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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE U.S. MILITARY by Michael A. Bellesiles

A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE U.S. MILITARY

Ordinary Soldiers Reflect on Their Experience of War, from the American Revolution to Afghanistan

By Michael A. Bellesiles

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-59558-628-5
Publisher: New Press

Plenty of books record soldiers’ writings and interviews, but this one stands out modestly by sticking mostly to enlisted men.

Throughout history, writes Bellesiles (History/Central Connecticut State Univ.; 1877: America’s Year of Living Violently, 2010), working-class young men have enlisted in search of adventure or a paying job. Those in the United States have been no different except in one respect. From 1775 until the 20th century, Americans tended to consider themselves citizen-soldiers giving up their freedom to fight for liberty. As the author demonstrates, this patriotism was severely tested by the miseries of service; readers will squirm at accounts of ineptitude, racism, intolerance and atrocities. During the American Revolution and the War of 1812, soldiers were simply not fed or paid. In the Civil War and World War I, they were ordered forward in suicidal charges, and they knew it. WWII was not quite the “good war” of popular memory, but it enjoyed national support. This absence in Korea and Vietnam devastated morale. The elimination of the draft in 1973 eliminated the citizen-soldier, and civilians now view this all-volunteer force with worshipful admiration. Although now professionals, soldiers remain supersensitive to incompetent leadership and impossible missions. Ironically, civilians glorified fighting men but ignored veterans until they formed their own pressure group. Lobbying by the Grand Army of the Republic produced pensions for Union Civil War veterans, the largest federal budget expense for decades after the 1890s. The GI Bill of Rights remains the sole government entitlement program that no Republican would dare denounce.

Surrounded by Bellesiles’ acerbic commentary, this is a useful, unsettling bottom-up history of America’s wars that emphasizes the soldiers' mistreatment, suffering and injustice.