One hundred years of American might

One hundred years of American might

When the Central Powers of Europe mobilized their armed forces in August 1914 and the Allied Powers mobilized theirs in response, it was widely believed by many on both sides that the conflict would be glorious, short-lived and decisive.  Few of the pro-military interventionists gave any credibility to the prospect of a protracted, drawn out stalemate that became known as the Western Front.  Despite a great interest by many in America eager to join that fight, there were enough combat veterans of the Late War Between the States of half a century previous serving in policymaking positions to exert the necessary influence to keep their nation out of the fray.  With the business of America being business, sale of war essentials to customers from belligerent nations was permitted on a cash and carry basis.  Unrestricted submarine warfare and other acts of German aggression did not win Kaiser Wilhelm many friends on this side of the Atlantic.  All this, be it perceived or actual, eventually tipped American public opinion from largely indifference to passionate support for the Allied cause.  A century ago, after two and a half years of strained neutrality, American pro-interventionism finally reached the critical mass necessary for action.  The Congress of the United States, in a special joint session, declared war on Imperial Germany.  Official U.S. involvement as a combatant nation in the Great War began in the early morning hours of April 6th, 1917 when the House passed the joint resolution by a vote of 373 to 50.  American involvement eventually swung troop numerical strength and industrial might in favor of the Allied Powers.

At the onset of hostilities in 1914, the U.S. Army had a standing strength of some 98,000 men.  Although this was increased in the interim before US involvement in Europe, volunteer enlistments were insufficient to supply the manpower required for an overseas military expeditionary force.  Upon the declaration of war, America found itself with a dearth of manpower.  This necessitated the Selective Service Act of 1917.  The vast majority of the rank and file members serving in the U.S. Army in the Great War were conscripts.  This policy reached down into rural Arkansas where two members of my own family eventually found themselves in the service of Uncle Sam as a result.  My own great uncle Martin saw combat action in France.  He became a gas casualty, an insult which caused him recurrent problems for the rest of his life.

Great Uncle Martin’s younger brother, the grandfather of Yours Truly, never made it out of Fort Polk, Louisiana.  I remember the stories he told me when I was a young boy.  As I recall, you didn’t have to get shot, blown up or gassed to die in the Army in 1918.  His horror story of the flu epidemic made a believer out of me.  One artifact I ended up with was my grandfather’s soldier’s handbook.  It had some seemingly useful things in it.

 

For better or worse, conscription does have an appeal.  Not only does it net all the manpower any military commander would ever want or need, it greatly lends to a collective attitude of duty and shared sacrifice.  With the all-volunteer military which has served the nation for nearly forty-four years, the absence of that intangible is deeply felt.  Whenever he spoke about it, I vividly recall my grandfather’s decided edge of resentment for having been called to serve.  At the same time he exuded a tacit sense of pride for having done so.  I remember my FDR-brand Democratic grandfather as being vehemently anti-military in his old age.  In hindsight I can see where he likely felt that for him and all his fellow draftees who were all called to served in such a great and noble cause that nobody else should have to ever be forced involuntarily do such a thing again.  During the second war when one hearing impaired son (my father) was drafted in 1943 and the following year another son volunteered for the Navy the day after graduating high school, he kept his mouth shut and ignored how he must have really felt.  I’m sure that same sentiment was common to so many other American families who believed their children had better things to do with their lives rather than leave home, put on a uniform and carry a rifle on some hostile foreign shore or ride a Ship of the Line into harm’s way, but the nation was fighting the last good war.  When his only daughter chose to join the Navy after college and make a career out of it, he had few nice things to say about military service.  He saved his most excoriating criticism however for the senior leadership of the “Good ‘Ole Boy’s Canoe Club” and how they loved to put women in their place.  He had some valid points and was indeed correct about much of what he saw happen to his daughter but when she did well enough to serve twenty-two years and attain the rank of Captain you’d never know he ever thought like that.  When Yours Truly told him about my interest and intent to join the Navy he came down on me like a ton of bricks.  He didn’t want to hear about it and demanded I not talk about it.  He insisted I would be wasting my time and that I could do so much better for myself.  I of course completely disagreed with him at the time.  Over the years though, especially ever since I left active duty and retired from the Reserve, I can certainly see where my grandfather’s words of wisdom, venomous as they may have been all those years ago, certainly do resonate much louder with me now.

Official commitment to the cause of the Allied Powers in the Great War proved to be a boon to American industry.  It wasn’t until later that warnings about the usurping power of an entity now known as the Military Industrial Complex were articulated by senior military leaders who saw it coming.  Retired Major General Smedley Butler, a career Marine who had the experience and intestinal fortitude to publicly express the truth about who really profits and who doesn’t from armed conflict, illustrated better than any of his contemporaries in the 1930s what it really was.  He laid it on the line stating, War Is A Racket.  His speech on the subject is as prophetic as it is captivating:

Video:  War Is A Racket by Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler

Butler was not the only senior military leader to issue a warning of the real threat to American democracy.  Retired general and 34th President of the United States Dwight D. Eisenhower stated clearly his concern for the future of who ultimately controls the real power in government.  The question before us now is has the American nation heeded these warnings?  One hundred years after American military and industrial might kept the Allied Powers from losing the Great War, the profiteers of misery are prospering now more than ever.  In the past month the current regime has proposed a budget that guts domestic spending but increases defense spending.  Duly note that the United States already spends more on its military than the next seven largest military forces combined.  War is not the only racket.  The business of selling politicians to the voting public rivals the aforementioned.  Lofty platitudes and grand descriptions of how America ought to be have shown they can sell even the most sleazy, media crafted carnival barker as a legitimate savior, but where does that leave us now?  As much as I would love to believe in President Reagan’s description that it is “morning in America” I am having increasing difficulty seeing nothing but a setting sun on a soon-to-be once great nation.  I do hope I am wrong but after a hundred years of exporting world class military and industrial might, can we continue to believe we are on the right side of history?  The case can be made that we are certainly not on the right side of humanity.  If only there were respectable profit in uplifting the impoverished, the ill and the conflicted by some means other than at gunpoint.

3 Comments

  1. Dianne Cousins
    Apr 8, 2017

    My grandfather is the soldier pictured above. I wish I had the honor of knowing him as that soldier/man before the Great War. I only got to experience the consequences of that war on him and his children. The gassing/PTSD caused him to become alcoholic which directly influenced my uncle and mother’s life. My uncle died young from alcoholism and my mother succumbed to the same disease at the age of only 67. The effects continued on to include my sister and me who dealt with our mother’s sickness in different but dysfunctional ways. So I guess you could correctly say that the Great War is still affecting the living. It’s interesting to me that your grandfather had a negative view of military service. In my experience most people of that generation and my parent’s generation felt that military service was nothing but honorable. I grew up with my Dad being in the Naval Reserve and retiring as a Commander. He served on a submarine in the Pacific. He was one of those strong and I believe rare individuals who could overcome the hardships of war and live with a positive/loving outlook on life. He was the hero of my life. I view their generation as one of hers who did not shirk service and sacrifice. It wasn’t until Vietnam that I began to think of military conscription as unjustified. It clearly was not our war….why should we make that sacrifice? Yada yada….
    It’s interesting about your aunt Sue Ella that her dad did not approve of her. I have vague memories of your grandparents being proud of her. I remember seeing the picture of her in uniform at their house and marveling that a woman would do that! I thought she was very inspiring.
    I think since WWII the MIC has grown in power and influence which I deplore, especially the influence on our politicians. I think the military spending will be the undoing (more than anything) of our democracy. We can’t be the saviors of the world if our own people are weak, poor, sick, in debt, uneducated, etc. I do feel we have a responsibility because of our great wealth but in measure.
    Love your writing and historical perspective!

  2. Carl A.
    Apr 7, 2017

    ” I tell you, war is Hell!” William Tecumseh Sherman, Maj. Gen., US Commander, Western Theater, 1864.

    Somebody go tell Trump…

  3. Mark Collins
    Apr 7, 2017

    For the semi-literate and wholly illiterate (& historically ignorant), the appeal to patriotism and the lure of foreign military adventures is still a popular vote-getter. This is especially true in our current situation, wherein only 1% of our citizenry serve in the military. Easy to wrap oneself in the flag, as long as there’s zero risk of being shrouded by it.
    In his “Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” (1987), Paul Kennedy revealed the invariable proclivity of “Great” nation states – as they’re confronted with the loss of their #1 status – to engage in deficit financing of foreign military adventures.
    We Yankees are merely the latest of our species to straggle down this path. Clear as Waterford crystal and just as cold comfort.