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The Seventeenth Largest Army
The old Regular Army, part fairy tale and part dirty joke, was generally either ignored or disdained. But its people went about their work with a dogged humdrum gallantry—and when the storm broke, they helped save the world.
December 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 8
“What do you want to go back to the Army for?” she cried. “What did the Army ever do for you?”
“What do I want to go back for?” Prewitt said wonderingly. “I’m a soldier. ”
“A soldier, ” Alma said. “A soldier. ” She began to laugh. “A soldier, ” she said helplessly. “A Regular. From the Regular Army. A thirty-year-man. ”
“Sure, ” he said.
—James Jones, From Here to Eternity
When Westmoreland reported to the 18th Field Artillery at Fort Sill, they put him to breaking remounts destined for pulling Model 1897 French 75s with wooden wheels. Sometimes he supervised horses grazing on the flat Oklahoma plains. He was then 2d Lt. William C. Westmoreland, fresh from the United States Military Academy at West Point, and his days of commanding an overseas force five times the size of the army he had entered were unimaginably far into the future.
His social duties, he found, were as demanding as his military ones. There were formal dances, failure to attend which would result in a black mark on his record, affairs at the officers’ club on weekend nights, participation in bridge games. Horses were all-important: shows, hunter trials, polo, Sunday-morning chases in pink coats, hunt breakfasts with singing of hunt songs and ballads. He had become a member of what was the seventeenth army of the world—as Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur repeatedly pointed out to congressional appropriations committees. (When George C. Marshall officially became chief of staff, on the day Germany invaded Poland in 1939, it was said that the country had dropped to having the nineteenth army of the world.) Surpassing the United States in military power were, among other countries, Czechoslovakia, Turkey, Spain, Yugoslavia, Poland, and Romania.
Officers lived under constant scrutiny—and so did their wives.
Marshall was serving on the West Coast when ordered to Washington to take up his new duties. It was summer, and he asked if it was possible for the War Department to provide funds for Mrs. Marshall and him to go cross-country by train, avoiding travel via lead-footed Army transport through the blast-furnace heat of the Panama Canal. He did not make his request by telephone or telegraph; such money-consuming practices were forbidden except in cases of extreme emergency. Four letters went back and forth before the man he would replace, Gen. Malin Craig, was able to write that the cash had been scraped up.
The annual Army budget in those years, the years between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second, averaged in the $300 million range. That included provision for the Army Air Corps, whose pilots usually communicated with the ground by dropping notes wrapped around stones and checked their flight progress by swooping down to read town designations on railroad-station signs. The Army’s total research and development budget amounted to $5 million dollars when Marshall took over. That was one four-hundredth of what was going to be spent on the development of the atomic bomb.
It hardly amazed Marshall that the price of two railroad tickets was a matter of some importance to the Army he was soon to head. American military practice had always been to fight by using volunteers, quickly raised and as quickly disbanded, and to rigidly keep down all expenses in peacetime.
Only twice had this rule been abrogated. The first time was when Fort Sumter was fired upon. There ensued four years of unrestricted spending followed by Appomattox and the Grand Review of the Union Army in Washington, then the dispersal of its members home to spend the rest of their lives talking about how they licked Johnny Reb. (South of Washington the former opponents talked about the Lost Cause.) With the shedding of the uniforms blue and gray, the Army became an unseen distant force shepherding Indians about, occasionally shooting them, and, in the Spanish-American War, doing things in Cuba with the assistance of volunteers. The manner in which Regulars were regarded by the population was expressed by a turn-of-the-century congressional measure that made it illegal for taverns and hotels to put up notices saying No Soldiers Admitted. It is said, however, that parks near posts or bases bore signs announcing No Dogs or Soldiers.