American Military History From the Colonial Era to the Twenty-First Century

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Ways of War: American Military History from the Colonial Era to the Twenty-First Century. Matthew S. Muehlbauer and David J. Ulbrich. New York, NY: Routledge, Second Edition, 2018.

Traditional military history focused on battle strategy and results. Over time the field expanded to include all facets of warfare and its effect on the people who participate in it both directly and indirectly. American military historians have made such varying contributions as Meirion and Susie Harries’ extensive examination of World War I’s impact on the American home front in The Last Days of Innocence: America at War, 1917-1918, Susan Brewer’s discussion of how political rhetoric and propaganda shaped public understanding of national motives for war in Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq, and Christina Jarvis’s analysis of how American soldiers were depicted in The Male Body at War: American Masculinity during World War II. Influenced by these developments, Matthew S. Muehlbauer and David J. Ulbrich seek to offer a comprehensive history of the American military that brings together “the conduct of armed forces, particularly how they fight” and “why wars are fought and their broader consequences, examining political, social, cultural, economic, and other factors” in their textbook for U.S. military history survey courses, Ways of War: American Military History from the Colonial Era to the Twenty-First Century.[1]

Such an approach offers insight into the workings of the military and the extent to which warfare impacts society to students and casual readers alike. Though Muehlbauer and Ulbrich state their intent is to provide this type of historical study, the book could benefit from an expanded discussion of the author’s methodology and how and why it differs from other military history textbooks. What makes this book and their approach better? Of course readers must judge for themselves, but some assertion of difference and quality would help. Overall, Ways of War gives more attention to the conduct of armed forces than why wars are fought and their broader consequences. Instructors who want battlefield strategy and the nature of warfare to be the focus of their class will be satisfied with what this book has to offer. Those who emphasize the causes and consequences may find this textbook lacks the desired depth.

There are several important themes the book addresses and does so well. First, the authors discuss how technology and tactics are always evolving in response to the conditions faced by the military on the battlefield. From horses, guns, and ships in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to tanks, jets, and nuclear weapons in the twentieth and twenty-first, warfare cannot be understood without examining technology and the accompanying tactics for its use.

Second, the authors clearly demonstrate that until World War I there was a strong national aversion within the United States to maintaining a large standing army. The military was not highly prioritized by the government until the late nineteenth century when the acquisition of overseas colonies required the development of a strong navy, and historically, the different branches of the military have often been in conflict for funding and resources. Consequently, the professionalization of the branches of the armed forces has been a long, evolving process with a series of reforms and training methods implemented over time, and preparedness was often a problem for the military as a whole. To grasp how the American position in the world has changed, it is necessary to know how both American political leaders and the public have thought about the place of the military in national life, and the authors provide insight into this.

Finally, the United States has always been influenced by events and conflicts taking place around the world. Here, the authors delve into the context of the wars and other military interactions in which the United States has been involved, demonstrating that despite a propensity for isolationism through the early twentieth century, the nation was never truly isolated. As the twentieth century progressed, generally Americans embraced the U.S. role as a global power.

The book has several other specific strengths. It gives more attention to the wars the United States fought with Native Americans than other books in the field, such as American Military History: A Survey from Colonial Times to the Present , though not as much as The American Military: A Narrative History. The Civil War is covered in depth over two chapters, and there is a solid discussion of the military’s role in Reconstruction and conditions in the southern states. The strategies implemented in World War II and the events of the Cold War receive the needed attention in two chapters as well. The book also provides ample attention to the ability of women to serve in the military through its chapters dealing with the twentieth century to present. There is a good overview of how the military evolved after the Cold War, with recognition that this story is incomplete and it is difficult to analyze it until more time has passed.

In some areas the book’s attention to specific topics is weak. For example, when it comes to what life was like for soldiers, information is provided through the nineteenth century but is largely absent for the twentieth century and beyond. Another problem is that the background information provided for racial and culture issues is lacking. While the book provides extensive coverage of warfare against Native Americans, there is no information about later Native American service in the U.S. military. Likewise, the authors do not provide much discussion of the brutality U.S. soldiers inflicted on the Mexican population during the Mexican-American War or reference the Zoot Suit Riot during World War II, even though they do mention the racial animosity faced by African Americans during various wars.

Finally, the authors do not always fully engage with the literature on major topics pertaining to certain military actions. In discussing U.S. imperial ambitions there is no reference to the tension that arose with Germany and Japan over control of the Pacific, and the acquisition of Hawaii is not discussed. Nor do the authors note the highly controversial nature of the Spanish-American War, or delve into the impact becoming a colonial power had on the United States. Likewise, considering the extensive literature on the development of the atomic bomb and the debate about its use, the book provides little information on this topic. The same is true regarding the negotiations to bring the Vietnam War to an end. These inadequacies stem from the book’s greater attention to the nature of warfare than the context of causes and consequences, and so how significant they are to an instructor or reader is likely to depend on what content and focus is desired from a military history textbook.

Col Theodore Roosevelt stands triumphant on San Juan Hill, Cuba after his "Rough Riders" captured this hill and its sister Kettle Hill during the Spanish American War. (Theodore Roosevelt Association/Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

As a textbook, Ways of War has a lot to offer. With fifteen chapters, it is designed for easy incorporation into a semester-long class. It comes with a companion website, which includes chapter summaries, an annotated bibliography, an expanded bibliography, annotated weblinks, additional chapter material, a glossary of key terms, and flashcards to assist students study the material and direct them to additional sources that could be used for research papers or explored for their own interest. For instructors, the website includes a test bank, image gallery, and map gallery they can use to supplement their own teaching resources. It also is well-illustrated with pictures and maps and includes primary sources in each chapter that give insight into individuals’ wartime experiences. These are tools instructors can use and students will find interesting and helpful, however, the publisher has not provided questions for students to consider to go along with the pictures, maps, and primary sources that could be used for class discussions or assignments, which some instructors may see as a drawback.

Overall, Ways of War provides a solid history of the military and warfare in the United States from the colonial era to the present. It is not without its shortcomings, though considering its objectives as a textbook for survey classes, needing to provide enough information for students to become knowledgeable in the field while also not losing them in the details and keeping the amount of material manageable for the time constraints of a course, it accomplishes a lot. Ultimately, its value really depends on the objectives for which it will be used and whether the desired focus is on battlefield strategy and the nature of warfare or the causes and consequences of war.

Mark Bernhardt is a professor in the History Department at Jackson State University. He has published on the press coverage of the Mexican-American War, Spanish-American War, and World War I.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge


[1] Matthew S. Muehlbauer and David J. Ulbrich, Ways of War: American Military History from the Colonial Era to the Twenty-First Century, Second Edition (New York: Routledge, 2018), 1.

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