Published in NY Times.
THIS Veterans Day, a great debate is going on in the American military. On one side are the traditionalists who believe that our armed forces should continue to maintain as their core mission waging conventional state-on-state wars, like the first Persian Gulf war. On the other side are the reformers, like Gen. David Petraeus, who want to build on the lessons the Army and Marine Corps have learned in the irregular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and broaden the military’s skill set to fashion a more effective counterinsurgency and nation-building force.
In this dispute, the reformers can take inspiration from a surprising quarter: the founders. From the start of the Republic, they aimed to create what the historian Michael Tate called a “multipurpose army,” designed for a wide variety of functions beyond combat. Despite the small size of the regular Army, which was capped at 6,000 men in 1821, and despite the miserly pay that led a foreign observer to wonder who would volunteer to be “shot at for one shilling a day,” the early military performed an essential role in forging the new nation.
Troops cut down trees and farmed. They built schools, hospitals and, by 1830, 1,900 miles of roads. They dug canals, erected bridges and dredged harbors. Soldiers constructed everything from the Minot’s Ledge lighthouse on the Massachusetts shore to the Washington Aqueduct, which provides the capital’s water. In 1820, Col. Zachary Taylor, the future president, commented, “The ax, pick, saw and trowel has become more the implement of the American soldier than the cannon, musket or sword.”
American troops also helped to survey and map the West. In the most famous expedition, from 1804 to 1806, Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Second Lt. William Clark led a party of nearly 30 men, including three sergeants and 22 enlisted soldiers, to the Pacific Ocean. The United States Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, or “topogs,” became a major locus of American science, collecting flora, fauna and geological specimens, and publishing their findings in prestigious journals.
Military personnel assisted the naturalist James Audubon, and performed agricultural experiments demonstrating that the Great Plains could be a bountiful garden of America.
In addition, soldiers on the frontier delivered the mail, helped administer justice, provided medical care and offered relief to the destitute. To appreciate the value of these services, one can simply read the letters and diaries of pioneers, which are full of praise for American troops.
In the 19th century, West Point was a great foundry of nation-building. Established by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802, the academy provided the best engineering education in the United States. The first superintendent was Jonathan Williams, an engineer and former aide to Benjamin Franklin.
Most of the classroom time at West Point was spent on scientific pursuits, rather than the study of battles. A British writer predicted that, “In a short time, the United States, though with a very small army, will be able to boast of a much larger body of scientific and well-educated officers than any other country in the world.”
West Point graduates left their scientific and engineering mark on America. The top cadets headed straight for the Army Corps of Engineers and the Corps of Topographical Engineers. In the words of one, “The engineers were a species of gods, next to which came the ‘topogs’ — only a grade below the first, but still a grade — they were but demigods.” In 1850, Francis Wayland, the president of Brown University, noted that “although there are more than 120 colleges in the United States, the West Point Academy has done more to build up the system of internal improvements in the United States than all the colleges combined.”
Today, some officers warn that an army of nation-builders would lose its edge at conventional warfare. But in keeping with the founders’ belief that the soldier’s role was to build, not just to destroy, we need our own multipurpose military — an Army and Marine Corps with duties that extend far beyond winning tank battles or artillery duels against enemy states, or even fighting at all. And just as in Jefferson’s time, West Point in the 21st century should supply a nation-builder’s education, and we should encourage its efforts to emphasize in its curriculum the study of foreign languages and cultures.
The troops from America’s farming heartlands who are helping Afghans build greenhouses, grow cops and better feed cattle are not losing their identity as warriors — they’re following in the footsteps of our earliest soldiers.