The United States Army celebrates its 242nd birthday today. If you see an active duty, former, or retired member of the United States Army today, wish their service Happy Birthday.
The Army website provides a short but thorough overview of its history. Here are five things worth knowing:
- The Army is the oldest of the four services. It was created on June 14, 1775, so it's four months older than the United States Navy, five months older than the United States Marine Corps, and 172 years older than the United States Air Force, which began as part of the Army.
- Eleven Army generals have gone on to become president of the United States: George Washington (General), Andrew Jackson (Major General), William Henry Harrison (Major General), Zachary Taylor (Major General), Franklin Pierce (Brigadier General), Andrew Johnson (Brigadier General), Ulysses S. Grant (General), Rutherford B. Hayes (Major General, Brevet), James A. Garfield (Major General, Volunteers), Benjamin Harrison (Major General, Brevet), and Dwight D. Eisenhower (General). No Navy Admiral, Marine Corps General, or Air Force General has ever been elected president. (Chester A. Arthur was Quartermaster General of the New York State Militia at the start of the Civil War, but I don't believe he was mustered into federal service.)
- The highest rank in the Army is General of the Armies of the United States. Only two men have held it: George Washington and John Pershing. Efforts to give General Douglas MacArthur the title failed. Washington got his title posthumously on July 4, 1976. During his lifetime, the highest rank he achieved was Lieutenant General. President Ford issued the executive order elevating Washington to six-star status because given the military's strict hierarchy he was technically outranked by four- and five- star generals who came after him. President Ford's executive order directs that Washington shall always be considered the most senior U.S. military officer.
- The Medal of Honor has been awarded to a member of the Army 2,449 times. Put differently, 70 percent of all 3,515 Medals of Honor awarded have gone to soldiers.
- There are about 465,000 active duty Army personnel.
I asked Alex Ameter, a former Army captain now working at the Council on Foreign Relations as a research associate, what he would suggest reading to learn more about the Army's history. Here is what he recommended:
David Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (2009). "Lt. Col. Dave Grossman writes this fascinating and important [book] on the cost of creating professional and effective killers. [He] discusses how modifications in training regimes have assisted the military in creating more combat-effective soldiers, but are purchased at a steep psychological price for service members. Vital reading for anyone who wants to better understand the trauma American society demands Army soldiers undergo both in training and in war to accomplish national military objectives."
Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon (2016). "Rosa Brooks gives a brilliant account of the impact our infinite global wars have on our government’s priorities and methodology. This is an important read for anyone interested in understanding how our modern military works as a U.S. policy tool."
Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004) "An older book on Afghanistan, but still crucial for anyone who wishes to understand a conflict our nation is still deeply embroiled within. As this post is a celebration of the Army birthday, the best possible way to show respect for the men and women of the U.S. Army is by understanding and appreciating the environments they operate within. Steve Coll does an excellent job of setting the stage for modern-day Afghanistan."
Alex also recommended three movies to watch:
The Grand Illusion (1937). "While not specifically about the U.S. military, Renoir’s brilliant portrayal of class struggles within a military system during wartime is still relevant today as a contemplation on the class tension that survives within the U.S. Army. It’s important to note that the only difference between many enlisted soldiers and commissioned soldiers is a college degree, which is often a class-dependent achievement. This tension helps to shape both leaders and subordinates within the military, as witnessed in the film, and often serves as a source of intra-Army conflict, particularly when many lower enlisted service members rely on programs such as SNAP to supplement their income and feed their families."
Only the Dead (2015). "The closest I've been to combat since Afghanistan. Michael War gives a firsthand account of his many years embedded with U.S. solider in Iraq; showing the surreal and often confusing moral universe asymmetric warfare creates for soldiers and civilians."
Restrepo (2010). "Like Only the Dead, Restrepo serves as a civilian’s foray into the daily life of a forward-deployed Soldier. As many of the subjects of the film note, one of their greatest concerns is not whether they will live or die, but how they will manage to reintegrate into civil society after they return from their deployment."
Corey Cooper assisted in the preparation of this post.