Review: Elvis’s Army

Brian McAllister Linn’s book about the Army of the 1950’s has serious resonance today

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For most members of the US military, the mid to late 1950’s are just the chunk of time between Korea and Vietnam. Although the time period of Elvis’s Army was certainly that, Brian Linn has written a book that shows just how much more happened during this period. The Army and Marine Corps in particular like to study the intellectual ferment of the inter-war period or the post Vietnam renaissance in their professional schools and hold them up as examples or guides for the current moment. Although those periods are useful to study and surely offer some utility, Elvis’s Army provides a more useful analogue for the forces of 2020. Linn writes “… the fifties army provides a cautionary lesson about what happens when a service charges into a [revolution in military affairs] predicated on concepts, organizations, and technologies that are both individually and collectively flawed. Perhaps even more critical, the army’s abortive revolution, like most that followed, ignored the human element.” Many of the key assumptions from the 1950’s have returned with a vengeance, and most of the problems that came along with these assumptions have yet to be solved. As the Marine Corps in particular moves forward into redesigning the force for a new type of mission, Elvis’s Army provides a useful set of guideposts to help resist making the same mistakes that well meaning reformers made not so long ago.

In Linn’s telling the Army of the 1950’s struggled in three key areas: talent/manpower management, understanding the true capabilities and limitations of new technologies, and its organizational mission and operational concepts. The Marine Corps of today (and I suspect the other services) could learn a great deal from each of these.

Regarding talent and manpower management, the key issue the Army of the time dealt with was the inability to create the futuristic, specialized force that its concepts called for — either through recruiting or conscription. Although the draft created significant issues on its own, the fundamental manpower issue likely would have existed regardless. This fundamental issue was the fact that in the (at the time) modern and high tech world of the 1950’s, the Army simply didn’t provide the work environment to keep highly trained technicians in the force. As soon as a soldier qualified to operate the high tech gear of the new Army, it would be time for him or her to finish their enlistment and return to a much better paying job with far less stress in the civilian world. This has extremely uncomfortable resonance as the Joint Force hemorrhages trained cyber operators, experienced aircraft maintainers, and other highly trained servicemembers due to their marketable qualifications, desire for stability, dissatisfaction with the military lifestyle, leadership, or any mix thereof. Tangentially related to these issues in the Army of the 1950’s (and later the Army of the Vietnam era) was the basic inability to staff combat units with the “best and brightest.” Indeed, in the 1950’s Linn says that the standard was for the Army to often place the “least skilled and educated in its line units…,” a practice that in many ways continues to this day.

The technologies of the day were surely transformational. The Army of the 1950’s struggled greatly with the implications of the nuclear battlefield, the mobility offered by emerging technologies such as helicopters, and the perceived ability to provide command and control at greater distances to a greater number of smaller and more dispersed units. Although not a perfect mirror of the issues found in 2020 force design, the experience of the Army in the 1950’s shows a crystal clear example that can help illuminate some of the key assumptions that planners and other military professionals worked through; to some degree, Elvis’s Army provides a “what not to do” guide for modern force designers. As the services grapple with how to manage the extreme expected kill rates of the modern battlefield due to precision guided munitions, they again see an “empty battlefield” that will likely force significant dispersion and distribution of units (in the 1950’s this was due to the emergence of tactical atomic weapons). In something of a tautology — very similar to the 1950’s as well — the assumption is that these dispersed units will employ the mobility provided by untested new technologies and capabilities to sustain themselves and strike at the enemy from dispersed locations using advanced weapons that have strategic effects…all while simultaneously employing modern command and control technologies that provide far greater ability for leadership to manage the battle.

Finally, these perceived changes in the technology of the day interacted with the Army’s desire for publicity, a slice of the budget pie, and a need for a clear mission in the post Korean War world that led to the development of operating concepts that had little mooring in reality. The Pentomic Division, planned from the top-down with little service buy-in, prizing dispersion above all, and mitigating the concomitant lack of concentration and combat power by using technologies and capabilities that could only be described as fantasy (in the case of the 1950’s, tactical atomic weapons), has an uncomfortable resemblance to the Marine Corps’ own movements towards redesigning the force. Indeed, as I write this review, the Marine Corps is conducting planning based on untested future concepts that prize dispersion and mobility above all else, are based on technologies not resident in the US military and potentially beyond the realm of reality. Perhaps more importantly, much like the Pentomic Division and the associated reorganization and concepts that came along with it, planners and thinkers throughout the force appear to be making sweeping assumptions about the character of future war while simultaneously disregarding many of the hard questions that come along with this sort of reorganization and mission change.

Perhaps the most crucial way to read this book is as a counterpoint to the stories of innovation that we in the service tell ourselves. Indeed, in the Marine Corps, for example, the tale of “how we got it right” in the inter-war years and then won World War II is ubiquitous. It is at least partly true, but nonetheless any time the Service approaches a moment in time that appears to be an inflection point it returns to this old and worn tale. Perhaps Elvis’s Army should be held up to offer a counterpoint to prophets offering transformational new plans; it provides a cautionary tale that could help budding force designers to remember that the best guiding principle for (re) designing the force of the future can be found in the Hippocratic Oath — “first, do no harm.”

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Grunt, planner, etc. I use this forum to write and think about military stuff. Usually Marine Corps focused.

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