Walter McDougall: On War in American History

[Walter A. McDougall is Co-Chair, with David Eisenhower, of
FPRI's History Institute, and with James Kurth, of FPRI's
Center for the Study of America and the West. His latest
book is Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American
History, 1585-1828. This article is based on his
presentation made at Teaching about the Military in American
History: A History Institute for Teachers, held March 24-25,
2007, at the First Division Museum, Wheaton, Illinois. The
Institute was Sponsored by FPRI's Marvin Wachman Fund for
International Education and by the Cantigny First Division
Foundation, Wheaton, Illinois and supported by a grant from
the Annenberg Foundation.]

At past FPRI history institutes I have praised and thanked
the teachers in attendance because I likened them to front-
line soldiers in the war to prove the ignorance of America's
youth is not invincible. Our subject this weekend makes
that simile especially apt, so in my capacity as a college
professor and my capacity as a high school parent, I salute
your heroic calling.

My task is to offer some general remarks on how to think
about war and the military in the broad sweep of American
history--remarks I hope will be heuristic but also
provocative. Indeed, my first provocation is to open the
conference by recalling a certain notorious film clip,
General George Patton's famous speech to the Third Army, as
delivered by George C. Scott in Patton (1970):

Men, all this stuff you've heard about America not
wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a
lot of horse dung. Americans traditionally love to
fight. ALL REAL Americans, love the sting of battle.
When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble
shooter, the fastest runner, the big league ball
players, the toughest boxers . . . Americans love a
winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to
win all the time. I wouldn't give a hoot in Hell for a
man who lost and laughed. That's why Americans have
never lost and will never lose a war.

I Googled that speech and learned how thoroughly Hollywood
bowdlerized it. The real address contains scarcely a
sentence without an obscenity or bloody oath. Of course,
Patton was trying to encourage--literally instill courage
in--nervous young men about to storm Hitler's West Wall. So
the sentiments he expressed were more suited to a football
locker room pep talk than a Fourth of July oration.

Nevertheless, Patton had a point when he cried, "Americans
love to fight, traditionally." Indeed, the popular author
Geoffrey Perret even titled his American history A Country
Made By War (1989). And if that is so, then Americans simply
must affirm their military and their wars because without
them the great nation we inhabit today would not exist. The
United States was born in an armed revolution. The Union was
saved in a great Civil War. The nation realized its Manifest
Destiny and achieved unprecedented world power largely
through war. Perhaps Americans are not more belligerent than
other great nations, but they are certainly not less
belligerent. In its brief 230-year history the U.S. has
waged at least a dozen major wars and scores of minor
conflicts on the frontier and overseas. The U.S. today
spends more on defense than the next six Great Powers
combined, and stations armed forces of some variety in over
a hundred countries. The United States is a militant
republic, the American Creed a fighting faith, and our
politics and foreign policy have been driven, as often as
not, by the fact or fear of war. Moreover, we teachers
cannot even describe the main social, economic, and cultural
trends in American history without frequent reference to war
and the military. One need only name the abolition of
slavery, establishment of the income tax, triumph of women's
suffrage, the Civil Rights movement, and the youth rebellion
of the 1960s to suggest how great transformations have been
partly driven by war. The only comparable influence in U.S.
history, I think, has been evangelical religion.

Whether or not Americans really romance war, at least when
they like their odds and deem the fruits of victory worth
the risk, they certainly love to study it. At Penn the
courses in military and diplomatic history attract up to ten
times more students than social or cultural history. Cable
TV's History Channel obsesses on World War II and the Civil
War to the exclusion of almost everything else. Best-selling
histories are disproportionately concerned with wars and war
leaders: witness the four new biographies of Ulysses S.
Grant over the past few years. Blockbuster movies are often
about historical battles and wars, or else fantasy fights of
the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings variety.
Look at the Game Boy, Nintendo, and Play Station titles and
you encounter ubiquitous combat in ghetto streets, outer
space, or Bowser's islands.

What does that tell us about ourselves and our country? I
don't know. Or at least, I do know the American people are
too disparate, complex, perhaps schizophrenic to be
caricatured. Looking at their history, Americans are surely
proud of the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who have
defended their liberty and national honor. Americans thrill
to the victories they won and mourn the trials suffered by
servicemen and their families. But at the same time most
Americans are loath to glorify war and are quick to imagine
military service as somewhat alien to civilian values.
Americans worship at the altars of life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness, and cherish equality, civility, and
compromise--all of which military discipline, duty,
hierarchy, and coercion contradict. Military service,
whether performed by professionals, conscripted citizens, or
volunteer militia, inevitably strikes Americans as abnormal.
If civilians are called to the colors, they deem it an
interruption born of an emergency thrust upon the nation by
some wicked enemy: an emergency to be gotten over with as
quickly as possible and as violently as necessary, so that
citizens can return to their hometowns, families, and jobs.
If, by contrast, professionals fill the ranks of their armed
forces, then Americans tend to view them as a caste apart, a
sort of fighting order of monks who sacrifice the blessings
of civil society so that others may continue to enjoy them.
Thus, fighting men and women take on a sacred, even
sacrificial character in what I call the American Civil

These thoughts may strike some as vague, speculative
generalizations. But I submit they already suggest three
enduing themes that are not vague at all. One is the
cultural gap between the military and civil society that has
waxed and waned since colonial times, but become a growing
concern since the draft was abolished in 1971 in favor of an
All-Volunteer Force. The military and civil cultures have
diverged to the point that they barely intersect anymore,
which many observers consider unhealthy for both. A related
theme is the hallowed American principle of civil supremacy.
General Matthew B. Ridgway voiced the military's proper
deference when he said, "The soldier is in the statesman's
junior partner." It was statesman Theodore Roosevelt who
expressed the heretical view that "The diplomat is the
servant, not master, of the soldier." We should take pride
in the truly amazing fact that a military coup has never
been a serious threat to our republic (even when some
civilians urged George Washington and George McClellan to
make one) and that insubordination such as Douglas
MacArthur's has been very rare. But there is no question
that tensions have always existed between politicians and
the uniformed brass, especially at times when the armed
forces were demoralized because the government starved them
of resources or made impossible demands on them.

A third theme is simply that ambivalence about war which is
displayed by American citizens. As philosopher George
Santayana put it, "To delight in war is meritorious in the
soldier, dangerous in the captain, and criminal in the
statesman." Throughout most of our history Americans honored
their veterans and boasted--until Vietnam--of never having
lost a war. Moreover, most Americans liked to believe that
their nation's record in war was Providential, a sign of
divine favor, and proof that our causes were just. And yet,
on the other hand, few Americans wanted to believe their
country was eager to fight or was responsible for the
outbreak of war. On the contrary, Americans imagined
themselves a peace-loving people. Were they just fooling
themselves, as Patton would have it? Let's do a quick survey
with those popular self-images in mind, and see what it

We discover at once that a certain duality toward war was
present at the creation of the thirteen colonies. I spied
it, quite literally, a few years ago when my family took
advantage of a warm winter day to promenade along Kelly
Drive in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park on the north bank of
the Schuylkill River. At one point we passed a series of
circular monuments featuring representative colonists who
founded America. The central monument included two
dominating figures half-facing each other. One was a
stereotypical Quaker in his broad-brimmed hat and coat. He
held in his hand a book, presumably the Bible. The other was
a stereotypical Puritan in his peaked, buckled hat and
Calvinist garb. He held in his hand . . . a musket!

The Puritans hit American soil, not wanting to fight Indians
or anyone else, but absolutely ready to do so if necessary
for defense or expansion, especially against the hated
French Catholics up in Quebec. As we know, the Puritans
waged bitter, successful war on the violent Pequot tribe as
early as 1637, and a Native American coalition led by
Metacom, or King Philip, in 1675. After 1688, when
Parliament ousted the Stuart kings and established the
Protestant Whig ascendancy, New Englanders cheered John
Churchill's crusade to crush the French and Spanish empires
and conquer all North America. Thus began the long series of
French and Indian Wars that colonists later claimed they
were dragged into, but in fact all supported except for the
pacifist Quakers.

The so-called Cavalier planters and indentured servants who
settled the Chesapeake Bay and Carolinas were just as eager
to fight for defense and empire. Indeed, their most famous
son, Colonel Washington, would even be blamed for sparking
the climactic French and Indian War when he ambushed an
enemy column on the frontier in 1754. And as for the
hundreds of thousands of Scots-Irish who fanned out across
the Appalachians, for them feuding and war were simply their
way of life. To be sure, the people who invented America
sought economic opportunity and civil and religious liberty.
But except for the Quakers and German Mennonites, Americans
always reacted with fury against anyone who dared interfere
with, or place limits upon, their pursuit of happiness. At
such times they instinctively reached for their muskets with
a deadly earnestness born of impatience.

Nothing better illustrates the centrality of the military to
the American identity than the role played by the
Continental Army. From 1775 to 1783 Washington's threadbare,
unpaid, often hungry band of volunteers was the United
States for all practical purposes, because the Army was the
only national institution besides an impotent, feckless
committee called Congress. Washington's genius was less as a
tactician than as a paragon of a republican general,
exhorting reluctant troops, refusing to live off the land
despite hardship, deferring to politicians he held in
contempt, accepting no pay, and above all resigning his
commission after victory rather than succumbing to the
temptations of a Caesar or Napoleon. So indispensable was
Washington and the sort of army he fashioned that soon after
independence the Federalist movement arose to promote a new
Constitution in order to make Washington the chief
magistrate and forge a strong central government and
credible military.

Revolutionary War veterans composed a large bloc of the
delegates at Philadelphia, and the first 29 of the 85
Federalist papers argued for ratification of the
Constitution on the grounds of defense and foreign policy.
John Jay wrote that the United States had proved their
existence by having waged war as a nation, vanquished their
enemies as a nation, and made foreign treaties as a nation.
He wrote that government's primary responsibility was to
protect the people from foreign invasion and influence. He
reminded readers of the proximity of the British and Spanish
empires, the likelihood of future rivalry with the French,
and thus implicitly scorned any notion that the U.S. could
fancy itself isolated. Indeed, he insisted nothing would
invite war so much as for the 13 states to fall into feeble

Alexander Hamilton likewise demolished the conceit known
today as "Democratic Peace Theory," to wit, that self-
governing peoples are by nature peaceful and do not make war
on other republics. Hamilton cited the long list of wars
waged by republican Sparta, Athens, Carthage, and Rome in
ancient times, and Venice, the Dutch Republic, and
Parliamentary England in modern times, concluding "There
have been, if I may so express it, almost as many popular as
royal wars." Hamilton asked by what fallacy Americans
believed they were somehow exempt from "the imperfections,
weaknesses, and evils incident to society in every shape."

But the fact that Americans were not immune to aggression or
folly hardly meant they should dispense with a standing
military altogether, as the Anti-Federalists contended.
Indeed, wrote Hamilton, a prohibition against raising armed
forces in peacetime "would exhibit the most extraordinary
spectacle which the world has yet seen--that of a nation
incapacitated by its own Constitution to prepare for defense
until it was actually invaded!" Federalists were even more
adamant about the need for a permanent Navy lest American
commerce be made a prey even in peacetime and America's
coasts be exposed in wartime. Yes, there was always the
danger that a standing military might be used in the manner
of Redcoats to oppress the people. But the Framers minimized
that risk by checking and balancing the powers to raise and
command armed forces, declare wars, and ratify treaties.
Above all, Federalists remained adamant that the identity
and survival of the Union depended on its power to make war.

In the 1790s their Democratic Republican rivals professed to
reject that. But after they captured the presidency in 1801,
they quickly learned otherwise. To be sure, Thomas Jefferson
slashed military spending, relied on militias, and
decommissioned John Adams' proud frigates in favor of
gunboats. But Jefferson was enough of a scientist to realize
the Army needed an expert corps of engineers. It was he who
founded the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1802. And
it was Jefferson's protege James Madison who led the U.S.
into its first discretionary war in 1812 and emerged from it
a strong proponent of the professional military and federal

There followed an era of relative peace. Except for
conflicts attending Indian Removal and the Texans' private
war for independence, Americans did not wage serious war
again until the Mexican Conflict in 1846. Over those decades
Andrew Jackson placed his own ambiguous stamp on the
military. As a Scots-Irish frontier chieftain Jackson
literally picked fights whenever he could. In 1817 he
invaded Spanish Florida in the first of a series of
preemptive strikes that have speckled American history. But
as a politician Jackson, like Jefferson, claimed that
militias sufficed to defend the nation only to learn
otherwise in the White House. When his supporters in
Congress threatened to close West Point, Jackson called it
the finest school in America. Jackson presided over a modest
expansion of the frontier army, especially its excellent
mounted dragoons and Corps of Topographical Engineers. Not
least, Jackson realized that nothing so guarded America's
honor abroad than a strong Navy. Finally, when Jackson's
protege James K. Polk waged the Mexican War, the
professional Army and Navy distinguished themselves while
the citizen militias performed miserably. That war
established once and for all the reputations of West Point
and the new Naval Academy at Annapolis.

But Mexico did not purge America of the myth of the citizen-
soldier. On the contrary, Congress clung to its habit of
slashing defense budgets in peacetime, with the result that
when the South seceded in 1861, the nation again went to war
unready and on the cheap. Again West Point graduates filled
most of the top ranks, but otherwise the Civil War
replicated the nation-in-arms model of volunteers fighting
for hearth and home. After Appomattox, and especially after
the Grand Army of the Republic and Sons of the Confederacy
burnished their respective myths by the 1880s, Americans
forgot the initial amateurishness of Civil War recruits, the
panicky flights of whole units, the incompetent campaigns
and botched maneuvers, preferring to remember the heroism of
their citizen-soldiers and the ultimate glory and tragedy.

Those memories were reinforced by the events of the next
hundred years, during which the U.S. became a world power.
To be sure, in the late 19th century the federal government
grew steadily in size and purview, while commerce and
imperialism persuaded Admirals, then Congress, then
Presidents to build a modern steel Navy sustained by
America's first military-industrial complex. The Army and
especially Marines expanded during decades when Teddy
Roosevelt, Taft, and Woodrow Wilson intervened repeatedly in
the Caribbean and Pacific. But when big wars broke out--the
Spanish War in 1898, both world wars, and the Cold War
conflicts in Korea and Vietnam--it was once again volunteer
and conscripted civilians who filled the ranks of instant
armies and navies. Then, during the second half of the 20th
century, the pattern was broken--for better or worse--by two
paradigm shifts that punctured, probably forever, the
realities and the myths of the military and war in America.
The first was the transition from a merely industrial era of
warfare to the postindustrial era known as the "revolution
in military affairs." Industrial age war placed a premium on
huge, indifferently trained armies of infantrymen (cannon
fodder, if you will), and on mass production of relatively
low-tech weapons such as rifles, machine guns, tanks, ships,
and airplanes whose sheer numbers wore down an enemy. Post-
industrial war, by contrast, places a premium on relatively
small, highly-trained and very mobile strike forces armed
with high-tech weapons of unprecedented lethality and
accuracy, guided by integrated computer systems linked to
orbiting satellites. President Nixon may have abolished the
draft in order to drain the passion from anti-war protests,
but his shift to fully professional armed forces coincided
with the progress of technology.

The second paradigm shift was the simultaneous advent of the
protracted conflict and limited war. From 1946 to 1991 the
American people were asked to support a long twilight
struggle to contain or roll back the Communist menace led by
the Soviet Union without triggering a third world war. And
when that Cold War turned hot, as in Korea, Americans were
asked to fight and die with no expectation of early or total
victory. Protracted conflict and limited war made expensive,
frustrating demands on our nation to which it was not
accustomed. If forced to fight, Americans want to kick
maximum butt and come home. The Cold War and War on Terror
don't give Americans what they want, while at the same time
they require a professional, high-tech military in which the
citizen-soldier has no place. The U.S. today is defended by
the post-modern equivalents of Roman legionnaires and
centurions, which is another reason pundits write of the
American Republic giving way to American Empire, and either
cheer or deplore that prospect.

This pocket biography suggests three more pregnant themes
for the weekend. First, the American way of war, to employ
historian Russell Weigley's apt term; second, the changes in
the American way of war caused by technological and
geopolitical shifts; and third, the difficulty American
culture has in accepting reality or adjusting to changes in
reality. At heart, we are still a nation of Minuteman
Patriots, peaceful until aroused, and then a righteous
nation-in-arms. Just recall the spirit we felt on 9/11,
weeping, fearing, but rising as one, full of spit and
vinegar, ready to sacrifice, and hot for vengeance and
justice. But in truth, that Minuteman culture was already
rendered partly a myth the moment in 1775 when Washington
took command of the militias outside of Boston and started
whipping them into an army. That culture remained partly
mythical throughout the 19th century, when the pioneer
trails west and overseas were blazed by the professional
soldiers and sailors. And it became mostly mythical over the
course of the 20th century, when the U.S. standing military
achieved unparalleled technical sophistication, and the
nature and locus of security threats shifted from
conventional war to nuclear war to guerilla war to terrorist
war. Accordingly, the Pentagon decided it no longer needed
or wanted the citizen-soldier. And yet, strangely, the
American public has become less tolerant of protracted
conflict, and less tolerant of American casualties, than it
was during eras when tens of thousands of citizen soldiers
became casualties! Indeed, it seems Americans today are even
less tolerant of enemy and collateral civilian casualties
than ever before. Who mourned at the time for the hundreds
of thousands of Japanese and German civilians incinerated by
the Army Air Forces? After all, attrition--the wearing down
of enemies by superior firepower--had been the American way
of war really ever since the War of 1812. But now, more
sensitive, or perhaps less confident, Americans ponder what
makes them feel more uncomfortable: a short march to Baghdad
in which just 200 Americans die as compared to 20,000
Iraqis, or a long insurgency in which 3,000 Americans die as
compared to 300,000 Iraqis?

In conclusion, let me return to the conundrum born of
Patton's claim that Americans love a fight and Americans'
insistence they are really a peace-loving people. It
occurred to me the way to parse that puzzle is through a
simple chart that juxtaposes the foreign and domestic
sources of America's major wars.

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