1. Forging the Paradigms

By Johnson, David E. | McNair Papers, July 1997 | Go to article overview

1. Forging the Paradigms


Johnson, David E., McNair Papers


World War I was the catalyst for a fundamental reconstruction of the American military paradigm. For the first time in its history, the United States participated with an alliance in a war against a first class enemy that posed no direct threat to the American homeland. During the subsequent interwar period, the Army and the Navy focused on developing the doctrines and technologies that would support the lessons they learned from World War I.

The Army Paradigm

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, its Army, still largely a frontier constabulary, was clearly unprepared. The Army traditionally relied on mobilizing militia and volunteers to swell the ranks of its small Regular Army for a quick war against a third-rate power like Mexico or Spain, a woefully inadequate procedure for a modern war. As in the Civil War, the nation had to resort to conscription to meet its huge manpower needs. By war's end in 1918, the Army counted 3,685,458 soldiers in its ranks, compared to a 1914 strength of 98,544. I Further complicating mobilization was the fact that the United States did not have an industrial base that could arm its Army. Consequently, the American Army had to rely on its allies for virtually all of its war materiel.

The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was not ready for even modest offensive operations until May 1918. Its major campaign of the war, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, started on 26 September and ended with the Armistice in November. This campaign was against a German Army exhausted and demoralized by a series of abortive offensives. Nevertheless, the campaign provided the Americans with the practical battle experience from which they would assess their performance and the adequacy of their doctrine.

The Army's limited, but highly favorable, experience in World War I seemed to reinforce the conviction that its doctrine, based on the importance of the transition from trench combat to offensive "open warfare," was essentially correct. Fire superiority was deemed essential, as was the efficient operation of the combined arms. Other major lessons involved increasing the number of modern weapons in the Army and the importance of managing the vast logistical requirements of mass armies and modern warfare. (2) The Army captured the doctrinal lessons of World War I in its 1923 revision of the Field Service Regulations. Key points included:

  The ultimate objective of all military operations is the
  destruction of the enemy's armed forces by battle. Decisive
  defeat in battle breaks the enemy's will to war and forces
  him to sue for peace. (3)

  Concentration of superior forces, both on the ground and in
  the air, at the decisive place and time, creates the
  conditions most essential to decisive victory and constitutes
  the best evidence of superior leadership. (4)

  Decisive results are obtained only by the offensive.

  Only by means of a relentless pursuit of the beaten enemy
  can the full fruits of victory be obtained. ... The object of
  the pursuit is the annihilation of the hostile forces. (5)

  Superior fire constitutes the best protection against loss as
  well as the most effective means of destruction. (6)

The Army also made a decision about the type of enemy that it would prepare to fight that fundamentally influenced both its warfighting doctrine and organizational structure. In the future the Army focused exclusively on preparing to fight:

  an opponent organized for war on modern principles and
  equipped with all the means of modern warfare" since "An
  army capable of waging successful war under these
  conditions will prove adequate to any less grave emergency
  with which it may be confronted." (7)

These principles, implemented by a mass army created around the nucleus of a small Regular Army and rapidly expanded by mobilized reserves and conscripts and armed by American industry, formed the basis of the doctrinal paradigm for the Army during the interwar period. …

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