Demystifying the American Military: Institutions, Evolution, and Challenges since 1789

  • Published

Demystifying the American Military: Institutions, Evolution, and Challenges since 1789 by Paula G. Thornhill. Naval Institute Press, 2019, 246 pp.

Like many, I waited for the holiday season to catch up on reading—I wish now I had read Paula Thornhill’s book earlier. Dr. Thornhill is the real deal when it comes to a blend of the right experiences with academic chops to back up her work. Her PhD in history from Oxford University, experiences at the Pentagon and in the joint world as a senior officer (she is a retired brigadier general), and her work as a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation establish her credentials on many levels. Divided into two main parts—the basics of US military organizations and their people and the common defense and America’s military—Demystifying the American Military is a historical primer of our American military by service branch from our country’s founding to present day. 

Thornhill’s premise is that “understanding the US military is an integral part of understanding the United States and its citizens”
(p. 2). Toward that end, she explains the basic lexicon and essential organizational structure of the US military, offers insights into the individuals who serve in these organizations and what they do, and details how these organizations’ structures and cultures have evolved since the nation’s founding.

Overall, the chapters follow a similar format that guides the reader through key periods of our military history and provides a succinct account of each service branch transformed by war experiences, interwar years, and American social/cultural changes in relationship to the common defense over time. The explanations and accompanying analyses of the structure, challenges, successes, and failures of the service components are all exceptional. A strength of the book is its coverage of military involvement in the key events that shaped our nation. Yet the two ending chapters covering 1991–2017 seemed to not be enough. I would have liked to hear more about the growing reliance on technology and importance of the cyber domain; the emergence of the space force; the proliferation of unmanned systems; and the prominent, but often overlooked, role that US Northern Command plays in our common defense.

Perhaps the best parts of the book are at the end of each chapter. Thornhill goes beyond answering common questions about the history of our military organizations, their structures, cultures, and the people. Each chapter concludes with a section analyzing the impact of the topics explored on the common defense, which serves to connect the chapters. Also, the recommended readings serve to connect the reader to content for deeper understanding and help to address some areas the books does not cover in detail. Collectively, the sections on “Impact on the Common Defense” trace the effects of each historical period on our military, nation, and people (in and out of uniform). However, chapter 8 (“The Services’ Struggles for Relevance in the Atomic Age, 1945–1949") does not have this section. The atomic age had significant influence on our common defense, and thus an impact section would have been helpful to the reader. Regardless of the missing section, if one reads only the 14 pages from nine chapters elaborating on the impact on the common defense, the reader will have a deeper knowledge of our military history that would aid in demystifying the American military in relationship to the people they serve to protect.

My main concern is that the claim of the military representing the people is only partially correct. The US military reflects the nation and its priorities, but I am not convinced that it fully reflects the people. American citizens are somewhat distant from the military. While many applaud and thank the military, less than 1 percent of US citizens have served in uniform. So based on Thornhill’s arguments, does the military represent the ones who served or the larger citizenry as a whole? Perhaps the answer is both. In the macro sense, the military represents the nation but at the micro level, only the people who served. This book helps to close the knowledge gap for those who have never served so that they at least understand our military’s history.

If there will be a second edition, additional chapters could address the above critiques along with analyzing the relationship of our military with the executive branch and the people in general. Areas of emphasis could include the effects of college campus Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs, nationwide recruiting organizations, and military installations on the surrounding communities. While the US Coast Guard is not part of the DOD, its involvement in our domestic national defense could be an interesting addition as well. The recent stand-up of our US Space Force as the fifth armed force in the Department of Defense would deem inclusion in the next edition.

Thought-provoking and easy to read, Demystifying the American Military is a five-star book that is a must-read for all military officers at the intermediate schools of professional military education and for any course in military history at civilian institutions. Our national security officials would also benefit from the historical primer. Whether someone is currently serving in uniform, a veteran, or interested in serving in the military, the book is a gem for helping open the window into understanding that our uniformed history goes step in step and hand in hand with our nation, from its founding to present day. If it were up to me, the book would be required reading for anyone who wishes to become a citizen of the United States.

Col John M. Hinck, PhD, US Army, Retired
Assistant Professor of Leadership, Air University



"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."