The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

The People’s Army: An Idea Whose Time has Past

Some say that the concept of a “People’s Army” that is large, represents the responsibility of citizens doing their duty in service to the nation, but is relatively untrained, is a quaint 19th Century idea that is irrelevant to the modern nation state. What the modern nation state needs is a military that is highly skilled, manned by expert long service professionals, who are capable of precisely wielding the sophisticated high technology weapons of the 21st century to achieve decisive effects with minimum collateral damage. A professional l military allows war to be executed quickly and with the minimum of casualties to all concerned. A “people’s army” is good for violent, costly, and chaotic revolution, but the professional army of the stable nation state is the ultimate military force.

A different point of view insists that the professional army is a costly and wasteful arm of government that permits a nation to constantly wage war without the commitment or approval of the vast majority of the population. The standing professional army is inherently destabilizing to the international system. This argument maintains that when the cost of war is low than war is common. Thus, the relative ease and lack of debate with which the U.S. entered war with Iraq was a function of the standing professional military that made engaging in war “too easy” for the American population.

Does a professional army allow a country to go to war with the minimum of disruption to civilian life? Is this a good thing or does it contribute to the willingness / ease with which a country might decide on a war option?

The trend of Western Armies is toward small, professional, volunteer forces. Has the nature war changed in the 21st Century to make the people’s army irrelevant? Or, have transnational groups taken the idea of the “people’s army” to the next level and found a way to match it asymmetrically against a professional force?

September 20, 2010 - Posted by | H100, military history | , , , , , ,


  1. I think it is clear that having a professional army allows a nation to go to war with minimum disruption to civilian life. In fact, since 9/11,the US has waged the GWOT/GCO in a manner that has not only allowed Americans to go about their daily lives, but many Americans have no idea what exactly is going on or why we’re at war. The governmet cut taxes twice, continues to spend money (stimulus and healthcare plans), and the economy, despite the recent recession, is still the strongest by far. No resources are rationed. The only Americans affected by this conflict are those related to Soldiers or those working in the defense industry.
    While I’m not sure it is a good thing, it does contribute to how easy a nation (our nation) can deploy and fight a conflict. In Vietnam, the draft affected millions (either directly being drafted, or being in the pool of possible draftees). This, combined with the question of whether the war was in our interests, led to the huge protests and loss of support for the war.
    With no draft, less than 1% of the nation in the military, and absolutely no interruptions of daily life, our current conflict is now in it’s 10th year.
    In order to ensure the quality of life for the other 99% of Americans, it is a good thing that we have a strong, professional Army that can secure our national interests. Where would we be if we went to the draft every time we’ve deployed to defend or fight for what was determined to be “in our national interests”? Panama, Gulf War, Somalia, Balkans, OEF, OIF…?

    Comment by Alex Ramage | September 20, 2010

  2. As we analyze this topic I would suggest that a people’s Army and a professionals Army are not totally mutually exclusive concepts. Certainly keeping a professional Army facilitates the quick deployment of forces, as being ready is an essential task for a professional soldier. In doing so the military, as a profession, promotes the vigorous development of organizations, systems, new technologies etc. These benefits, however, do not eliminate the possible requirement of a larger force sustained by a people’s-Army like concept. In the event of such necessity, the already existing professional Army would serve as the frame of that larger force. Consequently the professional and people’s army would complement each other.

    Comment by Gilbert Rolon | September 21, 2010

  3. Considering today’s environment and the fact that our military consists of a conglomeration of both active duty as well as reserve/guard forces, I do not think that a professional army allows a country to go to war with the minimum of disruption to civilian life. Throughout the past nine years, may soldiers (both from the active and reserve components) have been through numerous deployments as part of our professional army only to return with the reasonable expectation of not being deployed for a reasonable timeframe. As many have experienced, this has not been the case. Furthermore, these soldiers return to population whose opinion regarding our involvement in Iraq continues to wane.
    As for the idea of the “people’s army” I do believe that transnational groups have capitalized on the idea and have brought it to the levels we experience in today’s environment. Such groups seem more emboldened and motivated to asymmetrically oppose the professional force whom they know is taxed by many deployments as well as the multiple transitions of forces in the areas of operation.

    Comment by Pia Romero | September 21, 2010

  4. In keeping with the discussions that we had during our class session, I believe that the current U.S. Army is neither completely a professional Army, as per the historical example of Prussia, nor is it totally a People’s Army, IAW the description above. Rather, I concur with Ryan Kranc and some of my other 17D classmates that it is a hybrid of the two.

    Along the lines of professionalism, Soldiers in today’s Army demonstrate specialized knowledge, making an irreplaceable contribution to society. We are paid for our work, and we are recognized by the majority of the population that we serve.

    In my opinion, our Army also exhibits some characteristics of the People’s Army. The majority of servicemembers that I know are motivated to serve, at least in part, by patriotism and love of country. Also, as discussed in class, the National Guard and Army Reserve have the strongest ties to the American people. And I’m sure that many others have shared the experiences I’ve had of total strangers coming up to me and thanking me for my service. Despite those expressions of support, though, I agree with Alex in his comments above that many Americans are very disconnected from any type of hardship related to the GWOT.

    Comment by Rachel Wienke, 17D | September 21, 2010

  5. Although it can be argued that the cost of war is low to the average American citizen, the cost of not going to war could potentially be too high for the average American citizen. The benefit of having a professional Army is a select few bear the responsibility of protecting the aggregate. The civil military construct (triad of government, military, and society) is designed to provide checks and balances against the unwarranted exercise of military might internationally. In this vain, it is not much different that the people’s Army during the French Revolution. If a citizen does not agree with their elected officials deploying US troops into conflict areas overseas they still hold the power of the vote.

    As for “transnational groups” elevating the people’s army to the next level – I disagree. The prevailing thought is the majority of terrorists and insurgents that have been combating US troops have by default been hired into service by a lack of viable, legitimate alternatives. I would not characterize the modern US opponent as a people’s army; they are modern day mercanaries.

    Comment by Marc Leduc | September 21, 2010

  6. MAJ Marc Leduc makes an interesting point that transnational groups are modern day mercenaries instead of people’s army. I guess as I see it, putting labels on this group of people is just as hard as MAJ Rachel Wienke made in her post about whether the US military is a professional or people’s army. I would argue that transnational groups are in fact a hybrid of both mercenaries and a people’s army.

    Like mercenaries, some people that fight for groups like al Qaida are simply trying to make money. As all of us who have deployed will tell you, there is evidence that many low level people are just about the money. However, there are those that are driven by a belief in what they would characterize as fighting the fight for their beliefs and values. For this reason, I think that groups like al Qaida are in fact a hybrid between mercenaries and people’s army. I just do not think we can create a label and therefore maybe we need to create a completely new category for this type of force.

    Comment by MAJ David Price | September 22, 2010

  7. The U.S. Army is very familiar with the concepts and ideas of the “Peoples Army” and a “Professional Army”. The 21st Century Leaders and Soldiers have used both sides to their benefit when needed.

    21st Century Leaders use technology and media to explain why we are at war to a nation that has little understanding of the realities of military service. We are a force that makes up about 1% of the American population, but the nation is also using that same technology and media to keep informed. Most people have a basic understanding that soldiers are serving, protecting, and defending the nation even if they don’t have a good understanding of OIF and OEF.

    Soldiers have a better understanding of this media outlet with links to submit a congressional complaint if their equipment is faulty, their barracks are unhealthy, or they are being mistreated. They rely on the nation to support them when they see their buddies getting killed because they didn’t get the right training.

    The 21st Century American nation expects their taxes to provide them with an Army that is there for them and for that army to be professional.

    These factors make the 21st Century military both and I think we have learned that throughout out military history how important both ideas are to our benefit. I would love to hear a recruiters answer to this question.

    Comment by MAJ Tanya Seymore | September 23, 2010

  8. From the American point of view, we discovered in Viet Nam that Clausewitz was right – the people play a pivotal role in war. Unfortunately, this was a decidedly inconvenient fact for the political elite. Doing away with the draft and professionalizing the entire force presented the opportunity for the waging of war to be disconnected from the people, whose disagreement with the political establishment on the use of military force had become an annoying check on the power of the government to wage war.

    As a result of this disconnect, the politicians are able to wage war almost at will since the people don’t have a “dog in the hunt.” They don’t even have to pay an increase in taxes, since we can borrow the money. Although the American people express mild annoyance with ongoing wars when polled, it really doesn’t affect them enough to inspire political change.

    On the other side of the fence, the disconnect has led to the rise of a new warrior class with a unique culture which is increasingly insulated from that of the rest of America.

    Where does that leave today’s Army? Although based in the values system of a people’s army, in practical terms it resembles a mercenary force whose masters are the elite political establishment.

    Comment by MAJ Trent Lythgoe | September 23, 2010

  9. A professional Army does facilitate to a certain degree a country capable of going to war with little impact on civilian life. Yes the Reserve and National Guard forces do make up a large portion of our military force, it is however a relatively small percentage of the nation’s population. If we did not have a professional Army and were required to raise one each time war arose, you would see a drastic impact upon the civilian population that may not support a conflict in the vital interest of the National Military Strategy. Especially a civilian population that lacks military experience and therefore lacks the true value of freedom never having to fought for freedom. Not to mention the time, resources, and expense required raising such a force and training it to be competent. The draft is a very unpopular technique to create such a force. With the current political climate, politicians would face certain career implosion especially considering that a large portion of the nation’s population does not support the current administrations political agenda, therefore they would not view a draft as volunteering. A professional army does enable a countries decision to go to war with relative ease because the force is trained, equipped, and experienced with exceptional leadership that facilitates more successful battles and campaigns in accordance with international standards for conduct of a righteous war. It also strengthens our multi-national coalition partner alliances through multi-national/joint exercise. The “Peoples Army” of the 19th century is over and the idea of a volunteer draft army is dead. One could argue that it would a take a significant event like 9/11 to call the people into action, however look at the current fallout over the military action as a result of the terrorist attacks. The people demonstrate less support every day.

    Comment by MAJ James Lucowitz 17 A | September 24, 2010

  10. While a professional army can mitigate the impact of war on the average civilian and provides a skilled, dependable, and sustainable force, an argument can be made for an army that has some attributes of a “people’s army”. For an army to truly represent the population it serves, perhaps it should be comprised of the entire population without bias. I am not saying that the entire population should be trained for combat, but a population that has a more personal stake in the reasoning for (or against) and the outcome of a conflict may be more likely to participate with a passion, making for a stronger army. I would agree that certain transnational groups that can be defined as a people’s army have successfully matched (asymmetrically) against traditional professional forces. From a national defense perspective we have a responsibility to understand why this is true and seek solutions that can better defeat such a threat. It should be interesting to note that with few exceptions, Israel requires mandatory participation in the Israel Defense Force (3 years for men, 2 for women). Israel has a model that allows combat and non-combat participation in the IDF, with a choice after mandatory service to consider permanent service. I think there would be little argument that Israel has a powerful and passionate military presence in the Middle East. While the U.S. is not in the same position geopolitically, I believe we can learn from their experiences, especially in light of our recent experiences in the Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Comment by JA-17B | September 27, 2010

  11. A professional standing army does allow a country conduct “limited” warfare with minimal disruption to its civilian population. For example, the average U.S. citizen knows very little about today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These citizens are more concerned with issues which have a direct impact on daily living (e.g. loss of jobs, gas prices, etc.).

    However, as a nation moves toward “total” warfare, its citizens become more in tune with the war. In World War II, for instance, citizens donated aluminum, silk, cooking fat, iron, steel, rubber, and other various items to the war effort. When mom could no longer cook with her favorite pot because she gave it to the war drive, she was personally affected by the war. Therefore, her concern for the war increased.

    A professional standing army contributes to the ease with which a nation can decide to go to war. But is this really a bad thing? As the world’s superpower, shouldn’t America have forces trained and ready to respond on a moment’s notice?

    Comment by MAJ Tim Brower, 17C | October 5, 2010

  12. When I was drafted in 1993, the German Armed Forces had a strength of 585.000 active Soldiers. There has been a continuous downsizing and we will end up with a future force of roughly 180.000 – and suspend the conscription.
    Reasons for conscription (and therefore a people`s army) have been:

    1. Anchoring of the forces within our society to avoid a “state within the state”. The idea was to have forces with “citizens in uniform” serving in it. By keeping the military and the society connected the people of Germany should maintain some awareness and interest in the force (their sons) and herby the easy use of the force should be “hampered”.

    2. Conscription also ensures a certain quality in force generation. Even if the conscripts are not as well trained as professional soldiers, they are an excellent basis for recruitment. Young men from all parts of the society, with educational background across the entire school system are “forced” to experience the military. A lot of conscripts (especial with higher educational background) decided to stay in the army. Otherwise they wouldn`t even thought about an army career.

    3. By having conscription, there has always been the right for conscientious objection, too. And these people served in German social institutions (e.g. elderly care). Over the course of the years this group of people became a mainstay of the social system.

    The major concerns in contemporary political discussions about suspending the conscription in Germany are:
    1. Fear about an increased use of military force, disconnected from the interest and therefore observation by the German society.
    2. Recruitment challenges and a subsequent shift towards an underclass army.
    3. Significant increase in the cost of the social system.

    Two reasons for the suspension of conscription are currently quoted:
    1. There is no requirment for a people’s army in the current security politic environment.
    2. Maintaining a people’s army is more expensive than having a significantly smaller, professional force.

    Comment by Maj Reiser, 17D | November 12, 2010

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