A history of the U.S. army during peacetime examines the lessons its intellectual leaders learned from previous wars and how they planned for the next.
Having read nearly every available report, memoir, article and public speech on the subject, military historian Linn emphasizes that history teaches many lessons, only a few of which turn out to be useful, and that we learn the rare accurate prediction of the future in hindsight. An American military establishment didn’t appear until after the War of 1812, but it quickly got down to business, drawing wrong conclusions from the past and preparing for a future war that never happened. Ignoring the embattled frontier, until after 1900, leaders concluded that predatory European powers were our major threat—most likely, a massive cross-ocean invasion by Britain. Since the War of 1812 featured attacks on coastal areas, leaders gave first priority to protecting ports, devoting most of the army’s modest budget to constructing defensive coastal fortifications. They played no part in America’s next two foreign wars (in 1846 and 1898), which were entirely offensive, and the Confederacy obtained only modest benefit from those it occupied. Examining the enormously increased firepower—machine guns, repeating rifles and rapid-fire artillery, among others—available by the turn of the 20th century, military thinkers concluded that these would make future wars so expensive and destructive that fighting would be short-lived. A minority insisted that the vast destructive power of new weapons made war obsolete, repeating both errors when they considered aircraft a generation later and again with atomic weapons. Fighting terrorism, guerrillas and insurgent forces had ample precedent in campaigns against Indians, Confederate bushwhackers and Philippine rebels, but until the 1990s few thinkers considered this a worthy occupation for a warrior. Now, “irregular warfare” is considered the wave of the future, a disturbing forecast if it is as accurate as previous ones.
An unsettling but stimulating review of American military planning.