Echoes from History in a Veterans Cemetery: The Way Ahead for a 21st Century American Military Force


2013-12-16 by Ed Timperlake

On December 14 2013, I was asked to give remarks at a Wreaths Across America ceremony at the veteran’s cemetery in Richmond Virginia.

The honor of the day goes to the fallen and recognition of those present, many veterans, their families and loved ones, all came together on that day to do something profoundly decent.

The mission of Wreaths Across America is to honor to those who have gone before, give respect to our veterans and educate for the future.

It was a day for thinking back and moving forward.

I owed the audience respect for their mission.

So in thinking about the future I had to reach back to the past.

The great tragedy of the American Civil War is over but some lessons from the history of that war still resonate to this day, especially in a veteran’s cemetery in Richmond Virginia.

Evolving world events are becoming increasingly dangerous for the security of America and our allies. 

Both with the Peoples Republic of China making trouble in the Pacific and Iran in the Middle East, America is edging closer to a major war today then during most of the potential “hot days” during the Cold War.

It must be noted that even if many do not pay attention, for those who served in Iraq and those still be serving in Afghanistan they are in a war.

Sadly, many in America appear to not notice that our military has been engaged in combat for over a decade. Those involved and their families know every day.

But for America if it comes to a major world at war, it can get much worse.

Domestically times are hard, and internationally times are perilous.

On the domestic side it is time for optimism, because of the impact this new generation of veterans will have on our future.  It will still take some time but they will eventually become a major force for good in America’s future.

Since 9/11 a touchstone of service has been forged and a generation bonded.

Some will stay in uniform; others will leave; but all have imprinted memories for a lifetime.

The biggest surprise I suggest is this generation is not monolithic in thought or deed.

They will be Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. They will be deeply religious or not and some will have very significant problems readjusting. More than we suspect.

But, in getting on with their lives, because of decisions made beyond their control they will be facing huge problems.

The American economy is in deep recession with significant issues still to come. In these veterans’ future there is an economic tsunami they didn’t create. Raising a family in these hard economic times will be a major challenge.

But I firmly believe domestically America, as once reported in the great space race, will be  “A-OK, ” because America is founded on values of meritocracy, not envy.

Veterans who served on active duty in the greatest meritocracy in the world, the American military, will fight to hold on to that guiding principle embedded in our Constitution.

Internationally, the danger of a major war is rising and at a veterans Cemetery on a cold rainy day in Richmond Virginia, one could hear a powerful echo from history about our nation and war.

All potential enemies should recognize the blunt wisdom and insight about war made by two Civil War Generals, one in Union blue the other Confederate gray.

Today, as one country united, the world should take note of the brilliant insights of William Tecumseh Sherman, West Point 1840 and Thomas “Stonewall’ Jackson, West Point 1846.

General William Tecumseh under the command leadership of General Ulysses Grant, West Point, 1843, invented modern “Big Army” war. The famous military writer B.H. Liddle Hart called Sherman “the first modern general.”

One can substitute, in Sherman’s passage below the word “China” or “Iran” for the word South and  “America” for the word North, while also noting that technology is relative to the age.

With USAF airpower global reach and our Navy/Marine fleets command of the sea ,we are on the doorstep doorsteps of China and Iran. 

General Sherman’s insightful bluntness perfectly captures a warning to the world.

You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end.

It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing!

You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it…

Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make.

You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth — right at your doors.

You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war.

In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe, as you will be, your cause will begin to wane.

If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.

He warning is brilliant and America and especially the U.S. Army is a powerful force when put on any battlefield. Big Army comes to stay, fight and win.

The other factor embedded in Sherman’s words is our society’s ability to mobilize when threatened. History shows: the U.S. can rapidly mobilize a Big Army.

When Sherman made his statement, the US Army was around 16,000 men and the Confederate army was non-existent.

By the time the war ended over a million served in the Union Army and half a million in the Confederate army. Total causalities, combining both Armies, were estimated to be around 620,000.

The human cost of the Civil War was beyond anybody’s expectations. The young nation experienced bloodshed of a magnitude that has not been equaled since by any other American conflict.

Military Deaths in American Wars
Military Deaths in American Wars

America can take causalities as the above chart shows.

Taking General Sherman’s understanding of American mobilization, we see some remarkable numbers.

In early 1916 “Big Army” was not so big, it had around 110,000 solders, eventually America mobilized close to 4 Million members in uniform with 2 million arriving in France to fight and win. The peacetime “Big Army” of 1940 on the eve of WW II had 269,000 in uniform and was mobilized to over 8.3 million solders by1945.

So it is not a cliché to sing, “we did it before and we can do it again.”

The one thing Grant and Sherman did not anticipate however is the airplane, and the need for a Navy/Marine/Air Force team for combat in the expanse of the Pacific.

They also had no way to anticipate nuclear weapons, subs and ICBMs. It was just not in their scope of knowledge or concern because they had a country to save and they did just that.

In today’s world the USN, USMC and the USAF are the core elements for military power as the foundation for global reach. 

If a large army is needed, mobilization can be done.  History has shown that.

On pioneering US battlefield tactics, another military genius, Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson executed brilliantly tactical principles of maneuver war.

His campaigns, having been studied since his death, give Jackson the honor of being perhaps the most gifted tactical commander in U.S. military history. He served, with the full trust and confidence of the South’s commanding General Robert E. Lee, West Point 1829.

General Jackson’s gift was to profoundly grasp and successfully execute the basic elements of maneuver war.

His thinking is captured in one of the most powerful statements about command in war ever articulated.

Never take counsel of your fears. 

Arms is a profession that, if its principles are adhered to for success, requires an officer do what he fears may be wrong and yet, according to military experience, must be done, if success is to be attained.

Some analysts wish for us to take counsel of our fears, and to prepare for land wars to come, whether necessary or not.

We should avoid this path and build and shape a force that can deter and can reinforce our global allies.

To be successful, a commander must understand risk but not take counsel of one’s fears.

Jackson, often outnumbered, fought and won because he could out think and out maneuver his opponents. Of course, it took a commander in General Lee who trusted him, and well disciplined troops who could fight effectively to execute his battle plans.

Our American Civil War military template of mobilization, innovation, technological savvy, with courage and quick action /reaction decision making became the hallmark of U.S. Military forces.

An MV-22 Osprey lands on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) to receive and transport  troops during the amphibious assault phase of Bold Alligator 2012. Credit: USN
An MV-22 Osprey lands on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) to receive and transport troops during the amphibious assault phase of Bold Alligator 2012. Credit: USN 

In this 21st Century, posturing by both Iran and China, the Navy/Marine/AF team with allies is most definitely not taking council of the fears against asserted, untested military prowess postulated by either Iran or China.

To row ashore and surrender ones sword is not in linage of the US Navy. John Paul Jones the father of our Navy just wanted a fast ship to go in harms way. With respect to the combat skills of the US Marine Corps there is no need to say any more.

And global reach and global strike by the US Air Force is not a hollow threat.

General Buzz Moseley, former Air Force Chief of Staff, said it best at a recent Mitchell Institute speech–there is not a place on the globe that the USAF will not fight their way into.

That is the legacy from Schweinfurt to Tokyo to downtown Hanoi and this legacy is a living capability.

Army Air Corps aviators to Air Force pilots all lived with a simple code: Assume courage and get on with mission planning.

Combining Sherman’s comments about mobilization and his invention of total war with Jackson’s insights about not being paralyzed by fear, make for a lasting formula embodied in an American way of war.

The current Chief of Staff of the US Army, General Odierno, West Point 1976, has an appreciation for the combat legacy of the Long Gray Line. As a strong advocate for the US Army, he told Congress and hence the American people that to win a war send in the Army.

He was exactly right for the Civil War, WWI and WWII.

Unfortunately, unless he wants to argue to support, equip and train a standing “Big Army” to capture Beijing or Tehran, his vision for Army resources has to be modified to recognize the realities of the potential combat facing America in this half of the 21st Century.

It is not about getting ready to invade the PRC or to do what our allies will not do in Asia.

Our role is to shape global reach and bring power to bear for our allies which makes any adversary like Iran or the PRC lack certainty that a perimeter attack on one of their neighbors is just that.

Hussein assumed that Kuwait was his.  Neither Iran nor China should believe that they can make such an assumption about any of their neighbors.

It is American power projection backed by mobilization if necessary which adds a key deterrent quality to Iranian or Chinese thinking.

America, can mobilize an Army, but the need for ready now survivable aircraft, and air bases and Navy ships with a 9/11 force of US Marine afloat  to attack from the sea to acquire island bases is currently needed.

the F-35 and F-22 are seen flying together at Eglin AFB.  These photos were shot on September 9, 2012 and are credited to Major Karen Roganov, Team Eglin PA, 33rd FW and Sgt. Jeremy Lock.
the F-35 and F-22 are seen flying together at Eglin AFB. These photos were shot on September 9, 2012 and are credited to Major Karen Roganov, Team Eglin PA, 33rd FW and Sgt. Jeremy Lock. 

And not funding these forces while maintaining an Army built for Iraq and Afghanistan makes little sense in the decade ahead.

Unfortunately, General Odierno, through his all encompassing statement to Congress, does not have an appreciation that in the Pacific theater  WWII combat against Japan with the demand of unconditional surrender ended by a bomber, the B-29 Enola Gay, flying from a island with Atomic Bombs.

This powerful demonstration of an Air/Sea maneuver force ending a war has been credited with perhaps saving a million soldiers, sailors airman and marine lives along with stopping Imperial Japan fighting to the death at the expense of horrendous civilian deaths.

To deter, or defeat as necessary, the Peoples Republic of China as they continue to make war noise by venturing out into the Pacific, or to stop the Iranian quest for a nuclear weapon, requires an Air/Sea team of aircraft and Navy ships to fight.

Allied support and forward partnership is also essential especially with an ally like the South Korean Army being required to stand tall as the dominant ‘Big Army” against North Korean aggression.  

The reality is that a declining defense budget requires very hard choices with clear-eyed planning.  The U.S., in embracing Sherman’s insights, can mobilize a Big Army.

However, aircraft and ships with combat commanders at all levels must embrace Jackson’s vision of maneuver warfare.

The U.S. and its allies must recognize that at any moment it may be a come as you are Pacific or Middle East war.

Constant modernization of aircraft and ships against a reactive enemy is the most important, smart and prudent way ahead.

American political will, as expressed in budget dollars given to the services by Congress must recognize this reality.

Ed Timperlake is the former Principal Director, Mobilization Planning and Requirements/OSD in President Reagan’s Administration, and the first Assistant Secretary, Congressional and Public Affairs, Department of Veterans Affairs.

First photo credit:

As an aside one of the most shameful episodes in a Hearing about America at war has just occurred.  Congressman Dana Roharbacher asked a very basic question: How many causalities in Afghanistan this year?

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (three star equivalent) Michael Dumont, the man in charge, said he would have to get back to the Congress on that number.

As of 2012 America has lost 4,486 killed in Iraq and by 2013, 2293 killed in Afghanistan.