Thursday, August 2, 2018

Review - "The American Military: A Concise History" by Joseph Glatthaar

[The American Military: A Concise History by Joseph T. Glatthaar (Oxford University Press, 2018). Hardcover, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:137/152. ISBN:978-0-19-069281-0. $18.95]

Even the most general history of the American military from Jamestown through today might easily fill several large volumes, but, remarkably, Joseph Glatthaar's The American Military: A Concise History manages to do so in only 125 pages of narrative. Much like fellow historian Allen Guelzo did recently for the same Oxford series with Reconstruction: A Concise History (2018), Glatthaar succeeds in applying the underappreciated talent of being able to produce a very brief but still meaningful synthesis and analysis of a seemingly boundless topic already supported by a vast literature.

Glatthaar organizes the descriptive elements of his history of America's military and its wars chronologically around four major, and often overlapping, themes. The first thematic element descends from the longstanding English tradition of universal military obligation for national defense. With that in view, the American distrust of standing armies meant that state and local citizen-militias would form the backbone of the early American military through colonial conflicts, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and beyond.

The incremental, decades-long turn toward military professionalism would be the next stage in the evolution of American armed forces, and, like others have before him, Glatthaar appropriately sees the success of West Point-trained officers in the U.S.-Mexican War as the real beginning of a larger cultural shift toward wider acceptance of a professional officer corps. This trend would continue during the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I, but the author argues that it would take World War Two's national mobilization of men and resources along with its top to bottom modernization of the U.S. Army before military professionalism was firmly established. One might also add to this the beginning of public acceptance for large, permanent armed forces led by career professionals and maintained at vast expense.

Advances in technology and mechanization among all branches of the service during two World Wars comprises the third major theme in the development of the American military. In unmatched fashion, the U.S. used its newly "centralized organization and power" during WW2 to leverage materiel, resource, and technological superiority into irresistible military might without destabilizing either the economy or conditions on the home front. As mentioned before, the country also needed and got the professionalized officer corps and staff structure required to wield the technology efficiently and effectively.

The book's fourth and final theme explores the internal and external limits of American military power through the lens of the Cold War and various twentieth and twenty-first century hot war experiences in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. Throughout the chapter, Glatthaar notes a consistent inability of politicians, the military leadership, and general public to get on the same page when it came to realizing (or deciding) what the military could and could not do (or should and should not do).

In terms of quibbles, any book of this type will by necessity include some overgeneralizations made for the sake of brevity. Additionally, the author doesn't directly critique major interpretive traditions like Russell Weigley's highly influential The American Way of War thesis and book, but elements of such things are encountered here and there. Overall, The American Military: A Concise History is a solid introduction to a very complex subject that should serve well the purposes of college survey courses and general reading audiences alike.

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