The Great War Echoes Today: Army Faces Similar Challenges a Century Later
1917. America was challenged to expand, train and deploy its Army to fight in Europe in what was hoped to be the first and last world war. The American Army of 1917 was small, ill-equipped and not adequately trained for the character of the war it was about to enter. That might sound familiar to those following today’s U.S. Army.
The situation wasn’t simple when the U.S. entered the war alongside multinational partners to fight Germany. It also isn’t simple today with preparations for what strategists see as a complex, multidomain battlefield.
Before World War I, the Army had 121,797 enlisted soldiers and 5,791 officers. It had few trucks, few heavy machine guns, little artillery, no tanks and few training areas of the size and scale required. The Army was more suited to frontier and constabulary duties than it was for the industrial-scale battle between large armies it would encounter in Western Europe. The strict neutrality policy adopted by the U.S. three years earlier was part of the reason why the nation was unprepared in so many ways.
Most Americans rallied after reports of atrocities grew, especially the deaths of 128 Americans when a German U-boat sank the Lusitania, a British passenger liner, and after President Woodrow Wilson persuaded Congress and the American public that the U.S. could not stand by and do nothing. “The challenge is to all mankind,” Wilson said. “Each nation must decide for itself how it will meet it. The choice we make for ourselves must be made with a moderation of counsel and a temperateness of judgment befitting our character and our motives as a nation.”
Birth of the Draft
The U.S. mobilized, albeit slowly at first. When too few volunteers stepped forward, the Selective Service Act of 1917 was enacted, resulting in 24 million men registering for possible military service, 4.7 million of whom ultimately served in uniform. Some 1.4 million Americans deployed to Europe for combat operations. The entire National Guard also was drafted as part of the war mobilization.
To supply the Army with food, clothing, guns and ammunition, the War Industries Board was created to coordinate industrial production and allocate raw materials.
To house the fresh troops, Army camps sprang up across the country in places like Camp McClellan, Ala., Camp Funston, Kan., and Camp A.A. Humphreys, Va. Those locations are now Fort McClellan, Fort Riley and Fort Belvoir.
To organize the soldiers, the Army created 41 divisions, 13 of which remain intact today, including the 1st Infantry Division, the oldest continuously active component of the Regular Army.
To equip the Army, American industry transformed, adopting new mass production methods but also heavily depending on allies for essential materiel such as helmets, gas masks and artillery at the beginning of U.S. involvement.
By the summer of 1918, about 2 million U.S. soldiers had arrived on French soil and another 2 million had been drafted for jobs at home. American troops arrived at a rate of about 10,000 a day as the U.S. Army played an important role in the final Allied offensive that pushed the German Army out of France.
The Great War ended with more than 116,000 U.S. military deaths, including more than 53,000 in combat, and with more than 204,000 wounded.
The war ended with great respect for the U.S. and the U.S. Army from European allies, and with deep questions about the American role and responsibility in the world.
Those same questions face us today. Although the world has changed, for better and for worse, in the century since World War I, the nation and the Army face questions similar to what was faced before, during and after the Great War. How do we make the Army ready? How do we keep it manned and equipped? What is our place in the world?
This is what makes the theme for the Association of the U.S. Army’s 2017 Annual Meeting and Exposition so relevant. It is “Building Readiness: America’s Army from the Great War to Multi-Domain Battle.”
We are growing a bigger Army today, and need to do it wisely. The growth we plan is much smaller than the rapid expansion of 1917, so we don’t need a draft, but we do need to widen the pool of recruits. There are positive aspects to the fact that the Army is a family business with generations of relatives having served. Seventy-seven percent of new recruits have a family member who has served in the military, and for 58 percent of recruits that is a family member who served or is serving in the Army. This is an extraordinarily strong percentage of brand loyalty, a sign that many patriotic American families see the Army and service to the nation as a calling.
Drawing again and again from the same family pool for generations of soldiers perpetuates one problem, though: the cultural divide between the Army and the nation it serves. This divide can lead to soldiers holding an elevated position of honor in society but also make them seem like outsiders to the many Americans who don’t know anyone who has served in recent conflicts and cannot fathom the professionalism and sacrifice required by those who serve.
One of the core missions of AUSA is helping to bridge the gap between the Army and the general public, a priority for our national staff and our 121 chapters.
Materially, the Army is better off today than it was at the start of World War I, but it has large and expanding needs, some of them immediate.
Fiscal constraints and concentration on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have left the Army far behind on modernization. Resources that are available have been dedicated to important incremental upgrades in existing weapons and equipment. Risk will increase if the Army is forced to continue mortgaging the future as potential adversaries pursue leap-ahead advances in their warfighting capabilities. The Army must start addressing its top modernization priorities while also divesting equipment and systems that no longer meet the demands of an increasingly complex battlefield. Failure to do so will erode the tactical and technical advantage American soldiers have held over adversaries, real and potential, for generations.
It will take money to make this happen. Even with support from Congress to increase modernization spending, buying power for Army modernization is about 50 percent lower today than it was in 2009, while the threats facing the U.S. have become more complex and the overmatch of Army weaponry and technology has eroded. Left inadequately addressed, this situation will only worsen.
A problem in World War I that remains a problem today is moving our troops overseas. Getting the American Expeditionary Forces to Europe in 1917 and 1918 required chartering U.S. flagged ships, using seized German vessels and getting help from allies. For example, the fastest passenger liner in the world at the time, the Kaiser Wilhelm II, was seized by the U.S. at a pier in New Jersey, renamed the USS Agamemnon and used to transport troops to the war, and back home after it ended.
Transport is a critical issue today. The global presence of the U.S. military greatly expanded through the end of the Cold War and now has declined with fewer forward-deployed forces worldwide. A lack of sufficient airlift and sealift in the current force could lengthen future conflicts and potentially increase U.S. casualties.
Uncertainty, something that faced the Army in the buildup to World War I, continues to undermine national security. The character of future wars is precisely unknowable, leaving some unpredictability in Army plans, but Army planning and programs are disrupted by the fixable problem of the chaotic federal budget process that more often than not leaves the Army not knowing how much money it has to spend at the beginning of a fiscal year. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made it clear in August that not having a regular defense budget hurts. Having temporary funding “creates unpredictability,” he said. “It makes us rigid. We cannot deal with new and revealing threats.”
Taking Care of the Workforce
Constant battles over funding and talk about reform can be cause for concern among those whose lives are focused on national security.
There is talk, for example, about saving money through increased efficiency efforts, always a good idea. But talk of reform and reorganization fuels anxiety in the workforce, especially in the Army’s talented and dedicated civilian workforce.
AUSA is all for improved effectiveness and efficiency within the military and defense industry, but we are also concerned about taking care of the civilian workforce and providing its members with stable, predictable careers. As part of the fiscal 2019 budget, the Defense Department is considering a proposal to eliminate, restructure and merge programs to better manage the workforce and dramatically improve operations. This is expected to produce savings, and those savings could come from some lost jobs.
If restructuring and job elimination must happen, we believe it must be done fairly to protect hardworking and dedicated members of the Army. It also needs to be done quickly so the threat of layoffs doesn’t hang over the workforce for many years.
The Army is doing so many things right. The Army has made modest but still crucial improvements in equipment and weapons during an extended lull in major procurement. These include upgrading fire control, maneuverability and survivability of Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, increasing the munitions stockpile, and replacing engines on Black Hawk and Apache helicopters. These incremental improvements are buying time. However, in 2019 and beyond, the Army will need additional money to pay for the added troops, including their wages, support, equipment and training. It also will need money to address the well-defined capability gaps with potential adversaries and to equip itself for the missions laid out in the Multi-Domain Battle strategy for which the Army will need some additional muscle.
As the Army faces these challenges, it must remain focused on providing stability for soldiers, their families and the civilian workforce, plus military communities and the defense industry. Your association remains ready to face these challenges. But we need your help. If you are an AUSA member—thank you. We need you now more than ever. If you are not yet an AUSA member, join us. We’re AUSA and we’re on the march!