Non Fiction

Eager Yet Unprepared: The Problematic Process of Deploying American Armed Forces

Politics in the United States of America at the turn of the twentieth century was often volatile and contradictory: on one end of the spectrum, the progressives called for domestic stability through isolationism and “trust busting”, on the other, imperialists demanded that the U.S. take its rightful place as a world power, both militarily and economically.  However, these ideologies were not mutually exclusive, as Theodore Roosevelt exemplified a politician heavily influenced by both movements.  If Roosevelt’s attitudes represented general political opinion in the “Progressive Era”, then it was apparent that hunger for overseas expansionism was becoming more prevalent in the government than the previously dominant, century-old American mentality of deterrence and anti-colonialism.  When the Spanish American War broke out in 1898, Roosevelt was the Assistant Secretary to the Navy, although he quickly resigned from his position in order to join the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry (more famously known as the Rough Riders).

By doing this, Roosevelt demonstrated to the American people that the glory of fighting in battle was more important to him than logistics and mobilization.

Thus, Theodore Roosevelt embodied the government’s naivete in how a large-scale war with a major power needed to be fought (although arguably, however, Spain was indeed more formidable than the lightly armed and organized Native Americans that the U.S. Army was accustomed to fighting in the 19th century).  And therefore, both the Army and Navy did not have the necessary knowhow to prepare for a global war that required unprecedented overseas mobilization in order to annihilate Spanish colonial defenses in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.  Nineteen years later (although World War One started in 1914, America did not enter as a belligerent nation until 1917), the First World War proved no different in that the United States had even more time to ready its armed forces prior to than at the onset of the Spanish American War.  And yet regarding World War One, even with three years (or conservatively- after the Lusitania was sunk, two years, when war with the Central Powers was inevitable) of expectation for conflict, U.S. civilian and military leaders still did not mobilize the forces under their control in an efficient or timely manner whatsoever.

Wide-scale mobilization postbellum was not entirely overlooked by civilian government officials and professional military strategists, however, the focus remained on coastal fortifications because policy still revolved around the Monroe Doctrine and hemispheric defense; consequently: the standing army (which was known as the Regular Army) was minuscule in comparison to contemporary, gigantic European armies, “Americans required only garrisons for the harbor fortifications and a constabulary to pacify the frontier and to deal with sudden emergencies: tasks that were performed by a Regular Army of some 6,000 to 15,000 prior to the Civil War, and 26,000 after the end of Reconstruction”.

An Imperialistic war, such as the Spanish American War, fought over colonial possessions, was not a contingency in the Monroe Doctrine- ironically enough, it was exactly what the decades old policy was supposed to deter in the Western Hemisphere.  Although Americans at the time did not explicitly view this war as opportunistic, conversely, U.S. citizens sympathized with Cuban revolutionaries suffering from escalated Spanish efforts at quelling its colonial uprisings, especially after the harsh policies enacted in Weyler’s re-concentration program, and even more so once the USS Maine mysteriously exploded and sank in Havana Harbor.

As far as determination and morale went, American society was now more eager than ever to liberate the decaying Spanish Empire’s colonies in a quick and decisive war which was then thought to have been mainly the Navy’s responsibility, as the U.S. high command only considered that there would be minor Army involvement in supporting the Cuban rebels on land.  This mindset, which President McKinley would soon find out was not based in reality, entailed several complications in regards to mobilization, because such a maritime effort was not strategically reasonable in that it did not factor the need to subdue all Spanish colonies (utilizing land forces) for the stubborn European power to surrender, “Compared to the Navy’s, the Army’s initial mobilization was chaotic.  One problem was the diffusion of responsibility within the War Department.  A second difficulty was that the Army lacked the money and streamlined procedures for advance preparations”.

Consequently, the American Armed Forces needlessly lost most of its casualties in 1898 from illness and lack of proper rations due to the aforementioned inefficiencies in preparing for war with Spain, and not as a result of combat, even though the conflict lasted only a few months as predicted.

Although the war actually was brief, it caused another, deadlier war that was arguably only an extension of the Spanish American War, known then as the Philippine Insurrection.  What is now known as the Philippine War technically lasted from 1899 until 1902, yet sporadic native-guerilla resistance remained well into the twentieth century; and this was not considered war in the classical definition that Army officers deployed in the Philippines were used to, as many of them were veterans of the Civil War.

The first commander tasked with suppressing the Filipino insurgents was Major General Elwell S. Otis, and he generally epitomized military establishment attitudes toward the conflict by describing it as “a very extended police system” because popular belief in military theory at the time dictated that “war in its proper meaning had ceased to exist”.

This belief pervaded throughout the Armed Forces upper echelon primarily because U.S. forces had succeeded in a decisive battle against Aguinaldo’s Army of Liberation, and thus thought that their achievement in annihilating the enemy’s main army meant that their job was complete. This simply was not the case, and it caused a war of attrition against the Filippino population reminiscent of recent American conflicts in which occupation, civic development (to win the populace’s hearts and minds), and counter-insurgency have played key roles as opposed to conventional warfare where a Napoleonic thought process could possibly produce total victory.

The prospect of total annihilation seemed relevant again when America became involved in “the Great War” as the First World War was then called, and attrition or exhaustion strategy was inconsequential as it resulted in a stalemate involving trench warfare that caused unprecedented casualties on infantry for both the Allied and Central powers.  General John J. Pershing led the American Expeditionary Forces with the intention of turning the tide against the German offensive on the Western Front by discarding the idea that attrition could defeat the enemy, and Linn deftly pointed out that the historian Russell F. Weigly was right in asserting “that Pershing demonstrated considerable strategic judgment both in seeking to avoid the ‘heavy losses in unsubtle attack and counterattack’ and in urging the AEF be used not to grind the German army down but to drive it from its fortifications and defeat it in the open…” however, this policy was ignored by French Marshall Ferdinand Foch and consequently “…a strategy of attrition had triumphed and ‘that land war had descended into futility’”.

Aside from intellectual military unpreparedness during World War One, the American Armed Forces, organized into the American Expeditionary Force, experienced mobilization difficulties harking back to the Spanish  American War.  Yet the same problems with the previous war were simpler in comparison to the extent that America’s second draft in history was established in May of 1917, the Selective Service Act, because there was a significant shortage of infantrymen and officers to meet the minimal requirement of one million, two hundred thousand soldiers that was necessary to ensure that American troops remained an independent force under American command, in contrast to the auxiliary army that the British and French requested, which was unacceptable to Pershing.

Thus, it was not merely material logistics and bureaucratic inefficiency that hindered America’s ability to go to war in the period after the Civil War and up to World War One.  For instance, a purely American imperialist misconception existed: knowing that overseas expansion and subsequent international military power necessitated a large standing army, but simultaneously being reluctant because it was contradictory to traditional American ideals (especially considering the strength of the Armed Forces in 1898 for the Spanish American War, as Spain was considered weak militarily).

Besides material impediments, a Napoleonic mindset persisted in the Armed Forces which called for a total annihilation of the enemy army in one decisive battle, and at the very least, the Regular Army was inadequately supplied and numbered for such a total victory to happen as quickly as modern warfare necessitated.  Some American officers saw annihilation and attrition as both necessary to winning a war but could not agree on the particulars of when one strategy was needed and the other was not, “There is ample indication that many officers either did not recognize a difference between the two or believed they were two halves of the same coin” such as in the Philippine War.

The logistical framework of mobilization for the Armed Forces in these postbellum periods was unprepared to support grandiose annihilation techniques (first championed by Sherman in the Civil War, and then preferred by Pershing half a century later), but it was a relatively fixable situation in the long-term for the U.S. military, as Allied forces led by Eisenhower proved later on in World War Two.  In contrast, the U.S. military has had just as great difficulty as it did in the Philippine War in fighting occupational conflicts involving more attrition and guerrilla warfare than conventional, (with the exception of the usage of nuclear bombs against Japan to end World War Two).  Overseas territorial acquisition and more recently, world policing have led to hazardous occupations for the Armed Forces, as was apparent most notably in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.  Evidently, there is no single nor simple way of American war, (other than the use of overwhelming force if need be) however, the unpreparedness that has marked the Armed Forces throughout its history correlates with the eagerness, determination, and spontaneity that has enabled the U.S. military to ultimately achieve such a large amount of victories.

1 Allan R. Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America, (New York: The Free Press, 1984), pg. 289.

2 Kate Epstein, Class Lecture, September 11th, 2012.

3 Brian Linn, “The American Way of War Revisited”, Journal of Military History 60, no. 2 (March 1994): 160.

4 Millet and Maslowski, For the Common Defense, 285.

5 Millet and Maslowski, For the Common Defense, 288.

6 Linn, “The American Way of War Revisited”, 160.

7 Annual Report of the War Department 1900, 1:4:448. On the Philippine War, see John Gates, Schoolbooks and Krags: The United States Army in the Philippines, 1899-1902 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975), quoted in Brian Linn, “The American Way of War Revisited,” Journal of Military History 60, no. 2 (March 1994): 160.

8 Russell Weigly, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (1973, reprint, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977). 202-3 quoted and described in Linn, “The American Way of War Revisited”, 160.

9 Kate Epstein, Lecture, September 13th, 2012.

10 Kate Epstein, Lecture, September 11th,2012.

11 Linn, “The American Way of War Revisited”, 160.

12 Russell Weigly, The American Way of War, 202-3 described by Linn, “The American Way of War Revisited”, 160.

13 Linn, “The American Way of War Revisited”, 160.

8 replies on “Eager Yet Unprepared: The Problematic Process of Deploying American Armed Forces”

I too often read only headlines, like the news that the US is deploying to North Africa. Thank you for your essay. I will come back for more…..

Yes, I’m a history major, and I could have done so much more if I actually prepared for this essay instead of writing the whole thing the night before it was due. I’m glad to hear you’ve learned something from it, that gives me further inspiration to maybe pursue an academic career, or something. Lots of times I think I’d rather just be a writer but that isn’t as realistic.

I’d probably move to Sweden if I was being politically persecuted, because I don’t have sex with sleeping women without their consent. Unless I’m sleeping, but that’s a subject for Law and Order SVU, not U.S. military history.

Yes of course, I wanted to put a lot more in explaining all of those factors and more in analyzing war-readiness and if there is a particular way of American war, but I was constrained by 6 pages and a limited amount of time to write it (I pulled an all-nighter, can’t sleep until this afternoon and even then I probably won’t).

Gosh Sean I’m so happy to see you have this in you, I didn’t know until now!

I just learned so much and this gives an interesting perspective on why we are the way we are today, in so many ways.

Thanks for doing the legwork to be able to write it. I’m impressed! And if I was able to move to Sweden or a country less intent on “warring” I would (too cold).

Interesting essay defining “American” type of war. Other factors may be considered: the Constitution, being separated from Europe and Asia by two oceans, abundance of natural resources, American ingenuity and know how.

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