The Making Of The American G.I.

How patriotism, and a brutal lesson in Vietnam, shaped the modern U.S. warrior

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Bryan Denton / Corbis

A soldier on patrol in Afghanistan's Zabul province.

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"Combat snobbery" was a term used to define the British attitude; it also applied to America's new German allies when the Federal Republic joined NATO in 1955. The German veterans who had fought in the great tank battles against the Russians on the eastern front made it plain that they doubted the ability of America's postwar army to check a Soviet offensive if the cold war ever became hot. The Germans, like the British before them, pointed to American reliance on firepower and air cover, an expectation of overgenerous supply of materials, as reasons to question the U.S. Army's capacity to meet the Soviet forces on equal terms. What they heard of America's performance in Vietnam, once that war began, reinforced their skepticism.

The latter stages of the war in Vietnam marked a low point in the American services' fortunes. Opposition to the war at home isolated the armed forces, and the antiwar mood was transmitted to the theater of combat. A key group of Vietnam veterans, among them Colin Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf and Tommy Franks, became reformers. They recognized that combat units had been drip-fed individual replacements, instead of being sent whole units, and the reserves had not been mobilized. As a result, all units had too many men who had only just arrived or alternatively were soon to leave.

They determined that such a situation should never recur. With the abolition of the draft and the inception of the all-volunteer services, they saw the opportunity to create units that could be trained to the highest level, as long as the high quality of the entrants was guaranteed. The solution was found in the plan to offer enlistees free college education at the completion of their term of service--and the services found no shortage of recruits.

Thus were born the new American services, which since 1990 have fought five wars--in Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq--with outstanding success. Even a superpower, however, is only as good as the forces through which it exercises that power. But Pax Americana, like Pax Britannica, is guaranteed by a body of servicemen and -women who have no equal elsewhere on the globe.

Sir John Keegan is a distinguished military historian

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