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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 261


Review:                  Walter Millis, Arms and Men, Capricorn Books, 1967 (1956).

In Arms and Men, Walter Millis attempted to answer the question, "How did we get ourselves into such a mess?"  The mess he was concerned with was the nuclear standoff of the mid-1950s.  Millis believed that human civilization was standing on the brink of an unprecedented catastrophe, similar to the position in which Europe found itself in 1914.  "By the end of 1954 the world situation . . . had become so unstable, so dangerous and so pregnant of total disaster for humanity as to demand a review." (p. 342)

Millis was concerned with two main issues which he believed were at the heart of the United States's current predicament.  The first was manpower policy.  Millis saw conscription as one of the most onerous developments of modern mass warfare, especially the unprecedented step of conscription in peacetime.  His second main concern was the role of technology in shaping the way wars were fought and prepared for, with nuclear weapons being the obvious contemporary case.

In order to make sense out of the current dilemma, Millis went back to the beginning.  Arms and Men traces American military history from the Revolutionary War through the Korean War, bringing out the role of technology and manpower policies in American military experience throughout the account.  Millis's outstanding contribution to the study of modern military history was the model he created to explain the changes in war during that time.  How was war transformed from the pastime of kings in the 18th century into the civilization-devouring monster of the mid-twentieth century?  Millis proposed five "revolutions" which conspired to produce this transformation: democratic, industrial, managerial, mechanical and scientific.  While it is possible to quibble over the meaning of the term "revolution," or over the relative significance of each element, the basic model is a powerful tool in analyzing the advent of total war, and not just in American experience.  For instance, he effectively used it to show how the cumulative effects of the industrial and managerial revolutions allowed the mass armies of the democratic revolution to focus the energies of entire nations by the early 20th century.

Having brilliantly brought his readers up to the present, Millis faltered when he attempted to look into the future.  In his final two chapters, "The Hypertrophy of War" and "The Future of War," he suggested that war has lost its social utility:


By 1956 there appeared to be almost no way in which the deployment of military force . . . could be brought rationally to bear upon the decision of any of the political, economic, emotional or philosophical issues by which men still remain divided. (p. 364)

It is easy to criticize Millis today for this overstated conclusion, which reflected the apocalyptic mood of the 1950s.  However, his general argument for the "hypertrophy" of war is in fact fairly convincing.  He believed that war's useful social function, that of providing a decision of issues unresolvable any other way, had nearly come to an end.  The world wars of the twentieth century, followed by the possibility of nuclear armageddon, supported this conclusion admirably.  What he failed to take account of was the possibility of limited wars continuing under the "nuclear umbrella" without inevitably escalating into total war.  The flaws in the conclusion demonstrate the difficulty of predicting the future, but this does not invalidate the book as a whole.  More than 35 years after it was written, Arms and Men remains a highly readable, coherent analysis of the American contribution to the development of the total warfare of the twentieth century.

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