November 1, 2005  

Echoes of 1863

Armed Forces Journal published its first issue — under the banner Army and Navy Journal — on Aug. 29, 1863. The Civil War then was at its height, with the North winning the great battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg six weeks earlier. But the 18 bloodiest months of the war still lay ahead, and Ulysses Simpson Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman and Phillip Sheridan had yet to come east to take on Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.

In the White House, President Lincoln was in a black mood. In his desk lay a letter to Gen. George Gordon Meade, the victor at Gettysburg but the man who let Lee slip away across the Potomac. Lincoln would not send the letter, which concluded:

“[M]y dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. … Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”

The first editors of the Journal were equally distressed by the situation in which the nation and the military found themselves. Reading their opinions and analyses, it is clear that their greatest worry was the gaps that had opened between the people, their government and their military. The lead editorial of that first issue was headlined: “The Army and the Nation.”

As I assume the editorship of Armed Forces Journal, I find my thoughts running a remarkably similar course to those of my predecessors 142 years ago.

“For the future we are a military people,” they wrote, meaning they expected their war to continue for the indefinite future. As befits a professional periodical, these editors lamented Americans’ inattention to military affairs in times of peace. “[D]elusive notions have for many years held possession of the public mind regarding war, war establishments, the Army, military education and military men.”

Not surprisingly, congressional treatment of the Old Army still rankled, even two years into the Civil War. “Look at the course of our National Legislation for a generation or two: it has been, with rare exceptions, repressive to the Army and Navy — marked by parsimony, and ‘bound in to saucy doubts and fears.’”

The editors allowed that Americans naturally were prone to these delusions about war. Among the “complexity of causes” for this “prejudice” was “certain loose political theories and vicious social doctrines brought into the sphere of public thought by the French studies and sympathies of some of our earliest political writers.”

Beyond the willingness to blame our problems on the French, the belief that war was not the natural state of human affairs also appealed to Americans then as now. This “spurious peace-sentimentalism [was] seized by many in this country, especially in the North, and particularly in New England. According to these visionaries, a new millennium of peace had dawned on the world: War was henceforth to cease, and armies become useless and burdensome anachronisms.”

The blue state-red state divide was in evidence then, too. For if the North and New England were ignorant of war and the military, the South “held sounder doctrines.” And men in uniform tended to reside in red states: “It is sometimes charged on the [elites] of our Military Academy that in their tastes and attachments, their political and social views, previously to the war, they very generally associated with the South.”

The Journal was no doubt aware of the Army’s conservative politics — Gen. George B. McClellan, twice fired by Lincoln, would become the president’s challenger as the Democratic Party nominee in the 1864 election. But if they were themselves attuned to the attitudes of professional military men and West Pointers in particular, the editors were far from sympathetic. Indeed, they were positively disdainful of “Caesarism or Military despotism” of the sort McClellan flirted with. “With us,” they wrote, “the Army is simply the arm of the Nation: not an arm over the Nation. If it is truly to be its arm, therefore, its arm for protection and for vengeance, it is a living, incorporate part of the body politic, sharing its sympathies, motives and desires.”

The editors went on to excoriate the low regard in which professionals held volunteers:

“In the great volunteer army which has been in the field during the past two years, a million of citizens have, for longer or shorter periods, borne arms in the public service. We believe their army life has made them better men and better citizens. That it has raised their sentiment of patriotism, no man who has seen our armies in the field will deny. The feeling of the Army regarding the late attempts to discourage the conscription strikingly illustrates this. We doubt if these attempts would ever have been made if their originators had foreseen what contempt and indignation [they were placing upon those] called up in the Army.”

This, then, was the moment in American history that gave life to the Journal. Our current moment is not an exact analogue, but it is easy to hear echoes. We are, again, a military people in the sense that we have embarked upon a long, difficult struggle — a “long, hard slog” as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said; a “generational” one in Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s assessment — and we need to reacquaint ourselves with “war, war establishments, the Army” — meaning all the military services — “military education and military men.” And like Lincoln, who feared European intervention in the Civil War, we would prefer to fight “one war at a time,” but can have no guarantee that the rest of the world will grant us our wish.

Moreover, we have, during the 15 years or so of the post-Cold War era, been prone to delusive notions based upon the premise that peace was the norm. We hoped that the end of the Soviet Union would lead to the “end of history,” that geopolitics would give way to “geoeconomics,” and that a “peace dividend” would pay for more domestic tranquility. Our national legislature, for which I worked for the better part of the 1990s, was indeed driven by parsimony when it came to military spending. The contrast to the congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War of the 1860s could hardly be more pronounced.

To me, however, the most enduring echo from the Journal’s original opinion resonates from the editors’ understandings of the role they were to play. For they sought to narrow the many gaps they measured between the nation, its leaders and its military. “While the battle in the field [may] go on,” they wrote, “there is no need of a battle for the Army itself. The United States Army and Navy Journal is designed as an arena on which this contest may be fought.”

This I regard as the mission of Armed Forces Journal: to discuss and debate the great issues of war and military operations shaping our forces today and which will shape them into the coming century. These could hardly be more profound or be of greater consequence. They are elemental: What is in the realm of the warrior and what is in the realm of the politician? What are the most important missions for our military? Where should they be committed? For what purpose? In what numbers?

And more: How should they fight and operate? Who are their allies? Who is the enemy? How should our forces be supplied? Is modern technology burning through the fog of war, or creating new mists not foreseen?

In sorting through these and the myriad issues confronting the United States, its allies and its military, I also hope that I can maintain the guiding spirit of the Journal’s founders. In providing “an arena” for debate about military affairs, they promised to “bring whatever strength we can, entrenched behind what we believe to be impregnable positions, to the service of this cause.” As they did, I believe in the righteousness of military service and its necessity for “the Nation.” The American “nation” strikes me as an idea as much as a place or people; it is, I think, not an accident that the growth of American power is correlated to the growth in human freedom.

But like the Journal’s original editors, I believe the necessity of American military power is no excuse for “bloated and expensive war establishments or a huge standing army.” What is most important is neither the size nor the cost of an adequate military “but that the spirit and temper of the Nation be right on these great questions. This is the one paramount aim of this Journal.”

As it was in 1863, I hope it will be now.

• • •

Postscript: To the degree that, in these columns, I indulge myself in the use of the “vertical pronoun,” I will try to limit it to an analysis, the making of an argument, or the reasoned advocacy of a policy. But let me this once strike a personal note.

As editor of Armed Forces Journal, I return to the fold of Army Times Publishing Co., whence I departed in 1993 after 15 years’ service, ending with the editorship of Army Times. The feeling of returning home is sharpened for me by the fact that my grandfather, Melvin Ryder, founded the company in 1940 — another crucial year for American arms — in the belief that no one needed a good newspaper more than soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. The feeling becomes most acute in remembering my father, William Donnelly, who began his career in the company in 1952 — even before I was conceived — and devoted his life to it. Like many World War II veterans, military service was perhaps the shaping factor to his character and personality. My uncle and my brother also spent many years working for the company; I even met my wife in this newsroom.

So, if it once was a family affair, it remains so. I’ve known many of my colleagues here for decades, and remarkably, the Gannett Co., the company’s new owners, have preserved the spirit of service to people in uniform and the broader military community and, indeed, made it uniquely its own.

All in all, I confess I feel a heavy responsibility to keep up the standards that I’ve inherited both professionally and personally. I expect that the Journal will change in its particulars, perhaps profoundly, as we seek to provoke debate and wrestle with the issues presented to a nation and a military at war. But I would hope to remain true to the tradition I inherit: “We have no creed other than the Army has,” that of loyalty to the United States and its Constitution. “Of partisan politics we know nothing and care nothing. With such aims our enterprise is launched forth, and committed to the consideration” of our readers.