- When Doctrine Becomes Dogma
While some historians continue their struggle to right American popular memory on the "Good War" and "Greatest Generation" mythology of World War II, other historians sometimes take us back to the first "Good War," the Great War of 1914–1918, to adjust popular memory on the American experience in that conflict. Memory recalls America's bold step onto the European stage, complete with eager young Doughboys boarding transports for France to defeat the barbarian Huns so that Woodrow Wilson could make the world safe for democracy. General John J. Pershing and the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) arrived just in time, if memory serves, to break the stalemate in France and force Germany to sue for an armistice, which came, gratefully, in November 1918. Then the boys came home, more worldly from their experience, to drink despite the law, listen to jazz, and roar into the 1920s as a "lost generation," rather than the "greatest generation."
Such an oversimplification is, of course, sacrilege to historians, but memory dies hard. Despite a growing preparedness movement, the United States was woefully, if not criminally, unprepared for war in Europe. To Americans, British-sponsored propaganda depicted the Germans as murderous beasts, and convinced many, including Wilson, that Germany was in its last throes. Defeat was imminent, and if Wilson wanted a seat at the peace conference to follow, he needed to represent a belligerent state, preferably on the winning side. The United States Army, small, ill equipped, and pre-modern by European standards, had little in the way of a mobilization plan. The draft fell upon one calamity after another, as did the over-crowded and disease-ridden training camps. Pershing and Wilson successfully resisted British and French calls to incorporate American troops into their armies. Instead, Pershing fought hard to create an independent American army in Europe, leaving the United States in the rather sensible position of an Associated rather than Allied power.
If military mobilization was slow, industrial mobilization was disorganized and in the end ineffective. American artillery was too archaic for use on the [End Page 414] Western Front, forcing American artillerists to adapt to French field pieces. Failure to produce aircraft meant American pilots had to fly British- and French-made planes. Machine-guns, the staple of trench warfare on the Western Front, remained little-used and poorly understood tactical weapons among the American infantry. Once in France, Pershing saw fit to refuse France's rather generous offer of state-regulated houses of prostitution to serve the AEF; venereal disease rates among the American force soared.
Then, just when the AEF had become an effective independent army, the November 11, 1918 Armistice stopped the slaughter, as well as the maturation of the AEF. Pershing regretted the decision to stop fighting, wanting instead to drive the collapsing German army out of France. That the AEF had become an operative combat force was somewhat of a wonder in and of itself, and certainly no thanks to Pershing. Pershing's AEF went into combat with an outdated and unrealistic battle doctrine, the set of rules or principles that guide the actual conduct of battle.
Mark Grotelueschen, a serving United States Air Force Major and graduate of the doctoral program in history at Texas A&M University who teaches at the United States Air Force Academy, has chosen to evaluate this outmoded doctrine in The AEF Way of War: The American Army and Combat in World War I. This is a compelling and important book. His research is deep, his writing is lucid and presentation sound, and his main points are intriguing and relevant.
Grotelueschen's thesis is straightforward. The AEF command went to France with a doctrine devoted to open warfare. Such a doctrine proved incompatible with the style of trench warfare that had evolved over the course of the war. Pershing resisted doctrinal adaptation to trench warfare. Instead, change came from below rather than above through experience on the battlefield...