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America in Arms, John McAuley Palmer, a review

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

America in Arms, John McAuley Palmer (1870-1955)

Thanks to our blog friend Joseph Fouche, I discovered Brigadier General Palmer’s excellent history of how America has organized the army both in peacetime and in times of war. Fouche introduced Palmer in an excellent piece called, How Did We Get Here.

The Prologue to this excellent book begins:

When Washington became President, he had two main planks in his administration platform. His first plank called for a sound financial system; his second plank called for a sound national defense system.

Thanks to Alexander Hamilton, his Secretary of the Treasury, his first plank was installed before the end of his first administration. But it was not until 1920, more than one hundred and thirty years later, that Congress established a modern adaptation of his military organization. And it was not until 1940 that Congress completed the Washington structure by accepting the principle of compulsory military training and service in time of peace.

Thus begins one of the best written books I’ve read since Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie’s Military Strategy. While the authors cover different topics, both write in crisp, efficient prose and say what they mean the first time. One won’t find much fluff or nuance in either book; I like that.

Palmer traces the history of how America has organized to fight wars, and more often than not, the “how” is not pretty (we usually play catch-up in the early days of conflict). Palmer’s purpose in writing “this little book” was “to tell how Washington arrived at his military philosophy: how and why he was unable to persuade his countrymen to accept it; how their rejection of his advice affected their subsequent history; and finally how, after a century and a half their descendants have have been impelled to return to his guidance.” From the period of 1783 through 1911, Palmer’s book is history. Following 1911, Palmer provides “first-hand experience of the events described.”

Palmer begins with an early (pre-Constitution) inquiry to Washington by Congress on his views on a proper military policy for the new nation. Washington shopped the query around to Generals Steuben, Knox, Huntington, Pickering, Health, Hand and Rufus Putnam. Their responses were strikingly similar; “a well-regulated militia” would be sufficient for national defense. They agreed on a small regular army to patrol the Indian frontier and other “special duties” that could not be performed by citizen soldiers.

Palmer discovered Washington’s “Sentiment on a Peace Establishment” when researching his Washington, Lincoln, Wilson: Three War Statesmen. Washington’s treatise was pretty straightforward:

A Peace Establishment for the United States of America may in my opinion be classed under four different heads Vizt:

First. A regular and standing force, for Garrisoning West Point and such other Posts upon our Northern, Western, and Southern Frontiers, as shall be deemed necessary to awe the Indians, protect our Trade, prevent the encroachment of our Neighbours of Canada and the Florida’s, and guard us at least from surprizes; Also for security of our Magazines.

Secondly. A well organized Militia; upon a Plan that will pervade all the States, and introduce similarity in their Establishment Manoeuvres, Exercise and Arms.

Thirdly. Establishing Arsenals of all kinds of Military Stores.

Fourthly. Accademies, one or more for the Instruction of the Art Military; particularly those Branches of it which respect Engineering and Artillery, which are highly essential, and the knowledge of which, is most difficult to obtain. Also Manufactories of some kinds of Military Stores.

(Would highly recommend reading the entire piece.)

Palmer accounts for Washington’s seeming contradiction on the issue of militias, and points out that Washington was specific in his low opinion of an “ill-organized militia” (one based on short enlistments and political connections influencing the selection of leaders—a problem which endured in Lincoln’s Union Army). Washington favored a “well-organized militia” with the Swiss model ranking high in his esteem. Of the generals providing Washington with their thoughts, Palmer writes that Steuben and Knox were largely in agreement with Washington’s ideas. Both were in general agreement on the organization of small infantry divisions, or legions divided between New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South Atlantic. Under the direction of Congress, in 1786, General Knox (then Secretary of War) completed a Plan for a General Arrangement of the Militia of the United States.

The following plan is formed on these general principles.
That it is the indispensible duty of every nation to establish all necessary institutions for its own perfection and defence.
That it is a capital security to a free State for the great body of the people to possess a competent knowledge of the military art.
That this knowledge cannot be attained in the present state of society but by establishing adequate institutions for the military education of youth— And that the knowledge acquired therein should be diffused throughout the community by the principles of rotation.
That every man of the proper age, and ability of body is firmly bound by the social compact to perform personally his proportion of military duty for the defence of the State.
That all men of the legal military age should be armed, enrolled and held responsible for different degrees of military service.
And 6thly,
That agreeably to the Constitution the United States are to provide for organizing, arming and disciplining the Militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.

Congress did not enact the Knox plan as the United States, still under the Articles of Confederation was “insolvent” and unable to act. Palmer estimated that had Knox’s plan been adopted in 1786, “it is my estimate that the advanced corps would have numbered 60,000 men at the end of three years.” Those numbers would grow progressively as the population increased, so that at the outbreak of the Civil War, “the first line of the civilian army would have numbered about 500,000 men. ” By WWI in 1914, that number would have been about 1.8 million.

As president, Washington’s military policy was closely aligned to the Knox plan (Washington amended the original). The change involved a reduction in the required training for the advanced corp—then, as now, costs were the motivating factor for the reduction, but Washington wanted to get a national infrastructure approved. As mentioned previously, the Swiss model factored heavily among Washington and his general’s thinking—with the essential difference between the Swiss plan and Knox being the “distribution of training time.”

The first Congress was reluctant to embrace Washington’s ideas and instead passed the “notorius Militia Act of 1792.” Palmer said this Act made “our military system worse than before the bill was introduced. The old militia organization [the “ill-organized” that Washington deplored] with its phony regiments and divisions now had Federal sanction and was made uniformly bad throughout the nation.”

Washington was defeated in his efforts to develop and deploy a national militia. Washington in warning of foreign entanglements in his Farewell Adress also reminded us of the realities nations must shoulder:

If we remain one People, under an efficient government, the period is not far off, when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or War, as our interest guided by justice shall Counsel…Taking care always to keep ourselves, by suitable establishments, on a respectably defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.

Palmer covers the efforts of Jefferson, and then, Madison to develop a cogent national military organization. The War of 1812 illustrated the the dangers of “the ill-organized militia” as it was, as organized the militias were found wanting. A new force emerged from the War of 1812 and that new force was the regular army. Palmer concludes this chapter: “The history of our modern regular army really begins with the War of 1812. Since then it has never failed to give a good account of itself. It won the pride and gratitude of the American people just when the failure of the national militia had filled them with contempt and humiliation.”

“A new military gospel” was formed after the War of 1812, and the War Department became the new headquarters of the regular army. Madison’s successors had to start over as the archives (including Washington’s Sentiments) were destroyed when the British burned the capitol in 1814. John C. Calhoun, Secretary of War under Monroe, advocated an “expansible standing army”—the antithesis of Washington’s ideas. Palmer said, this “expansible-standing-army” plan hampered American plans for preparedness for more than a century…[through 1941] and…is not quite dead.” The problem was “how” to expand this force in time of war.

As Palmer traces the military policy from Florida to Mexico, and the Civil War, the same problems recurred: the standing army was stretched thin at the outset of conflict and ill-equipped to train recruits provided by the Several States. Added to this was the problems of short enlistments, that in some cases left commanders waiting to pursue the enemy while waiting for fresh troops (Battle of the City of Mexico).

After the Civil War Congress took action to attempt a solution to the broken military organization problem. The Burnside Commission was formed with veterans of the Civil War, but without Washington’s wisdom to guide them. Palmer recounts the accident of history where General Emory Upton had just finished reviewing Washington’s military writings—but missed Sentiments (referenced in a footnote). Upton missed the “key” to Washington’s thinking on an “efficient citizen army.” It appears Upton took the Washington he had read and connected to the expansible standing army idea—and missed Washington’s true intent.

Elihu Root became Secretary of War in 1899 and traced our military faults in the Spanish American war to “defective organization.” The defective organization, in Root’s estimation was this paragraph in Army regulations: “The military establishment is under orders of the Commanding General of the army in that which pertains to its discipline and control. The fiscal affairs of the army are conducted by the Secretary of War through the several Staff Departments”—dual control. While he was resisted, in 1903 the office of the chief of staff was created. Palmer calls this the first of Root’s “great reforms.” He followed by formalizing planning and organizing “the American war army.” A General Staff college was formed to educate those who would serve in the newly reorganized Army. Root and his use of Upton’s work made an indelible mark on the army, and in many ways made the army more professional and able. On the downside, I sense Root provided the shell of what is now the massive military bureaucracy.

I’ll conclude my chronological review here, as the author enters the narrative in first person while signed to Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War. Suffice it to say, Palmer’s recounting of “how” we have traditionally organized our army is a very informative read. I have seen many “reading lists” of generals and leaders, but haven’t seen this old book on any of those lists—it should be. The “tribal” disconnect between the regular army and the National Guard is explained (not in so many words, mind you), and Palmer’s recounting of the dangerous power of doctrine and dogma is worth the read. The writer of the biblical book Ecclesiastes said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” In America in Arms, military personnel and general reader will find that many of today’s challenges have been challenges since our Founding.

This book has my highest recommendation—especially if you are a serving army officer or have interest in American military organization. This is a great old book. Get a copy; Palmer has much to teach us.

Postscript: Another friend of this blog, Lexington Green, recommended Citizen and Soldiers: The Dilemmas of Military Service, by Eliot Cohen, in the comments to the same post posted at chicagoboyz.net. On Lex’s recommendation, I ordered and have Cohen’s book, but have not yet read.

Second Postscript: I purchased America in Arms from a used book dealer on abe.com, and was fortunate to get a first edition hardback (ex-library book) in excellent condition. This particular title spent time on the shelves of The Catlin Memorial Free Library, Springfield Center, NY, and was placed there by the Arthur Larned Ryerson Memorial; Mr. Ryerson perished on the Titanic. In addition, this particular edition was also published by Yale by the Foundation established in the memory of Philip Hamilton McMillan (check the wife and children entry), Yale Class of 1894. Quite a pedigree for any book; a book that will remain safely in my collection. (the photo above is a snap-shot of my copy)

In Defense of Grand Strategy

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

I have been involved, on and off, with another grand strategy discussion. Several discussions to be exact, one of which was prompted by Adam Elkus’s well-constructed volte-face on the concept of grand strategy. While I can find merit in many of Adam’s points regarding our dysfunctional policy-strategy process, the need to make definitive choices in order to have sound policy and our partisan epistemological crisis, I part company with him on his core argument:

America Needs Sound Policy, Not Grand Strategy

….The idea of grand strategy as both policy and strategy is by definition unachievable, and the source of much confusion.  By infusing normative policy elements into strategy, this fusion turns strategy into a manifestation of ideology rather than a technical device for getting things done.  Think, for example, of how debates about regional strategy and even the tactics and operations of COIN, drones, and counterterrorism have become proxies for domestic ideological political battles. This happens, in larger part, because the policy-strategy distinction in American national security circles is extremely weak, as strategy is taken to be politics and politics becomes strategy.

Adam has further endorsed a more emphatic follow-up post by our mutual blogfriend Joseph Fouche, where, much like his fictional countryman,  Captain Renault, JF in his forcefully argued post is shocked to discover that gambling is going on in here:

Terminology Proliferation is the Escape Hatch of Politics 

….One sure way to detect politics is signs of desperate efforts to call politics something other politics. Though politics is the most elemental of human endeavors, disgust with overt political machinations is one of the most elemental of human emotions:

Who likes a brown noser?

Who likes a squealer?

Who likes the kid who gathers up his toys and goes home when he doesn’t get his way?

Who likes the guy who obviously looks out for number one?

….Policy is portrayed as the objective, virtuous, and expert pursuit of ponies for everyone. Framed this way, policy is politics without the division of power. But politics without the division of power is impossible. “Policy” is a mythical beast. ”Policy making” is mere politicking, trading one favor for another to offset one interest with another, persuading through influence when possible and enforcing compliance with violence when impossible. But this reality reeks of knavery so it must be wrapped in the most virtuous lies imaginable. Hence we see a dramatic proliferation of “policy makers” and “making policy” where we’d normally expect to see politicians and politics. WIth so many policy makers making so much policy, you’d think the good and true would be breaking out all over. But, looking around, we see nobody down here but us dumb humans, horse trading with each other to get incrementally ahead.

“Grand strategy” and “operational art” represent further efforts to divorce politics from politics through politics, leaving behind a vacuum inhabited only by virtuous technocrats. In reality, they’re both attempts by one political group to escape the power of another political group, hopefully gaining more power for themselves in the process. The formulator of “grand strategy” is often an aspiring political actor who lacks the gifts necessary for political success. So they whine from the sidelines, falling back on a passive-aggressive strategy of victimhood where they denounce expertise in politics as squalid while advocating its replacement with their own (implicitly) more virtuous expertise. They attempt to reframe political questions as technical questions best handled by professional specialists. If a political question can be reframed as a technical question, resolving it is a merely an implementation detail. Such technical minutia should be beneath most politicians. Their attention should be devoted to truly important questions, leaving details to the poor peons.

….Policy, grand strategy, and operational art are merely the continuation of politics with the addition of other layers of obscurity.

Now, the insightful Mr. Fouche is not wrong in detecting politics in strategic clothing. In my judgement, he’s very much correct.  His objection, as I infer it, to grubby political decisions within a state being regularly deferred “downward” to be made in the guise of nominally apolitical (in American tradition) operational planning, or “upward” to be masked as “technocratic” grand strategy is reasonable because it is a sign of dysfunction in our political community. He’s right – America has a systemic problem in being unable to overtly make any hard political choices through it’s formal political process.

However, being politically dysfunctional doesn’t mean that grand strategy (or policy, or operational art or whatever) in general is purely fictive or that it is always simply a deceptive substitute for an honest political process. Or that raw politics can replace all these conceptual tools equally well or better. These conceptual tools were developed as a form of intellectual specialization because politics as a general and broad societal activity too often failed to meet the challenges of diplomacy and war. Or worse, politics worked irrationally against the survival of the political community in wartime while to the benefit of a faction within it.

Grand strategy, policy, strategy and even operational art are imbued with a political character, but one that is a step or several more removed from the general politics – the art of strategy is, after all, intended to serve a political community and “Ends” of “Ends-Ways-Means”  is always infused with value-laden assessments of worth and priority. Nor is politics their *only* character; all are, foremost, instrumental, while some may also be specifically cultural and technical.  The recession of politics (ideally as settled choices and not ongoing, sub rosa, competition) in strategy to the background permits greater focus on solving particular problems with diplomacy, coercion and force of arms. If made a substitute for domestic politics, these things are less likely to work for their intended purpose – to the risk of all.

Grand strategy can be useful, and while it is not always needed, at times having a sound grand strategy is vital for survival. As I have previously written on the subject:

….Grand strategy is not, in my view, simply just ”strategy” on a larger scale and with a longer time line. Strategy is an instrumental activity that unifies ends, ways and means. While grand strategy subsumes that aspect, it also provides ordinary strategy with a moral purpose, perhaps even in some instances, an identity.  Grand strategy explains not just “how” and “for what”, but ”why we fight” and imparts to a society the supreme confidence in itself to sustain the will to prevail, even in the face of horrific sacrifice. Grand strategy brings into harmony our complex military and political objectives with the cherished, mythic narrative of a ”good society” we conceive ourselves to be, reducing “friction”, “pumping up” our resolve and demoralizing our enemies. Grand strategy is constructive and energizing.

A simple but profound moral argument is a critical element of a grand strategy, to a great extent, it frames the subsequent political and military objectives for which war is waged.

and furthermore:

….First, to use an analogy from the biological sciences, grand strategy enunciated by a great power is a process of geopolitical co-evolution. There is an effort in grand strategy to impose over time one’s political will upon others to shape the “battlespace”, the sphere of influence, the hegemonic dominion to a state of affairs favorable to the state actor. Often, this is done by military force in times of crisis but over the long term, economic and diplomatic factors, all of DIME really, weigh heavily on the outcome. The process is never a one way street, even for actors who are considered to be largely triumphant. It is coevolutionary. If you gaze into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you.

….Secondly, sustaining the national or group identity is a critical component of grand strategy that makes it a different, more expressly political/cultural  exercise than crafting strategy as Clausewitzians use the term as being driven by policy. Grand strategy should guide policy formulation because it is not just a set of concrete structural ends, or a laundry list of “vital interests” but a constructive, values-laden, attractive, motivating, civilizational narrative. An ideal or cultural identity for which men and societies are willing to go to war, to stand, fight and die. As Thomas P.M. Barnett once put it, for a “Future worth creating“. Grand strategy is a defiant clarion call of civilizational supremacy, marshalling those who will fight for that which is not, but could be.

Men do not stand, fight and die for mere instrumentalities. You can show a man how to do an unpleasant chore in the most efficient manner but he may remain unmotivated to do it, still less to make terrible sacrifices to do it. Conversely, the passion of faction is strong, but usually rejects the logic of strategy for it’s own self-destructive calculus. It divides the house against itself in the hour of maximum danger.

Not every nation needs or can execute a grand strategy. Having sound policy and competent strategy, as Adam Elkus suggested, is often more than sufficient ( nations frequently prevail despite incoherent policies and poor strategies) and is no small task to get right in itself. A grand strategy, if required, is something that crystallizes into consensus because it emanates from deep cultural roots as well as empirical dangers – without such an anchor to give it legitimacy, it is less likely to amount even to a sound policy than a trite political campaign.



Fouche on Potential and Probable Uses of Power

Friday, October 7th, 2011

My sometime Chicago Boyz colleague, Joseph Fouche, had an interesting if somewhat meandering post on how power is used, not used and possibly abused.

The Chains of the Improbable vs. The Chains of the Impossible

An old Vulcan proverb advises us that only Sulla could march on Rome. This proverb may contradict another ancient proverb that claims that all roads lead to Rome. This seeming contradiction is resolved when you include little used roads, off the beaten track, the roads not taken. Sherlock Holmes once chided John A. Watson, M.D., saying, “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” Some roads to Rome are impossible, leading to the insurmountable. Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix took a road that, while thought impossible, proved to be merely improbable.

Sulla, consul of Rome for the year 88 B.C., was in camp preparing to take his army east to fight King Mithridates VI of Pontus. Two envoys arrived to tell him that his command had been taken away by the vote of one of the people’s assemblies in Rome. These envoys of the Roman people expected that Sulla would do the only thing possible: lie down there, obedient to their commands, as every Roman army commander before him had done. Unfortunately, what they thought was impossible was only improbable.

Sulla gathered his men, announced what the will of the Roman people was, and asked them what the will of the army was. Sulla’s soldiers answered by stoning the envoys of the Roman people to death, much to the surprise of the envoys of the people. Sulla’s soldiers then petitioned Sulla to take an impossible road, a road never taken, and lead them to Rome to reclaim his Mithridatic command. Sulla, much to the surprise of his own officers, who thought such a course impossible, decided to heed his men and march on Rome. His officers resigned en masse except a happy few. But the poor bloody legionaries of Sulla’s army eagerly began the march on Rome.

Envoys from Rome streamed towards Sulla’s army as it marched north.These envoys were shocked and grew increasingly shocked as they protested to Sulla that surely, surely it was impossible that he wanted to march a Roman army through the city limits and into Rome itself. The law forbade it. The unwritten constitution forbade it. The Republic forbade it. The gods forbade it.

Sulla responded to the effect of, “Go tell the Romans that I don’t lie here obedient to their commands. I’m coming to Rome and hell’s coming with me.” The tone of these envoys’ entreaties and the mood of the people of Rome grew increasingly hysterical as the improbable dawned on them: not only could a Roman army commander march an army on Rome, it was increasingly probable that Sulla would march armed Roman legionaries right into the heart of Rome itself to deal with his political enemies. Indeed, Sulla led his men across the sacred pomerium that divided the “public thing” (res publica) of sacred Roma herself from land that was merely the property of Rome. Sulla’s veteran legionaries easily dispatched the hastily gathered mob of gladiators and other ruffians that his political opponents had thrown together at the last moment in a futile attempt to stop them.

Sulla had revealed that the impossible was merely the improbable.

Sulla spent the rest of his life trying to disguise this state of improbability as a mere state of impossibility.

He failed.

That was merely Fouche’s introduction. The post is well worth reading in full.

The post caught my eye because of Sulla, a Roman who did a monstrous thing but who was himself no monster. Much like a surgeon whose patient’s body is riddled with cancer, Sulla attempted to buy the old Roman Republic time and restore a semblance of political health by ruthlessly cutting out a tumorous faction and ratcheting back a host of constitutional gimmickery that had been welded onto Roman government over the years by ambitious politicians. Older, original rules of the game, or new ones in their spirit, were restored after blood shed in the proscriptions was scrubbed from the forum. Sulla even formally stepped down from the supreme power he held, like Cincinnatus, to further drive home the point to his fellow Romans regarding the sanctity of their traditions – though reportedly Sulla remained, even in a debaucherous retirement, a terrifying figure and stringpuller.

Fouche is correct that Sulla’s extreme measures failed. The underlying structural problems of the Republic were rooted in an increasing concentration of wealth, primarily in land ownership by Patricians and politically favored trading opportunities in “the East”, held mostly by the elite of Rome’s Italian “allied” city states, that left many Roman citizens too impoverished to perform military service or to be active in politics, except as dependent members of a clientela. The Republic’s legions and it’s political virtue had been based on an economically independent smallholding class who were being despoiled by politically powerful Patricians. Sulla’s reforms may have tempred political conflict within the ruling class for a time, but they also aggravated the social grievances that provided the Populares with political support from ordinary Romans and tilted the delicate political balance in the Republic toward extreme oligarchy.

In his retirement, observing the young Julius Caesar, whom Sulla had reluctantly spared, his toga fashionably loosely belted, long sleeved and wearing boots, like the ancient kings of Alba Longa, Sulla remarked “ He contains many Mariuses“. Caesar did. And unlike Marius but like Sulla, Julius Caesar was successful, Sulla having shown him the way to cross a Rubicon.

Power is power but power coupled with legitimacy endures. Sulla to Caesar to Augustus is the continuum.

Reading Lists and the Wit of Joseph Fouche

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

A gem at Fear, Honor and Interest by Joseph Fouche:

The Really Alternative U.S. Army Reading List

Everyone, even CNASistas, is making fun of new U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey’s 26 volume attempt at a “professional reading list“. This Committee, ever eager to jump on the newest, hippest trend out of the Pentagon, is as willing to dogpile on Gen. Dempsey’s list as anyone else.

Any list that includes one, let alone two, books by the Mustache of Understanding, is instantly marked “self-parody” in the Committee’s collective INBOX and deleted. After touching any field of human inquiry, the Mustache of Understanding leaves PowerPoint in his wake and calls it wisdom. The Mustache of Understanding’s works may be of interest to future historians looking back on our age. But that sort of interest will be the same sort of forensic interest that epidemiologists summon when examining smallpox under a microscope in a cleanroom.

In the spirit of fairness to the good general, the Committee here offers up its own twenty-six books for the aspiring strategic professional…

And it is a good reading list too.

A line in there qualifies for Dave Schuler’s Imaginative Polemic collection.

The OODA of Fouche

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Did not want this fine graphic of Joseph Fouche lost in the dread comment section:

The fog and friction is a nice touch.

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