The Army at 233

By Brown, John S. | Army, June 2008 | Go to article overview

The Army at 233


Brown, John S., Army


June 14 marks the 233rd birthday of the U.S. Army. The anniversary of organized citizens as soldiers in what has become the United States is even more distant in time. It perhaps dates as far back as 1612, when most Jamestown settlers abandoned the notion of achieving a quick fortune and speedily returning to England, and accepted military obligations Governor Sir Thomas Dale imposed upon them. Militia provided the common defense throughout the Colonial era and bore the brunt of initial clashes with the British when the American Revolution began.

The fledgling Continental Congress adopted the four militia "armies" besieging Boston as its Continental Army on June 14, 1775, and voted to raise additional companies for that army from among the militiamen of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. The U.S. Army's roots in the character of citizen-soldiers and their concepts of public service have had huge implications for its further development and distinguished history.

First, the precedent Americans have set for civilian control of the military originates in their soldiers' acceptance of responsibilities as citizens. A number of other nations had militia traditions, but by the time of the American Revolution these had fallen away in favor of professional armies loyal to their sovereign, generally a king. When sovereignty was in doubt, the professional soldiers of the day seldom hesitated to participate in bringing a new sovereign to the top. Americans had no king or sovereign.

After several years of bickering and negotiation, they accepted the Constitution of the United States of America by plebiscite. The Constitution carefully balanced the roles and responsibilities of executive, legislative and judicial branches. It also preserved the relative autonomy of constituent states and the militia tradition-including the right of the people to bear arms. As a professional Army emerged in the face of sustained military requirements, its officers swore to uphold and defend the Constitution. Their soldiers, and the larger numbers of militia who served alongside them, were citizens of the society the Constitution described. Loyalty to the government-and thus to the American people as a whole-rather than to individual, class or clique was embedded from the beginning.

Second, the U.S. Army has focused on securing the common weal at least as much as it has on warfighting per se. American soldiers defend the assets that guarantee the freedom and prosperity of their fellow citizens. Constitutional constraints, national prosperity and a consciousness of the value of soldiers as fellow citizens led Army leaders to be averse to the military adventurism too often displayed in other militaries. Decisions for war have been political decisions made by political leaders and generally a last resort in the face of crisis. Through most of the 19th century, the Army was a constabulary, securing national access to expanding frontiers. Throughout the 20th century, it secured commercial access upon which the national, and ultimately the global, economy depended. The United States entered World War I because German unrestricted submarine warfare threatened its rights as a neutral commercial power. It entered World War II because it was attacked and to preclude the extinction of like-minded liberal capitalist democratic governments. Cold War alliances, most notably the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, secured the perimeter of a worldwide condominium committed to the peace, prosperity and freedom of its citizens. With the end of the Cold War, this global community greatly expanded. Indeed, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center was an attack on the global economic system as well as the United States. A major fraction of the slain were citizens from all over the world, actively participating in the commerce that so benefited their many nations.

Third, when war does come, the citizen-soldiers of the U.S. Army are at their best when their fellow citizens are visibly behind them. …

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