I've been reading a terrific short history of The Company, which argues that the corporation -- not the state, religion or political party -- is the basic unit of modern society, and in fact the biggest change in centuries the way society organizes itself.
The first big modern companies were American railroads, which came out of nowhere in the 19th century, they write. Their presence was revolutionary: "In 1891, the army, navy and marines employed a total of 39,492 people. The Pennsylvania Railroad employed over 110,000." Railroads also played a major role in knitting together the nation, they say.
Companies also reflected national characteristics. In part because guilds had a more durable presence in German society, companies preserved the system of apprenticeships -- which, they write, "helps explain the German fascination with training." Factory foremen had more influence on operations. This carried over into the military, they say: "the Germany army gave far more power to non-commissioned officers."
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.