Sample chapter from The Army

This We'll Defend
The Spirit of the United
States Army, 1775-2000
Brigadier General Harold W. Nelson, USA (Ret)

soldier with rifle

The Army seal bears the motto "This We'll Defend" surmounting a liberty cap thrust aloft on a pike. To some, the motto seems obscure, but the defense of liberty is the enduring thread that connects the selfless service of an American soldier in Bosnia at the end of the twentieth century with similar service of a patriot who came to the defense of the revolution in 1775.

The Army of the United States celebrated in this book was built on traditions of militia service in the British colonies combined with observations, experience, and doctrine associated with the British army as it existed in those colonies before 1775. For 150 years, those traditional relationships had secured liberties for colonial Americans. When political, economic, and social factors led key Americans to declare independence to ensure those liberties in 1775, the new nation's Army reflected its origins: a combination of militia formations and the new Continental Line arrayed to face formations of British regulars supported by mercenaries and loyalist militias.

From the outset, becoming a soldier meant joining a team. While the modern recruiting slogan, "Be all you can be," stressed individual fulfillment, the context of that fulfillment is the team. Soldiers become part of a unit. They learn to perform certain tasks in specified ways so that the team can achieve effects beyond the capabilities of a single individual. Teams then learn to work together so that effects of various types can be harmonized to achieve even more dramatic results. In essence, the history of the Army is the history of increasingly complex teams working together with continued success.

In the early days, the force was largely infantry, but the infantry teams themselves presented a complicated picture. While the majority sought to assume the weapons and tactics of the standard European army, the American frontier experience resulted in light infantry teams who styled themselves as "rangers" and practiced tactics that later generations of soldiers would attribute to "unconventional warfare." Other frontiersmen drew on their experience fighting and hunting with long rifles to bring long-range marksmanship onto battlefields otherwise characterized by musketry emphasizing volume of fire delivered at short ranges. Both variations, coexisting with conventional infantry, make frequent appearances in the U.S. Army.

ABOVE: Snipers-in-training practice not only marksmanship, but learn the importance of blending into the background.

BELOW: Early on in the making of future soldiers the lesson is taught that teamwork training in peacetime produces cohesive units that will perform effectively under wartime pressure.
team with map

Infantry could not survive against an eighteenth-century European-style army without artillery and cavalry to round out the battlefield capabilities. The combat arms could not move and subsist without the support of combat engineers, commissariats, ordnance artificers, and quartermasters. Throughout ensuing centuries each of these capabilities became more sophisticated, and the material progress associated with steam power, the internal combustion engine, the telegraph, telephone, and radio, all added new teams to the panoply of capabilities required for success in combat.

ABOVE: There is always the ultimate in "adventure training" for those who take advantage of opportunities such as learning the techniques involved in a free fall from an airborne troop carrier.

BELOW: Group physical training (PT) remains an important part of a soldier's conditioning.


At the same time, as the United States took a more active role on the world stage, the U.S. Army was being sent farther and farther from its recruiting bases in the defense of liberty. Each generation's "modern Army" included more diverse teams.

The U.S. Army's specific heritage has made this progress appear complex. The militia/regulars dimension of the heritage has always meant that our Army combines a number of state organizations with a grouping of soldiers who were called directly into federal service. Throughout most of our history, this distinction has been important, but it may occasionally receive excessive attention. For most of the nation's history, all formations have used the same drill book and organizational structures, striving to produce effective teams with the resources available. By the twentieth century, the nation was well served by an Army composed of Active, Reserve, and National Guard units sharing common standards and equally committed to the defense of liberties.

The mobilization/demobilization dimension of the heritage surely introduces greater complexity into the training and employment of effective teams. Any nation dedicated to the preservation of liberty can naturally be expected to hope for the peaceful resolution of conflict. A nation blessed by tranquil borders and broad oceans that insulate it from many foreign quarrels can be expected to forget that all conflicts cannot be solved peacefully. For the U.S. Army, these natural tendencies have resulted in a long history of trying to build effective fighting teams while being rushed into the fight. As General George C. Marshall testified so eloquently during the European crisis before U.S. entry into World War II, "When there was time, there was no money. When there is money, there is no time." This tendency to go from inadequately trained and equipped teams to full-blown commitment to armed conflict was a constant in our history for the Republic's first 175 years. Whether the ensuing forty years of the Cold War were an anomaly or the beginning of a new era remains to be seen.

In every war of our history, our citizens have enthusiastically joined the Army at the start of a crisis. They have just as enthusiastically criticized everything they found there: the discipline was arbitrary, the living conditions were intolerable, the equipment was inadequate, and the leaders were benighted. In most of our wars, many of the complaints were justified, but veterans and recruits worked together to overcome obstacles. They built the teams that forged victories.

In the larger, longer wars, the Army could not rely upon the continued enthusiasm of volunteers. More than any other service, the Army's history has been shaped by the presence of draftees on its teams. One effect of the draft was to encourage volunteering, often thought to be a more honorable expression of a willingness to serve the nation. But in the big wars of the twentieth century and during periods of draft during the Cold War, volunteers filled the Navy and Air Force before they filled the Army. As a result, from the front lines to the highest headquarters and most distant depots, the Army integrated its draftees with its volunteers. The results were gratifying. Talent and commitment were encountered in both categories of new soldiers, and distinguished service to nation has been part of the tradition of the draftee as well as the volunteer soldier.

Though the Army was adept at integrating volunteers and draftees, its record of integrating minorities is not nearly as impressive. African-American soldiers served in combat formations in the Revolutionary War. They proved their valor and effectiveness more extensively in the Civil War, but they were forced to make that contribution while serving in segregated units under white officers. That separate and unequal opportunity continued through the last years of the Indian Wars and the Spanish-American War. When the United States mobilized for World War I, official policies tried to limit African-Americans to service units. Those policies were still in place when World War II mobilization began twenty-five years later, but shortages of infantrymen in the European theater in 1944 gave many soldiers a much delayed reminder of the effectiveness of racially integrated teams. In several instances, African-American sergeants in support units accepted reductions in rank to take places in hard-pressed infantry units. In spite of their impressive example, integration was not imposed until the 1950s. Yet, within a decade, the Army made great progress toward becoming an equal opportunity organization, although the racial tensions that divided the nation in the late 1960s and early 1970s were reflected in the Army as well. By the start of the new millennium, the Army had achieved the kind of racial integration in its teams that should be expected in an organization dedicated to the defense of liberty.

The integration of women into the Army's teams is another aspect of its complex history. The origins are not as deep; the "Molly Pitchers" of the Revolution never wore a uniform, and their daughters and granddaughters did not seek a place in the combat teams. But succeeding generations of women were welcome in the ranks as the demands of the twentieth century's wars strained the nation's resources. The burgeoning dimensions of administration and the promise of improved medical care were the two main routes of access for women in uniform early in that century. The opportunities for women increased as the Women's Army Corps of World War II included female soldiers who joined a vast array of teams that had once been composed entirely of males. The Women's Army Corps was another "separate but unequal" organization whose days were numbered. As society's attitudes toward women's roles began to change in the 1970s, the Army made a transition back to a volunteer service. By improving opportunities for women to serve, the Army attracted far more quality recruits. Improved opportunity required integration. Political considerations kept certain specialty fields closed to women, but the new millennium saw women serving on all frontiers in the defense of liberty.

Today's soldier may be defending liberty in Kosovo or Korea as part of a team trained and equipped to take direct military action as required. Those teams are integrated in every sense of the word: men and women working together, National Guard, Reserve, and Active soldiers sharing tasks, U.S. units working alongside units of other nations. Other soldiers are on the Green Ramp at Fort Bragg, ready to fly to the defense of liberty whenever or wherever the call may originate. National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers team with active component units to train for future conflicts and often interrupt training to respond to natural disasters.

Given the nation's long history of being unprepared when requirements for armed defense of liberty arise, many soldiers spend long hours planning for transition to active combat, training for that eventuality, or developing and maintaining the resources that would be needed if conflict should come. They seldom pause to put their contributions into context. If they did, "This We'll Defend" is still the motto that provides that context, and their selfless service to nation is as valuable today as it has ever been in the proud history of our Army.

  basic training
ABOVE: A training platoon works out to attain the "fine edge" that new recruits achieve during basic training.

BELOW: Out on the far frontiers of U.S. national strategy, Army troops must be prepared for any climate or terrain, including the rigors of arctic winter operations.

arctic operations

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© 2001 Hugh Lauter Levin Associates. All rights reserved.