The US Army at it’s 233 Birthday! — June 14, 2008

The US Army at it’s 233 Birthday!

By Brig. Gen. John S. Brown
U.S. Army retired

June 14 marks the 233rd birthday of the U.S. Army. The anniversary of organized citizens as soldiers in what has become the United States is even more distant in time. It perhaps dates as far back as 1612, when most Jamestown settlers abandoned the notion of achieving a quick fortune and speedily returning to England, and accepted military obligations Governor Sir Thomas Dale imposed upon them. Militia provided the common defense throughout the Colonial era and bore the brunt of initial clashes with the British when the American Revolution began.

The fledgling Continental Congress adopted the four militia “armies” besieging Boston as its Continental Army on June 14, 1775, and voted to raise additional companies for that army from among the militiamen of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. The U.S. Army’s roots in the character of citizen-soldiers and their concepts of public service have had huge implications for its further development and distinguished history.

First, the precedent Americans have set for civilian control of the military originates in their soldiers’ acceptance of responsibilities as citizens. A number of other nations had militia traditions, but by the time of the American Revolution these had fallen away in favor of professional armies loyal to their sovereign, generally a king. When sovereignty was in doubt, the professional soldiers of the day seldom hesitated to participate in bringing a new sovereign to the top. Americans had no king or sovereign.
After several years of bickering and negotiation, they accepted the Constitution of the United States of America by plebiscite. The Constitution carefully balanced the roles and responsibilities of executive, legislative and judicial branches. It also preserved the relative autonomy of constituent states and the militia tradition—including the right of the people to bear arms. As a professional Army emerged in the face of sustained military requirements, its officers swore to uphold and defend the Constitution. Their soldiers, and the larger numbers of militia who served alongside them, were citizens of the society the Constitution described. Loyalty to the government—and thus to the American people as a whole—rather than to individual, class or clique was embedded from the beginning.

Second, the U.S. Army has focused on securing the common weal at least as much as it has on warfighting per se. American soldiers defend the assets that guarantee the freedom and prosperity of their fellow citizens. Constitutional constraints, national prosperity and a consciousness of the value of soldiers as fellow citizens led Army leaders to be averse to the military adventurism too often displayed in other militaries. Decisions for war have been political decisions made by political leaders and generally a last resort in the face of crisis. Through most of the 19th century, the Army was a constabulary, securing national access to expanding frontiers.

Throughout the 20th century, it secured commercial access upon which the national, and ultimately the global, economy depended. The United States entered World War I because German unrestricted submarine warfare threatened its rights as a neutral commercial power. It entered World War II because it was attacked and to preclude the extinction of like-minded liberal capitalist democratic governments. Cold War alliances, most notably the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, secured the perimeter of a worldwide condominium committed to the peace, prosperity and freedom of its citizens. With the end of the Cold War, this global community greatly expanded. Indeed, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center was an attack on the global economic system as well as the United States. A major fraction of the slain were citizens from all over the world, actively participating in the commerce that so benefited their many nations.

Third, when war does come, the citizen-soldiers of the U.S. Army are at their best when their fellow citizens are visibly behind them. Mass mobilizations accompanied the great triumphs of the Civil War, World War I and World War II. Amid the crisis of war, constitutional processes continued. Elections were held, legislation voted upon and policies debated. Support of the American citizen for the American soldier was voluntary and heartfelt, not forced. In part, public support emerged from the knowledge that neighbors and friends were responding to the call to arms. The militia of old, renamed National Guard and Army Reserve, resided in thousands of towns across America. Our least popular and most divisive war, in Vietnam, was a conflict wherein the National Guard and Army Reserve by and large were not called up, eroding the connection of American citizens with the conflict at hand. Today the National Guard and Army Reserve are ever present on the battlefield. Whatever their personal views on the wars we are now fighting, American citizens have remained unequivocal in their support for their soldiers.

Fourth, the mandates of military service have been broad, tailored to American society’s needs rather than to the martial preferences of professional soldiers. In the young republic, only the Army had the organization, talent and logistical means to mount major expeditions. Generations of explorers and mapmakers, such as the much celebrated Lewis and Clark, were soldiers under orders. The prolonged and gigantic contributions of the Corps of Engineers to the development and preservation of national infrastructure fulfilled and continue to fulfill a public need. Soldiers have been educators, first responders in humanitarian disasters, relief organizers, medical providers and lead agents for nation building at home and abroad. Our national parks originated as conservation initiatives manned by soldiers. The Army has been critical in birthing transcontinental railroads, preventive medicine, surgical procedures, communications infrastructure, powered flight, computers, atomic energy and the Space Age. Oaths to serve have more often proven to be “blank checks” than narrowly defined contracts.

Finally, military service has helped shape the character of the American people. Post-Revolutionary War land grants to former soldiers facilitated the opening of the frontier. Civil War experience shaped business organization, workforce discipline and other practices critical to the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy. The Army has led the society it serves in effectively integrating immigrants, racial minorities and women into cohesive teams. In World War I, tens of thousands learned English and the tenets of citizenship under Army tutelage. During the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands owed their livelihoods to projects supervised by Army cadres. The G.I. Bill of World War II radically improved access to higher education, home ownership and the middle class for millions. This tradition continues. Time and again, the Army polls among the most respected of American institutions, and successful military service remains a generally accepted and valued indicator of personal character.

The American Army, and the American soldier, can find much to be proud of in 233 years of selfless service. The handful of militia adopted as the Continental Army forecast the character of greater things to come. Citizen-soldiers would defer to civilian control, defend the public weal, fight the wars the American people required of them, serve the broadest mandates of their nation’s needs and inevitably shape the society they served. They also have been instrumental in ushering in and securing a global era of unprecedented promise and prosperity. We are in their debt.

Recommended Reading:

Hartzog, William W., American Military Heritage (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 2001)
Hogan, David W. Jr., Centuries of Service: The U.S. Army, 1775–2005 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 2005)
Stewart, Richard W., ed., American Military History, Volumes I and II (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 2005)
Weigley, Russell F., History of the United States Army (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1967)

BRIG. GEN. JOHN S. BROWN, USA Ret., was chief of military history at the U.S. Army Center of Military History from December 1998 to October 2005. He commanded the 2nd Battalion, 66th Armor, in Iraq and Kuwait during the Gulf War and returned to Kuwait as commander of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, in 1995. He has a doctorate in history from Indiana University.

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