Demystifying the American Military

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Demystifying the American Military: Institutions, Evolution, and Challenges since 1789. Paula G. Thornhill. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019.

Paula G. Thornhill has written an easily accessible work explaining the origins and evolution of the United States’ armed forces under the Constitution. She aims to make American military institutions more understandable to readers by discussing their foundations, evolving missions and organizations, how they have functioned in war and peace, and the tradition of civilian control. Thornhill argues that understanding the American military is a central element in understanding the country and its people, an interesting and even useful inversion of the contention that a country’s military institutions reflect their parent society. Thornhill has set herself an ambitious task to accomplish in 245 pages, and has succeeded admirably, albeit with a few asides.

According to Thornhill, the armed forces are a mystery for most Americans. This is likely more a constant in American history than a peculiarity of the present. Indeed, most Americans have historically been divorced from and ignorant of their armed forces. Thus, American military institutions have always been something of a mystery, and have served as a blank slate for Americans to project their military aspirations, fantasies, and fears. For much of the country’s history since 1789, waging war has been the province of a small regular force operating on continental or imperial frontiers or overseas. Considered against the broad sweep of American military history, large-scale wars have been the exceptions to this rule, aberrations in the larger, longer course of the past. Indeed, most American wars have been low-end combat operations against irregular forces. Consequently, when the United States has waged large-scale conflicts, the sheer number of civilians and militiamen under arms has swamped the small number of regulars and overwhelmed the peacetime, regular culture, as historian Marcus Cunliffe pointed out in Soldiers and Civilians: The Martial Spirit in America, 1775-1865, in 1968. But those wars, while large, were also short, and they faded into memory and the imagined and remembered past of veterans, their families, and their communities.[1]

Hence, for most Americans, World War II constitutes their historical touchstone, their memory, real and imagined, of war and the armed forces. It was a global conflict with clearly-drawn lines of battle, both physically and ideologically, and it mobilized the energies and passions of entire peoples. The war’s size, scale, and scope dwarfed anything in history. As such, war and military service touched nearly every American family, despite the fact that American participation in the war was at its peripheries. Germany and Japan devoted most of their military efforts against the Soviet Union and China. In the twenty-first century, however, few Americans have been touched. The Pew Center’s 2011 report, The Military-Civilian Gap: War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era, notes that while nearly 9% of Americans served in uniform in World War II, something less than 0.5% has done so over the last score of years. Thus, most Americans’ connections to military service in 2020 are tenuous at best, and missing for most. The armed forces are yet again a mystery. There is, therefore, an ongoing lacuna in most Americans’ knowledge of their military institutions.[2]

Throughout the book, there is a subtext of national aspirations, ambitions, pretensions, and realities as expressed through the size, mission, and organization of the armed forces. The country’s political temper has historically oscillated between inward or outward looking, whether it was satisfied with its position and size or grasping and ambitious. It has ranged from insular and unilateralist, albeit never isolationist, to acting in concert with allies and like-minded partners. In all of these guises, American military institutions have attempted to square their institutional desires with their mandated roles.

In making her case, Thornhill lays out her chapters chronologically and thematically. Throughout, there are charts and a handful of photographs supplementing the text. Each chapter concludes with a short selection of suggested readings. Demystifying the American Military is essentially descriptive and narrative, rather than analytical. It succeeds in telling the story of American military institutions against the larger backdrop of United States history, but not without some omissions and questionable claims.

Curiously, Thornhill largely neglects the role of the militia, particularly as it relates to the myth of the Second Amendment as a citizen bulwark against government tyranny. Indeed, President George Washington and over 12,000 citizen militiamen in federal service during the Whiskey Rebellion put paid to this myth a scant five years following the implementation of the Constitution. By glossing over the intended role of the militia (today’s National Guard), as highlighted in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, Thornhill misses an opportunity to give greater depth and breadth to her argument regarding the relationship between the citizenry and its armed forces. The wording of the Second Amendment and the provisions of the Militia Act of 1792 made clear that the framers had intended a central role for the militia in the common defense, “to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions,” not in resistance to the government. If any military institution was to have been representative of the American people, it was the states’ militias, not the regulars, but they are mostly missing in this work.[3]

Although a historian (D.Phil., History, Oxford), Thornhill seemingly give equal weight to slavery and states’ rights as the central issues of the southern states’ rebellion during the Civil War. Historians have discredited the states’ rights argument, long a prop in Lost Cause mythology.[4] If anything, southern politicians wanted a much stronger federal- enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, particularly when some northern states chose to assert the position that they could nullify or disregard the act. While every rebel soldier’s motive for enlisting was as particular and individual as the soldier, the plainly stated heart of the matter was slavery and white supremacy. This much, the states’ ordinances of secession and the rebel constitution made clear.[5]

Thornhill also suggests that African-American soldiers had black officers for first time in World War I. Certainly they were a clear minority until the late twentieth century, but officers like lieutenants Charles Young, John H. Alexander, and Chaplain Henry Plummer, 9th Cavalry, and Lt. Henry O. Flipper, 10th Cavalry, all led Buffalo Soldiers in the late-nineteenth century Indian Wars.[6]

Henry O. Flipper in his West Point cadet uniform. (U.S. Government Photo/Wikimedia)

These concerns aside, Demystifying the American Military is a valuable contribution toward a greater understanding of the American military. A retired brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force, Thornhill has an insider’s understanding and familiarity with the present defense establishment and explains it in jargon-free prose. This book is informative and a good primer for novices, while also provocative for scholars.

Ricardo A. Herrera is Professor of Military History at the School of Advanced Military Studies, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and is the author of For Liberty and the Republic: The American Citizen as Soldier, 1775-1861. The views expressed are the author’s and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Marcus Cunliffe, Soldiers and Civilians: The Martial Spirit in America, 1775-1865 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968), 26, 17, xii.

[2] Paul Taylor, ed., The Military-Civilian Gap: War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2011), 8.

[3] U.S. Const. art I, sec. 8, cl. 15.

[4] Histories of the Civil War and Lost Cause mythology are far too extensive to list in any great detail, but a short list of significant works is appropriate. For a history of the war and its place in memory, see James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) and David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001). For Lost Cause mythology, see Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980); Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865 to 1913 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Fred Arthur Bailey, “The Textbooks of the ‘Lost Cause’: Censorship and the Creation of Southern State Histories,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 75, no. 3 (Fall 1991): 507-533; William C. Davis, The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996); Gary Gallagher and Alan T. Nolan, eds., The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000); Karen L. Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003);  James W. Loewen and Edward H. Sebesta, eds., The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the Lost Cause (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010); and Terry A. Barnhart, Alfred Taylor Bledsoe: Defender of the Old South and Architect of the Lost Cause (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011).

[5] Paula G. Thornhill, Demystifying the American Military: Institutions, Evolution, and Challenges since 1789 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019), 68. For the centrality of slavery and white supremacy, see Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union; Georgia Ordinance of Secession; Mississippi Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union; Texas Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union. Slavery and slaves are mentioned ten times in the Confederate Constitution. The most pertinent mentions are C.S. Const. art. 1, sec. 9, cl. 4; art. 4, sec. 2, cl. 1, 3; art. 4, sec. 3, cl. 3.

[6] Thornhill, Demystifying the American Military, 100.

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