Bodies for Battle: Systematic Training in the U.S. Army’s Physical Culture, 1885-1958
University of Kansas
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This study investigates the creation and evolution of an official U.S. Army physical culture between 1885 and 1958 built around systematic physical training. Facing “empty battlefields” wrought by new and improved weapons technology in the late nineteenth century, a few young officers advocated systematic physical training as a means of improving the Army’s manpower to meet the mounting physical and mental demands of combat. These advocates, most notably West Point’s Herman Koehler, drew on contemporary popular fitness culture and the professionalizing field of physical education to craft a new culture and associated system of exercise that has informed approaches to physical training in the U.S. Army ever since. Using archival sources, published training manuals, and professional journals serving military officers and physical educators, this study illuminates that original culture’s system of values, beliefs, and assumptions, then traces its change over time to 1958. This study finds that change primarily resulted from the influence of empowered institutional outsiders who applied cutting-edge physical education knowledge and expertise to orient the Army’s physical culture evermore on producing measurable physiological outcomes, especially after 1942. However, impulses driven by scientific rationalism existed alongside and interacted with relatively stable core values and beliefs, such as man’s central role in battle despite technological change, the Army’s role as a man-building agency, and definite connections between physical exercise, moral fiber, and mental strength. The Army’s physical culture also consistently existed at a nexus between intersecting concerns that influenced its development and motivated its deployment outside the Army into civilian society. Significant intersections included anxieties about American masculinity and fitness in an era of industrial war that demanded the deep mobilization of populations, and the changing relationship between man and machine in war. Beyond providing a rich description of the U.S. Army’s physical culture and training system as it evolved over the first half of the twentieth century, this study pioneers the investigation of martial physical culture as a profitable and as-yet understudied avenue for historical research.
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