Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"A People's History of the U.S.Military" by Michael A. Bellesiles (2012)

In this well written book, author Michael A. Bellesiles has taken the entire history of the United States and boiled it down into 10 chapters, each covering a period of our nation’s history and the role the Armed Forces played in those conflicts. It is more of a sociological look at the evolution of our national defense than an actual history of the battles fought. In short, this is a very revealing book about how our citizen soldiers became the Armed Forces as we know them today. From the early militias to the mountains of Afghanistan, Mr. Bellesiles has written a highly readable account of an often overlooked perspective of the wars we have fought, as well as the ordinary men and women who have fought them.

Beginning with the American Revolution and its local militia, the author explores the weaknesses and strengths of an untrained yet highly motivated force and how that motivation was essential to achieving victory on the battlefield. Surprisingly, even General Washington had his doubts about local militia and their ability to stand up against well trained troops. By the war’s end he had a completely different outlook on the subject.

The War of 1812 was supposed to mimic the victory of the militia in the Revolution, but instead exposed the weakness of not having a standing army to defend our young nation. The only real victory on the battlefield in that war came weeks after the peace had been negotiated at Ghent, with neither side gaining a thing. That victory, by General Jackson in New Orleans in January 1815, only served to further obfuscate our nations need for a real army.

The War with Mexico, which set us up for our own Civil War, was fought with a hodge-podge of both militia and Federal Troops. Their performance made the public, as well as the government, understand that we did need some sort of standing Army to defend the nation. Our Navy was doing a splendid job of defending our coast and even raiding other vessels, but our land was still vulnerable.

The Civil War changed much of the prevalent thinking about drafting soldiers for a specific term of service, although the laws did allow you to buy out of the draft, or else send a substitute. The Draft Riots in New York City during July 1863 were largely the consequences of what many believed to be the unfair practice of allowing these substitutes.

The Indian Wars of the late half of the 19th Century galvanized our cavalry troops, who would be the bulwark of our national defense for decades to come. And during the Spanish American War, which extended from Cuba to the Philippines, our cavalry troops were landed by our Navy wherever they were needed.

World War One was fought by volunteers. Although there was a national registration of men eligible for service, the war was largely fought and won by volunteers eager to experience the “glory” of conflict.

After the First World War ended America found herself taking a leading role in the world. By 1940 that role had grown so large, and the threat of a new war was so imminent, that we began an actual draft lottery. This would set the template for military service up to and through the Korean and Vietnam Wars. It was a good system, with every eligible American being called upon to serve his country. 

The draft also acted as a deterrent against becoming involved in “questionable” wars, such as Vietnam. Resistance to the draft in that conflict helped to bring the war to an end, ushering in the all-volunteer military which we have today.

In this lively written and informative book, the author has taken the time and effort to chronicle the history of our Armed Forces and what the continuing evolution of our military means in an ever changing and increasingly dangerous world. This is a great book for veterans and also lovers of military history.

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