On June 14, the US Army will be celebrating its 239th birthday. The date will be marked by a week of events and publicity, culminating in the Army Birthday Ball on June 21. That should be a memorable evening, and tickets are available to all ranks and their families. Many units and posts will be running their own parties and other events too, all inspired by the overall theme of America’s Army – Our Profession. It’s a fitting theme, and perhaps it’s worth looking back at how that profession has changed over the Army’s history and where it’s headed in the future.
America’s first army was the Continental Army, founded on June 14, 1775. It was disbanded after the Revolutionary War, with the idea that the new nation would rely on locally raised militias, but it soon became obvious that a regular force would be needed. The Legion of the United States was formed in 1791 and renamed the United States Army in 1796, the name it’s kept ever since.
The militia concept was still very much alive, though. The regular army was a small force, mostly made up of specialists, and its main tasks were engineering and manning permanent forts. In all four US wars of the 19th century, most of the manpower was raised from the United States Volunteers, a network of state and federal volunteer militias that became part of the US Army when mobilized.
In the 20th century the USA found itself involved in global-scale wars where a large army was needed in a hurry. When America entered WWI in 1917, the decision wasn’t widely popular and the number of volunteers was low; to make up the numbers, conscription was introduced. This had been tried during the American Civil War but wasn’t a great success. It worked better this time, and again in WWII and the Korean War. The draft fell out of favor after the Vietnam War and, in 1973, the Army moved to an all-volunteer force.
“The US Army is now the best trained, best equipped and most professional it’s ever been.”
Today, the US Army has a strength of just over half a million regular officers and soldiers, with about the same number again in the Army National Guard and Reserves. From the indifferent standards of the early 1970s, it’s become an outstandingly trained force with generally high quality equipment and by far the largest budget of any land combat force in the world. It’s recently been announced that the regular component will be cut by around 80,000 troops, bringing its strength down to around 450,000 – its smallest size since before the Second World War. Inevitably, that will reduce the USA’s ability to take part in multiple operations at the same time. But on the other hand, the modern US Army has capabilities other nations can only dream of, from the world’s largest and most modern fleet of combat helicopters to its own ballistic missile defense systems. The soldiers themselves are a long way from the hostilities-only men of the United States Volunteers; they’re highly trained, full-time professionals, but the volunteer ethos is still strong.
Even with the upcoming force reductions, the US Army is now the best trained, best equipped and most professional it’s ever been. Its ranks are filled with men and women who’ve proved themselves in combat against determined enemies, and that experience has been used to take training to even greater heights. Whatever you think of the politics behind recent wars, the US Army has performed outstandingly and its members have a lot to be proud of.
When the Army celebrates its birthday on June 14, it will be an occasion to remember the past and look forward with hope to a bright future.
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