Preparing for War: The Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815-1917. J.P. Clark. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.
Our grizzled mentors, old salts who cut their teeth in Vietnam, stressed to my 1985 cohort of lieutenants that there are only two things Marines do––fight and get ready to fight. In Preparing for War, J.P. Clark emphasizes the latter. In fact, as military historians and national security scholars have long established, nations also ask their military forces to perform other important missions such as exploring untamed wilderness, developing and applying emerging technologies, and coup-proofing a regime. Moreover, only in professional militaries, those that enjoy the luxury to train independent of intrusive political control, do officers of all ranks get to sort out a nation’s preferred ways and means of war. U.S. forces have mostly enjoyed the relative autonomy necessary to figure out what must be done to prepare for combat. Clark’s study confirms that verdict, and illustrates the contentious, but ultimately effective, evolution of the U.S. Army’s doctrine, training, and education regimens in the century that separated the end of the War of 1812 and America’s entry into World War I.
Clark’s work builds on a robust and growing literature on peacetime military issues that has come to the fore over the last fifty years. That trend partly reflects military historians following the social and cultural turns that emerged as the broader field’s dominant strains in the 1960s and 70s. Well known early works in this genre include Millis’ Arms and Men, Karsten’s The Naval Aristocracy, and Abrahamson’s America Arms for a New Century. Clark’s portrait of Army leaders is less Machiavellian than Karsten’s portrayal of naval elites driving imperial expansion to buttress their own professional prospects. His interpretations, however, track closely with the views Millis and Abrahamson advance of a service profiting from strong and symbiotic relationships with its parent society.
Preparing for War also complements historian Edward Coffman’s work. Both authors argue the U.S. Army professionalized in the Progressive Era and that the institution was not isolated from American society. Clark, however, places more emphasis on the broader culture’s influence in shaping the Army’s emerging capabilities. Like Linn in The Echo of Battle, Clark recognizes that what happened in past wars is often less important than how subsequent leaders interpret conflicts’ competing lessons. The author also finds 19th century examples of gaps, akin to those Linn identified for the 1950s Army, between favored warfighting doctrines and the human and technical capacity to execute them. Though he addresses aspects of civil-military relations and social and cultural considerations within the service identified in earlier monographs, Clark adds to our understanding by focusing specifically on the evolving debates over how the Army should prepare for war.
This work explores key ingredients of professionalization such as the writing of military doctrine, the incorporation of rigorous field training, and the establishment of professional schools focused on tactical tradecraft, high level staff procedures, and war planning. Clark provides intellectual coherence to a century’s worth of development by identifying four generations of Army leadership: foundational (1815-1860); Civil War (1861-1865); composite (1866-1889); and progressive (1890-1917). In each generation the author identifies key figures to illustrate the nature of their contesting ideas. He also emphasizes that each era featured intellectual uncertainty and institutional friction which introduced murkiness in determining the best course of action for military preparedness.
The book’s first two chapters trace the impact of West Point, Winfield Scott, and American volunteers on the Army’s early Indian and Mexican War expeditions. Chapters three and four examine the Civil War and emphasize the brilliant but tragic Emory Upton’s role in assessing the conflict’s tactical lessons. Chapter five explores the growing influence of Fort Leavenworth and the dueling instructional methodologies championed by Eben Swift and Arthur Wagner. In chapter six, Clark evaluates Army readiness for the Spanish-American War and assesses the part Elihu Root played in subsequent organizational reforms. The final two chapters carry the story through 1917, focusing on continuing turmoil among the various service schools, contrasting premonitions derived from the Boer and Russo-Japanese Wars, and the failure of both educators and senior civilian/military leaders to forge a force ready for the trials of World War I.
The book engages the ongoing controversy over whether higher level combat is essentially like, or fundamentally different from, the minor tactics that prevail in small-scale battles.
Preparing for War advances several persuasive arguments. First, in contrast to Samuel Huntington’s verdict that isolation promotes service professionalization, this study suggests the Army’s development depended on a continuous and robust interface with civil society. Social, political, economic, and technological linkages proved vital to the service’s progress––so much so that for the period at the turn of the century, Clausewitz’s famous dictum might be updated to read “war (and the process of preparing for it) was a continuation of Progressivism by other means.” In a thought-provoking but lesser theme, the book engages the ongoing controversy over whether higher level combat is essentially like, or fundamentally different from, the minor tactics that prevail in small-scale battles. In the Corps, this notion prevails in the “everything we need to know to fight a Marine Expeditionary Force we learned at The Basic School” trope. This odd contention has its Army analogue, and many influential 19th century soldiers agreed with General Sherman that “whoever can command his company well can equally well command a…Grand Army.” The author’s depiction of the traumas of the Civil, Spanish-American, and Great Wars should help lay this heresy to rest.
Clark delivers a solidly researched, carefully argued, and strongly written study that weaves a masterful synthesis of a hundred years of institutional and intellectual history. The analytical narrative holds attention by highlighting the pugnacious personalities who drove innovation forward in the face of friction, reluctance to change, and outright official opposition. While most of the characters (e.g., Dennis Mahan, Winfield Scott, Emory Upton, Elihu Root, Leonard Wood, etc.) are well known, the author crafts their stories, along with those of less famous players such as William Carter, into a longue durée description of how and why the Army transitioned from a reliance on individual excellence to institutionally based collective competencies. The book centers on Army debates over field tactics and how to teach them; the equally contentious dialogue on the efficacy and means of coastal defense receives less attention in comparison.
Primary source documents drawn from eight archives back the analysis. The evidence presented supports the author’s conclusions, with one intriguing exception. At the end of the final chapter on World War I, Clark notes that the clique of Leavenworth officers, though essential to orchestrating operations on the scale of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, nonetheless blamed conscripts and untutored senior leaders for the American Expeditionary Force’s tactical failures rather than question the shortcomings of existing doctrine, training, equipment, or their own staff work. “Their efforts,” he writes of the school-trained staffers, “had simultaneously sown the seeds of success and disaster.” Given the historiography’s consensus that World War I validated the Army’s new-found professionalization and particularly the efficacy of its schools, the ‘disaster’ judgement merits further explanation.
Clark notes that robust debate on the forms and functions of professional reform remained the norm throughout the four generations he charted. One should not be surprised that such disputes continue. Indeed, we should welcome these controversies, for they represent the price of progress.
This is an important book, one filled with insights valuable for our own day. Clark notes that robust debate on the forms and functions of professional reform remained the norm throughout the four generations he charted. One should not be surprised that such disputes continue. Indeed, we should welcome these controversies, for they represent the price of progress. Despite slowing the resolution of competing agendas, doctrinal and organizational competition place the eventual winners on a firmer foundation. Clark doesn’t say so, but the lack of intellectual consistency he identifies among the officer corps represents a good thing. Competition breeds innovation. Iron sharpens iron. And the inevitable dichotomy between the young and old, or even among those of similar age and education but disparate experiences, also comprises “situation normal.” It need not be disruptive and may even spur a useful synthesis of tactics, technology, or strategy. Indeed, we must take the forty-one-year-old George Marshall’s 1922 injunction that “Old men…cannot successfully take up new activities” with a grain of salt given his own enormous contributions as a sixty-plus-year-old soldier and World War II’s “architect of victory” just two decades later.
Preparing for War also prompts contemporary practitioners to ruminate on Clark’s observation that while professional traits and processes can be taught, their development is not inevitable. Nothing prohibited an earlier emergence, as occurred in Prussia, of American institutions that trained soldiers to fight conventional wars more effectively. In the U.S. Army’s case, this text makes clear that its early twentieth century transformation was less an instance of innovation driven by civilian reformers, general officers, or young mavericks than of a rising progressive tide sweeping both civil and military institutions towards merit-based leadership, scientific efficiencies, and rational procedures. Politicians, military leaders, and operational failures (shown in so many aspects of the 1898 Cuban expedition) proved necessary but not sufficient to promote institutional transformation. Only when society’s broader culture of reform animated service personalities, organizations, and experience, did professionalism take firm hold.
It stands as a cautionary tale for today’s security professionals engaged in endless quarrels about an emphasis on big wars versus small, as if only one or the other holds the key to future operational success.
Most importantly, this story reinforces how hard it is to promote lasting change in large establishments. Its implications––that even enlightened leadership is not enough to ensure adequate or successful reform and that today’s cutting-edge concepts may be tomorrow’s failed or rejected strategies––serve as a useful reminder for those engaged in contemporary budget, structural, and technological battles. It stands as a cautionary tale for today’s security professionals engaged in endless quarrels about an emphasis on big wars versus small, as if only one or the other holds the key to future operational success. Or tiresome arguments about whether we are experiencing a revolution in military affairs Or competitions for roles and missions, in a world where there is more than enough work for all armed forces and their intra-service fiefdoms. Such kerfuffles mirror the institutional and intellectual military debates of the long nineteenth century. Like all good histories, Preparing for War proffers both a window into the past and a warning for the future. While we can learn from the experiences of previous generations, there are natural limits to how much a service can shape its own future by dint of sheer effort and enthusiasm. Clark’s compelling contribution serves as a welcome reminder––an echo of the grizzled veterans of our youth––that wars matter, and readying to fight them remains a matter of vital national interest.
Mike Morris is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer and a Ph.D. student in the military history program at Texas A&M University.
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Header Image: By American official photographer (Wikimedia)
 Jasen J. Castillo makes this argument in Endurance and War: The National Sources of Military Cohesion (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014).
 Edward M. Coffman, The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784-1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Edward M. Coffman, The Regulars: The American Army, 1898-1941 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
 Brian McAllister Linn, Elvis’s Army: Cold War GIs and the Atomic Battlefield (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).
 J.P. Clark, Preparing for War: The Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815-1917 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 130.
 J.P. Clark, Preparing for War: The Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815-1917 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 268.
 J.P. Clark, Preparing for War: The Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815-1917 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 269.