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Story of an Old Army and Challenges for the Future

This will be my last post for 2011 and perhaps for some time to duties have lessened my desire for reflective time on the computer...

My initial impulse for this post was to take a look back at a similar period of post-war defense cuts and their impact on the Army's capacity to meet the nation's strategic objectives....expected or unexpected.

Each winter, I choose to re-read Clay Blair's compelling, The Forgotten War: America in Korea 1950-1953, in honor of my late father, and in order to maintain historical perspective and to "buck-up" during what I  consider a "gloom period." I can imagine no worse combined conditions of winter weather and desperate combat that our soldiers and marines faced than that experienced during the winter of 1950-51...excluding actions on the Eastern Front or during the Battle of the Bulge (19,000 Americans killed, 89,500 casualties) in World War II.

Through Blair, one is immediately struck by the obvious parallels between the pre-Korean War Army and today's soon to be dwindled ground force...e.g. only two line battalions in the infantry regiments then and as currently in our BCTs (albeit soon to be rectified I have read)...pronouncements on when, where and how to fight, or the likelihood of other limited conventionally waged wars for the foreseeable future, ...

In a recent re-reading of another book from my library, the commonly held opinion of the pre-Korean War Army was re-inforced for me as follows:
"Most historians of the period agree that the U.S force that met the Communist threat in Korea was the worst trained, worst equipped American Army of modern times.  The first forces to meet the North Korean advance had never expected to be locked in sudden desperate combat in a treeless mountainous country unsuited to American mobility." p.335 - Paratrooper: the life of Gen. James M. Gavin, Thomas Michael Booth, Duncan Spencer, Simon & Schuster, Apr 25, 1994

With this in mind, along with the nature of defense cuts looming, I was prepared to "go to press" and draw seemingly suitable analogies...BUT

Fortunately for me, in assembling press articles to formulate my arguments, and in seeking any online recent scholarship or mention on the 1948-1950 period, my pseudo-understanding was challenged by a 2006 online dissertation from Ohio State, entitled America's First Cold War Army: Combat Readiness in the Eighth U.S. Army 1949-1950, 2006, authored by then Major (now Colonel) Thomas Hanson, which subsequently led to a book in 2010, Combat Ready?: The Eighth U.S. Army on the Eve of the Korean War (Williams-Ford Texas A&M University Military History Series).

The article and the book persuasively argue against the "generalizations historians and fellow soldiers have used" and which at their worst have perpetrated; "...what Douglas MacArthur called the “pernicious myth” of professional, physical and moral ineffectiveness that has heretofore prevented an honest discussion of Eighth Army’s capabilities and limitations on the eve of war in 1950." (p. iii)

Hanson seeks to restore "justice to the tens of thousands of soldiers who worked to make themselves and their army ready for war." (p. ii) and to "....redress the imbalance that exists between fact and interpretation."(p.5)

Several facts and questions (i.e. reliance on Blair, T.J. Fehrenbach's, and official Army interpretations (Appleman)) about this period also struck me as overlooked, yet pertinent and illuminating insofar as our Army prepares for, and is able to manage, pending reductions that will result in the smallest force fielded since before WWII.

Hanson sets me straight. Quoting liberally from him, including key footnotes, reveals the inherent bias in these primary and secondary sources:

"In the absence of a vigorous debate on the subject, novelist and Korea veteran T.R. Fehrenbach’s 1963 book This Kind of War: A Study in Unpreparedness established in the minds of two generations the impression that the Army of 1950 “couldn’t fight its way out of a wet paper bag” and survived only through the efforts of the U.S. Marine Corps. Fehrenbach’s dismal portrayal of the Army’s performance in 1950 as an unbroken series of failures and sweeping generalizations about undermanned, ill-trained, poorly equipped, and indifferently led units eliminated the distinctions between tactical failures by soldiers and officers in the field and operational and strategic blunders committed by those serving at theater level and higher. Notwithstanding this distortion, Fehrenbach’s became and remains the standard interpretation of the Eighth Army’s performance in 1950.30 
The Army acceded to Fehrenbach’s assessment because it had already embarked upon its own campaign of self-flagellation in 1961 with the publication of Roy E. Appleman’s South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu, the initial volume of the official Army history. Appleman, an Army field historian in Korea, believed that there was “no reason to suppose that any of the other three occupation divisions in Japan would have done any better than did the U.S. 24th Division in July 1950” because in his view “they showed the same weaknesses”—without his having conducted more than superficial research into the training background or level of preparation of any unit.31 Similarly, Army reviewer Colonel Charles W. McCarthy found Fehrenbach’s work “full of lessons for all ranks and ages; full of examples, both good and bad, which should be emulated or avoided.”32 However, McCarthy could only point to examples of tactical or strategic decisions, not to any successes or failures in the preparation of a unit for war, because neither Fehrenbach nor Appleman before him had bothered to research that aspect of the issue.33"

"30...Fehrenbach arrived in Korea in 1952..."
31 Appleman, South to the Naktong, 180. Nothing found in the Appleman Collection at the U.S. Army Military History Institute indicates that he relied on more than hearsay to determine the training status of the units he described.
32 “Lessons For All Ranks,” Army 14, 2 (September, 1963), 82.
"33 Fehrenbach himself stated that his principal source material for This Kind of War came from stories he heard in 1952 and 1953, by which time everyone involved in the 1950 campaigns would have left Korea. Appleman’s three subsequent books on the Chosin Reservoir campaign, Disaster in Korea:The Chinese Confront MacArthur (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1989), Escaping the Trap: X Corps in Korea (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1990), and East of Chosin: Entrapment and Breakout in Korea, 1950 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1993) all painted a poor picture of Army leadership at the regimental, division and corps level, further eroding the Army’s credibility."...

Subsequent authors amplified Fehrenbach’s arguments in their own publications. Russell F. Weigley argued in 1967 that despite the Army’s status in 1950 as a “postwar force” shaped by the experience of the last war and quite unprepared doctrinally to fight a limited war, battlefield failure in 1950 resulted from “faulty execution by troops who were too lightly trained, too loosely disciplined, and too lacking in motivation to match the determination of the enemy.” In effect, Weigley synthesized This Kind of War and Eugene Kinkead’s In Every War But One. Two decades after Weigley, Clay Blair’s more balanced work The Forgotten War: America in Korea 1950-1953 laid some of the blame on the senior leadership in the Eighth Army for painting too optimistic a picture of training and readiness, but reserved most of the fault for the Truman Administration. In Blair’s view, Truman and Johnson “had all but wrecked the conventional forces of the United States” by forcing economies onto the service that prevented any realistic readiness. In particular, Blair faulted Johnson’s stringency for producing untrained soldiers (the product of a basic training system shrunk from 17 weeks to eight) and junior leaders (lieutenants commissioned in 1950 reported immediately to their units because no funding existed for branch training), and to enlisted pay so miserly that the Army was forced to accept draftees who made “disgruntled, indifferent or even hostile soldiers.” Blair’s analysis ignored the fact that by 1950 over 99 percent of first-term enlisted soldiers were volunteers, not draftees.34 Blair also overlooked the fact that the decision to close the Army’s Ground General School and branch basic officer courses came from the Army itself, not the Truman Administration, and only indirectly resulted from fiscal concerns.35. [Clay Blair, The Forgotten War, 28-29] (pp.12-14)

"During the early 1948 crisis period the Army received authorization to expand over the course of Fiscal Year 1949 to 900,000 soldiers. Army Field Forces opened two additional training centers in order to train the anticipated 300,000 recruits needed. Less than a year later these two installations were closed down when the Truman Administration imposed severe austerity measures on the Department of Defense for the remainder of FY 1949 and for its upcoming appropriation for FY 1950. Already exceeding the revised 1949 authorization of 677,000, the Army was forced to halt draft inductions completely and impose quotas on new enlistments and reenlistments, virtually shutting off the flow of replacements (trained or otherwise) from the ZI to the Occupation commands.69 (69 Annual Report of the Secretary of the Army for Fiscal Year 1949, 138-140.) (p. 41)

"The volatility of the personnel situation would plague Eighth Army throughout its quest to transform itself from an occupying “stability” force to a trained and effective combined-arms organization. One significant benefit, however, was that, Army-wide, by the end of 1949 fewer than one percent of enlisted soldiers were draftees, a situation that persisted until the outbreak of war in Korea. For this reason commanders could at least leverage the voluntarism and cooperative spirit of their soldiers without worrying about the adulterating effects of cynical draftees on unit morale.70" (70 William M. Donnelly, “The Best Army That Can Be Put In The Field In the Circumstances: The U.S. Army, July 1951-July 1953,” unpublished paper produced for the U.S. Army Center of Military History, 9; copy in author’s possession.)  (pp. 41-42)

"The personnel turbulence in the Army between 1945 and 1949, the dramatic downward trend in the average age of soldiers following World War II, and the inability of the Army’s training base to sustain even a minimally competent replacement pool resulted from problems beyond the Army’s ability to control. In the immediate postwar period political expediency trumped rationality in the demobilization of the Army. No consensus existed on the size of the future Regular Army establishment within the Defense Department, let alone between the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government...."(pp. 45-46) 


Now, obviously, the professional dedication, devotion and resource commitment to continued realistic combat training (hopefully of the right mix - conventional and irregular) will not be degraded by these coming cuts....BUT....... if "severe austerity measures" and cuts to the incentives needed to maintain a Volunteer force including short-sighted policies towards retirement and benefits...may make the +500K level sought (inadequate in my view) not only problematical but dangerously inadeqaute...especially if the economy ever rebounds and volunteerism and quality intake declines.

A look back at the recruiting advertisements which resulted in 99% volunteers of first-term enlisted soldiers for an authorized 900,000-man Army, just prior to June 1950, comes to mind

The following full page ads appeared in LIFE magazine in 1949 and early 1950...

Hanson adds needed context to the above: "The Army’s own research showed that fewer than 20% of non-veteran volunteers named “travel, adventure, or new experiences” as their primary motivation for enlisting in the late 1940s. 30% named the opportunity for vocational experience as the dominant factor...Veterans overwhelmingly attributed their return to the Army to a desire for economic and employment security. Data from Major Paul D. Guernsey, “New Army, New Soldiers,” Army Information Digest 3, 5 (May, 1948)," (pp. 26-30)


Summing up, 1949-1950:
Quoting liberally from Hanson on the maligned Eighth Army and lessons learned/unlearned since 1950:

"Acknowledgement of the Eighth Army’s accomplishments in 1949 and early 1950 should facilitate a shift in the debate away from the lack of preparedness of “Occupation troops” and back onto a discussion of policy decisions made by the Truman Administration in the wake of World War II. These decisions required a much larger military than the President was willing to support. In another time and under other circumstances, an Army Chief of Staff warned of the dangers of embracing “a twelve-division strategy with a ten-division Army.” (p.iii)

"Historians and soldiers have not been kind to either MacArthur or to the soldiers whom he placed in harm’s way in the summer of 1950. The circumstances of MacArthur’s relief in April, 1951, have colored all subsequent interpretations of his actions during the Korean War. Post-1975 revolutions in Army training methods have led professional soldiers to condemn the Army of 1950 for tolerating a crisis of “institutional environment and values.”7 Such arguments fail to account for many mitigating factors, however, and merely add to the insults heaped on the men of the Eighth Army. Instead of lauding the significant operational advantages gained by Task Force Smith’s delaying action, standard interpretations portray that unit as the epitome of unreadiness. Indeed, as early as July 24, 1950, the editors of Life blamed the soldiers of the Eighth Army generally for failing to emulate the example of their World War II forbearers, beginning an historiographic trend that continues to this day.8...This study seeks to redress the imbalance that exists between fact and interpretation. For too long historians and soldiers have roundly criticized Task Force Smith’s performance, extrapolated from that an assumption that all other units were identically situated, and then used that interpretation to condemn the entire Eighth Army. The reality is much more complex. A proper examination of the historical record reveals wide disparities in the readiness and combat effectiveness of the subordinate units of America’s first forward-deployed Cold War field force. To gain a comprehensive understanding one must consider contemporary doctrine and expectations, the documented state of training in the Eighth Army, and the testimony of officers, noncommissioned officers, and soldiers who actually served in Japan in 1949 and early 1950. [and not by those who "heard stories" - or benefited at the expense of soldiers - many of whom did not survive to rebut the stereotyping by others.] No longer should the reputation of the Eighth Army rest on the one-legged stool of hindsight critiques based on doctrine and performance measures developed two decades after the Korean War. Certainly the Army of 1950 labored under significant constraints that proved difficult to overcome in the immediate aftermath of the North Korean invasion. Contrary to the prevailing view, however, enough Army units in 1950 possessed a high enough degree of combat readiness to salvage a very precarious operational and strategic situation. This paper will demonstrate how units achieved that readiness by means of case studies of four infantry regiments, one regiment from each of the four infantry divisions that constituted the Eighth Army in 1950. Its synthesis of contemporary training doctrine, training records generated by maneuver units, unit histories, reports of inspections by outside agencies, contemporary self-assessments, and the observations of veterans who served in Japan in the 15 months prior to the outbreak of the Korean War challenges the long-standing reputation of the Eighth Army as flabby, dispirited, and weak. The records of each of these regiments in combat in Korea during the first weeks of war reflect the uneven progress toward combat effectiveness that each of the four divisions made. Nevertheless, enough evidence exists to conclude that successful infantry regiments in Korea owed their success not to luck but to hard training,and that the Eighth Army’s April 1949 training program represented not just a rhetorical shift but a fundamental reordering of priorities within the Far East Command." (pp. 3-6)

"The growing tensions arising from the Cold War demanded that what limited military capability the U.S. possessed must be devoted to defense and security. Hence OCAFF’s exhortation in 1949 that “every soldier, regardless of assignment, has as his primary duty the obligation to fight or support the fight.” A similar debate occurred in the U.S. Army in the mid-1990s as the Bush and Clinton Administrations committed U.S. forces to stability operations on an unprecedented scale. The decision and justification for it remained unchanged from 1950: despite the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the strategic threats arrayed against the U.S. and its allies precluded the reorganization of the 10th Mountain Division as a constabulary force....Americans do not like to prepare for war. They have only grudgingly come to accept a large standing army and huge fiscal authorizations given to the Defense Department as a result of experience in the Cold War and especially since the attacks of September 11, 2001. That many in both Congress and the Bush Administration could, as late as the summer of 2001, contemplate a reduction of the Regular Army from ten to eight divisions, indicates that the lessons that should have been learned in the summer of 1950 have yet to sink in. National security will always entail domestic political tradeoffs, but these should never occur at the expense of the soldiers whom the nation sends into harm’s way as a result of national policy." (pp. 193-195)


Flash Forward:

"So it is gone, over the last 9 years of doing irregular warfare we have eviscerated the Armor Corps to the point of its extinction. Maybe the cost was worth it and maybe it doesn’t matter if the visionaries of the future are right when they tell us not to worry about combined arms competencies since those kinds of things are easy and what the American Army really needs to get to—a higher form of war and conflict as it is often implied—is “whole of government approach.” The Death of the Armor Corps - Colonel Gian P. Gentile, April, 17, 2010


“In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” — Defense Secretary Robert Gates, West Point NY, 25 February 2011

Robert Gates' Message On Strategic Thinking
Bernard Gwertzman|March 02, 2011

Interviewee: Colonel Gian Gentile, USA, Visiting Fellow
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor,

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently told West Point cadets that any future defense secretary advising a U.S. president to send a large land army into Asia, the Middle East or Africa, "should have his head examined," quoting General Douglas MacArthur's reported advice to President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
Gates was stressing the need for strong strategic over tactical thinking, says Col. Gian Gentile, a West Point military historian, who notes that some have criticized the military for being too preoccupied with counterinsurgency tactics and nation building and insufficiently focused on strategy. "If you get the strategy right the tactics will fall into place," says Gentile.
That means an army "premised on fire power, protection, and mobility, and not one that is optimized mostly for small wars, for training local indigenous forces, and those kind of things," says Gentile. The winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will free the military to focus on building a range of competencies, he says.
One kind of potential conflict the U.S. military needs to prepare for, says Gentile, is a collapsed North Korea and a "messy occupation by South Korea" that would necessitate U.S. assistance.

Gates's speech has been interpreted by some as suggesting that the United States made a mistake sending large numbers of troops into Iraq and Afghanistan. What is your analysis? [italics are mine]
The secretary is suggesting that, if a future secretary of defense advises an American president to send a significant land force into a foreign country to do nation building, the analysis has to show that that kind of effort, that kind of endeavor, is worth the costs. This is the essence of strategy. He's saying that if you are going to do something like this, it darn sure better be worth the costs, because it will be a costly and long-term endeavor.
He also seemed to be upset that there has been so much redeployment of the same troops and that the army just doesn't have the ability to keep doing this.
There is plenty of evidence that the U.S. Army after more than nine years in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq is wearing down. He did say that now with the winding down of Iraq and Afghanistan one benefit is going to be that the army will be able to focus on a range of operational competencies and not just on small wars and skirmishes.
When the Afghan war started back in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11, the initial U.S. forces there were quite small. 
Special Forces, a couple of battalions, and the 101st Airborne.
That would have fit Gates formula. How did we get to the current 100,000 in Afghanistan?
Here again, I'll go to this question about strategy. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese author of "The Art of War" has this classic formulation on the relationship between tactics and strategy. He said, "strategy without tactics is a slow road to victory, but tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." The point is really a simple but profound one. If you are going to do one thing right in war throughout, it should be strategy. If you get the strategy right, the tactics will fall into place. One can make the argument over the last eight or nine years the American military, especially the American army, has become consumed with its tactical operational framework of counterinsurgency and nation building, which has perhaps eclipsed better strategic thinking.
Would a proponent of counterterrorism be annoyed at Gates's remarks?
In the American army, we have a force that can do that and is trying to do that. That's the army's Special Forces. This is where the secretary's speech was hedging and very careful. I think there is a role for an army that is premised on fire power, protection, and mobility, and not one that is optimized mostly for small wars, for training local indigenous forces, and those kind of things.
Gates cited the career of Russell Volckmann, class of West Point 1934, who, at the outbreak of World War II, was attached to the Philippine army, went into the bushes with the Philippines after the Japanese occupation, and ended up with a guerilla force of over 22,000 men.
He's the original Green Beret. It wasn't just Volckmann in the Philippines. The army was doing this with Special Services forces that went into France to help the French resistance deal with the Germans.
Do they still wear the green berets?
Yes, the Special Forces still wear the green beret. In the army right now, our standard headgear is the black beret. The Rangers wear the tan-beige berets. If I was writing the secretary's speech, especially thinking about what kind of capabilities and competencies the American army needs for the present and the future, I would have suggested other military figures than Volckmann. I would have perhaps cited World War II outstanding leaders, General George S. Patton or a General Joseph L. (Lightning Joe) Collins. [Or], if we are looking for historical figures, General Matthew Ridgeway, who turned the Korean War around. All three of those figures, in order to be successful, had to develop combined-arms competencies within themselves and within their organizations, whether it's tactical or operational or even strategic. For an army to do the wide range of missions that our army is certainly going to have to do in the future, I would much rather have an army built on combined-arms competencies rather than an army that is optimized and focuses itself on small wars [and] training indigenous forces
You mentioned Patton. When I think of Patton, I think of marching big tank armies into Germany at rapid speed, which seems to be counter to what Gates is talking about.
The secretary did point out that the army needs to be a learning and adapting organization. It needs to have leaders who can adjust and adapt to all kinds of situations. He did acknowledge the need for the army to maintain its combined arms competencies. He noted the importance of mechanized forces. He used the recent examples of Fallujah and Sadr City in Iraq. My point is that if you want an army that can do a wide range of missions and operations, you need an army that can do combined arms. It's premised on firepower protection and mobility. If you can do those things, then you can do the kinds of missions Volckmann did in the Philippines. If we build an army largely focused on training indigenous forces and small wars, and if it has to go fight somewhere else, that kind of army might run into problems.
You didn't see this speech as saying it was a mistake getting into Afghanistan and Iraq?
Certainly his remarks could be interpreted as a repudiation of any future secretary of defense that advises his president to do another Iraq or Afghanistan, but he didn't explicitly say those wars were a mistake.
He didn't mention President George W. Bush's decision to attack Iraq. I suspect the Iraq War will be debated for many years.
Of course it will. The war's not over yet. Some people think it is. Some people have proclaimed that the United States has achieved victory there. [But]There are still bombs going off routinely.
The other striking developments are these tectonic shifts in the Middle East. They are just breathtaking. It seems to me that that is the real significant development in the Middle East. When we look back on this period thirty to forty years from now, it's not going to be al-Qaeda, it's going to be these things that we are witnessing right now.
It'll be interesting to see how al-Qaeda comes out of all of this.
Many analysts have been caught offguard. This is not the kind of change in these countries that they saw happening. They didn't foresee any of these mass democratic movements, but instead thought change would occur through violence and terror.
Gates did say in the speech that virtually every recent military involvement was unpredicted beforehand. He said "when it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never gotten it right."
This is where, if I had written the secretary's speech, I would have cast it in a different direction. Even though he repudiates the idea of doing another Iraq or Afghanistan, much of the text of this speech embraces the whole counterinsurgency movement in the American army. Michael Howard, the eminent war historian, says that an army or military will never get its doctrine perfect or correct. What's important is that it doesn't get it so wrong that it's completely ill-prepared for future conflicts. The classic example of course is the French between the end of WWI and the start of WWII. The U.S. Army has got to do a lot of things. Is the army going to go into China to do a major land operations? No. Is Russia going to reestablish the Soviet Union again? No. But one can imagine lots of different contingencies where the army is going to have to know how to do combined arms operations. A collapsed North Korean state, a messy occupation by South Korea, which would require U.S. Army assistance. There are all kinds of scenarios in the future.
What do you mean by messy occupation?
I mean a collapsed North Korean state with parts of its military and structure that remain in place and remain defiant. In occupying the North, the South has to fight and be able to do that. It's arguably possible that the American army will assist the South in doing that.

This post originally appeared at


Some closing thoughts:

What credence will we give politicians, cabinet members, and their hand-picked generals to predict no more overseas wars? or even define their nature? What tradeoffs, political and military, are we willing to risk?  The voters will ultimately decide - but they must be given clear choices based on transparent access to facts about the threats we face and the sacrifices demanded to meet those threats - the so-called "sophisticated hybrid opponents" of modern defense analyst speech.

It's good to know our Army has historically-minded thinkers and doers like Hanson and Gentile, but of this, I never had any serious doubts.

My real hope is that the Hanson, Gentiles and other informed dissenters - of whatever stripe in our Army - will receive a fair and balanced hearing - unlike irregular warfare proponents after Vietnam - as the Army debates and deliberates on its structure and mission competencies as it moves forward in another age of political and institutional uncertainty.

As a more accomplished person I know likes to preface his musings - "I'm just saying".....