Beall on Kieran and Martini, 'At War: The Military and American Culture in the Twentieth Century and Beyond'

David Kieran, Edwin A. Martini, eds.
Jonathan Beall

David Kieran, Edwin A. Martini, eds. At War: The Military and American Culture in the Twentieth Century and Beyond. War Culture Series. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2018. Illustrations. 410 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8135-8430-0; $99.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8135-8431-7.

Reviewed by Jonathan Beall (University of North Georgia) Published on H-War (September, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

The key word for David Kieran and Edwin A. Martini’s edited collection, At War, is “intersectionality” (pp. 4, 5). The essays explore the ways that US military history has intersected with, dialogued with, and interacted with different social history subfields. They examine how the US military has affected American society, culture, and politics and vice versa. Although Kieran and Martini argue that they are using the “emerging field” called the “New Military History,” this idea far predates the intellectual fad of intersectionality (p. 6). The idea of studying the interaction between militaries and societies dates back several decades. In 1971, Michael Howard wrote that World War I taught that a war’s “outcome was decided by a complex of political, social, and economic factors as much as military.” In a discussion on strategy in the twentieth century, Howard assumed that “today, the history of war is generally seen as an intrinsic part of the history of society,” and he made clear that any close examination of war necessarily includes intersections between war and society.[1] Instead of an “emerging field,” the “New Military History” is now, in the twenty-first century, an established pillar of academic military history.[2]

Intersectionality and the “New Military History” may be old wine in new wineskins, but the strength of this book is the collection of sixteen manageable essays that examine these intersections, their complexities, and their change and continuity over the past 150 years of American history. Because each essay brings its topic to the present, the book guarantees its relevance for the next ten to fifteen years. The book begins with essays examining the US military and political culture and shifts to essays studying the US military in the wider American society. The chief weakness of this book is that, in presenting sixteen essays that discuss complex ideas over the past 150 years, some essays are too general and skip over important context or leave out relevant aspects and implications in the name of space and length. Other essays strike a more strident tone against what the authors see as persistent American militarism the last 150 years. As a result, it is vital to keep in mind the editors’ admonition that these essays be seen as a “starting point” to understanding the US military and American society rather than as the last word (p. 7). As with any collection of essays, there is a spectrum of strong essays to weaker essays.

Another strength of this book is that the editors selected a wide variety of military-society interactions. The sixteen essays examine the intersections of war and justice, empire, domestic politics, the military-industrial complex, demographics, combat, veterans, refugees, race, gender, the human body, the environment, the media, visual culture, film, and memory. The last chapter is a timeline of major events in US military history from 1890 to 2017. However, despite these wide-ranging essays, there are no essays that explore the intersections of war and religion; sexuality; entertainment, such as sports, games, and television; education and the academy; journalism; the national economy, taxation, and finance; law and civil rights; the relationships among the army, the army reserve, and the National Guard; or postwar issues, such as war termination, military occupation, and demobilization. This list is not a critique of the book but a reminder of how thoroughly comprehensive and diverse the intersections of war and society are.

The first essay, on war and justice by Sahr Conway-Lanz, observes that “American leaders have never offered the furthering of national interests as the primary reason for going to war and the United States has yet to abandon war completely.” As a result, Conway-Lanz argues, “justice in war has remained a central concern and struggle for Americans” (p. 12). He shows that the United States’ reasons for going to war and wartime actions were based on reflections of just war theory that emphasizes justice in going to war as well as justice in the conduct of war and includes what international organizations, conventions, and norms were established during this period as well. The United States issued the Lieber Code to guide Union armies’ actions toward civilians in the Civil War, but there was controversy over President William McKinley’s decision to annex the Philippines in 1898, especially as methods of pacification became more brutal. In the world wars, President Woodrow Wilson offered a “pseudo-pacific justification” for America’s entry into the war and justice was certainly in America’s mindset when it entered World War II (p. 18). Conway-Lanz, however, shows that the Cold War and the war on terror have introduced more complexity and social division on the questions of war and justice, and one result has been ongoing debates about how, where, and why the United States should apply force. He concludes that “the history of Americans’ engagement with questions of war and justice in the modern world is a history of struggle over the fundamental problem of human violence,” namely, over how and when to apply violence justly (pp. 28-29). To be sure, the reasons why American leaders have engaged in violence are complex and varied—more than can be covered in this chapter—but the essay reminds us how abstract concepts influence real-world decisions.

The second essay, on the American Empire by Stefan Aune, portrays American history in an imperialist light and evaluates how American imperialism formed and has operated from America’s continental imperialism, to an overseas empire, to, finally, its empire of bases. Aune sees more continuity than change to argue that “analyzing U.S. history as an imperial history helps to illuminate a militarized empire that often seems hidden from view” (p. 34). Aune notes the steady progression of American westward movement that occurred alongside the US Army putting down Indian resistance to that expansion. In demonstrating the army’s formative experience on the frontier against Indians, Aune asserts that enemy terrain as “Indian Country” “became [an] enduring military trope” from the Philippines to Iraq. He asserts that the “enemy terrain as Indian Country” trope is “indicative of how the beliefs that motivate US empire travel across time and space” (pp. 36-37). In considering America’s overseas empire to include the Philippine as well as its Latin American policies in the early 1900s, Aune assigns the reasons for racial paternalism and economics. He lastly considers America’s “empire of bases,” beginning in 1898 but dramatically increasing in the second half of the twentieth century, as “tied to war, occupation, and military expansion” (p. 42). He notes the rise of America’s global military presence but does not mention that this expansion occurred in the context of the Cold War and then the global war on terror. The topic of American imperialism and its changing contexts requires a deft touch to handle, which Aune largely lacks. In showing the use of “Indian Country” language in tactical units, he does not demonstrate how that trope has affected policy or strategy. It is one thing for soldiers in Iraq to talk about “Indian Country” and quite another for senior leaders to make political and strategic decisions based on that thinking. Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy goals in Latin America were very different from Woodrow Wilson’s, and Aune does not consider that other goals—like the national security goals of keeping European imperialists out of the Caribbean and of protecting the Panama Canal—also motivated American leaders in the early 1900s. Lastly, he fails to contextualize America’s expanding global military presence within the Cold War and global war on terror and, instead, connects those policy decisions with America’s earlier continental imperialism. These broad generalizations without nuance and context make this essay one of the most problematic methodologically.

The third essay, by Nick Witham, examines antiwar activism by focusing on opposition to the acquisition of the Philippines and the Philippine War, to entrance into World War II before December 1941, to the Cold War by civil rights activists, to the Vietnam War, to President Ronald Reagan’s aid to anti-Communist forces, and to the war on terror. Witham argues that American antiwar activism typically includes opposition to US foreign policy and that antiwar activism at home “has shaped American responses to war” (pp. 47-48). He also demonstrates that context is a key factor shaping antiwar activism: activists’ arguments change over time because their opposition to the use of force is framed by that day’s domestic politics. Witham concludes that many of these activists believed that they were patriots acting on behalf of America’s interests but were also influenced by ideas from outside of America. Finally, he asserts that because American leaders frame the decision to use force with domestic politics in mind, the opposition to the use of force does the same, which stakes their presence in the public discourses on American foreign policy and the government’s use of force.

Mark Wilson wrote the fourth essay, focused on the military-industrial complex, one of the few essays to explore the oft-overlooked economic intersections of war and society. In examining the military-industrial complex since Dwight D. Eisenhower’s naming of it in 1960—but also considering its much deeper roots—Wilson argues that this socioeconomic phenomenon is more dynamic, is marked by major changes through the years, and is more “vulnerable” than generally acknowledged (p. 81). He shows how the military-industrial complex ebbs and flows over time and is always influenced by the larger political and strategic context. In the twenty-first century, Wilson concludes, the military-industrial complex has been more privatized by 2011 than any other time since Eisenhower’s speech in 1961 and it will be as influenced by the war on terror as it was affected by the Cold War.

Jennifer Mittelstadt’s essay on military demographics probes the class and racial dynamics of who has served in the US Armed Forces. Her major argument is that when the military used conscription, it was far more representative of American society, but when the draft ended, the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) quickly became less representative by becoming less middle class and enlisting more racial minorities. But, over time, the AVF became a way for minority groups—women, racial minorities, and members of the LGBT community—to find professional and social success. Insofar as she warns against a growing disconnect between the American populace and the AVF, she does not show how today’s civil-military disconnection is any different from earlier periods when the army relied on volunteer enlistments, such as the late 1800s. All the same, Mittelstadt documents how the composition of the US Army has changed as personnel policy has changed.

Christopher Hamner explores the changing nature of combat for US servicemembers. This essay could be viewed as the most impressionistic one in the book. Hamner argues that the experience of combat is a competition between changes in the character of war over time and the simultaneous constancy of the nature of warfare. Changes in technology were a key factor for how combat changed but battlefield tactics and infantry doctrine has changed as well. Hamner sums up the constants of combat as “the critical importance of motivating soldiers to risk their lives and fight even among the terrifying and deadly circumstances of battle” (p. 117). Given the generally unchanging horrors of battle, officers’ need to suppress the urge to flee from battle and to motivate men to kill their enemy is a constant demand. Methods of motivation have changed but such elements as training, leadership, and primary group cohesion have remained constant methods. Finally, Hamner asserts that an enduring continuity of the nature of warfare is the psychological trauma of enduring battle, even if the understanding of that trauma has changed over the years. Rather than attempt to describe all the different ways that American soldiers have engaged in combat, Hamner shows how the experience of combat for American servicemembers is as much a product of unchanging constants as it is ever-changing elements.

The essay on veterans is written fittingly by military veteran and sociologist Wilbur J. Scott. In encapsulating American veterans and the major issues that they face, Scott argues that “the conduct and outcome of a war affect both veterans’ views of their service and the opinions of others about them” (p. 127). This essay is not a history of American veterans, government policies regarding veterans, or the challenges that veterans have faced the last 150 years but a sociological exploration of what veterans face as a specific “social group” within American society, focusing more heavily on the mid-twentieth century. Scott examines veterans as a social and political group, the group’s demographics, and the ways the trauma of war has affected veterans’ reintegration into society.

The eighth essay, by Jana Lipman, examines American refugee policy since 1945. She sees World War II as a turning point for international policy regarding refugees, including in the United States. Lipman also demonstrates that refugees cannot be seen in a simplistic light but within competing narratives; refugees have been seen by the United States as “helpless victims” or rejected by Americans as possible threats (p. 149). Even for the Cold War, Lipman shows examples of Americans helping Hungarians fleeing Communism but exhibiting reticence in assisting anti-Communist Chinese doing the same. A major reason for these differences, she argues, is race. Context is key: during the Cold War, the government saw refugees as those fleeing Communism but race still figured into whom the US helped. She concludes that these competing narratives—refugees as victims or possible threats—has remained through the war on terror and especially into the Trump administration, given its refusal to accept many Syrian refugees out of fear of possible terrorists coming into the United States. Lipman uses anecdotal case studies to help illustrate the complex process of deciding who is a refugee and who is not and the ways context informs the decision-making process.

In “Race and/in War,” the ninth essay, Christine Knauer examines minorities in uniform, views of minorities in uniform, and the impact of war on America’s racial politics. Knauer’s essay focuses most heavily on race and American wars between World War I and Vietnam. America fought the world wars in the context of racial segregation at home, which affected how black soldiers participated in these conflicts and which exacerbated racial tension at home. In the Korean and Vietnam Wars, changes in racial policies at home affected race relations in the army as racial integration offered more opportunities to black soldiers than before. At the same time, changing racial politics at home in the 1960s also affected how American blacks viewed the Vietnam War. Knauer looks very briefly at minorities in the army since the Vietnam War but does not use such works as Beth Bailey’s America’s Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force (2009) and Jennifer Mittelstadt’s The Rise of the Military Welfare State (2015), which demonstrate that the shift toward the AVF had important racial dimensions. She does assert, however, that a decline in blacks’ enlistment in the army during the war on terror was a result of improved economic opportunities in the civilian sector. Knauer points to the interplay and interactions between America’s domestic racial issues and its wars.

The tenth essay, by Karen Dixon Vuic, deals with gender and war but primarily only within a cisgender construct. Vuic shows that waging war is “intimately tied to gender” and that gender has influenced how Americans understood the wars they fought, has affected how Americans fought those wars, and has affected military policy, and, finally, she maintains that these interactions have changed over time. Vuic argues that gender influenced the idea that men had a masculine responsibility to fight for their countries in the world wars. To the consternation of some leaders, wars challenged gender norms when married middle-class women were hired in large numbers at war factories to help sustain America’s war efforts and gave more opportunities for women to participate in military service. The transition to the AVF meant competition for labor, which meant allowing more opportunities for women after 1973, even as they were excluded from combat roles. Vuic concludes that gender roles had changed in the military “in fits and starts” rather than a neat linear progression. Therefore, the 2015 decision to include women in combat roles was part of a long tradition of slowly giving women more opportunities in military service but how those recent changes in gender policy will affect American warmaking remains to be seen.

John Kinder’s essay on the body in war examines the three stages of the body in wartime: in training, combat, and the postwar. Kinder is critical of military history’s “sh[ying] away from the bodily dimensions of war” and preoccupation with a strategic, bird’s-eye view and leaders’ use of abstract euphemisms to sugarcoat the reality of human beings torn apart in battle (p. 219). Whether draftees and recruits, Americans had been poked and prodded by medical personnel to ascertain if they were fit for war physically and mentally. Processes became more scientific over time but American male bodies were closely examined to let the “strong” fight for America and to prevent the “weak” from entering military service. In training, the military attempted to convert civilian bodies into hardened military ones ready for combat. However, battle often proved to be entirely different than expected and American soldiers endured the hell of battle. As technology improved, so did their chances of being ripped apart in battle in increasingly newer and more interesting ways. This reality, Kinder writes, has forced American soldiers through time to find ways to cope with the horrors of battle and forced medicine to find ways to heal broken bodies. Kinder also examines how the US government has dealt with soldiers’ dead bodies as well as disabled veterans. Kinder minces no words when he writes that “since the Civil War, government policies toward disabled veterans have been repeatedly marred by ill planning, indifference, and abuse” (p. 234). Looking to the future, he wonders how war will affect the human body as robots and artificial intelligence have an increasingly important role on the battlefield and what the ethical dilemma of the US not losing soldiers even as it kills the bodies of its enemies will mean long term.

Richard Tucker’s essay examines the interactions of the environment and war, especially the US military’s interactions with the environment in wartime and peacetime. Tucker demonstrates how the US military has affected the environment in battle, such as in World War I or when it has employed a “scorched earth strategy,” like against Native Americans, the Confederacy, or Filipinos (pp. 240-41). For industry to support and sustain the military, natural resources (metals, minerals, and lumber) had to be extracted from the planet. The construction of bases, military infrastructure, and weapons testing also has had an environmental impact. Tucker lists how the US Armed Forces have attempted to clean up bases no longer used and to protect endangered wildlife on military bases. He lists the intersection of military action and the environment but does not dwell on impact. However, in his conclusion, he shows ways America’s wars in the Middle East have affected the environments in Iraq and Afghanistan. He demonstrates how these conflicts have adversely affected these natural environments and farmers’ livelihoods, and argues that “a trend of ecological degradation continues in a war-torn land that can hardly afford the additional stress” (p. 254).

Susan Carruthers explores how mass communication has affected how Americans at home have understood wartime experiences. She focuses less on the press and more on how soldiers have used mass communication, from V-mail to e-mail, to correspond with loved ones at home. Carruthers observes the importance of soldiers’ connections to home and loved ones, the ways the US military has tried to foster positive connections between frontline and home front, and the challenges that come with that process. While communicating with loved ones is not new, the methods used have changed and, as Carruthers shows, have introduced new challenges. Soldiers recorded messages on cassette tapes during the Vietnam War and had access to a reliable telephone connection in the early 1990s. With the internet, servicemembers in the war on terror have access to text, photo, and video platforms to inform wider audiences about their experiences. Old challenges, such as dealing with bad news from home while fighting a war abroad or struggling with not enough communication from home, have not gone away in the digital era. And with new means, Carruthers shows, come new challenges: easier access to loved ones raises concerns of rumors spreading, soldiers making political comments, maintenance of operational security, and the public nature of digital communication (it can be far less private than writing a letter). Carruthers shows both change and continuity in communication between soldiers and their loved ones in wartime.

Bonnie M. Miller offers a cultural historian’s analysis of how the images of war have influenced people’s understanding of war. She argues that while the images of war may give viewers greater proximity to the nature of military conflict, “war pictures have as much potential to distort and misrepresent as they do to clarify and expose,” and it all depends on context (p. 280). For example, many of the lithographs of the Mexican War romanticized combat but the photography of Civil War dead told a radically different story. Images are used, however, to tell a narrative, and Miller traces how the US government used images, such as photographs, posters, and cartoons, to tell a certain narrative in the world wars that were challenged by other images that told a different story. The government uses these media to tell its narrative but it does not exclusively control them. For example, the iconic images of America’s war in Vietnam came from photojournalists and the photographs of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal came from soldiers’ own photographs. American visual culture, including how it understood and connected to war, was dramatically changed with the advent of film because film created the television and movie industries and changed how media reported the news. The internet has been the most recent revolution of images and video because “dissemination is now instantaneous on a global scale” (p. 303). Because of the internet, Miller concludes, the government attempts to control visual images; this is doomed to fail because “the tendencies toward democratizing image production and distribution via global pathways is too strong a force for any policy of containment to succeed” (p. 304).

Similar to Miller’s essay on visual culture is Scott Laderman’s essay on war and film. Laderman argues that movies about war serve three purposes: they give the perception of historical narrative and historicity, they are “seductive instruments of state and nonstate propaganda,” and they are entertainment and diversion (p. 308). He shows that Hollywood helped to push the government’s narrative in World War II and the early Cold War. Much of the essay, however, is Laderman bemoaning how American war movies have usually pushed a pro-American slant. When examining films of the Vietnam War, he focuses wholly on John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968), and it is clear that he does not like the movie and revels in the movie’s bad reviews. The 1980s and Ronald Reagan brought “American revanchism” to war films, trying to rescue America from its defeat in Vietnam (p. 320). Laderman never mentions, however, the films that were critical of America’s war in Vietnam, such as The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Rambo: First Blood (1982), Platoon (1986), Hamburger Hill (1987), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Casualties of War (1989), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Laderman focuses on the one movie sympathetic toward the war in Vietnam and ignores the bevy of movies critical of it. Despite these critical perspectives, Laderman argues that what saved America from this “revanchism” was Three Kings (1999). He praises the movie’s critical view of America’s foreign policy in the Middle East as well as its portrayal of Iraqis as humans rather than terrorists. However, with the war on terror, Laderman expresses frustration at how Hollywood, again, is pushing rather than challenging the government’s narrative. This essay says nothing about the involvement of the Department of Defense in Hollywood productions and what that says about movies’ messages. He also says nothing about modern-day realist movies about past wars, such as Saving Private Ryan (1999) or We Were Soldiers (2001), and their impact on the collective memory of past conflicts. In light of the numerous war movies pushing a variety of views and interpretations, this essay fails to explore the cultural intersection between war and film in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Although Laderman does not look at how film affects memory, G. Kurt Piehler does examine how Americans have remembered past conflicts. Piehler is careful to distinguish academic history from collective memory, and he explains why memory is so important to society. Piehler argues that studying the memory of war reveals “a wider effort of state-building and the growing centralization of power in the hands of the federal government after the Civil War” (p. 333). From here, he illustrates how Americans have remembered the major wars from the Civil War to the war on terror. While he shows an increasingly involved federal government, Piehler also points to how memory has changed over time. For example, the US government did very little for Confederate soldiers after the Civil War until President Theodore Roosevelt opened a Confederate section at Arlington Cemetery in 1902 to show national reconciliation. Memory changes in part because it is also contested. A northern white memory, southern white memory, and African American memory of the Civil War contested for primacy of how to understand the Civil War. How Americans should remember the Civil War was refought during the civil rights movement, the author argues. Lastly, Piehler demonstrates that memory is constructed. After World War I, the US government created the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to symbolize America’s Great War dead and then expanded it as the years passed. While the Vietnam War Memorial is one of America’s most poignant war memorials, its physical construction was, at the time, quite controversial. In a short essay, readers begin to understand the complexity of collective myth and memory and the role of the government in that process.

The last chapter is a timeline by Katherine Ellison and William Watson of significant military events between 1890 and 2017. It gives the dates of America’s major wars and military operations. It includes significant laws and policies passed, such as the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Strategic Defense Initiative, as well as brief descriptions. Events, however, of the same year are not placed in chronological order. For example, “World War I Conclusion (1918)” is placed before “Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points” even though Wilson’s Fourteen Points were announced in January 1918 and the war ended in November. Despite that minor critique, the timeline ably covers America’s major wars, policies, and laws between 1890 and 2017.

As the summary of these essays shows, very little binds these essays together except that each explores how American society has “done” war over the past 150 years. The authors tend to assume some knowledge of US military history. Because the editors hope these essays will prompt discussion, each essay includes three or four discussion questions and a list of three or four books for further reading as well as endnotes. As an added bonus, the editors include color photographs and images. Because readers will not, and should not, agree with every essay, this book would work quite well in a classroom; students can discuss the authors’ various arguments, methodologies, and conclusions. This book is most suitable for an upper-division undergraduate course or a graduate course on military history or on war and society. This book of essays does not comprehensively cover all intersections of war and American society, but it is a very good place to start.


[1]. Michael Howard, Studies in War and Peace (New York: The Viking Press, 1971), 9, 185, 189.

[2]. See, for example, Robert Citino, “Military Histories Old and New: A Reintroduction,” The American Historical Review 112, no. 4 (October 2007): 1070-90.

Citation: Jonathan Beall. Review of Kieran, David; Martini, Edwin A., eds., At War: The Military and American Culture in the Twentieth Century and Beyond. H-War, H-Net Reviews. September, 2019. URL:

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