Happy Birthday to the U.S. Army!
from The Water's Edge

Happy Birthday to the U.S. Army!

Members of the U.S. Army seen during military exercises in Ukraine on September 17, 2020.
Members of the U.S. Army seen during military exercises in Ukraine on September 17, 2020. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

The United States Army celebrates its 246th 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 provides a short but thorough overview of its history on its website. Here are five things worth knowing: 

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  • The Army is the oldest of the six services. It was created on June 14, 1775, making it four months older than the United States Navy, five months older than the United States Marine Corps, five years older than the United States Coast Guard, 172 years older than the United States Air Force (which began as part of the Army), and 244 years older than the United States Space Force (which was spun out of Air Force Space Command). 
  • 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 the 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 2,458 times. Put differently, approximately 70 percent of all 3,527 Medals of Honor awarded have gone to Soldiers. 
  • There are roughly 482,000 active duty Army personnel.  


I asked Colonel Mark G. Kappelmann, an active duty U.S. Army officer who spent the past year as a military fellow at CFR, for his recommendations on what to read to learn more about the Army. Here are his recommendations: 

James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (1997). For Cause and Comrades won the 1998 Lincoln Prize, an honor given by Gettysburg College for “the finest scholarly work in English on Abraham Lincoln, the American Civil War soldier, or a subject relating to that era.” The author had access to 25,000 letters and 250 private diaries from Union and Confederate Soldiers. If you want to learn about the Army, and you want to learn about Soldiers, there may be no better record.

The War Stories Their Families Never Forgot (2018). This piece is a short read well suited for Paul Harvey or NPR. My goal in recommending it is to remind everyone that Soldiers are citizens. They are ordinary Americans who are often thrust into extraordinary circumstances.

T.R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War: The Classic Military History of the Korean War (1963). The author served in the Army during the Korean War, but doesn’t mention it in this book. Fehrenbach’s service may have provided the frame of reference that is admired by so many readers — fellow authors, politicians, historians, and military officers alike. Senator John McCain called this book “perhaps the best book ever written on the Korean War.”

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Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (1994). Jonathan Shay is a doctor and a clinical psychiatrist who worked for the United States Department of Veterans' Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Boston. He is one of the foremost experts in the country concerning posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Once again, if you want to learn about Soldiers, this is invaluable insight into the price paid when sending young women and men off to war.

Col. Kappelmann also recommended five films to watch:

Glory (1989). While a tribute to the 37,000 Black Soldiers who died in Union uniform, Glory does not ignore the racism and inequality that existed in the ranks.

Patton (1971). This biographical film about General George S. Patton Jr. featured a masterful performance by George C. Scott. He famously turned down the Oscar for Best Actor.

From Here to Eternity (1953). This movie follows the lives of three Soldiers, stationed in Hawaii, during the months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Best Supporting Actor Oscar went to none other than Mr. Frank Sinatra, a catalyst for his career revival.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). The Best Years of Our Lives follows the lives of three U.S. servicemen as they adjust to civilian life after World War II. This film touches on issues such as substance abuse, PTSD, physical disability, and other issues our servicemen suffer from when they return home. This film would be well-paired with my book recommendation, Achilles in Vietnam.

Saving Private Ryan (1998). If you have the slightest interest in either World War II or D-Day, this movie is a must. Widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, Saving Private Ryan had a tremendous influence on the film industry and even on the video game market. Like the three films listed above, it is preserved in the National Film Registry.

Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.

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