Society, Military Organization and

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Society, Military Organization and. War has been one of the great learning mechanisms in human history. In the nineteenth century, as war took on its large‐scale form, involving enormous numbers of individuals in both combat and support roles, organization became a decisive factor in national survival. Nations able to administer large bodies of men had a tremendous military advantage. Lessons of organization and administration learned in the military field were transferred to civilian society, especially to large‐scale business enterprise; they played important roles in the industrialization of the United States and Europe. In the twentieth century, military organization has continued to influence business and economic organization, but now in a mutually reinforcing way, with developments and innovations from the civilian economy increasingly adapted by the military.

The Civil War was the first large‐scale national administrative effort undertaken by the U.S. government. The horrendous logistical experiences in the Mexican War had been endured by junior officers who later took command of Union and Confederate armies; more than any other factor, this alerted military leadership to the new organizational demands of administering large bodies of men. The demand for millions of uniforms by the Union army placed entirely new requirements for speedy mass production of clothing. Uniforms had to be made to fit certain standard sizes, and for the first time serious attention was given to collecting statistics on basic clothing measurements for the American male population. The firms granted these contracts—companies such as the suit manufacturer Hart, Schaffner, and Marx—later used this knowledge to mass‐produce men's business suits, the uniform of the rising class of office workers and middle managers in America's industrial age.

The Civil War also produced major administrative advances in railroad management, arms production, food rations, and recordkeeping—for payrolls, for example. Operation at larger scale, over an enlarged geographic space, and with more stringent quality requirements revolutionized American management in ways that were later copied by business. Railroads are a particularly interesting example of how military needs shaped commercial organization. Railroad construction was long dominated by West Point–trained engineers. But railroad operation was different from construction. Making the trains run on time, and making sure they did not collide on the single‐track lines of nineteenth‐century America, became far more demanding with the increased traffic of the Civil War. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's famous War Order Number 1 of 1864, requiring that offensives in the eastern and western fronts be coordinated, was really an order about railroad scheduling: that it had to be centrally controlled. The central control of signals and schedules later contributed to concentrated ownership of railroad companies. Giant organizations in oil, coal, and meatpacking, which precipitated the antitrust movement, had their origins in the efficiency gains learned in centralized railroading during the Civil War.

At the turn of the century, the military lagged behind corporate organizational development. The Spanish‐American War was a logistical disaster for the United States. Even in World War I, the U.S. military remained logistically deficient because factories in America were not properly coordinated for war production. In 1917–18, not a single artillery piece manufactured in the United States made it to Europe in time to be used in action. The army and the government learned that lesson.

World War II, with its requirement for war on an entirely new scale and its mobilization of the national economy, transformed organizational life. The war saw the introduction of such innovations as federal support of institutionalized research in universities, statistical quality control, the scientific study of military actions known as operations research, coordination of complex multi‐plant factories, and the industrialization of what were once considered activities not suitable to this form of management, such as airplane manufacture. While each of these existed in the 1930s, all were applied on such a large scale and with such success during the war that they were almost immediately adapted after the war ended, becoming the accepted form of organization and management for America's rise in world business in the 1950s. For example, Robert S. McNamara, assistant to the secretary of war, took his entire unit of statistical control analysts to the Ford Motor Company immediately after the war, where new methods were used to control costs and quality for a major expansion of output to meet the driving needs of a mobile public in the 1950s.

The principal organizational innovations of the Cold War were systems engineering and large‐scale coordination of geographically separated units. Systems engineering was used to coordinate the complex technological projects that dominated the Cold War, involving radar warning systems, missiles, and airplanes. Large‐scale principles were used to gain the maximum performance from the regional commands of the armed forces, for example, to coordinate antisubmarine warfare operations in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Operations research methods such as linear programming were used to achieve this, and these were quickly copied by airlines and automobile producers, who also faced complicated scheduling problems. Most notable was the speed with which this military‐to‐business transfer took place.

Skills in coordinating multi‐plant factory outputs were used in America's business foray into the new European Common Market of the 1950s and 1960s. European business before the war focused on relatively small national markets, rather than on continental‐scale markets as American competitors had done. This was one major reason behind the tremendous resentment displayed toward American multinational firms so prominent in Europe during the 1960s. U.S. companies were constructing continental‐scaled markets from local ones in Europe, something they had earlier pioneered and perfected in their own country.

Since the period of the Civil War through the 1970s, the principal impact of military organization on American society was to contribute to the trend of grouping people into increasingly large hierarchies. Whether in the military or in business, large organizations dominated. But in the late 1970s a partial reversal of this trend began, with a move toward small, decentralized structuring of human activity. The disadvantages of centralization and big organization were increasingly recognized. The tendency toward bureaucratic inertia, indifference to costs, loss of flexibility, and lack of innovation were met by a major move toward downsizing, not only as a way to reduce costs but also as a way to increase flexibility and organizational agility. A technological revolution greatly reinforced this trend: management of information moved from centralized mainframe computers to small, decentralized personal computers. With the Internet, originally created by the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency, an even greater capacity to decentralize became available.

The results have revolutionized American business enterprise, and these changes have in turn been quickly copied by the military. The U.S. military is copying business organization by emphasizing smaller size and decentralized decision making as keys to flexibility, and by removing strong departmental boundaries in favor of building organizations around processes—known as reengineering. The army emphasizes dispersed small units coordinated by shared information. The navy has developed more flexible groupings of ships that are no longer centered on the aircraft carrier. In both instances, the decentralized format of the Internet is being used as an organizational model for the armed forces.
[See also Economy and War; Science, Technology, War, and the Military.]


Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. , The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, 1977.
Stephen Skowronek , Building a New American State, 1982.
Karen A. Rasler and and William R. Thompson , War and State Making: The Shaping of the Global Powers, 1989.

Paul Bracken

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Society, Military Organization and

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