Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
22 January 2014
Review by William A. Taylor, Angelo State University
The Modern American Military
Ed. David M. Kennedy
New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2013. Pp. xix, 332. ISBN 978–0–19–989594–6.
Descriptors: Volume 2014, 20th Century, 21st Century, Education, Strategy Print Version

In The Modern American Military, distinguished historian David Kennedy[1] (Stanford Univ.) assembles an impressive array of scholars to explore many aspects of the current American military: strategy, technology, personnel, politics, civil-military relations, military justice, gender, the impact of casualties, and the post-9/11 security environment. Although the US military remains much the most powerful in the world, it has had to evolve and adapt to cope with a myriad of threats, often by non-state actors, including cyber attacks, terrorism, and piracy, among others. This book will appeal to policy makers, analysts, scholars, and general readers alike.

Taken together, the chapters in this volume paint a comprehensive portrait of the American armed forces today. They raise several urgent questions, which may be summarized as matters of military efficiency, political accountability, and social equity. Does the United States have a well-articulated national security doctrine that is relevant to the challenges ahead, and are the armed forces properly configured for those challenges? Are the mechanisms that throughout American history have ensured civilian control of the military, and held civilian leaders properly accountable for the decision to shoulder arms, still operating properly? Does the recruitment of today's force honor American notions of fairness and shared obligations? (10–11)

The volume comprises thirteen chapters, each with a useful opening abstract and a particular focus on some aspect of the modern All-Volunteer Force (AVF) created in 1973. Kennedy points out convincingly that today's highly professional US military personnel differ sharply from their predecessors in, for example, higher rates of marriage, more diverse racial and gender make-up, level of education, and length of service.

The book begins with chapters related to types of missions, or as Kennedy terms it, "what the military is asked to do" (7). In chapter 1, "The Counterrevolution in Strategic Affairs," Lawrence Freedman (King's College London) analyzes the revolution in military affairs (RMA) in the late 1990s. Comparing the rhetoric of the RMA to the reality of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, he emphasizes the distinction between the technological innovations of the RMA and the political considerations of irregular warfare. He cautions that advanced technology does not guarantee success in asymmetric warfare and predicts that the likely outcomes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will dissuade the United States from involvement in future conflicts.

Brian McAllister Linn (Texas A&M Univ.), in chapter 2, "The U.S. Armed Forces' View of War," examines the debates about strategic doctrine, especially fourth-generation warfare, in light of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He particularly considers The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (2007) and the promotion of a "new American way of war" that lacks grand strategic depth (46–47). He concentrates on the changes in the Army and Marine Corps,[2] because the Navy and Air Force have remained doctrinally wedded to the tenets of the 1990s RMA.

In chapter 3, "Weapons: The Growth and Spread of the Precision-Strike Regime," Thomas Mahnken (US Naval War College) explores the implications of the growing American use of unmanned military devices (robots, drones, etc.)[3] for rival powers like China. He guides the reader through the "Embryonic," "Immature," and "Mature" (60–63) phases of military revolutions. Both state and non-state actors like China and Hezbollah, respectively, are now acquiring precision-guided munitions and creating effective countermeasures against them. The easy and cheap availability of technology related to the new weapons, such as global positioning systems (GPS), further complicates the issue of proliferation.

The book's next few chapters turn from "what the military is asked to do to who actually does it" (7). Former Library of Congress defense analyst Robert Goldich discusses recruitment in chapter 4, "American Military Culture from Colony to Empire." He notes that, up through World War II, the United States historically maintained a small military, mobilizing large numbers of citizen-soldiers only during wartime. After the Second World War, came a significant shift to a large peacetime military. Goldich argues persuasively that the creation of the AVF shrank the ideological divide between various military personnel (career vs. non-career), but widened the gap between the civilian and military realms. Most importantly, Goldich details the demise of the ideal of the citizen-soldier in American military culture.

David Segal (Univ. of Maryland) and Lawrence Korb (Center for American Progress) illuminate the demographics and fiscal effects of the AVF. They prove that US military recruits are increasingly older and more likely to be married; African Americans and residents of southern and Rocky Mountain states are overrepresented, while women in general are underrepresented. The authors highlight, too, the increasing reliance on reserve forces. As for fiscal matters, they tabulate the high costs of AVF recruiting, marketing, and increased pay, and especially the burgeoning expenses of retirement and health care benefits. The price of the retirement system could balloon from ca. $100 billion in 2013 to twice that in just the next twenty years.

In chapter 6, "Military Contractors and the American Way of War," Deborah Avant (Univ. of California, Irvine) and Renée de Nevers (Syracuse Univ.) assess "both benefits and risks" (136) of employing private military contractors. They point out that over 50 percent of US personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have been private contractors. They provide further context by outlining the critical role of contractors in such American national security efforts as AFRICOM, Plan Colombia, and the Mérida Initiative. The growing use of military contractors, Avant and de Nevers write, provides "an escape valve of sorts" (147) by conserving US military personnel, but at the price of reduced political accountability.

The book's last several chapters treat civil-military relations broadly defined. In chapter 7, "Filming War," Jay Winter (Yale Univ.) distinguishes "war cinema realism" from "war cinema indirection" (153) during three periods (1900–1930, 1933–70, and 1970–present). He stresses the shift over time "from the war the soldiers waged to the victims of violence in the midst of a new kind of asymmetric warfare" (166) and the fundamental difficulty of capturing the essence of warfare on screen.

James Sheehan (Stanford Univ.) considers in chapter 8, "The Future of Conscription: Some Comparative Reflections," the recent decline of conscription in western European nations. While some countries maintained conscript armies till the 1990s (Germany till 2010), beginning in the 1960s decolonization and an emphasis on nuclear deterrence brought "a silent revolution in European politics" (180): escalating costs, the changed post-Cold War security environment, and rapid technological advances simply obviated the need for conscript armies. Sheehan notes that, outside western Europe, in nations like Belarus, Turkey, Myanmar, and North Korea, conscription continues as the norm. He further contends that the American approach combines two extremes: while the United States remains a military power (unlike most western Europe countries), its military is a decidedly volunteer force (unlike those of many Asian nations).

In chapter 9, "Whose Army?" Andrew Bacevich (Boston Univ.) considers the concept of the citizen-soldier and the consequences of its eclipse by the "warrior-professional" model in the United States following the Vietnam War (193). He weighs the lingering influence of Emory Upton's views on the officer corps: "Succeeding generations of regulars came to regard him as a prophet; Upton's aspirations become theirs" (197). Bacevich contrasts these aspirations with those of John McAuley Palmer, "a rare anti-Uptonian" (204). He also highlights General George C. Marshall's firm belief that universal military training "should form the cornerstone of U.S. military policy after World War II" (207). He explains both Palmer's and Marshall's understandings of the benefits of such training for American civil-military relations.

Karl Eikenberry (Stanford Univ.) explores in chapter 10, "Reassessing the All-Volunteer Force," the effects of the growing divide between the AVF and civilian society with respect to the "political ownership … [and] oversight of the armed forces by both Congress and the media" (214, 216). He concludes that the advantages of the AVF are "less certain" (214) than commonly assumed. Eikenberry details President Nixon's Advisory Commission on the AVF, known as the Gates Commission after its chair, Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates Jr. He judges the Commission to have been "quite prescient" (216) in identifying potential problems of the new model military; he charts, for example, how policy makers have deployed the AVF five times more often than the conscription force that preceded it. American "military adventurism" (218) has ensued, he believes, from locating political control of the AVF in the executive branch, with a concomitant erosion of congressional oversight.

In chapter 11, "Military Justice," Charles Dunlap Jr. (Duke Univ.) evaluates the traditional role of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) in enforcing discipline. He describes recent pressures to align it more closely with civilian legal procedures, especially regarding the handling of sexual assaults and the trials of accused terrorists. Dunlap begins with the congressional replacement of the Articles of War with the UCMJ (1951), and traces efforts to "civilianize" (241) the military justice system through the Military Justice Act (1968), the Military Rules of Evidence (1980s), and the Military Commission Act (2009).

Michelle Sandhoff and Mady Wechsler Segal (both Univ. of Maryland) discuss "Women in the U.S. Military: The Evolution of Gender Norms and Military Requirements" in chapter 12. They identify "enabling factors" (274) that have opened new possibilities for women and the "driving forces" (274) of specific legislation and judicial rulings. For example, the 1948 Women's Armed Services Integration Act "officially created a permanent place for women in the U.S. military, though women's roles were tightly constrained" (277). Moreover, the AVF has increased participation of women in the armed forces to 10–15 percent during the 1990s and 2000s, versus around 2 percent before the AVF. The authors also discuss the Defense Department's ending of restrictions on women participating directly in combat (January 2013) and the emergence of such new units as Female Engagement Teams.

Finally, psychiatrist and author Jonathan Shay, in chapter 13, "Casualties," scrutinizes post-traumatic stress disorder. He points out that dramatic improvements in military medicine have increased survival rates of soldiers injured on the battlefield, but have thereby also greatly increased the number of men and women who must live on with psychic as well as physical wounds. He diagnoses as well the devastating "moral injury" (302) that "leadership malpractice" (305) may inflict.

The Modern American Military makes very valuable contributions to our understanding of both the promises and the challenges of the All-Volunteer Force by gathering in one volume the current thinking of leading scholars on a plethora of relevant issues. It will challenge its readers to consider recent changes in the crucial relationship between the military and civilian society in the United States.

[1] He won the 1971 Bancroft Prize for Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger (New Haven: Yale U Pr, 1970), was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Over Here: The First World War and American Society (NY: Oxford U Pr, 1980), and won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for History for Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 (NY: Oxford U Pr, 1999).

[2] With special attention to the formulation of doctrine in such manuals as FM-3: Operations (2008) and The Army Capstone Concept (2009).

[3] E.g., the GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), RQ-1A Predator, and MQ-9 Reaper.

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