Ripe for Conquest

By Major Robert R. McCormick
(Associate Publisher of "The Tribune," Chicago)

[The Century Magazine, April 1916]

The terrifying part of our unpreparedness is not only our unpreparedness in material and military organization, but our unpreparedness of intellect even to comprehend what the words "military efficiency" mean. Nearly every reader of this article has the same conception of a military organization. He and she cannot describe it, but what they think of is a skeleton regiment on parade, with six or more skeleton companies of not more than two platoons each; that is to say, they see in their mind a colonel and staff on horseback, and then lines of soldiers in double rank stretching nearly from curb to curb, with an officer, and sometimes two officers, marching in front of each double rank, with a large percentage of flags and buglers. The soldiers form into line on a parade-ground, and it is plain that there are officers enough to push the men into position and personally to instruct each one. Ideas of battle come from a round or two of blank cartridges fired while in this double rank, which indeed looks like popular engravings of the Battle of Waterloo or the Battle of Gettysburg.

Aside from officers of the regular army, experienced soldiers in the same service, and the National Guard, how many of our ten million men of military age can guess the width of a company of infantry from the right to left when in line of battle? A company of infantry of war strength in open order of attack has a front of three hundred yards, three times the length of a foot-ball field, three city blocks, the length of a polo-ground. A regiment is composed of twelve companies. If this regiment must be deployed on one line, as is apt to happen in war, it is over two miles from end to end.

In such circumstances what control can a colonel be expected to exercise over his men? Or, putting it as it affects the average reader, how much help can the privates expect from their officers? The truth is, next to none.

In battle the fighting is done by the privates, and the direction of the privates is in the hands of the corporals and sergeants. Occasionally the company commander can give instructions to his noncommissioned officers, but he has no opportunity to superintend their execution.

It was in Russia, of all places, that I learned to appreciate the dignity of the private soldier and the terrible responsibility borne by the non-commissioned officers. The occasion which drove it into my mind was a fight along the Ravka River.

In the course of an inspection of the position of the 55th Infantry Division (we used to have one division of infantry in the United States, but that has now been disbanded ) I passed along the firing-trench to a point less than fifty yards from the enemy.

So many months have passed, and so much has happened since then, that I can tell now what before it would have been improper to mention: namely, that the Russian lines were pitifully thin. Only one regiment of the four composing the division was held in reserve. The companies of the fighting regiments were all in line, with weak local supports in reserve trenches. The men on the firing-line stood at intervals of two yards, in squads of eight, and between the squads were traverses, or earth embankments six feet thick, completely separating each individual squad from the sight of its neighboring squad.

The officers could not stand up behind the line. They could only walk up and down the trench, and that but occasionally, as the company commanders were compelled to keep near their posts in readiness to receive orders from superiors, while casualties to commissioned officers had reduced their number to about one officer for every one hundred enlisted men.

While I was in this advanced position the German artillery began a heavy bombardment of the trenches to our left, our own location being safe from artillery attack because of its nearness to the German line. We did, however, come under a heavy fire from rifles and machine-guns.

People have often asked me what a battle looks like. I have answered that obviously it looks like nothing. Any man who tried to look would not look long. By occasionally pushing up a periscope that I had fastened on my walking-stick and by glancing foolishly over the top of the parapet, I saw a vast number of shells breaking to the left, where our trenches were supposed to be. In the psychology of battle, you may be sure that I did not imagine the shells to be farther from the trenches than they really were. I also saw the smoke from the enemy's rifles across the wire entanglements. At one time I located a machine-gun by the steam-like appearance of its jets of smoke. The impression was very strong that our left-flank trenches were being wiped out, that the enemy would occupy them and cut off our retreat. In this case our situation would be desperate, as there was no communicating-trench in rear of the far-advanced position that we occupied. The only thing that was needed to present the strain of war in its sharpest pain was the expected appearance of wave upon wave of gray-clad, screaming Germans, flashing their bayonets and firing as they charged.

In the event of attack, it would have been the duty of each of the groups of eight Russian muzhiks to stand fast in their squad trench and shoot the enemy immediately in front of them, trusting to every other group of eight to do likewise. The failure of any squad would have meant the death of all. If every squad did its duty, we would in all probability repel the attack, heavy as it might be.

Now, gentle reader, if you are a young man of military age, do you feel that you could stand in your place in a squad trench and do your duty as muzhiks and other peasants of monarchial Europe have frequently done? My own opinion of you is that you could not, and my opinion has the strength of a conviction. I do not care whether you are barber, barrister, banker, bartender, or broker.

Take a harder case. Supposing you were advancing in open order of attack, and had reached a point where, with your captain killed, your platoon commander wounded, your line, unable to go forward, was lying in the open, and your only chance for life was to find the range of the enemy and shoot at him so correctly that he in turn could no longer shoot correctly at you. Would you listen to the orders of your corporal? Would you take the range he gave you, carefully adjust your sight, and fire every shot as carefully as if you were trying to ring a cane at Coney Island or make a new step in a dance? No, you could not do it, and failing to do it, you would be killed by some peasant of the type that you see working on the railroad-track or mixing concrete for the foundation of the road on which you run your automobile, and upon whom you look as hardly human. He is a better soldier than you are.

The national ignorance of the conduct of war extends into Congress, even into the committees on military and naval affairs of the Senate and the House. This statement, which would be hotly or contemptuously denied by the committeemen now, will some day be urged for them in extenuation when a bitter and bereaved nation calls them thieves and murderers.

They have no idea what a tremendously difficult thing it is, even in peace manoeuvers, to conduct in attack such a small unit as a battalion. There are not ten National Guard regiments in the United States which can deploy and advance two thousand yards across broken country and have any organization when they approach the line supposed to be occupied by the enemy. The regular army can conduct this manoeuver with a unit as large as a brigade, but certainly not with a larger one. It cannot be done without practice. To conduct a squad of eight men so as to obtain the maximum cover and at the same time maintain an effective rifle fire, is every bit as hard as it is to conduct a college foot-ball eleven; and to conduct the squad under fire is of course many times harder.

If one can imagine a game of foot-ball with one hundred and fifty elevens on a side, all cooperating with one another, he can understand what it means for a regiment to attack. Now, we know that in the case of the peaceful game of foot-ball the players are trained for years, and that when the eleven of any university reaches a certain degree of organization it will remain dominant for several seasons, notwithstanding a gradual change in its personnel. So it is with military organizations. As in foot-ball, team-work and training are everything, individual strength is nothing. Incidentally, the leading American foot-ball coach has a larger salary than the chief of staff of our army.

Last summer we had two principal citizens' instruction camps. The first, at Plattsburg, New York, was largely made up of young college men, many of them athletes, horsemen, or hunters, and the one thing they learned was that they did not even know enough to be privates, although, before arriving, they had thought to qualify themselves in thirty days to be second lieutenants at least.

The second camp was held at Fort Sheridan, near Chicago, and was composed of highly intelligent, sincere business men. At the end of three weeks' training they indulged in a sham battle with one hundred and fifty Culver Military Academy school-boys, and were disastrously defeated, as they freely admitted.

Now, if a month's "intensive training" under regular officers and with the assistance of regular troops cannot teach three hundred men of this type to fight a sham battle against one hundred and fifty trained school-boys, how would two or three or four times as much training at the hands of insufficiently drilled officers qualify any men to manoeuver under fire from rifles, machine-guns, and explosive shell ?

Battle conditions are very much more disconcerting to the untrained man than he would ever expect. I speak with authority and feeling because I have been there. My first experience was an agony, and if no lesson is to be learned from the fact that two British officers who had fought through the Marne campaign were unaffected, what will you say to the unconcern of an American regular officer who had served fourteen years in the army but had never smelled smoke before? The answer is that he was mentally prepared while I was not. If he had been in command of troops, he would have disposed them with all his native ability. I would not.

It is unfortunate for the country that the truth about the conduct of raw troops in the Spanish and Philippine wars has not been printed. Of the four volunteer regiments put to a severe test in 1898, only one did not fail utterly, and this one, as we all know, was composed largely of cow-boys, woodsmen, and mountaineers; was officered in its high command by two of the most remarkable men their generation has produced, and in the lower commands was reinforced by a strong leaven of professional soldiers.

Nor was misconduct under fire confined to the volunteers. A newly enlisted regiment of regular troops, with regular officers and a few months' training, broke into panic in the Philippine Islands before nothing more dangerous than a few stampeded caribou.

"But what happened in '98 would not happen now," men in my branch of the service say, and, I think, truthfully. The National Guard has improved many hundred per cent, since 1898. The tin soldiers resigned or were weeded out, and those that remained have worked diligently to impart the bitter lesson they learned. Picked troops of the National Guard would not now fail as certain picked militia regiments did in 1898, but that is a long way from being able to defeat German, French, Russian, Japanese, or Bulgarian trained soldiers.

We recognize physical courage as an attribute indispensable to manhood, like financial honesty and truthfulness. But whereas we inculcate the latter two by public opinion, practice, and coercion, we do not, under our present civilization, develop the former. The charge of cowardice would be bitterly resented individually and collectively, but one must recognize the growing tendency of men to acknowledge, partly through the development of false modesty, a lack of the courage without which no race can live. The people who sway public opinion dare not face the fact of undeveloped courage; yet the fact is here.

Is it in a nation of ready-made soldiers that one man can hold up and rob a rainfall? How often is a professional slugger captured by irate citizens, be the citizens however preponderating in number? Yet one policeman will capture a gang of safe-blowers and fight single-handed a whole crowd of professional thugs and murderers.

That system is stronger than the man is indicated by the fact that the sluggers are men naturally violent, whose tendencies have been increased by a favorable environment, while policemen—that is, the most effective of them— are selected by civil service from the average type of wage-earners. And as with policemen, so with firemen; the good system makes the hero.

That it is the system and not the man is further borne out by the vast superiority of the metropolitan policeman over the small-town constable. I remember an incident in a suburban town where a murderer was cornered by a mob in which were all the local policemen, none of whom dared approach him. There he stood like a boar at bay until a city policeman, in the country for an outing, attracted by the commotion, gave immediate expression to his training by rushing under an upraised hatchet and capturing the offender. Not until the struggle was entirely over did any one lend assistance to the volunteer officer. No lynching mob has ever taken a prisoner from a city policeman. How often have a sheriff and posse resisted one?

Railroad engineers seldom fail to show heroism in train wrecks, yet they hardly ever resist train-robbers. The reason for this apparent inconsistency is that they are mentally prepared for the first terror, but not for the second.

We have not been training men to resist the terrors of war, and so we have not got them in the numbers that other nations have them. The reason for this failure lies in the disbelief, entertained here and in the empire of Great Britain, which has mainly guided American thought in matters of international thinking, of the possibility of war between the great nations.

Great Britain has always maintained an overpowering navy, which has led her to luxurious ways. We have copied her ways, but not her navy. To this navy she owes her present freedom from conquest, for she has ignored her army and has hypnotized herself with talk of "volunteers." Great Britain has had certain advantages over the United States in the creation of a volunteer army. She has had closer intercourse with the military countries of the world. Following a bitter lesson in the Boer War, the rudiments of military training have been taught in her public schools and universities.

She has a leisure class of aristocrats who have not learned military science, but have accustomed themselves to rigorous living by their athletic and nomadic habits, and by their adventurous lives and associations have in great measure prepared their minds for the stress of war. Our own idle rich boastfully liken themselves to this British aristocracy. Aside from richness and idleness, there is no resemblance. Our rich men's sons have been brought up by their mothers to represent the rich American woman's conception of English gentlemen. They have been trained in idleness, in contempt for democracy, in uselessness as far as business is concerned, but they have lacked the rough upbringing of the English boy. They have nothing of his conception of duty to the nation at war. History shows that whereas the English upper classes have always thrown themselves upon the bayonets of their nation's foes, the rich Americans have shown less military willingness than the average of their countrymen.

England also has the benefit of frontier conditions continuing in many of her colonies—conditions which produced the best of our volunteer soldiers in all our wars up to and including the Spanish war. With us the frontier has passed away. To-day the young men of Arizona and Oregon are no better equipped for military service than the young men of Massachusetts or Virginia.

Following the British idea, we have thought much of race superiority and of our ability as a race to defeat other races. The Japanese victory over Russia showed that under favoring circumstances the yellow man could beat the white; but we, taking our opinion from the English, dismissed that lesson by underestimating Russia's ability. Now, however, a further military lesson stares us out of countenance. The British have been defeated not only by the Germans, but by the Bulgarians and also by the Turks, who were beaten by the Russians, who were defeated by the Japanese. Yet the British were better equipped to organize for war than we are.

he roar of cannon has awakened us to the fact that almost all nations of the earth are vastly more powerful on land than ourselves, chief among them Great Britain (with her year's preparation), Germany, France, Austria, Russia, Japan, Chile, and the Argentine Republic. Of these, England, Germany, and Japan have stronger navies than our own, while alliances between the other countries would give them a preponderance over us upon the sea.

We know that within three weeks of obtaining command of the sea, England, Germany, France, Austria, or Japan can land from two hundred thousand to four hundred thousand men upon the seaboard of the United States and follow this up at the rate of two hundred thousand men a month indefinitely, and that to meet this invasion the United States has only thirty-five thousand trained men!

The National Guard of the United States approximates one hundred and twenty thousand men, but all of a year's training will be needed to put the whole of it in condition for war. In other words, we have thirty-five thousand men to meet the original invasion of two hundred thousand better equipped soldiers. In a year's time we can produce another one hundred and twenty thousand men to oppose the enemy, who would have two million four hundred thousand in the country and also would have possession of all our arms factories.

We are absolutely defenseless, as defenseless as China is before Japan, as defenseless as Egypt was before the Romans. The question of what we are to do to protect ourselves is as immediate as that question is to a man who sees a murderous burglar at his front door.

Evidently the first thing is to strengthen our regular army to the utmost. A plan for this has been presented by the general staff, which will allow garrisons in our strategic overseas ports strong enough to prevent their being immediately seized by the enemy, and which will leave in this country four divisions, or 121,000 regular soldiers. These organizations would give us just a bare chance to fight off an enemy who should obtain command of the sea.

Hence we must develop an auxiliary, and develop that at once. Plans such as the Continental Army, popularly called the "jitney army," and the various schemes for universal military training, all of which are excellent, will not serve the immediate present.

For our crisis we have only one organization in existence, namely, the National Guard of the different States, and I, an officer of this service, have no exaggerated idea of the effectiveness of the National Guard as it now is.

I have shown elsewhere in this article that it is not in whole or in part to-day ready to meet the European soldiers in combat. On the other hand, it is nearer in efficiency to a regular organization than the Continental Army would be to it after its summer outings.

The military training of the National Guard is not that of the regular army; neither is it negligible. It stands to the latter as the night school does to the university.

A man, in order to qualify for the peaceful professions, such as medicine or the law, should have a university education, and after that a three- or four-year course in a first-class professional school. But all doctors and all lawyers have not been able to obtain this training. There are hundreds of lawyers I know who have obtained their education at night school. They would have been glad for the supreme instruction, but they have taken full advantage of what facilities they could get. Many of them are first-class lawyers. All of them are evidently apart from people who have never studied or thought of law.

So with the National Guard. Lacking regular army training, it has had, in fact, night-school training. Among its officers are a number who from native ability and great enthusiasm have learned much of the art of war. All of them, with the exception of that fraction of worthless people which one finds in every gathering, have learned more or less. The National Guardsmen are capable of great improvement, if given fair opportunity. The Government's assistance to it has been trifling in expenditure, but great in results.

A seriously intended appropriation for the National Guard which would supply the instruction that the better militia officers desire, as well as compensate the soldiers for their time, conditioned upon the achievement of a reasonable degree of efficiency, say like that of the regular army prior to 1898, would furnish a reserve of a quarter of a million of men in the shortest time—men who after two months' training following the outbreak of war could stand beside or against first-line troops.

The immediate adoption of these two steps is vital. Any other course will leave us helpless in the face of an armed world that hates, envies, and despises us. Later, legislation must be found to systematize and improve our forces until the nation is made impregnable. Of course if the National Guard organizations are to be permanently maintained, ways must be found to circumvent their present disabilities use in strikes and the conflict of authority between State and nation.

All soldiers and many civilians now recognize that military effectiveness commensurate to the population of a nation can come only through a system whereby every citizen shall be allowed to learn to protect his nation from aggression abroad and his liberty from tyranny at home.

All of Europe, Japan, Chile, and the Argentine Republic have come to this form of training. Only Great Britain and the United States, nations which used to be the leaders in civilization, lag behind. England is to-day paying $24,000,000 a day and hundreds of thousands of lives in a struggle for continued existence because of the failure to demand of her citizens military service, and to give in return humane living conditions. For not only from the military ignorance of her citizens is England suffering; their unwillingness to enlist for war or for work in her defense is a problem of equal terror.

The English gentleman, whom the nation treated overwell, has paid his debt to his utmost ability. The English working-man is exacting a heavy usury for the debt the nation owes to him. It is not surprising to find in Germany, where an emperor's word approaches absolute law, greater military efficiency than in democratic England, but we are surprised to find there greater patriotism; to learn that in imperial Germany the average man has received more from the state, the privileged man has paid more to the state, than in democratic England. The strangest part of our discovery comes in realizing that the German achievements in equalizing conditions among the population have been more nearly copied in England than in the United States, and England's shortcomings are reproduced here in more acute form.

In the United States of America the average man pays a higher percentage of the national taxes compared with his affluent neighbor than he does in any other so-called civilized country. In the United States the very rich man pays a lower percentage in taxes and has greater legal privileges than do the aristocrats of Europe, and, unlike them, carries no legal or social liabilities.

The very class hatred which is rending England smolders more widely here, where it is also aggravated by geographical antagonisms. It has been the chief factor of internal politics for twenty years and is not even now in process of solution. In the event of a great war it would paralyze the nation. With what enthusiasm does any one think the American people would rush to arms to drive back an invader of the seaboard?

Eighty per cent, of the people of the United States look upon the great fortunes as ill gotten. The owners of these fortunes, for reasons satisfactory to themselves, have nearly all settled on one or the other sea-coast. Even where the evasion of taxes was not the incentive, this migration has resulted in depriving the localities where the fortunes were made of taxes and of the benefit of the spending of the income and the support of local charities. The evils of absentee landlordism are already serious.

The "people back home" are hostile to the émigrées. New York and the Northeastern sea-coast are to them nothing but the homes of the dodging, obligation-shifting, idle rich, in whose behalf they would certainly feel no call to die. This rich element is itself non-military, and could furnish nothing for protection, nor would the not inconsiderable element depending upon it for ungenerous existence.

In addition to being the chosen home of those richest Americans who have not sought European domiciles, the Eastern sea-coast is the landing-point of foreign immigrants. Immigrants of long standing may have absorbed as much patriotism as the native born, but the newly arrived immigrants are still foreigners in thought and in law. In the event of invasion, thousands upon thousands of them would be legally bound to join the invaders, and none of them would be bound to help defend the country. As a foreign diplomat untactfully put it, "We have eight army corps in the United States." Immigrants of the neutral nationalities could not be looked upon as more than interested observers. There remains to volunteer enthusiastically for the defense of their firesides only a portion of the population of the sea-coast States; against them would be a large number of trained soldiers legally obligated to fight for the invader.

We present, therefore, an unorganized, unarmed nation filled with class and sectional bitterness, and with reinforcements for the invader awaiting him upon our shores. Mexico was no more ripe for the conquest of Cortez than we are ripe for conquest. Two things must be done if this country is to endure. The existing evils must be remedied, and the people who are endeavoring to breed disintegration as a profession must be isolated and their influence destroyed.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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