The American Soldier Experience, from World War One to Vietnam

American Soldiers
Peter S. Kindsvatter explores the experiences of American soldiers from the First World War through Vietnam.

Book Review.

In American Soldiers – Ground Combat in the World Wars, Korea, & Vietnam (University Press of Kansas, 2003), Peter S. Kindsvatter examines war diaries and memoirs to help understand the wartime experiences of U.S. soldiers over the course of half a century. Of specific interest are the individual soldiers and small unit dynamics. To further his analysis, Kindsvatter also incorporates the analyses of other social scientists and psychologists. Interestingly, he also uses literary analysis as he discusses the depiction of the soldier’s experience by wartime novelists such as Ernest Hemmingway. This mix of sources, contends Kindsvatter, allows us to search for a “collective truth.”  Although an excellent book, I found the author’s relatively seamless inclusion of fictional accounts in the midst of primary sources – as when discussing white soldier attitudes toward working with their black counterparts – somewhat distracting and unconvincing.

Kindsvatter delves into the formative collective experiences of American soldiers, such as the reasons which prompted the decision to enlist (if voluntary) or to not desert (if drafted), experiences through basic training, and ultimately through combat. The author finds that, contrary to broad-brush understandings of the motivations of soldiers during each war (e.g. soldiers enlisting in the First World War were naïve and gung-ho, the soldiers in the Second World War were more grim but determined, while those in Vietnam were largely disillusioned and unwilling), soldiers entering each conflict were driven by a mix of motives. His discussion on the “soldierization process” – the “tear down” and “build up” that transformed the civilian into a soldier, establishes how citizens from a multitude of backgrounds were brought to a common capability prior to being deployed for war. Following this the bulk of American Soldiers details the experiences of the Army and Marines as they experienced the reality of combat – from dull drudgery to “life-or-death struggle…”

A vital dynamic that gets attention throughout the book is the soldier’s identification with his unit and the Army (or Marines). Basic training laid the foundation for identification as a warrior, but one that existed as part of a larger group. This group psychology was essential to developing loyalty, and “[s]uch loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale.” The relationship between soldiers, both horizontally with peers and vertically with leaders and subordinates, had a significant effect on performance and morale. Nowhere was this more evident than with the experiences of black soldiers. The American military was segregated until 1949, when the U.S. Marine Corps integrated, leading the way towards eventual full integration by the end of the Korean War (Kindsvatter points out that Executive Order 9981, signed by Harry Truman in 1948 and often credited with abolishing military segregation, only directed equal treatment of soldiers). Although the experiences of blacks and other minorities are brought up throughout the monograph, an entire chapter is devoted to analyzing race relations throughout these wars.


The American War of Independence, as experienced by the British Army

Book Review

Matthew H. Spring’s With Zeal and With Bayonets Only (University of Oklahoma Press, 2008) examines the American Revolution from the perspective of the British With Zeal and Bayonets OnlyArmy. In doing so, Spring determines that the popular representations of the British forces as a monolithic, unthinking war-machine confounded at every turn by American skirmishers is unfair and untrue. The King’s armies, he concludes, “tailored their conventional tactical methods intelligently to local conditions,” which is why they proved victorious in the majority of engagements.[1]

Spring examines the British Army’s performance at both the operational and tactical levels. The American theater was an exceedingly challenging one that made it nearly impossible for the British to impose a war of general actions, where two armies could bring to bear their full strength in linear combat. Tasked to subdue a wide, wild frontier nation that did not necessarily need her urban centers to continue to fight, the British Army nevertheless was able to achieve constant success that nearly extinguished the Continental Army in the early years of the American War. By delving into such fundamental factors such as “grand tactics,” logistics (ground, riverine, and maritime), the manner of maneuver, and the type and quality of firepower, Spring portrays a disciplined military force that actively sought to adapt to the unique challenges of America.

However, With Zeal only partially proves the author’s thesis that the British Army’s success was largely due to tailored operational and tactical methods. It often seems that much of his evidence drifts in the opposite direction. For instance, the logistical shortfalls common to European armies were even more complicated by the fact the British had to rely primarily on transatlantic resupply.[2] The British Army, despite ample opportunity to adapt and plan, was largely unable to break away from the European-minded reliance on magazines and strategic food reserves. On a more tactical level, Smith does give ample attention to the “flank battalions,” comprised of light infantry that were more prepared to engage with rebel forces on their terms.[3] After a relatively unimpressive start at the beginning of the war, this light infantry became increasingly confident about besting rebels in “bushfighting.” Smith presents a number of British sources which exude satisfaction at besting the rebels in fighting “in the very style that the Americans think themselves superior…”[4] Yet these troops were apparently used effectively primarily in the northern campaigns, and this not even in the far northernmost wooded areas.[5] In the end, Spring does present a more nuanced understanding of British Army capabilities and limitations, and the book is quite valuable in this respect. However, I don’t believe that the overall image of an army primarily designed to fight a European Continental-style war is completely rehabilitated.

[1] Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775 – 1783 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), xii.

[2] Ibid, 33-34.

[3] Ibid, 57-62.

[4] Ibid, 253.

[5] Ibid, 62-63, 255.

“The men fought like tigers, each and every one of them.”

Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters
Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters

While slavery and the oppression of blacks in the South are easily invoked themes tied to the US Civil War, Joseph T. Glatthaar’s Forged in Battle tells the inspiring and often times disturbing story of black soldiers who fought for the Union, providing insight into the plights of escaped Southern slaves and free blacks in the North. Glatthaar presents the story of the United States Colored Troops, the effort by the Federal government to leverage a willing pool of manpower for use in the increasingly costly war to reestablish Federal control over the South. By extensive use of primary sources such as letters, manuscripts, newspaper articles, autobiographical accounts, and government records, as well as an impressive amount of scholarly secondary works, Glatthaar presents a convincing analysis of the relationship between white officers and black soldiers throughout the war.

The social dynamics revealed in Forged in Battle are fascinating, and the motivations of white officers were quite varied and Cover_Forged in Battlecomplex. In order to make the use of black soldiers palatable to a deeply racist North, President Lincoln allowed that white officers would almost exclusively command the USCT regiments. While acknowledging the various motivations for these white officers who volunteered to lead black troops, Glatthaar found that many were abolitionists committed specifically to the destruction of slavery and to “uplift the black race.”[1] However, even the most dedicated of abolitionists harbored prejudices and racial biases.[2] The attitudes of Northern whites toward blacks was not one of equality and brotherhood. While condemning the practice of slavery, the average Northerner did not look to have blacks as neighbors and citizens with equal rights.[3] This racial bias carried over to many of the white officers.

In a similar fashion, while the black soldiers who volunteered were united in their intention to destroy slavery, personal motivations of Northern blacks differed from the escaped slaves of the Confederacy. Free blacks in the Union faced intense discrimination, and sought to improve the lives of their race by rallying to the defense of the country, while freed slaves fought for the freedom promised by the Federal government. Interestingly, both white officers and black soldiers often distinguished between free and formerly enslaved blacks.[4]

The exemplary performance of black units in combat certainly began to change the perception in the North of the capabilities of the negroes, but such performance is all the more astonishing since, as Glaatthar observes, “In addition to Rebel soldiers, black commands were battling generations of racial prejudice.”[5] The relationship between the soldiers and officers was complex, and this work admirably enhances the historiography of race relations during the Civil War.

[1] Joseph T. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 40.

[2] Ibid, 82-83.

[3] Ibid, 12.

[4] Ibid, 86.

[5] Ibid, 143.