REVIEW – The American Military: a concise history

2 mins read
Joseph T Glatthaar
Oxford University Press, £12.99 (hbk)

By Joseph T Glatthaar
Published by Oxford University Press

The American Military: a concise history is an essential introduction to the development of the US army. From the landing of the first English settlers at Jamestown to the protracted conflicts in the Middle East today, the book documents the key transformations that have occurred within the American armed forces over the centuries.

The impact of technological developments and the role of the American military in global revolutions of strategy and tactics is also explored. From patchily organised local militias to the recruitment and conscription of professional armies; the establishment of educational institutions like West Point to the expansion of US naval power; the advent of mechanised warfare in the First and Second World Wars through to the creation of the atom bomb, the nuclear age, and the Cold War; this book is a whistle-stop tour of the key milestones in the history of the American military.

What Glatthaar gains through brevity and accessibility, he does not lose in terms of detailed examination and cutting insight. Declaring that ‘The United States emerged from World War II as the strongest nation in the history of the world,’ Glatthaar then goes on to assess the limits of that power, particularly in the latter half of the 20th century and the early 21st century. Guerrilla warfare in Vietnam, modern-day cyber warfare, and terrorism have posed serious challenges to the efficacy of the US military machine. Refreshingly, all these discussions are placed within their key ideological, geopolitical, social, and economic contexts — enabling poignant insights into why transformations occurred, or why military campaigns succeeded or failed. For instance, the commitment to civil liberties and self-determination in an era of strife between colonial England and colonised America formed the backdrop of the American Revolutionary War – cementing the transition from a fighting force structured around armed militiamen to one defined by the citizen soldier.

This ideological emphasis on citizenship and the jealous guarding of national independence against foreign intervention resulted in the enshrining in the American Constitution of ‘the right of the people to keep and bear arms’. The consequences of such decisions during the early founding conflicts have reverberated down to the present day, showing how deeply militarism has been ingrained into elements of modern-day US society.

A large chunk of the text is dedicated to the American Civil War. Unsurprisingly Glatthaar, like many others, puts the Union victory down to superior resources and manpower. The American Civil War was, after all, one of the world’s first modern attritional conflicts.

But Glatthaar adds a new perspective that is less often discussed: the political origins and ramifications of the war. He foregrounds the abolition of slavery as one of the key driving forces behind the conflict – as many others have – but then goes on to assess whether the hard-fought war succeeded in achieving its aims.

‘The price for an inviolate Union and the abolition of slavery was massive,’ he writes. ‘In return for blacks’ contributions in disrupting the Confederate home front and serving in uniform, they received freedom and equal rights, at least in theory.’ Though legal rights were won, there was little drive to police their implementation. War weariness and prejudice, argues Glatthaar, meant freedmen’s hard-fought rights were not always protected on the ground level. ‘A gulf developed between progressive policies and implementation, so that the occupying army oft en refused to help ex-slaves in need and sometimes openly supported Southern white leadership.’

Well written and informative, this book is a delight to read for amateurs and experts alike; highly recommended.

Review by Seema Syeda

This article is from the June 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about how to subscribe to the magazine, click here.

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