Book Review: Preparing for War

By A. Bazin

In Preparing for War, The Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815–1917, J.P. Clark tells the story of a critical chapter in the maturation of America’s Army, one that is often underappreciated. Punctuated by the leadership of Winfield Scott and George C. Marshall on either end, he describes the difficult journey from a force characterized by “citizen-soldiers” to one consisting of true “professionals.”  In many ways, his description of this period highlights the rise of American power on the global stage, where it moved from a frontier backwater to an actor of significance on the world stage. The U.S. Army was, of course, a key player in this period of great growth and change.   

Clark describes the Army that Scott entered into in 1808, and it was not a pretty picture.  Characterized by poor leadership at the highest levels, Scott himself described the Army using words such as “ignoramuses,” “sloth,” “intemperate drinking,” and “positively bad.”  Using thoroughly documented research punctuated with vivid storytelling, Clark aptly describes how the Army we know today emerged out of this raw and primordial state, stumbling not-so-gracefully toward the professionalism and high standards that we often take for granted today.

Although some scholars argue that politicians, generals, and events typically drive military change, Clark has identified a factor in this period that arguably made a bigger difference; ideas.  He goes on to describe how institutions, experience, and culture can change large complex organizations, helping to manifest ideas in reality. He also directly challenges the ideas of Huntington, arguing that it was precisely the connection to American society that helped the U.S. Army transition into the 20th Century.

In the pages of this book, there are some very valuable lessons that contemporary strategic thinkers can glean.  First and foremost, changing a large military organization in a democracy is very, very hard and probably always will be.  Second, as a microcosm of the society it defends, the Army changes as society changes around it.  Putting this in a different way, the American Army grew up and became professional period because the aspirations of the American people and their chosen political representatives demanded it.  Finally, perhaps the most important lesson is that it is precisely in the creating, sharing, debating, and adopting/discarding of ideas that organizations change.  If you think about it, this is the still the intellectual engine that powers America’s Army forward today. Overall, Preparing for War, is a brilliant account of the often rocky road that the Army has travelled as an organization, and, like all well-written history, is a harbinger of challenges yet to come.