An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2011

American Military Culture from Colony to Empire

Robert L. Goldich

Until World War II, the peacetime Army’s primary job was not to be ready to fight instantly, but to provide a core of military expertise that would enable a wartime force of citizen-soldiers to be built up after war began. Wars were infrequent. Since the end of the Cold War, the Army has become a force that deploys and fights on a regular basis. The true citizen-soldier–who serves for only a few years and remains, at heart, a civilian–is no longer with us and is not likely to return in the foreseeable future, despite nostalgia for his passing. In the midst of a civilian society that is increasingly pacifistic, easygoing, and well adjusted, the Army (career and non-career soldiers alike) remains flinty, harshly results-oriented, and emotionally extreme. The inevitable civil-military gap has become a chasm.

ROBERT L. GOLDICH is a defense consultant and military historian. He served for more than thirty-three years as a defense analyst for the Congressional Research Service (CRS) at the Library of Congress. He has published articles or book reviews in Army, Armed Forces and Society, Military Review, and the Journal of Military History, as well as dozens of CRS studies and analyses of U.S. military manpower policy. He is currently writing a book on the history of conscription from the first human civilizations to the present, tentatively titled Conscription in History: Organization, Administration, and Context.

In 1963, Theodore R. Fehrenbach published a magisterial, and in many places poetic, history of the Korean War. Nearly fifty years later, his book remains the seminal treatise on limited frontier wars and the American national psyche. Fehrenbach addressed the incompatibility of America’s changed strategic circumstances after World War II with the traditional American view of the purpose of an army and how it should be manned. For such limited wars, he maintained, the United States needed “legions”:

However repugnant the idea is to liberal societies, the man who will willingly defend the free world in the fringe areas is not the responsible citizen-soldier. The man who will go where his colors go, without asking, who will fight a phantom foe in jungle and mountain range, without counting, and who will suffer and die in the midst of incredible hardship, without complaint, is still what he always has been, from Imperial Rome to sceptered Britain to democratic America. He is the stuff of which legions are made.
His pride is in his colors and his regiment, his training hard and thorough and coldly realistic, to fit him . . .

To read this essay or subscribe to Dædalus, visit the Dædalus access page
Access now