Blogs > Cliopatria > The Society of the Spectacle

May 13, 2005 4:50 am

The Society of the Spectacle

(Cross-posted at Historiblography)

Reporting from the front in WWII, Ernie Pyle was most impressed by the degree to which American soldiers weren't natural warriors. War had come, and they had simply faced it."They just went," Pyle wrote. In a running commentary on the dignity of the everyman, Pyle described citizens who fought reluctantly and looked forward to getting the job done."They were American boys who by mere chance of fate had wound up with guns in their hands sneaking up a death-laden street in a strange and shattered city in a faraway country in a driving rain. They were afraid, but it was beyond their power to quit. They had no choice. They were good boys."

This sort of narrative surely speaks to a longstanding piece of American myth, but it also points to an important reality regarding the development of the U.S. military for WWII: Faced with a challenge, a small standing army grew rapidly as Americans rushed (with considerable nudging) to the ranks.

And so I've been struck -- struck forcefully, for the obvious reasons -- by reports that the U.S. Army is currently flailing miserably behind a growing failure to recruit new soldiers. Most seriously, an army deeply entangled in a grinding and persistent conflict is having very little success at recruiting combat troops."As of the end of March, 7,800 infantry soldiers had been trained at Fort Benning, compared with a target of 25,541 for fiscal 2005." (Fiscal 2005, if I'm not mistaken, ends on June 30.) These are stunning numbers.

Compare and contrast: In WWII, a small standing army grew rapidly; in 2005, an enormous standing army is adrift, and slowly shrinking away. Americans are simultaneously embracing a new militarism -- witness the most recent Democratic presidential candidate saluting and reporting for duty, or the Republican president striding across an aircraft carrier deck in a flight suit, two images that would have baffled a certain ex-general by the name of Eisenhower -- while aggressively declining to serve in the military or to let their children serve. Tens of millions of Americans appear to support the war in Iraq, and this year the U.S. Army has been unable to find 10,000 Americans to serve as riflemen in it.

I very much hesitate to use the phrase historically unprecedented, and I look forward to hearing arguments against, but it seems like this might be a good time to think about using it. The U.S. military projects force around a world in which its power is unmatched; a parallel army of chest-thumping, war-hungrybloggers and columnists celebrate American power; and Fort Benning can't keep its drill sergeants busy.

In a series of posts at his blog, Mark Grimsley has discussed the standing of military history in the contemporary academy. In a milieu defined by the embrace of social history, the story (at least the perceived story) of generals and statesmen has been marginalized as passe. But it seems to me that current events suggest the degree to which military history is social history: The way a society lives is the way it fights. When historians look back at 2005, I suspect that some will make a great deal out of a war that was widely supported and widely avoided. We can draw the picture of an entire culture, living soft and talking hard. Everyone wants to eat, but nobody wants to cook.
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David Silbey - 5/14/2005

Which part? The suspicion of military historians for some of the most recent analytical techniques, or how the situation is changing?

David Silbey - 5/13/2005

_I assume the WWI book you're referring to is Simkins' Kitchener's Army?_

Thank you for the Stouffer recommendation.

Actually, the World War I book I was referrring to is not one, but two:

Ilana R. Bet-El, _Conscripts: Forgotten Men of the Great War_

and (immodestly, I'm afraid):

David Silbey, _The British Working Class and Enthusiasm for War, 1914-1916_

Alan Allport - 5/13/2005

If you want to discuss the issue through email, let me know and I will contact you.

Yes please! (Sorry, wouldn't have taken up board space with this ordinarily, but I don't know Tom's email).

Chris Bray - 5/13/2005

This is a terrific post, and very much speaks to the big question. Especially this: "It isn't necessary to be concerned about our military power because our superiority is axiomatic."

This very point is why I hope people are clicking on the last link in my original post, leading to an essay that deals nicely with the idea of axiomatic American military superiority.

Contemporary Americans love the military, hooray for us, because it's easy to love the military. It will always win ("win"), never need to draft new bodies in desperate circumstances, and so on. Militarism and the sense of easiness, of axiomatic superiority, march hand-in-hand.

Chris Bray - 5/13/2005

Mr. Lederer, your point is taken -- but my point here is a comparison of two behaviors: Participation in the war, and celebration of the war. One is fading; the other marches on. At least that's the way it looks to me.

Chris Bray - 5/13/2005

Much appreciated -- thanks for correcting my error.

This suggests that the army is on track for 15,000 new infantrymen, rather than 10,000, against a goal of 25,000. A bit less shocking, but still pretty grim numbers.

Alan Allport - 5/13/2005

There is such a work for the British Army in the First World War; is there one for the American army in World War II?

I don't know how well its analysis is said to hold up today, but students of the US Army in the WWII era are fortunate to have at their disposal the vast and detailed two-volume study by Samuel Stouffer, The American Soldier.

I assume the WWI book you're referring to is Simkins' Kitchener's Army?

I would treat anything written on this subject by pere Ambrose with the greatest caution.

Curiously, the forces of synchronicity have brought me this very afternoon c/o ILL one of the very few attempts to study the attitudes of British wartime servicemen in the Far East, in the form of an internal Royal Army Medical Corps survey from 1946. It's a valuable resource but doesn't go into nearly the same depth as Stouffer.

Chris Bray - 5/13/2005

Posted my response in the wrong place, and meant to place it below Alan Allport's first post -- where it would actually have made sense.

Chris Bray - 5/13/2005

This is why I conditioned my description pretty heavily, referencing "myth" and "considerable nudging." But the numbers are still hard to ignore: "More than 16 million of 138 million Americans joined the armed forces. If today's armed forces represented the same proportions, you would have 34 million of America's 295 million people in uniform." Sixteen million Elvis fans can't be wrong, or words to that effect.

My point here is not just about a rush to service versus a rush from service; rather, I'm interested in the relationship between the prevalence of military service and the story that Americans tell themselves about the meaning of military service. A generation that served in extraordinary numbers told themselves a story about soldierly ordinariness, while a generation (or two, or maybe even three) that largely did not serve/has not served in the military is/are telling a story about soldierly extraordinariness (if that's actually a word). The connection between militarism and the absence of military service is what interests me.

Tom Bruscino - 5/13/2005

Several works have dealt with the question peripherally. Lee Kennett, Gerald Linderman, and Stephen Ambrose all touch on the issue.

On the question of draftees specifically, George Flynn and J. Garry Clifford have the best books on the draft, but they do not really go into the reactions of the men. As far as I know, the types of studies we are talking about are not yet in print. But keep an eye out for Theodore Wilson's book next year: "Building Warriors: Selection and Training of U.S. Ground Combat Troops in World War II"

Tom Bruscino - 5/13/2005

Alan, I don't want to give the impression that the feelings of duty are universal, but I think it is a pretty solid generalization. Peter Kindsvatter gets at this issue some by comparing WWII troops to the fighting men in Korea and Vietnam in his book "American Soldiers." That dissertation by Robert Blackstone at Kansas will also deal with the issue (Bob tells me he will probably defend by the end of the summer). Hopefully, Ted Wilson will decide to put together a published proceedings from a symposium I just went to at Kansas last month, and it will have a lot of this stuff, too. The symposium was entitled "A Democracy in Arms." If it makes it to print, I will be sure to announce it at Rebunk and elsewhere. If you want to discuss the issue through email, let me know and I will contact you. I also think the transatlantic comparison would be useful.

Ralph is no doubt right about the depression playing a role in motivation. No small number of the men in World War II saw military service as their first chance for three hots and a cot. I just don't know how much the general affluence of the US since the war affects motivation now. I think a bigger issue might be a cultural inheritence that is extremely hostile to the idea of a draft, even if young Americans accepted that they had some sort of duty to fight. It is an interesting dual inheritence: the World War II memory of duty, and the Vietnam memory of resistance.

David Silbey - 5/13/2005

It's an interesting question--has anyone actually done a work that focuses on what draftees thought about what they were doing?

There is such a work for the British Army in the First World War; is there one for the American army in World War II?

Jonathan Dresner - 5/13/2005

That was Avedon Carol's argument as well. There's a less benign version of that argument that's been running around my head for some time now, which has to do with the arguments drawing parallels between totalitarianism -- which wa so successful in Europe -- and the growth, under FDR, of a not-totalitarian-but-very-intrusive welfare state. Put simply, the mid 20th century was a time when the concept of nation was so strong and the needs of society so great that governments really could call on their citizens for sacrifices unprecedented in history in exchange for government caretaking. I'm not sure how strongly this argument holds up in close examination, but as a broad 20th century theme, starting with the total war experience of WWI, it makes some sense of things.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/13/2005

Both Tom and Alan know more about this than I do, but I wonder if we wouldn't have to factor prior experience into the equation in making statements about the willingness of men and women to step forward for military service. That is, the depression of the 1930s may have conditioned that generation to understand that life is hard and that military service might not look so grim by comparison with other alternatives. Given the abundance of American life in the last 50 years, I can't see that there's much reason for most young Americans to believe that deprivation and risk of life might to be their portion.

Alan Allport - 5/13/2005

I'm interested in your mention of new work about this because as a sideline to my dissertation I've done some original research on attitudes and motivation in the British Army in the same period, and a transatlantic perspective would be valuable (FWIW I think the British case shows a whole spectrum of responses to call-up ranging from heartfelt patriotism to the most abject passivity and resentment).

Tom Bruscino - 5/13/2005

You are absolutely right about the problems with comparing the draft army of World War II with today's all-volunteer force. And there is no way to prove that a draft instituted shortly after 9/11 would have received a similar non-response, but I suspect it would have.

That said, on the strictly historical (not comparing to now) issue of enlistment in World War II, the stepping forward metaphor is sloppy and probably does cloud the issue. It should be noted that for organizational reasons, the federal government actually preferred the draft over volunteers, but still got millions of volunteers (and turned away millions of others who tried to volunteer). And some very good recent work is making it increasingly clear that the troops really were motivated to serve (whether drafted or not) by a sense of duty that in some ways was as simple as their understanding of who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. Again, though, I'm not making this claim as a comparison to enlistment motivation 2001-2005, so maybe this thread might not be the best place to have this discussion.

Alan Allport - 5/13/2005

The fact is that the World War II generation did pretty much step forward in unison to answer the trumpet's call

Although this might be seen as nit-picking on a point of metaphor, I think to say that the WWII generation "stepped forward" is strictly speaking wrong because it implies active initiative on their part; their behavior was passive in that they accepted conscription without (on the whole) any formal resistance, although I suspect that fatalism and peer pressure played as big a role in this as any abstract concept of duty. I do think the distinction matters because it goes to the heart of the comparative question about attitudes then and today; it's not really fair to judge the behavior of young people in an era of an all-volunteer army against a generation that was peremptorily drafted.

Tom Bruscino - 5/13/2005

David Kennedy is a wonderful historian, and I actually think that American People in World War II is probably the best single volume on the subject, but the quoted statement is very much in dispute, and I would argue wrong in its degree of revisionsism. The fact is that the World War II generation did pretty much step forward in unison to answer the trumpet's call, even as most griped and some sought deferments. And despite the thousands of conscientious objectors, the overwhelming majority of the 16 million who served in the war did so without serious objection, and out of some sort of sense of duty, even if they could not or would not articulate it. (On these issues Theodore Wilson has a book coming out probably next year, and his student Robert Blackstone is finishing a dissertation at the University of Kansas right now.)

I suspect that a draft instituted shortly after 9/11 would have seen most young Americans be signed up with much the same sense of duty, although the media certainly would have given disproportionate time to those who resisted. Hundreds of thousands of Americans did figure out ways to serve their country in the months and first couple of years after 9/11. At this point--after the elections in Iraq--I suspect that a lot of Americans who would join figure the main part of the war is over, and they do not want to do the less-glamorous security work in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that that type of duty has become so much less glamorous is in part because is messy and ugly and in part represents a failure on the part of the Bush administration even to try to explain why that work is still so important.

Andre Mayer - 5/13/2005

The federal fiscal year runs through 9/30 -- it was shifted from 6/30, I believe, in the mid '70s.

Chris Bray - 5/13/2005

I appreciate the comments here, and will respond later in the day. I promised to get midterms back on Friday, and the clock is ticking...

Ralph E. Luker - 5/13/2005

Mr. Lederer, You do have this inclination to double post your comments. Sometimes, you don't. Are the double posted ones twice as important as the ones that aren't double posted?
Your point with this comment would be -- what? that you have searched in vain (at Cliopatria? at HNN? in the press? in other media?) for public commentary on the military recruiters exceeding their quotas over the last 4 years. So what? I don't awaken my wife in the morning with the news that we have hot water, that the electricity is on, or that the sun has come up again. I would have something to tell her if any of those things were _not_ the case.

John H. Lederer - 5/13/2005

for all the comments with opposite conclusions that must have been made here over the last 4 years as military recruiters exceeded their quotas.....

John H. Lederer - 5/13/2005

"As to military history, one of the reason military historians have been having trouble in the academy is that military history has tended to remain suspicious of the tools and techniques of social history, and that's one of the things that has made it difficult for practicioners to get into university positions. That's changing now, on both sides."

I would be interested if you would care to expand on that thought.

David Silbey - 5/13/2005

I do think we should be careful about comparing a situation with an active draft and a situation without one. Having said that, during the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902, there was a wave of enlistment during the first year or so that was quite impressive. Units on train journeys to the Presido in San Francisco (where they were being staged to the Philippines) would "acquire" extra soldiers at towns across country. I'm not sure what happened to enlistment a few years in (1901-02). I'll have to check.

As to military history, one of the reason military historians have been having trouble in the academy is that military history has tended to remain suspicious of the tools and techniques of social history, and that's one of the things that has made it difficult for practicioners to get into university positions. That's changing now, on both sides.

Skef Iterum - 5/13/2005

Ignoring the historical aspects for a minute (probably a bad idea in this forum)...

It isn't terribly surprising (particularly in the absence of a draft) that there are pro-war people who don't personally want to serve. What is more striking about the current situation is that virtually no one outside of the military seems particularly concerned about persuading other people to join the military. But this phenomenon seems closely tied to the "world's only superpower"/empire idea. It isn't necessary to be concerned about our military power because our superiority is axiomatic.

I'm sure there are a number of variations on this in peoples (unconscious?) heads:

1) "If things got really bad, I would join up. Iraq isn't really about our security anyway, it's about the Iraqis."

2) "If things got really bad, we could nuke the enemy."


There's an interesting duality to Iraq in which part of the _justification_ relates to terrorism, but people are aware enough that Iraq is not really about terrorism so that they aren't worried that losing ground there would have an impact on life on this continent. This does seem to be an age of profound wishful thinking on many levels (the deficit, the economy (particularly housing), Iraq...)

Alan Allport - 5/13/2005

More of the latter than the former Jonathan, but it was really an independent comment that we've got to be careful about buying into a Golden Age myth about the 1940s.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/13/2005

I never argue with David Kennedy.... though I'm not sure if this is supposed to challenge my point about the widespread sense of duty in the mid 20c (there's a bit of a gap between deferment-seeking behavior and rioting or fleeing) or confirm my point that we venerate that generation without understanding them. Or both.

Alan Allport - 5/13/2005

"Contrary to much later mythology, the nation's young men did not step forward in unison to answer the trumpet's call, neither before nor after Pearl Harbor. Deferments were coveted, and their distribution [via the thousands of local volunteer draft boards] traced a rough profile of the patterns of political power, racial prejudice, and cultural values in wartime America." - David Kennedy, The American People in World War II (p. 208).

Jonathan Dresner - 5/13/2005

I wonder if some of the problem comes from the all-volunteer status of the US military. As Avedon Carol pointed out, we've had draft riots everytime we've had a draft, except WWII/Korea, the "greatest generation". As a consequence, we have over the last thirty years become deeply attached to the idea of the "all volunteer military", people who have "answered the call" to serve their country, taking on supererogatory (is that the right term?) responsibility. As a result, we've come to believe that there are only three kinds of soldiers: volunteers, eager to fight, kill, die, etc; reluctant conscripts, alienated and eager to get out at the earliest opportunity; WWII veterans, who we venerate without really understanding.

I feel a sense of duty to my country, but not necessarily to my president or to his current military missions -- a draft under these conditions would be very hard to swallow. I can't speak to the motivations or lack thereof of the more hawkish among us, except to wonder if their calls to action without participation are in some sense akin to those Catholics who bemoan the sad state of clergy recruitment and clergy activities without themselves hearing the call.

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