Prodigal Soldiers (123-299) -James Kitfield

About the Author:

James Kitfield, 2009 Winner of the Gerald R. Ford Journalism Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense and correspondent for National Journal, was embedded with forward headquarters of V Corps during the Iraq War and has reported from Iraq and Washington in the war's aftermath.


The excerpt we read from this book traces the major military developments that took place between the end of the Vietnam conflict and the start of Desert Storm. Kitfield uses a conversational narrative to highlight main characters in these events to tell the story from an “every man” perspective. These events include emerging from the “funk” of post-Vietnam era racism, drugs and insubordination, the conversion from a draft to an all-volunteer force with greater ties to the reserves, the Yom Kippur War, the formation of new training initiatives (TRADOC, Red Flag, the National Training Center), Bill Creech’s conversion to a TAC-dominated air force, the “hollow force” of the late 70s, the army’s major recruiting effort, Operation EAGLE CLAW, the development of CENTCOM, the Beirut Marine Corps barracks attack, Op URGENT FURY, the Weinberger Doctrine, and the Goldwater-Nichols Act.

Main argument:

Although Kitfield’s narrative isn’t argumentative by its nature, there are several salient points about the difficulty of overcoming institutional resistance to change and the political power required to implement changes.

Evidence used:

Much of the narrative comes from personal interviews and documentation of major historical events.


Kitfield does a good job weaving several different stories together in an attempt to trace the chronological list of events in the two decades after the Vietnam conflict. His choice of conversational prose makes his account easy to read and he describes each event in a personal, though concise, manner. Given he is a journalist and not a historian, his attempt is more at an interesting story, rather than a true examination of historical evidence to make a point. This is an extremely well-written and interesting book.


As alluded to above, the main theme of these pages seems to be change in the military organization. Underlying this main theme are several undercurrents of politics, personalities and historical facts that present challenges and barriers to effective and rapid change…even when the majority support a logical change to a less-than-optimum system.

Overall impression:

Interesting book—covers a lot of ground without getting into the weeds on anything.


Understanding the perspective of the post-Vietnam US military as well as tracing the myriad changes that took place during this period of history.

Class Notes:

Although there are many historical consisistencies, there are also some things original to each period in history.

There was a conscious decision in the late 70s to trade readiness for modernization.

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