In America’s centennial year of 1876, barely a decade after it had enrolled over a million soldiers in its ranks, the U.S. Army was cut to a postwar low of 24,000 personnel — in a nation of 46 million. Few people complained, because the nation had no enemies other than the Indians on the western frontier.
Two generations later a similar demobilization occurred at the end of World War One, causing a 94% reduction in Army personnel. That time the cuts had big consequences, because within a few years a thoroughly unprepared nation was at war in both Europe and the Pacific. Nonetheless, another rapid drawdown occurred after the Second World War, resulting in severe defeats during the early days of the Korean War.
America has a history of precipitous demobilizations, and the Army has almost always been the biggest victim. This time was supposed to be different though, because after two generations of what Kennedy called the “long twilight struggle” against communism, policymakers were said to have learned from past mistakes.
Well, guess again. The Pentagon seems to be moving towards an aerospace-centric transformation of military forces that will greatly shrink the role of ground forces. It makes sense to invest in technologies where America has a competitive advantage, but the rationale for cutting ground forces sounds suspiciously similar to the excuses used in past demobilizations.
You’ve probably heard most of the arguments. The U.S. strategic focus is shifting to Asia. Future threats will be asymmetric and unconventional. The public won’t tolerate casualties. Allies will take on tasks like peacekeeping. New technologies will enable novel approaches to accomplishing military missions. Blah, blah, blah.
Isn’t this all a little too convenient? Doesn’t such reasoning rationalize what the political system wants to do anyway, i.e., continue demobilizing? Perhaps the transformation mindset would be easier to take seriously if any of its leading proponents had foreseen the demise of communism, the Asian financial meltdown, or other recent surprises. They didn’t, though, which raises the suspicion that they are merely providing the political system with excuses for avoiding sacrifice rather than foretelling the future.
There’s a bottom line on this argument. Every war America has fought — the Civil War, the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, even the Balkan air war — was ultimately about the control of land. Aerospace systems can stop enemies from using territory as they wish, but they can’t secure friendly control of that territory. That requires an Army. Maybe America doesn’t want to hear that message today, but it is one of history’s most obvious lessons.
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