The best books on the peacetime US Army

Brian McAllister Linn Author Of Elvis's Army: Cold War GIs and the Atomic Battlefield
By Brian McAllister Linn

Who am I?

I am a historian of modern (post-1898) American military history who has been fortunate enough to be at a university that supports my research. I have always been fascinated by the “black holes” in military history, the topics that are not glamorous like the big wars, charismatic generals, or Washington-level civil-military relations. This has led me to study such obscure topics as the conquest and pacification of the Philippines, the forty-year plans for Pacific defense prior to World War II, and how military officers have envisioned future war. The peacetime US Army is a terrific “black hole” because so many people, civilians, and military, assume that they already know that history.

I wrote...

Elvis's Army: Cold War GIs and the Atomic Battlefield

By Brian McAllister Linn,

Book cover of Elvis's Army: Cold War GIs and the Atomic Battlefield

What is my book about?

Elvis’s Army explores the great military and social experiment that was the Cold War atomic army. Militarily, the US Army transformed for the revolution in warfare initiated by nuclear weapons. Traumatized by Cold War reductions and Korea, it seized on the vision of a great atomic land war against the Soviet Union. The Army not only developed a radically new way of fighting, but underwent radical changes in its equipment, its training, and its organization—the infamous Pentomic division. Socially, in the 1950s the service underwent even more of a transformation.  In large part due to the draft, the Fifties Army became the nation’s most racially and economically egalitarian institution, impacting American culture in the 1950s from Madison Avenue to Hollywood, and from civil rights to rock-n-roll.

The books I picked & why

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America's Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force

By Beth L Bailey,

Book cover of America's Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force

Why this book?

This is a fascinating study of the creation, evolution, and ultimate success of the All-Volunteer Army after Vietnam. Bailey maintains her historical objectivity even when dealing with controversial and emotional subjects such as race, the role of women, and the Army’s commitment to combat. As she explores this traumatic institutional shift from war to peace, she skillfully interweaves the experiences of individuals into the story. The result is a well-written, enjoyable work that both meets the highest standards of scholarship and is enlightening and entertaining.

Preparing for War: The Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815-1917

By J. P. Clark,

Book cover of Preparing for War: The Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815-1917

Why this book?

A pathbreaking study of the century-long transformation from frontier constabulary and border protection force to a modern army organized to wage industrial warfare against a rival Great Power. Clark brilliantly traces the intellectual evolution of Army concepts of future conflict, how they were shaped by experiences and observations of war, and the emergence of distinct generations of reformers. Exceptionally well researched and written, Clark’s work undermines much of both the historical and theoretical interpretations of military reform, proving that the path to the modern army was tortuous, contested, and uneven, with yesterday’s reformers becoming today’s reactionaries. The book is not only a terrific history, it is essential reading for those who want to understand today’s Army.

The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784-1898

By Edward M. Coffman,

Book cover of The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784-1898

Why this book?

Coffman’s twin volumes are a, if not the, foundational texts on the social history of the peacetime US Army. Drawing on a host of sources, the books brought to light, in many cases for the first time, the experiences of officers, enlisted men, and their families from the Regular Army’s founding to the outbreak of World War II. Without apparent effort, the late Mac Coffman combined the history of a military organization with the stories of hundreds of individuals who were its components, and he did it with empathy, warmth, humor, and masterly tale-telling.

From Here to Eternity

By James Jones,

Book cover of From Here to Eternity

Why this book?

There are many novels of the peacetime US Army, but most of them, such as Anton Myrer’s much-beloved Once an Eagle, are about officers (almost inevitably good) participating in epic historical events. Jones's book was one of the first to reveal the khaki-collar enlisted culture, the rigid caste line between officers and their troops, and the ruthless ambition and careerism that typified too many military leaders. At the time it shocked civilians (and outraged officers) with its harsh depiction of barracks life, the boredom and meaningless ritual, the obsession with sports, the drinking and prostitutes, and incessant brutal tyranny justified as discipline. Although modern readers will find it overlong, sex-obsessed, and repetitive, it remains essential to understanding enlisted life in the pre-World War II army. 

Jackson's Sword: The Army Officer Corps on the American Frontier, 1810-1821

By Samuel J. Watson,

Book cover of Jackson's Sword: The Army Officer Corps on the American Frontier, 1810-1821

Why this book?

Sam Watson’s two volumes fully integrate the US Army into the history of the Jacksonian Era. These works demonstrate the Army’s vital role in issues as diverse as populism, professionalism, federalism, military policy, and the controversial suppression, dispossession, and forced relocation of Native Americans. His extensively-researched work not only shows the Army’s diplomatic-police role, but why, despite the Jacksonian’s ideological opposition to a standing army, they made it so central to national policy on the frontier.

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