But haunting the proceedings are the lessons learned from one of the central events in the Army’s history — the Newburgh Conspiracy.
Visitors to the new National Museum of the United States Army will encounter at least two detailed discussions of that 1783 crisis, in which prominent officers of what was then known as the Continental Army threatened rebellion over back pay and pensions. Details of the events are still disputed, as are the motivations of the key players. Gen. George Washington used his personal prestige, powerful oratory and a keen sense of theater to shame the recalcitrant officers and defuse the situation; his deft response is cited as one of the critical events in the creation of a stable, functioning republic. Since the Newburgh Conspiracy, civilian control of the Army has been central to its self-understanding and purpose.
Now, as top Republicans cast doubt on the integrity of the nation’s electoral system and President Trump digs in with conspiracy theories and false claims about voter fraud, the American people need to understand the Newburgh story, its larger ramifications and how the successful suppression of the rebellion continues to influence our country’s military.
During the ceremony Wednesday afternoon, at which participants gathered masked in the museum’s cavernous lobby, Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated the “unique” loyalty of the Army, not “to a country, a tribe or religion” but to the Constitution. But the events also included civilian leaders, among them, Christopher C. Miller, who became acting secretary of defense after Trump fired Secretary Mark T. Esper via tweet on Monday, as well as Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy, who ordered National Guard troops into the streets of Washington over the summer, and dispatched helicopters that flew low over the city in a way that many civilians found menacing.
The Army and the Army Historical Foundation have devoted substantial resources to create a museum that now ranks among the major public-history institutions in and near the nation’s capital. Located on a grassy plain surrounded by forest on the grounds of Fort Belvoir, the $430 million Army museum is far more than an exercise in institutional hagiography or, like the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, a mostly theme-park recruitment experience.
Professional and amateur historians can dispute details of the material presented, and parse the nuances of what is emphasized and sometimes obfuscated. But this is a professional museum, full of revelatory and emotionally powerful objects, arranged into a narrative that tracks not just the history of the Army, but also the larger social and cultural history of the United States.
The Newburgh Conspiracy, presented in a gallery devoted to “Founding the Nation” and again in a large exhibition dubbed “Army and Society,” underscores the Army’s rock-ribbed sense of purpose — to support and defend the Constitution — and its enduring mythology — an apolitical, highly professional, unrivaled military force. This is apparent not just in the museum’s exhibitions, but also in its architecture. Designed by the blue-chip firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (with Colin Koop as lead partner), the shining, steel-clad pavilions of the 185,000-square-foot building command a green plateau, yet front onto an enormous open field.
The building is trim and efficient and perhaps intentionally bland in a corporate way, but manicured like a well-pressed uniform. It meets relatively high environmental standards, with LED lighting and green roofs, and yet, unlike some recent dire warnings (from the president in an anti-environmental rant) about energy-efficient design, it has windows, and many of its spaces feel open and bright.
The large lobby is dominated by a black granite “campaign wall,” which lists all of the Army’s military campaigns. This introduces a tension that is well orchestrated throughout the museum, between the insider lore of the Army and the need to explain this lore to outsiders. The solution is to say: Our story is your story.
Some 30 million people have served in the Army since its founding, and if one adds to that number all the family and descendants who feel deeply connected to that service, the Army can lay claim to being one of the broadest and most capacious institutions in American life. Throughout the museum’s galleries, and spilling out onto the entry plazas, metal pylons make this more personal, with etched images of individual soldiers from all periods of the Army’s history, and text that describes their lives and contributions.
The danger of this narrative-driven approach, with a direct appeal to collective experience and feelings of common good, is obvious. The Army isn’t just the sum of individual experiences; it is an instrument of power. And it has exercised that power not just in times of danger and vulnerability, including the early, unstable years of the nascent country, but also throughout our history. It has been used to force Native Americans off their land, aggressively conquer territory held by other countries, including Mexico, assert colonial dominion around the globe, and engage in unpopular wars in such places as Vietnam and, later, Iraq and Afghanistan.
These facts must be acknowledged, too, and for the most part, the museum’s curators do so. I picked a few important touchstones of Army history and looked for discussion of them, including the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, the segregated Army and the “Indian Wars” against the rightful native inhabitants of what is now America. All of this is broached, though often in language that is both maddeningly dispassionate and morally obtuse. Native Americans and American settlers clashed because they “needed the same lands” is tone deaf, but there is at least an acknowledgment that the Native Americans “fought for their freedom.” The 1968 My Lai Massacre, a war crime in which hundreds of civilians were killed, is summed up thus: “The event raised unsettling questions about the conduct of the war.”
This is insufficient, and one of the more significant places where the curators have failed to adequately explain the severity and context of the material. But it is a rare fumble in a museum that also acknowledges the role that pacifists have played in American history, the relatively early desegregation of the military, the service of women and the end of the anti-LGBTQ “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Years of political demagoguery, oratorical bluster and supercharged political rancor have changed how many Americans react to language that is bland, bureaucratic and institutional. Blandness can be a virtue, sometimes even in a politician. There will be churn in every democracy, but perpetual and increasingly dire crisis is unsustainable. Carefully parsed language aimed at getting most of the story correct — the rhetorical strategy of institutions that seek public trust — creates a stable foundation on which to have more contentious conversations about the details of the truth.
The success of this museum is directly related to the Army’s institutional values, its belief that it is a nonpartisan tool of civilian power. Whether that is true, or has been true only some of the time, is less important than the fact that the Army projects that as an essential value. Sometimes, especially during periods of upheaval, what you want to be is more important than what you have been. It is deeply disturbing that Joint Chiefs chairman Milley participated in a politically divisive photo op orchestrated by the president outside the White House, after troops violently dispersed peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square. But that Milley, a general who is among those Trump has referred to as “my generals,” apologized for doing so also suggests the persistence of the lessons learned at Newburgh more than 230 years ago.
There are American universities, newspapers and corporations that are older than the U.S. Army, but it’s hard to think of institutions of similar size, importance and civic influence that are older than our military branches. And outside of religion, few institutions have been so effective at producing sacred historical objects — flags, uniforms, documents and weapons — that are so bound up with collective emotion. These relics have enormous power to unify feeling, and coerce it. The Army and the Army Historical Foundation have managed to deploy these things in service to history, explained with care and context, in exhibits designed to appeal to a broad audience of all ages.
During this extended period of uncertainty, when reasonable people are warning of a potential coup d’etat by a defeated presidential candidate, we can’t be sure what the Army will do. But the tone of this museum, the clarity and temperance of its message, gives one hope that it will indeed support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
National Museum of the United States Army, 1775 Liberty Dr., Fort Belvoir, Va. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free admission, but timed tickets are required. thenmusa.org.