‘Elvis’s Army’: Training for a War That Never Came

A masterful look at the US Army between Korea and Vietnam: stumbling into an uncertain future, amid racial integration, endless paperwork, and nuclear-armed jeeps.

Generals, it is said, are always preparing to fight the last war, but the leaders of the U.S. Army, military and civilian alike, spent the two decades between 1945 and 1965 in a desperate struggle to figure out how to fight the next one. Military historian Brian McAllister Linn tells that story in Elvis’s Army, examining the post-WWII, pre-Vietnam army as an organization trying (not always successfully) to a rapidly changing world.

The Army of the early Cold War era faced social as well as strategic challenges, both of which posed mortal threats to its military effectiveness and, in the long run, to its traditional place at the core of the American military establishment. Atomic weapons, still in their technological infancy but growing rapidly in power and flexibility, were seemed poised to dominate the battlefields of the future and to change the way wars would be fought. Simultaneously, successive presidents’ determination to check the expansion of communist influence worldwide created the need for an Army far larger (and farther-flung) than either generals or politicians had envisioned during the euphoric months of demobilization and contraction that followed victory in World War II.

The existence of atomic weapons rendered the massed infantry and tank formations that had helped to win World War II functionally obsolete: turning them from effective instruments of military power into soft, high-value targets. It also relegated the Army to third place in a newly complex inter-service pecking order, since atomic weapons were concentrated in the hands of the Navy and the newly independent Air Force.

Army leaders compensated, as much as they could, by making short-range missiles and portable “tactical” nuclear weapon central to its battle plans. They argued that nuclear artillery could, for example, disrupt a Soviet armored thrust into Western Europe, buying time for a counterattack, and allow American forces to defeat numerically superior enemies such as the Chinese. They poured vast amounts of resources into the missile batteries that (in theory) protected American bases and cities from attacks by Soviet bombers, reasserting the Army’s traditional role as defender of the homeland.

Maintaining, deploying, and operating such advanced weapons — along with other new tools of ground warfare, such as helicopters, portable radar sets, and next-generation tanks — required soldiers who were intelligent, adaptable, and independent: craftsmen and foremen, to use a metaphor popular among senior officers of the era, rather than laborers. Those were precisely the soldiers, however, that the Army was least successful in recruiting, let alone retaining. Recruits who entered the service with critical technical skills were likely to choose the Navy or Air Force if they enlisted voluntarily, and (if drafted into the army) to leave as soon as their obligation was fulfilled.

Identifying promising recruits or draftees and training them in the necessary skills came with its own set of problems. Advanced training on particular weapons systems could, because of its complexity, consume months of a soldier’s initial tour of duty: two years for draftees, three for volunteers. Combined with basic training, advanced training in a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), and routine transactions such as relocation and leave, it often left soldiers with less than a year to actually use their newly acquired skills for the Army’s benefit.

The Army’s recruitment and retention problems, however, extended far beyond the ranks of technicians and other highly trained specialists such as doctors and dentists. It was perennially understrength throughout the ’50s, with virtually every unit’s actual complement of enlisted soldiers, sergeants, and junior officers far below its official “paper strength”. Official army policies, both formal and informal, routinely made matters worse. Promising officers were rotated out of staff and command positions soon after learning how to do the job effectively. Training divisions became dumping grounds for mediocre officers and noncoms in their last assignments before forced separation from the Army. Micromanagement was rife, unnecessary paperwork endemic, and an obsession with following procedures stifled precisely the innovation and independence of thought the service claimed it wished to cultivate.

Elvis’s Army immerses the reader in this world, documenting its complexities and contradictions in meticulous detail. His argument is bolstered by data from internal Army studies and the quoted recollections of those who — whether as generals, privates, or something in between — lived through the era and witnessed it from the inside. The sheer volume of material Linn marshals in support of his case is staggering, and the artfulness with which he wrangles it into thematic chapters on subjects such as doctrine, weapons, recruitment, training, and public relations is impressive. The book is dense with facts and examples, but Linn’s smooth, fluid prose means that it never feels like a slog. Quite the opposite: Anyone with a serious interest in one of Linn’s central themes — American military culture, the Cold War, or innovation — is likely to find Elvis’s Army compulsively readable.

Linn writes from the perspective of the historian — looking backward at events gone by and trying to make sense of why they unfolded the way they did — but his toolkit is that of an anthropologist or sociologist. He carefully avoids narrative and relies instead on Clifford Geertz’s technique of “thick description”: describing specific behaviors along with the web of social and cultural contexts that make them seem potent or meaningful to those who engage in them. His implicit goal is, to paraphrase Geertz, to figure out what the subjects of his study thought they were up to — why choices that appear ill-conceived, even ludicrous, now might have seemed like good ideas at the time. That the reasons themselves now, in retrospect, seem absurd to us is not the point. What matters is that they seemed sensible to those who, with the best of intentions, kept the U.S. Army of the ’50s lurching toward a still-undefined future, one major military crisis away from disaster.

By Associated Press/Standard-Sentinel March 25, 1958, page 1 (eBay front back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The greatest shortcoming of Elvis’s Army is, ironically, Linn’s lack of attention to the ways in which the broader (that is, non-military) culture of ’50s-era America intersected with the specifically military culture he is investigating. He notes, for example, the widespread conviction of American fathers that the Army would “make a man” of their (implicitly feckless, mother-coddled) sons, but does not explore how masculinity was defined. He recounts famous (and still funny) examples of wit directed at the Army’s absurdities by those in uniform, but never connects them to the mid-century vein of deadpan anti-authoritarian snarking that linked cultural icons as diverse as Groucho Marx, Humphrey Bogart, and Bugs Bunny.

This inattention to the broader cultural context is most noticeable, and least explicable, during Linn’s extended, multi-faceted discussion of the ways in which the Army’s pursuit of excellence dissolved into bureaucratic absurdity. The forces whose destructive effects he describes so vividly in the context of the Army — careerism, conformity, and the privileging of proper procedure over desired outcomes — were not the province of the Army alone. They were endemic in ’50s corporate culture: in government, industry, and education. The risk-aversion that led officers at every level to falsify reports, inflate performance evaluations, and spend more time and resources preparing for inspections than preparing for war mirrors, with uncanny precision, the mindset described by William H. Whyte in The Organization Man (1956). Linn’s failure to even acknowledge, let alone discuss the parallel feels like a great opportunity, lost.

Consistent with his interest in seeing the ’50s U S. Army in the context of its times, Linn doesn’t offer up the past as a source of lessons for the present. Readers seeking them, however, will find them in abundance. Prominent among them is that the Army of the ’50s — dependent on the draft and fear of the draft to fill its ranks —

was a historical fluke. The one-two punch of WWII and Korea, and the changing demands of the atomic age made a standing army composed of semi-willing short-service conscripts seem (momentarily) necessary. The fantasies of perfect organizational efficiency and scientific management that reached their peak in the ’50s made it seem (briefly) plausible. Neither belief could be sustained. After Vietnam the Army returned to what it had been before 1940: A compact, professional all-volunteer force isolated from and often contemptuous of civilians. So, to this day, it remains.

Nearly a generation ago, social historians such as Stephanie Coontz (The Way We Never Were) and Beth Bailey (From Front Porch to Back Seat) demonstrated that the social world of the ’50s — a world to which cultural conservatives longed for the nation to return — was largely a rose-tinted figment of our collective imagination. The elements of it that did briefly exist were products of a set of circumstances unlikely to ever recur, and the security that they offered (to some Americans only) were, in Bailey’s words, “bought at great price.” Elvis’s Army does something similar for the Army of the same era: pulling back the veil of nostalgia and taking a clear-eyed look at what life was really like.

RATING 7 / 10