Revision — From the August 2014 issue

Armed and Dangerous

The inexorable rise of American militarism

( 2 of 4 )

I first put on my country’s uniform at age fourteen, in the fall of 1941, as a recruit to my high school’s Junior ROTC. This was in a cotton-mill-and-Army town in Georgia whose population would soon be doubled by the arrival of draftees. The (plugged) rifles with which we were taught small-arms drill and musketry were bolt-action Springfield ’03s: the U.S. Army’s standard rifle since shortly after the Spanish-American War, soon to be replaced by the semiautomatic M1 Garand. The standard Army sidearm, the Colt .45 automatic, had been adopted in 1911 because its predecessor had lacked “stopping power” against machete-wielding guerrillas during the Philippine insurgency of 1899–1902. It remained in service until 1985. The standard saddle (the Army still made use of horses and mules, the latter in Italy and Korea) was the McClellan — named after its designer, George B. McClellan, the dilatory commander of the Union forces during the early phase of the Civil War.

The student officers of our ROTC battalion wore Sam Browne belts and scabbards on parade, flashing their swords skyward as they shouted commands in cracking adolescent voices. After school, lolling about a drugstore soda fountain, tieless and with unbuttoned uniforms, we occasionally were asked by draftees on some mission in town, “Say, what kind of outfit are you guys from?”

The answer was that we were cadet stragglers from the old Regular Army. I refer to the Confederate-fighting, Indians-conquering professional force that had reconstituted itself following the War Between the States — the war to many readers of the local newspaper, which was still running obituaries of Confederate widows.

1 Until Harry Truman ordered its racial desegregation in 1948, it was a white man’s Army, possessing two white-led black combat regiments, one infantry and one cavalry. Following desegregation, it became the most important agency of black social amelioration, and of white interracial education, in American history. From 1948 on, service in an integrated Army was the common experience of a majority of the American male population, presaging and enabling the civic transformation of the 1960s.

My Army was the people’s Army. Its essential character from the start was ethical and democratic.1 Its expanded wartime mission was to turn civilians into soldiers, mostly officered by civilian-life professionals: managers, craftsmen, foremen, teachers. The Army’s permanent core was a small number of officers and NCOs, often Southern, most of the former educated at West Point as engineers. Among its leaders it suffered many duffers and incompetents, but had included Grant, Lee, and Jackson, and continued to number Eisenhower, MacArthur, Bradley — figures of a certain moral distinction.

Later, during the 1950s, having caught a bad case of Lawrence-of-Arabia fever — then transmitted to adolescents via public libraries — I spent weekends and vacations in one of the earliest reserve units of Army Special Forces. There I was instructed that we were not “agents” when deployed but uniformed soldiers acting under the established laws of war, like the Franco-Anglo-American Operation Jedburgh teams (from which we were organizationally descended) dropped into France to support the Resistance. Our Cold War mandate was to instruct and supply locally recruited guerrillas in the event of a Soviet attack in Europe, and we were to treat prisoners honorably and act under Army regulations and Geneva rules at all times.

is the author of ten books, including, most recently, The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of American Foreign Policy. His article “What We’ve Lost” appeared in the November 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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