Coffman, Edward M. The Regulars: The American Army, 1898 – 1941. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004.

Rich Grippaldi
Ph.D. student, Department of History

In The Regulars, the long-awaited sequel to the critically acclaimed The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784 – 1898 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), Edward M. Coffman asserts that “from 1898 to 1941, two momentous developments – the emergence of the United States as a world power and a revolution in warfare – radically changed the Army” (p. 404). The Army met these challenges by adapting the managerial and technological revolutions concurrently transforming American society at large. In particular, the Regular Army relied on higher education as a substitute for a chronic lack of money and manpower.

As in the previous wars of the nineteenth century, the country relied on a small force of regulars – approximately 28,000 – to fight the Spanish-American War, augmented by hundreds of thousands of volunteers and enlistees for the duration. The Army pacified Cuba and Puerto Rico in short order, but required several thousand volunteers to end the Philippine Insurrection (1899-1902).

In some ways, the Philippine Insurrection resembled the asymmetrical guerrilla warfare of the Plains and Southwestern Indians (and the insurgencies of Vietnam and twenty-first century Iraq). American troops often were uncertain of the loyalties of Philippine natives. Most Filipinos, in the eyes of the soldiers, occupied the role of blacks at home. (Interestingly enough, black troops also viewed natives as inferior, the former citing their “Americanness” as the reason.) In Coffman’s words, “Guerrilla warfare encouraged atrocities” (p. 43). The Army used natives in the Philippine Scouts and Constabulary, and encouraged local tribes and turncoats to aid the occupation forces. But the situation differed in many ways, the most important being that, despite the thirty-seven Civil War veterans still serving as captains in December 1899 (p. 51), some 62% of junior officers received commissions after April 1898 (p. 46). Those who remained in the Army used the experience of the Philippines, not the tales of the West, as the foundation of their careers.

In its colonial era (1899-1916), the Army moved to bring itself in line with other modern armies and institutionalize the lessons of war and technology. Thanks to the agitations of Secretary of War Elihu Root, the Army gained a General Staff and a War College. Older officers, however, who had no knowledge of how to use a General Staff, proved resistant to education, and often ridiculed juniors who went to school. The future lay in younger officers persevering and keeping the educational system alive until their seniors could be retired. Beyond West Point, which produced roughly half of all officers, the subalterns of the twentieth century attended garrison schools of instruction. Promising officers then went on to the General Service and Staff College and, for the very best, the War College. Officers stationed in the Philippines had these lessons reinforced on maneuvers.

Technological change played an important role in this period as well. Complexity and sophistication of artillery forced a permanent separation of Coast and Field Artillery in 1907. Some studied machine-gun theory, although in the years before World War I, poor reliability of guns prevented large-scale deployment. The Signal Corps developed a fledgling air service, and the Mexican Punitive Expedition of 1916 incorporated both the flying machines and, for the first time, truck convoys. As Coffman notes, “To be professional in this period, as always, required a mastery of the knowledge and skills in one’s field, and there had been a notable expansion in the requisite knowledge and skills” (p. 190).

Unlike in The Old Army, Coffman discusses a wartime army in The Regulars – the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Without going into too much detail about American service in World War I, it can be said that the massive expansion of the Army (over three of the four million men under arms in 1919 were draftees) and the infirmity of senior commanders meant younger officers, relying on their education, had to pull the Army through. In France, “the Army forged by the demands of colonial wars and the Root reforms met its first great test” (p. 232) with flying colors.

Officers serving between 1919 and 1941 had much to complain about. Congress wiped out the meager gains of the National Defense Act of 1920 by slashing appropriations. Thousands of wartime officers remained in uniform, creating the great promotion “Hump.” Yet the innovation among the regulars continued. Douglas MacArthur overhauled the curriculum at the Military Academy to help teach the cadets modern military skills. By the 1930s, regulations incorporated the battle experiences of the AEF. The Command and General Staff College made up for the lack of troops by putting young officers in the roles of higher-level commanders. The Army also introduced the Industrial College, recognizing logistics was an ever-increasing determinant of modern warfare.

Technological experiments also continued. Tanks made their first appearance in World War I. While the Army subordinated them to the Infantry and Cavalry after the war, enthusiasts played around with theory and grappled with questions of mechanization. By 1940 the Army had a separate Armored Force, and the performance of the Seventh Cavalry Brigade (Mechanized) and the Provisional Tank Brigade (from the Infantry) in the May 1941 Third Army maneuvers confirmed the day of slow tanks and horses had passed. Army airmen, rewarded with their own branch under the 1926 Air Corps Act, also made headway in theory and development in the 1930s. Despite stiff opposition from many combat branch commanders, an airman (Frank Andrews) became the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations in 1939. Also during the late 1930s and early 1940s, a few dedicated officers worked out the basic principles of airborne forces.

In preparing for World War II, the Army scrambled to take in new draftees and clothe, house, equip, and train them. The experience of overseeing FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps proved valuable to many officers, but just as valuable – probably more so, was the Army’s educational system. Lessons learned on paper helped soon to be famous officers like Hap Arnold come up with an air war plan (AWPD-1) and Mark Clark create and train dozens of divisions before the coming of war. By contrast, many senior National Guard officers, who had not attended these advanced schools as the regulars had, could not command effectively in the new environment and had to be sacked ruthlessly for the good of the service.

Those who value The Old Army especially for its social insights on enlisted men, women, and children between 1784 and 1898 will be delighted to learn that Coffman discusses them in depth in The Regulars. In many ways, peacetime life for enlisted men resembled that in the nineteenth-century. They spent too much time in garrison, and not enough in the field. Coffman discusses themes familiar to Army social historians: drunkenness, venereal disease, opportunities for advancement, living conditions, and leisure activities. Widespread athletic competitions became familiar to twentieth-century soldiers, as James Jones noted in From Here to Eternity. Especially helpful is Coffman's ninth chapter, “The Army in Pacific Outposts, 1919-1940,” which separately examines enlisted service in China, Puerto Rico, Panama, the Philippines, and Hawai’i. Mixed in are the treatments of wives and dependants.

Coffman also examines the lives of black Army men. For officers, this becomes the story of Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. – the country’s first black brigadier general, despite being one of no more then ten black officers during his career – and Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., USMA 1936, the fourth black graduate ever, the first since 1889. Unfortunately, enlisted men found themselves held back by segregation, despite valiant service and a sense that careers for blacks were better inside the Army, rather than out. Instead of recognizing, for example, the combat records of black regiments that fought in France attached to French units, civilians pointed to the riot of soldiers stationed in Houston in 1917. Even if the Army high command wanted to desegregate – surely not a unanimous sentiment – it had to bow to Congress and the power of the purse.

Edward M. Coffman is emeritus professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, having taught there between 1961 and 1992. Dr. Coffman received his B. A. (1951), M. A. (1955) and Ph.D. (1959) from the University of Kentucky, with an interlude as an Army infantry officer between 1951 and 1953. Besides The Old Army, he has also written The Hilt of the Sword: The Career of Peyton C. March (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966) and The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968). A past president of the Society for Military History, Dr. Coffman received its prestigious Samuel Eliot Morrison Prize in 1990.

The Regulars is an institutional and social history of the Army and its families between 1898 and 1941. As such, Coffman makes use of two separate sets of primary sources. The first is government records. The work relies heavily on the War Department Annual Reports, which can be found in the government serial set. Also of use is the Official Army Register for the years cited, as well as other documents found in the National Archives, the U.S. Army Military History Institute, and the library at West Point. The second is personal sources – letters, diaries, and interviews/questionnaires with surviving veterans, wives, and children. Coffman also resorts to the secondary literature. The book is heavily documented, with an essay on sources.

The book has a few flaws. Obvious typographical errors slipped into print (on p. 203, the United States enters World War I in April 1918; on p. 234, the entire combat force available in 1934 fits into “Soldiers Field” in Chicago). By his own admission in the Preface, Coffman concentrates on the combat arms, yet the story of bringing Army logistics into the twentieth century is important and crosses paths with the technological developments the author rightly describes in detail. In The Old Army, chapters are firmly divided between officers and enlisted Men, women, and children; the mix is more haphazard here. The older book also includes helpful maps of important posts and places, something that would benefit The Regulars.

These are ultimately minor criticisms, given the quality of scholarship on the topic at hand. In loving detail, Coffman describes the great challenges the Army faced, how it overcame, what everyday life was like for officers and soldiers in the States and overseas, and the role and experience of the military family. This book is a worthy successor to The Old Army and confirms what military historians have known for some time now – "Mac" Coffman is among the most gifted historians of any type, and the epitome of those writing social history on the American army. Anyone at any level interested in the broad dimensions of Army history before World War II should put The Regulars on his or her bookshelf, right next to The Old Army.