common pattern.

Geared to produce effectiveness rather than excellence, this homogenization was a sharp contrast both to the British "artisanal" system that decentralized much training to regimental levels, and to the German practice of recruiting and reinforcing divisions from the same region. It also meant that a U.S. soldier could readily "find a home in the army." His new unit did things in essentially the same ways as his old one. Even the army's often-indicted system of individual replacement worked better than might have been expected because standard operating procedures developed, even in forward areas, to integrate new men.

Homogenization contributed to the U.S. Army's second distinguishing characteristic: flexibility. American soldiers at all levels in all theaters adapted effectively and comprehensively to the conditions they faced. The process was neither automatic nor uniform, but combat and support formations alike had high learning curves. The army began adjusting to the closely mixed woodland and pasture of the Normandy bocage within days of landing, and continued to match every German tactical or technical riposte until VE Day. On the other side of the world the army-dominated ground campaigns in New Guinea and the Philippines produced not merely formidably effective jungle-fighting divisions, but what might be called jungle/mechanized formations that combined motorized mobility and armored punch with the ability to operate away from road nets. America's "other army," the marines who carried the burden of the Central Pacific campaign, similarly adjusted from a light-infantry mentality first to the shock troop demands of atoll fighting, and then to the demands of extended ground campaigns in the Marianas Islands and on Okinawa.

Army practice regarding senior officers also facilitated flexibility. Patterns of appointment and removal, especially from mid-level and senior command positions, tended to replicate those of civilian management: produce or else. In contrast to Germany, where the number of senior officer slots at times exceeded the number of available generals, the relatively small number of divisions and equivalent large formations the United States fielded meant the army always had new candidates and fresh blood. With the arguable exception of the Soviet Union, the United States was the most ruthless combatant in relieving or reassigning generals and colonels in World War II. It began with Lieutenant General Walter Short, commanding the Hawaiian Department when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. It continued in all theaters. A man might get two chances to repeat a mistake—seldom a third.

Flexibility was further influenced by technology. Most combatants excelled in weapons systems tailored to particular environments: the Spitfire fighter or the Panther tank. None came near to matching the United States in developing and producing general-purpose tools of war. The C-47 transport, the 2-ton truck, and the jeep were almost as central to the Soviet and British armed forces as to the Americans. Each of those designs, and most of their stablemates, could go anywhere. But the best example of global flexibility is an armored fighting vehicle. The often-criticized M-4 Sherman was no match individually for its Panther and Tiger rivals in the specific conditions of northwest Europe. But in its upgunned versions it was competitive. And neither of the German designs could have matched their United States counterparts under the conditions of Saipan, Okinawa, or Burma, where tanks played increasingly important roles.

The U.S. Army's third defining quality was sustainability. Modern war's bedrock is management: getting from here to there and then staying there, all without tripping over one's administrative feet. That was uniquely true for the United States, a geostrategic island. Nothing succeeds in war like excess. American management, civil and military, applied the excess. The U.S. Army was consistently able to fix and bypass German and Japanese forces, to keep campaigns moving when its counterparts were running out of gas or men. The replacement system kept fighting units up to strength, requiring neither reduction and disbandment on the late-war British pattern nor the grouping of clusters of survivors into ad hoc battle groups that was the Wehrmacht's preferred emergency solution, nor the erosion of divisions to cadres of survivors that was the Red Army's norm.

Sustainability was also a product of firepower. Former enemies and former allies remain quick to make the point that the U.S. armed forces won their war by brute force relentlessly applied. Saving blood by the sophisticated application of steel would seem to indicate virtuosity rather than awkwardness. The U.S. Army used its broad spectrum of available firepower to produce tactical environments that extended battle zones beyond defenders' capacities to respond, and to sustain offensives whose successes did not depend on obliging enemies such as the ones Germany faced from 1939 to 1942.

Each of the previous factors is linked with a fourth one: morale. Never in history did so many fight so far from home in a war not obviously theirs. American territory was not under direct attack. American civilians were not directly threatened. To the extent that the American soldier had a "worldview" of the war, it was as a job to be done, as quickly and completely as possible. United States battle casualties overall may have been low—risibly low by German or Soviet standards. Yet in both Europe and the Pacific, United States ground forces were willing to take, and continue taking, heavy losses for specific tactical objectives such as Aachen or Iwo Jima. American rifle companies in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) consistently took casualties of 200–300 percent, and kept coming. Marines climbed the cliffs of Peleliu when it was clear that the operation's purpose had evaporated. The records show desertion, straggling, hanging back—but no significant collective refusals of duty. Even the much-abused 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), better known as Merrill's Marauders, as jerked around and as far from home as any unit the U.S. Army fielded, staggered forward as long as its survivors could stand up.

American soldiers are usually described as standing somewhat behind the Germans in operational virtuosity, and even further behind the Russians in hardihood. But the U.S. Army of 1945 had developed a high level of skill in stacking operational decks, systematically pitting its strengths against opponents' shortcomings. The U.S. Army, moreover, had demonstrated an ability to fight effectively under a far broader spectrum of conditions than any of its counterparts. The Grossdeutschland Division, or the Red Army guardsmen who held Stalingrad and stormed Berlin, might have adapted perfectly to Leyte or Iwo Jima—but they never faced that test. The U.S. Army did, and its universal soldiers passed with honors.


America's universal soldiers, like their Soviet and British counterparts, were self-identified as citizen soldiers. The existential warriors of Germany and the modernized samurai of Japan went down before civilians in uniform, who regarded their war experience as temporary; dues paid for a brighter future. The votes of soldiers and their families contributed significantly to the postwar election of a Labour government committed to a socialist Britain. When the United States government considered ways to thank its men and women in uniform, it developed economic rewards, such as a Veterans Administration program that provided low-cost home loans and a GI Bill offering what amounted to free vocational training and higher education to all veterans. Those programs and their counterparts, by democratizing the ranks of homeowners and professionals, laid the foundation of the United States as a self-defined middle-class society. Communist ideology, fear of punishment, revenge for unprecedented suffering at German hands, alike played limited roles in the Red Army's combat motivation. Instead, frontline soldiers increasingly hoped their sacrifices would bring about comprehensive reform: "communism with a human face." Instead their reward was a comprehensive Stalinist crackdown—a crackdown that structured armies' development for almost a half-century.

The Cold War's origins might be complex, but its essential paradigm was defined by the Soviet Union's enduring policy of maintaining a large conventional army, supported by national mobilization, on its frontier with Western Europe for the purpose of mounting a general offensive on the outbreak of war. A consistent mission, but one it was never summoned to execute, enabled the Soviet army to retain its World War II character for the remainder of its existence. Comprehensive mechanization produced consistent updates of equipment from small arms to main battle tanks. Chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons; missiles of all sizes and functions; made their respective appearances in inventories. Orders of battle were reconfigured and doctrines modified. Essentially, however, Soviet soldiers spent years and decades studying how to do essentially the same things more effectively.

Their focus shaped the West's response. Early Cold War thoughts of refighting the 1944–1945 Liberation Campaign foundered on a developing comprehension of the effects of nuclear weapons. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) initially proposed to match Soviet numbers with its own. But plans for a ninety-division international army foundered on the refusal of a materially and morally exhausted Europe to devote the necessary resources to such a force. Instead NATO's armies developed in a context of nuclear deterrence and Mutual Assured Destruction.

Logic suggested that the Alliance needed no more than a "tripwire:" a token conventional capacity sufficient to trigger a nuclear exchange. A combination of factors, however, modified that syllogism significantly. First among these was an unwillingness at both the policy and the institutional levels to accept the implications of such fundamental military asymmetry. The West's armies might never be able to match Soviet numbers. But the West's heritage suggested an alternative: emphasizing the quality of its armies in all aspects from technology to doctrine to training to command and planning. That approach was encouraged by the Federal Republic of Germany's growing contributions to NATO. Included among them was a Wehrmacht legacy built around its interpretation of its post-Stalingrad experience in the Soviet Union. It encouraged consideration of developing NATO conventional forces able to play its clumsy, rigidly structured, Warsaw Pact opponent as a matador plays a bull, at best stopping the offensive in its tracks and at the worst buying time for the diplomats to avert nuclear Armageddon.

Quality was not an indefinite force multiplier. Numbers were necessary as well. Securing them remained a sticking point, particularly in societies increasingly sensitive to all forms of loss and suffering, and increasingly committed to nonmilitary priorities for government expenditure—above all, Europe's metastasizing network of social welfare programs. Britain, after a brief and unsatisfactory fling with National Service, reverted gratefully to its long-standing heritage of a small professional force whose personnel quality was expected to compensate for any shortfalls in numbers or equipment. France and West Germany accepted "social conscription," military service as an essential element of citizenship. The attempt to combine quality with conscription generated a spectrum of problems. The days of hut-two-three-four, salute it if it moves and paint it if it doesn't, were long past. The physical, intellectual, and psychological demands of high-tech war increasingly challenged even well-motivated draftees. Two years active service was barely enough time for conscripts to learn the fundamentals—and that term came under increasing fire for its length in newspapers and parliaments.

How far could the claims of citizenship be extended? That question became increasingly salient as the Cold War acquired a global dimension, piggybacking on the simultaneous process of decolonization. A British army incorporating a significant conscript element was the military keystone of a counterinsurgency campaign in Malay whose eventual success has obscured the insurgency's limited ethnic and ideological appeals, its correspondingly limited resources, and the trials and errors accompanying the military operations. In Indochina a French expeditionary corps, denied by law a metropolitan conscript element, waged what amounted to a lowend high-tech war, increasingly relying on warrior spirit as a force multiplier and in the process demodernizing to a point where, at the climactic battle of Dien Bien Phu, it committed an improvised mixture of individual battalions against the Viet Minh's organized divisions. The subsequent military and political debacle in Algeria owed something to a deployment of conscripts to what was legally part of France that was nevertheless widely seen as a breach of France's postwar social contract.

Cold War globalization's effects on homogenization, flexibility, sustainability, and morale were, however, best illustrated in Vietnam. After an initial series of disasters in Korea, the U.S. Army successfully and effectively deployed an essentially conscript force in an essentially conventional war, sustaining morale largely by a combination of limited tours of duty and limited operational commitment. An essentially similar force was dispatched to Vietnam fifteen years later, the product of the first peacetime mass army in America's history, sustained by a "selective service system" providing a sufficiently broad spectrum of alternatives and exemptions that it did not intrude significantly on a burgeoning population.

Initially that army proved as good, in its own terms, as anything the United States had fielded in a war's early stages since the Mexican War (1846–1848). It failed, however, to balance mass and technology. Numerical weakness relative to the enemy and the theater of operations generated an overreliance on firepower and air mobility that proved addictive to citizen conscripts on one-year tours. The consequent gridlock, a war that seemingly could neither be won nor lost, comprehensively eroded morale, both military and civilian. In Vietnam's aftermath the U.S. Army abandoned the human model so successful in World War II and accepted the leap in the dark of a volunteer military. That decision, though reluctantly made and reluctantly accepted, enabled the United States to once again take the lead in developing a defining army form. This time it was an army for the Cold War.

The U.S. Army emerged from its post-Vietnam reconfiguration as a combination of professionalism, technology, and numbers. The harsh lessons of southeast Asia inspired a revitalization of its officer and noncommissioned cadre, and an era of innovation in doctrine. The increased military budgets of the Reagan administrations provided funding for a spectrum of new weapons systems, at a time when the costs of technology were beginning to exceed the willingness of other states to keep pace. And American society provided a continuing supply of motivated and capable recruits. Contrary to some expectations—and to the experiences of other states with professionalization—the volunteer army has remained closely tied to the civil community. Over a quarter-century, a large number of middle- and working-class families have had a child, a relative, a neighbor, or an acquaintance who spent time in uniform and enjoyed a positive experience. Many of these enlisted for no more than a term or two, acquired skills, bonuses, or life experience, then moved on. It was easy enough to do at a time when America's guns were silent, when the USSR's military arteriosclerosis was highlighted in Afghanistan.

Thus untested, the U.S. Army did not comprehend its own proficiency until Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Many of the units deployed to the Persian Gulf were scheduled for disbandment as part of the "peace dividend" expected with the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Before furling their banners they eviscerated an Iraqi army widely considered among the most capable in the world. In a hundred hours of fighting the Americans lost fewer than a hundred lives—in contrast to predictions of body bags that ran into the tens of thousands. While air and sea power played significant roles, Operation Desert Storm was the valedictory speech and the graduation dance of the Cold War U.S. Army and its post-Vietnam cadres.


Beginning in the 1970s the comprehensive introduction of pathbreaking new technologies in the U.S. armed forces led Soviet thinkers to postulate the emergence of a "military-technical revolution." The concept was taken up eagerly in the American national security community. Eventually reified into a complex hierarchy of "military-technical revolutions," "revolutions in military affairs," and "military revolutions," the underlying premise remained the same. Superiority in weapons systems and information/communications technology would create a level of dominance enabling the United States to control absolutely the pace and the intensity of warmaking. Some proponents of the concept spoke of "virtual war," and eventually "bloodless war," as machines replaced men and targets became other machines.

Apart from the Americans' dominating performance against Iraq, the notion of reconfiguring armies in terms of small scale and high tech was attractive to Western states seeking to reduce their military "footprints" in a post–Cold War environment. The new Russian Republic, sorting through a Soviet legacy that at the end provided neither mass nor quality, also opted for a "lean and mean" profile. By the mid-1990s the conscript soldier who had been the central element of twentieth-century armies was becoming vestigial. Germany steadily reduced its intakes of draftees, and provided increasingly broad alternative-service options. Even France traded its mythos of Republican citizens in arms for the new model of professionalism.

Cynics—or realists—might suggest that the restructuring of armies was more sham than substance, given the general unwillingness of states and societies actually to invest in the cutting-edge technologies that were central to military revolution. Nevertheless the new-style forces, enjoying the advantage of easy deployability, performed well enough in the peacekeeping and nation-building missions that dominated the twentieth century's final decade. And with the century's turn, the new order of armies seemed validated beyond question as U.S. forces effortlessly projected American power into the mountains of Afghanistan, then overran Iraq in less than a month without breaking the proverbial sweat.

Even before the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., however, war's center stages had shifted. Between 1914 and 1990, globalization did not challenge Eurocentricity. The Rhine and the Vistula, the North German plain and the Fulda Gap, were the consistent focal points of policy, planning, and national interest. The American general who allegedly refused to ruin the army of the United States "just to win this lousy war" in Vietnam was a more profound strategist than perhaps he realized.

Non-Western armies correspondingly tended to follow Western models as far as possible. The heroic vitalism that led the Japanese to put bayonet attachments on their light machine guns owed less to Japan's cultural heritage than to the recognition that Japan must compensate for material inferiority with strength of will. The Chinese leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976) may have developed a three-stage model for revolutionary war, but the Chinese communists lost no time and spared no effort to reach the third stage of conventional operations as quickly as possible. Even the Vietnamese model of comprehensive struggle (dau tranh) was arguably less an original way of warmaking than a means of mobilizing a population in numbers no Western expeditionary force could match. Israel too shed the unconventional aspects of its military system in favor of Western models.

The armies that emerged in the contexts of decolonization also reflected Western influences. India's became more British than its mentors had been, and in Pakistan too the British heritage survived to an extent often unrecognized. The Muslim Middle East combined British foundations and Soviet overlays in varying degrees of harmony. Whatever their shortcomings—and those could be spectacular—in regional mid-intensity conventional wars the armies built on these more or less ramshackle templates gave more satisfaction than is often understood or conceded. The successive thrashings administered by Israel inspired institutional reforms, but no paradigm shifts. Even the Iran of the Ayatollahs eventually rebuilt a conventional military capacity rather than place full trust in revolutionary Islamic forces such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the pasdaran.

Beneath the surface, change winds were blowing. The 1990s witnessed comprehensive challenges to state sovereignty and international law. An environment of policy entrepreneurship led to a corresponding erosion of the concept of legitimacy. In part the new environment was a consequence of unilateral action, whether by individual states like France in Africa, regional organizations such as NATO in the Balkans, or a hyperpower such as the United States anywhere it chose. In a deeper sense it reflected a general breakdown of international consensus as the Cold War's restraints eroded. In the final years of the twentieth century, conflicts increasingly tended to mutate, changing shapes, goals, and players in a multidimensional, kaleidoscopic fashion challenging and denying the linear, logical analysis that defines armies on the Western model.

That development was in part a response to the proven futility of engaging the West's armed forces on anything like their own terms. Ultimately, however, what the French philosopher Raymond Aron (1905–1983) called "polymorphous" warmaking reflects a synergy of internal dynamics often unclear to the participants themselves. In Bosnia and Haiti, in Iraq and Palestine, in Rwanda and Darfur, farragoes of political, nationalist, sectarian, and ethnic objectives have mocked earlier, simpler, almost innocent models of liberation from colonial rule or foreign exploitation. Leadership, organization, even ideology are amorphous. The violence that contemporary Western warmaking seeks to minimize and sanitize instead takes center stage, by virtue of its ferocity and its randomness. Analysts who initially spoke of "asymmetric" war increasingly describe "postmodern" war, sometimes even in the context of chaos theory.

So far the "military counterrevolution" has won no clear victories. But neither has it suffered any clear defeats. It may be argued that the protean character making the counterrevolution operationally effective also retards or prevents the development of any result more positive than a Hobbesian model of all against all. That outcome is hardly attractive—especially to armies. Ultimately, viscerally, armies understand themselves as instruments of order. How best to respond to an entropic challenge?

Twentieth-century armies have developed an increasingly comprehensive synergy of technical and human elements. "Postmodern" war is a "polymorphous" exercise, likely to require the simultaneous and effective conduct of high-tech combat, counter-insurgency, peace support, and nation-building. In that context the armies of the twenty-first century may well need their technical mastery and institutional flexibility more than ever. Instead adaptation might better be sought in mentalities.

The armies that set twentieth-century standards have been instruments of decision informed by a dynamic of closure. They have been intended to win wars as quickly as possible, and with minimal suffering to the states and societies that created them. In the twenty-first century military effectiveness may best be achieved by cultivating a sense of the long duration, evaluating results in a context of not merely years but decades. This would be a fundamental attitude adjustment.

But though military cultures have their own rituals and their own ways of doing things—often quite different from the national culture to which they belong—these are not immutable. The frameworks of warmaking are instrumental and customary, sustained by a mixture of pragmatism, habit, and fear of the consequences of change. Postmodern war will eventually produce postmodern armies whose exteriors might remain familiar, but whose internal dynamics will reflect the new challenges they face.

See alsoCold War; Conscription; Guerrilla Warfare; Gulf Wars; Vietnam War; Warfare; World War I; World War II.


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Dennis E. Showalter

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