May 8, 2008 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
The Great War and America: Civil-Military Relations During World War I. Nancy Gentile Ford. Praeger Security International. 194 pages; index; $49.95.
Reviewed by James Jay Carafano
Civil-military relations are back in the news. There could not
be a better time for fresh views on this vital subject. Nancy
Gentile Ford's The Great War and America: Civil-Military
Relations During World War I is a welcome contribution. Ford,
a professor of history at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania,
provides a broad historical survey of the critical issues that
confronted the United States leading up to, during and after World
War I. In The Great War and America, Ford argues that this
period of American history is worthy of particular attention-and
she is absolutely right. The dawn of the 20th century was a turning
point for how America's military and American society are
interwoven. Many of the fundamental military institutions that we
rely on today, from recruiting military officers from civilian
universities to relying on the National Guard, emanate from this
The United States has traditionally enjoyed a remarkably resilient and healthy civil society. When civil society is strong, relations between soldiers and the state tend to remain pretty stable. The Great War and America supports this thesis. America's sudden entry into World War I and the rush of transforming a constabulary force scattered throughout the United States into a mass citizen army to fight on the world's first "high-tech" battlefield raised innumerable concerns and challenges. America survived them all-and helped win the war.
While the bonds between civil liberties and citizen-soldiers may not be overstrained, there is still plenty on the subject of civil-military relations worth considering. One of the great virtues of The Great War and America is that it does not limit the topic of soldiers and civilians to issues about wartime dissent and controversy. Rather, Ford surveys the ripple effect of military service throughout the political, economic and cultural life of a nation at war.
In workmanlike fashion, Ford covers the antiwar movement and conscientious objectors, but she also examines issues such as segregation, civil liberties, Selective Service, the great flu pandemic of 1918 and demobilization.
Ford focuses on the breadth of issues that really affect who we are and how we think about military service.
If there is one shortcoming, it is that Ford gives scant coverage to the role of senior civilian and military leaders in wartime. She does a fine job sketching the complicated relationship between President Woodrow Wilson, the reluctant warrior, and Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood, the Army's zealous proponent of military preparedness.
There is, on the other hand, no detailed discussion at all of Gen. Pershing or senior combatant commanders and how they interfaced with Washington. That is unfortunate-but no fatal flaw in the book. There are other places to read about such issues-especially Eliot Cohen's Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime.
In the end, the strengths of Ford's book outweigh the shortfalls. One of the most important chapters in The Great War and America discusses how soldiers returning to the civilian world helped change the character of America. This change proved most profound in how America managed its economy. At the outbreak of World War I, the United States was the world's preeminent industrial power. Upon entering the war, America harnessed industrial-age practices to the purpose of war better than any other nation on earth. In turn, the military unleashed on the American marketplace "some four million" veterans schooled in industrial-age warfare. At the same time, the military services helped kick-start new industries, such as commercial aviation.
This pattern of change is a constant in American history. The cyclical relationship between major wars and the private sector has been an enduring feature of the American past. Their influence on one another has been particularly dramatic since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. When major wars occur, the American military draws on the American citizenry to energize the American military machine, adopting the best civilian practices to military purposes. In turn, the military trains its citizen-soldiers in the application of these skills. After the war, the nation's citizen-soldiers return to the workplace and apply their new knowledge, skill and talents to the marketplace. The result is an explosion of innovation, economic growth and cultural change.
What the generation of veterans from the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will bring back to American society remains one of the most intriguing questions of the day. Technology in combat today is not only ubiquitous; it is networked. In other words, technologies exist as part of integrated systems that share information and capabilities. In many cases technology is virtually invisible as users manipulate, improvise, change, and adapt complex systems with little if any conception of the fundamental science behind the equipment they are using.
Network warriors, whether civilian or soldier, are approaching technology in fundamentally different ways.
How soldiers and civilians will harness the skills of the information age honed in war remains to be seen. As we look to the future, we must think about such challenges as how we'll recruit and retain the best and brightest and sustain the role of the citizen-soldier in military service.
The Great War and America is a good place to start that exploration.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. is senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation and the author of G.I. Ingenuity: Improvisation, Technology, and Winning World War II.
First Appeared in the Army Magazine