Lost in Translation: The American Way of War

A nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its laws made by cowards and its wars fought by fools.                                                                                       – Thucydides[1]

Strategists and military historians have written prolifically on the topic of an American way of war.  With U.S. troops leaving Iraq and with U.S. involvement in Afghanistan winding down, it is perhaps time to examine again the American way of war in order to evaluate its application for future conflicts.  Historian Russell Weigley first attempted to define the American approach to conflict in 1973.  Many writers have wrestled with this concept since, outlining the numerous characteristics of the American methodology, addressing the distinction between a way of war and a way of battle, and illustrating the advantages and disadvantages of these characteristics in major conflicts and small wars.  Within the historiography, authors have also tried to define the characteristics of the strategic American way of war, which includes advancing American national interests through various means, and how our culture and preparation for war actually shape the American strategy.

Taking the differing perspectives in the American way of war historiography into account, one notes there is no authoritative listing of characteristics that define an American way of war; however, extrapolating the commonalities, what emerges is a tactical way of battle and a strategic way of war.  The tactical way of battle has an adaptive U.S. military using an aggressive style of force as to overwhelm and destroy enough of the enemy’s forces to acquire a decisive and quick victory with minimal casualties.  The seemingly irresistible forces of well-trained professionals use speed, maneuver, flexibility, and surprise.  This method of battle is highly dependent on technology and firepower, and has large-scale logistical requirements.

From a strategic standpoint, the American way of war seeks swift military victory, independent of strategic policy success; the desired political and military outcomes do not always align.  When analyzed, this style of warfare reveals the American under-appreciation for historical lessons and cultural differences often leads to a disconnect between the peace and the military activity that preceded it.  The strategic way of war also includes alternative national strategies such as deterrence and a war of limited aims.  Given this model, it appears that there is not a singular American way of war.  Rather, the American way of war is twofold: one is a tactical “way of battle” involving a style of warfare where distinct American attributes define the use of force; the other is a strategic “way of war,” attuned to the whims of a four year political system, a process not always conducive to turning tactical victories into strategic success.

Military historians and strategists have endeavored to define the American way of war, or rather define the characteristics of a tactical American way of battle.  Weigley in The American Way of War, the pioneering work published in 1973, first described an American way of war, arguing it consisted of a unique American methodology: one of attrition and annihilation.[2]  He contends that from the colonial era to the Civil War, while America developed as a new country, its military forces were relatively weak, so it engaged in wars of attrition.  An example is George Washington using the interior of the Continent to draw in the British, away from their fleets and resupplies during the War of Independence.  From the Civil War through Vietnam, as America developed politically, economically, and militarily, its robust military capabilities allowed a transition from a strategy of attrition to one supporting a strategy of what Weigley calls annihilation.  The strategy of annihilation relied on the creation of large masses of forces employing mass, concentration and firepower to use overwhelming power to destroy the enemy.  This overthrow of the enemy in costly battles was the surest way to victory and the essential elements of Weigley’s tenets of attrition and annihilation remain as the main legacies and preferences of the American way of war. Weigley misuses the examples of John Pershing wearing down the German Army in 1918 and the U.S. Army’s landing in France to defeat the Germans in 1944-45 in his explanation of annihilation.  Weigley confused the term of annihilation with what was actually, attrition, the eventual wearing down of the enemy.

The analysis of an American way of war post-2001 includes many historians, like Brian Linn and John Lynn, questioning the original consensus of an American way of war (made up of Weigley’s annihilation and attrition), and describing more applicable characteristics of a tactical way of battle that better relate to the small wars in American military history.  In his book The Echo of Battle: The Army’s Way of War, Linn states that “appreciating a national way of war requires going beyond the narrative of operations, beyond debates on the merits of attrition or annihilation, firepower or mobility, military genius or collective professional ability.” [3]  Linn has several objections to Weigley’s classic work, pointing out the infrequency of annihilation and attrition during the eight decades between the end of the Civil War and the middle of World War II.  Linn states American soldiers were forced to adapt, improvise, and overcome constraints to practice a way of war better suited to their specific circumstances, which included counterinsurgencies and peace-building and rarely included the characteristics of annihilation or attrition.[4]  Linn denies the existence of both an American and Western way of war, stating the American way is more an adaptive way of battle with army officers blending “operational considerations, national strategy, and military theory as they conceived them at the time.”[5]

In terms of a distinct American discourse on war, John Lynn brings up the prevalence of “three related tendencies: 1) abhorrence of U.S. casualties, 2) confidence in military technology to minimize U.S. losses, and 3) concern with exit strategies.”[6]  This assertion correctly describes several tendencies in the American way of war.  British strategist Colin Gray, similarly to Lynn, includes the same three characteristics in his conceptualization of an American way of warfare.  In total, Gray puts forth 13 features that characterize the enduring traditional, and cultural, American military conduct in warfare. [7]   Gray’s characteristics show the U.S. military is an institution best prepared for combat against a symmetrical, regular enemy rather than an asymmetrical enemy.  The U.S. method of fighting and victory in World War II is preferable to the U.S. method of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.  The apolitical and astrategic characteristics of Gray’s American way of battle emphasize the goal of tactical victory, autonomous from strategic policy and with very little regard to the peace that follows.  The quick U.S. tactical victory in Iraq, for example, did not lead to peace and stability in the country directly after.

Strategist H.H. Gaffney argues that a distinctive American way of war emerged in the post-Cold War period.  Gaffney analyzed U.S. engagement in nine main cases of combat or near-combat operations, from Panama in 1989 to Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, in order to discern what characteristics made up an American way of war.[8] Gaffney describes the American way of war as “characterized by deliberate, sometimes agonizing, decision-making, careful planning, assembly and movement of overwhelming forces, the use of a combination of air and ground forces, joint and combined, applied with precision, especially by professional, well-trained military personnel.”[9]  Historian and editorialist Max Boot similarly describes a “new” American way of war, one that relies on speed, maneuver, flexibility, and surprise, seeking a quick victory with minimal casualties on both sides by being heavily reliant on precision firepower, Special Forces, and psychological operations.[10]  Boot uses the recent invasion of Iraq to display the successful use of this new American way of war, which led to the U.S. ambitiously occupying all of Iraq in the matter of weeks with minimal casualties and minimal cost.  Both Gaffney and Boot’s characteristics are more complex than Weigley’s original annihilation and attrition tenets.  They also describe characteristics that contribute to the tactical win, as these characteristics have at its core the quick resolution of a conflict and the quick return of U.S. forces back to their home bases, which does nothing for ensuring the political objectives of the nation.

When evaluating these various characteristics, the question arises whether or not these characteristics belong to an American way of war or an American way of battle.  A way of war would imply a political, economic, social, and military approach to the U.S. view of war, rather than merely a battle focus.  Retired army officer and current director of research at the U.S. Army War College, Antulio Echevarria in Toward an American Way of War denies an American way of war, but instead states what we have is an American way of battle.[11]  Echevarria believes that until the American way of war develops the capability to make the leap from victory on the battlefield to strategic success, it will remain merely a way of battle. Gaffney also formulates an American way of battle whose characteristics do not tie-in to grand strategy, since these characteristics are simply tactical and do not encompass foreign policy.[12]  This leads to the need, in limited war as much as in conventional war, for an all-inclusive approach to achieve military tactical victories, with the hope that these victories, in and of themselves, will help define strategic objectives and translate into something resembling policy success. 

The characteristics of the American tactical way of battle are advantages in large-scale, force on force conflicts. The goal of bringing an enemy’s forces to battle in order to crush them in a decisive engagement is a military ideal that generals have sought for centuries, one that has rarely been obtainable.  American culture, whether it is through movies, books, games, or folklore, values courage in open battle and bringing an enemy out into the open in order to defeat him.  The question is what drives the American conduct towards this big decisive battle.  In the books Western Way of War and Carnage and Culture, historian and political essayist Victor Davis Hanson asserts that the Western way of war is one of decisive battles.  The classical Greeks invented the idea of representative Western politics as well as the fundamental form of Western warfare, the decisive infantry battle, which was the focus of Greek hoplite armies.[13]  Crucial differences, such as discipline, cohesion based on community association, and superior equipment, often ensured Greek victory despite being outnumbered by the enemy.[14]  The classical training of America’s Founding Fathers included an imbuement of these ideals of Greek consensual government and by association, the Greek form of fighting.  This influence of Greek government and Greek style of fighting led to the American penchant for the big decisive battle.  Both consensual government and decisive battle sought the same goal: clear, instant resolution to a dispute.  Achieving a clear tactical goal through instant resolution minimizes time and lives lost; because volunteer professional soldiers are expensive to raise, train, and are difficult to replace.  A short decisive war for total victory is the preferable American way. 

Despite what seems to be the desire for fighting the big, decisive battle, “small wars” are just as much a part of how Americans fight as is conventional war.  David Kilcullen argues that since 1816, 83 percent of conflicts fall under “civil wars or insurgencies.”[15]  Boot brings up U.S. involvement in small wars, such as the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, the Philippine Insurrection in 1899, Bosnia in 1992 and Kosovo in 1999, actually outnumbered U.S. participation in major conflicts.  Boot contends these small wars were fought not to attain a decisive victory, but to inflict punishment, ensure protection, achieve pacification, and even to benefit from profiteering.[16]   The U.S. involved itself in so many small wars, that the U.S. Marine Corps published the Small Wars Manual in 1940, giving the purposes of small wars as restoring normal government or giving the people a better government than they had before, establishing peace and order, instilling in the people the sanctity of life and property and advantages of civilization and liberty, and whenever possible, making the indigenous agencies responsible for these matters.[17]  U.S. involvement in small wars, for the reasons just outlined, had as much or more to do with an American way of war and rise to world power than Weigley's big conventional wars of annihilation.

If one part of the American way of war is the tactical “way of battle,” made up of an aggressive style of force as to overwhelm and destroy enemy forces to acquire a decisive and quick victory with minimal casualties, the other is a strategic “way of war” attuned to the whims of a four year political system and not necessarily able to turn tactical victories into strategic success.  In the American polity, the national security strategy tends to chronologically last as long as the four-year presidential cycle (eight years at most), with a President needing to show resolution in order to get reelected.  President Obama’s 2010 National Security Strategy has four enduring national interests: Security, the security of the United States, its citizens, and U.S. allies and partners; Prosperity, a strong, innovative, and growing U.S. economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity; Values, respect for universal values at home and around the world; and International Order, an international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges.[18]  The strategic American way of war includes advancing these enduring national interests through various means, whether through all out military intervention, deterrence, limited war, or simply political negotiation.  The key remains turning military intervention authorized by the President into quick, tactical military success that, in turn, translates into policy success during the short presidential term.

Looking at the national interests in the National Security Strategy more closely gives us the reasons for U.S. intervention.  In terms of security, the U.S. is only one of a handful of countries that can conduct offensive type of operations in not only neighboring, but also in far-off countries.  The ability to do this allows the U.S. to strike preemptively, before any fighting occurs on U.S. soil.  This policy characteristic of the American way of war is, in fact, a defensive model that seeks to anticipate and strike any threat before it reaches the U.S.[19] In terms of economic prosperity, the National Security Strategy states that American involvement is not necessarily for the exploitation of a local resource, but instead for minimizing disruption to global markets and for the free flow of global resources; economic benefit coming from opening foreign markets to American products and services as well as increasing domestic demand abroad.[20]  In terms of values, the American way of war strategically promulgates the advantages of American democratic ideals with American leadership committing itself to the fight to spread democracy and capitalism, which inherently means committing forces to fight against differing ideologies, from Communism during the Cold War to Islamic extremism in Afghanistan.

In terms of achieving national interests, the American way of war includes several different strategic tools beyond military intervention in the big, decisive battle and small wars.  It includes diplomacy, deterrence, strategic positioning, embargoes, international coalitions and economic pressure.[21]  There is a strong interdependence between military tactics, operations, and strategy, so much so that what soldiers do tactically has a strategic effect, which in turn has political consequences.  Civil affairs operations and foreign military training are examples of tactical operations with strategic implications.  These missions are, in fact, the military’s version of diplomatic “soft power” and act as a form of diplomatic deterrence. [22]  Despite these extra diplomatic tools, the American concept of war rarely extends beyond the winning of battles and campaigns to the work of turning military victory into strategic success.  During the post-Vietnam self-examination, U.S. strategists recognized winning campaigns did not equate to winning wars, which meant accomplishing one’s strategic objective.  One of the most noted examples of this is the Tet Offensive of 1968.  The North Vietnamese and their associated forces adopted a conventional strategy, which the Americans defeated through decentralized military operations. Although the offensive was a tactical defeat for the Communist forces, the scope and ferocity of the campaign discredited President Johnson’s characterization of progress in Vietnam throughout the closing months of 1967.  The offensive became a strategic victory for the Communist forces with President Johnson’s announcement that he would not run for re-election and with the next President, Nixon, focusing on an exit strategy from Vietnam.[23]  One of Clausewitz’s maxims states “War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means…The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.”[24]  This consistent disconnect between policy and on-the-ground operations must change so that the American way of war can integrate the use of the military into a consistent and unambiguous national strategy, one that will let American politics capitalize on tactical victories.

The interpretation of current conflicts through discourse is another factor that shapes the strategic American way of war. Lynn relates the warfare of a particular era to its own unique cultural dialogue, “the complex of assumptions, perceptions, expectations, and values” that the particular society holds about war and warriors.[25]  He argues that discourse does not remain the same over time because of changing circumstances and evolving cultural norms. Thus the role of culture shapes combat and the interpretation of that combat just as preparation for war shapes the strategic American way of war.  The U.S. democratic culture and emphasis on free speech allows its many competing interest groups to join in on the intellectual debate during preparation for war.  This peacetime intellectual discussion by the intelligentsia and pundits in the media, reflections on wartime service by the military, and the given American attitude toward war combine to shape the strategic American way of war.  This discourse also includes the U.S. military regularly and methodically conducting after action reviews in order to study military history to not repeat mistakes, to improve theory, and change or shape needed doctrine.[26]  Though advantageous to a certain extent, competing interest groups and differing ideologies in our pluralist democracy inhibit coherent strategy making, but one idea remains constant, if Americans must take up arms for a cause, they demand a quick and decisive victory.

Thus, the American way of war is twofold: a tactical “way of battle” involving an aggressive style of warfare to overwhelm and destroy enemy forces to acquire a decisive and quick victory with minimal casualties, and a strategic “way of war” where the desired political and military outcomes do not necessarily align.  Weigley first attempted to define the American approach to conflict through the characteristics of attrition and annihilation. Subsequent historians have either enumerated as many as 13 characteristics to define the American way of battle or on the other hand denied the existence of it.  The characteristics of a way of battle show an institution with a preference for combat against a symmetrical, regular enemy rather than an asymmetrical enemy, despite our history of small wars, counterinsurgencies, and nation building.  In terms of achieving our national interests, the strategic American way of war includes several tools beyond military intervention to pursue our enduring national interests of security, prosperity, values, and international order, to include discourse, which is one of the elements that shape our way of war.  There will continue to be a need for a holistic approach to capitalize on military tactical victories in order to achieve these national interests and for a President to declare policy success.

Defining the American approach to conflict and knowing its strengths and weaknesses will allow the U.S. to be more effective in future fights.  Current American popular perception of what is occurring in Iraq and Afghanistan is that American forces are conducting High Intensity Conflict (HIC), the idea of World War II style fighting where American forces win battles, declare victory, and then leave.  Not only is this inaccurate for our times, but also for many of the small wars American forces have conducted in the last 150 years.  These small wars might have had a HIC component to it, but it was short and quickly followed by counterinsurgency, stability operations, and/or nation-building.  Future fights will continue to include a mixture of conventional HIC operations, counterinsurgency fights, and stabilization efforts.

If there are two things that the strategic American way of war must address immediately, it is the consistency in the application of military intervention and having a standard of selectivity.  Former Secretary of State Kissinger argues for the need for criteria, as indiscriminate involvement would drain a crusading America and isolationism would mean giving up security to the decisions of others.  “Not every evil can be controlled by America,” he wrote, “even less by America alone.  But some monsters need to be, if not slain, at least resisted.” [27]  Strategically applying military intervention and selectively involving ourselves in future situations in pursuit of our national interests will do the most to unify our disparate American tactical way of battle and strategic way of war.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Boot, Max.  Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (New York, NY: Basic Book, 2002).

Clausewitz, Carl von. On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976).

Hanson, Victor Davis. Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2001). 

Hanson, Victor Davis.  The Western Way of War (New York, NY: Suffolk, 1989).

Kilcullen, David. Counterinsurgency (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy, (New York, NY: Simon & Shuster, 1994).

Linn, Brian.  The Echo of Battle: The Army’s Way of War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

Lynn, John A. Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003).

Nye, Joseph Jr. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2004).

Various. “Part I – An American Way of War.”  In Rethinking the Principles of War, Edited by Anthony D. McIvor, 13-140. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005.

Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1977).

Journal Articles

Boot, Max. “The New American Way of War.” Foreign Affairs, (July/August 2003). 

Echevarria II, Antulio J.  “An American Way of War or Way of Battle?”  (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2004).

Gaffney, H.H. “The Amercan Way of War through 2020” (Alexandria, VA: Center for Strategic Studies, CNA Corporation, 2006).

Gray, Colin S. “Irregular Enemies and the Essence of Strategy: Can the American Way of War Adapt?” (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2006).

Linn, Brian M. “‘The American Way of War’ Revisited,” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 66, No.2 (April 2002).

Electronic and Web-based Sources

The U.S. Army’s After Action Reviews: Seizing the Chance to Learn. Excerpt from: David A. Garvin, “Learning in Action, A Guide to Putting the Learning Organization to Work” (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000), 106-116. http://www.wildfirelessons.net/documents/Garvin_AAR_Excerpt.pdf (accessed Nov 9, 2011).

Huntington, Samuel P.  The Problem of Intervention, A Conversation with Samuel P. Huntington, (Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley, 1985) http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/conversations/Huntington/huntington-con3.html (accessed Nov 9, 2011).

National Security Strategy (White House, May 2010) http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/rss_viewer/national_security_strategy.pdf (accessed Nov 9, 2011).

Thucydides Quote http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/957.Thucydides (accessed Nov 9, 2011).

Willbanks, James H.  “Winning the Battle, Losing the War,” New York Times, March 5, 2008 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/05/opinion/05willbanks.html (accessed Nov 9, 2011).


[1] Thucydides Quote http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/957.Thucydides (accessed Nov 9, 2011).

[2] Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1977), xxii

[3] Brian M. Linn, The Echo of Battle: The Army’s Way of War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 3.

[4] Brian M. Linn, “‘The American Way of War’ Revisited,” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 66, No.2 (April 2002), 503.

[5] Ibid, 530.

[6] John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003), 321.

[7] Colin S. Gray, “Irregular Enemies and the Essence of Strategy: Can the American Way of War Adapt?” (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2006), 30.

The 13 characteristics and their definitions are: Apolitical, the U.S. military wages war for the goal of victory with very little regard to the peace that follows; Astrategic, war is an autonomous activity with no connection to strategic policy; Ahistorical, as a new nation Americans are not culturally attuned to lessons nor insights from history; Problem-Solving/Optimistic, we believe there is a solution, whether through foreign policy or use of the military, to even unsolvable dilemmas; Culturally Ignorant, Americans lack cultural empathy and do not understand the beliefs, habits, and behaviors of other cultures; Technologically Dependent, the U.S. depends exceedingly on technological advances and mechanical solutions; Firepower Focused, sending mass firepower despite the circumstance is preferable to sending vulnerable soldiers; Large-Scale, the U.S. is not materially minimalistic, but rather equips, mobilizes, and wages war reflecting its wealth; Aggressive/Offensive, the preferred style of operation is an aggressive offensive style due to geopolitics, culture, and material wealth; Profoundly Regular, the U.S. is an institution best prepared for combat against a symmetrical, regular enemy; Impatient, the American approach to warfare is that it must be decisive and concluded as rapidly as possible; Logistically Excellent, the U.S. has a large logistical footprint which means able logisticians, but also means a lot of guarding and isolation of American troops; and lastly Highly Sensitive to Casualties, Americans are very averse to a high rate of military casualties.

[8] H.H. Gaffney, “The American Way of War through 2020” (Alexandria, VA: Center for Strategic Studies, CNA Corporation, 2006), 3.  The nine operations are:  Panama in 1989, Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990/91, Somalia in late 1992, Haiti in 1994, the Deliberate Force air strikes in Bosnia in 1996, the Desert Fox strikes on Iraq in 1998, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan beginning in October 2001, and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

[9] Gaffney, “The American Way of War through 2020” 1.

[10] Max Boot, “The New American Way of War.” (New York, NY: Foreign Affairs, July/August 2003).

[11] Antulio J. Echevarria II, “An American Way of War or Way of Battle?”  (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2004).

[12] Gaffney, “The American Way of War through 2020” 18.

[13] Victor Davis Hanson, The Western Way of War (New York, NY: Suffolk, 1989), 223-225. 

[14]  Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2001), 3.  “Such unique Hellenic characteristics of battle – a sense of personal freedom, superior discipline, matchless weapons, egalitarian camaraderie, individual initiative, constant tactical adaptation and flexibility, preference for shock battle of heavy infantry – were themselves the murderous dividends of Hellenic culture at large.  The peculiar way Greeks killed grew out of consensual government, equality among the middling classes, civilian audit of military affairs, and politics apart from religion, freedom and individualism, and rationalism.”

[15] David Kilcullen, Counterinsurgency (Oxford, 2010) ix-x.

[16] Max Boot, Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (New York, NY: Basic Book, 2002), xvi.

[17] United States Marine Corps, Small Wars Manual (New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing, 2009), 32 (first published: Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1940).

[18] National Security Strategy, (White House, May 2010) http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/rss_viewer/national_security_strategy.pdf (accessed Nov 9, 2011).

[19] The Israelis also have a similar strategy integrated into their operational paradigm.

[20] Ibid, 32.

[21] Ibid, these various methods are discussed throughout Section III, Advancing Our Interests, 17.

[22] Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2004).

[23] James H. Willbanks, “Winning the Battle, Losing the War,” New York Times, March 5, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/05/opinion/05willbanks.html (accessed Nov 9, 2011).

[24] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 87.

[25] Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, xx.

[26] The U.S. Army’s After Action Reviews: Seizing the Chance to Learn. Excerpt from: David A. Garvin, “Learning in Action, A Guide to Putting the Learning Organization to Work” (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000), 106-116. http://www.wildfirelessons.net/documents/Garvin_AAR_Excerpt.pdf (accessed Nov 9, 2011).

[27] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, (New York, NY: Simon & Shuster, 1994), 833.

 

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This article provides an interesting view of a topic that has garnered significant interest since the publication of Weigley’s The American Way of War. The author demonstrates that the majority of the work on the topic of an American way of war falls into two broad categories. The first category describes a “strategic way of war” and the second a “tactical way of battle.” The title of this article accurately articulates the erroneous categorizing of all these works under the single heading of “a way of war”.
Colin Gray in War, Peace, and International Relations highlights an important difference between the term “war” and “warfare”. War, he argues, “is a legal concept, a social institution, and is a compound idea that embraces the total relationships between belligerents.” In contrast, he defines warfare as “the actual conduct of war in its military dimension.” He claims the two concepts are vitally different and “often the two are simply conflated.” According to Gray, the conduct of War is not about fighting. The fighting is important, “but it can only be a tool, a means to a political end.” Confusing the term warfare with waging war highlights the difficultly that some states have in leveraging military victory to achieve strategic success.
Military victory alone, even when it supports the strategic objectives, is not enough to achieve strategic success. In such cases, lack of success is not a military failure but a strategic failure. Russian military theorist Aleksandr A. Svechin recognized that “no amount of operational proficiency could overcome strategic miscalculation regarding the nature of the war embarked upon.” Svechin believed that the conduct of strategy was not in the province of a military commander but of “integral military leadership” which combined the political, military, and economic leadership under a chief of state.
Thus discussing “a way of war” utilizing only examples of the military dimensions of a conflict confuses the terms war and warfare as well as the responsibilities of all the national actors that are involved in the conduct of war.

I might be a little harsh in this critique, but this article looked to me like something reincarnated from an Intermediate Level Education (ILE) paper that simply summarizes the reading requirements from any given course on strategy. Here are some thoughts after chewing on this one this morning…
1. In framing problems, to include understanding whether there is some American "way of war" in a strategic, tactical (or operational- left out entirely by the author) sense, one starts with describing or making sense of the problem. Subsequently, they move to an analysis phase, where they apply critical and creative thinking, and lastly they hope to achieve synthesis. This article is firmly rooted in the "description" phase which ultimately reads like consolidated cliff notes on several prominent authors on American military culture, strategy, and tactics. I tried to find the thesis for this one, and just could not nail it down. I was left asking, "so what?"
2. The article alleges that the strategic way of war for America rests in being "attuned to the whims of a four year political system." I do not think the author clearly identifies this theory, backs it up, or links it to the supporting documents and organizing logic. Was this the thesis? I agree that our political masters swap out on a general 4-8 year cycle, but most military conflicts span several democratic elections, and do not seem to change too radically. Johnson already wanted out of Vietnam before the Tet Offensive- Nixon’s election campaign was no different a strategy than many others during time of war; one of the cited authors (Linn) also wrote a good book on the Philippines War. He mentioned the fierce race between McKinley and Bryan; indeed this was a counterinsurgency “small war” as well and Bryan attempted to do what any rival politician does- argue for another solution for American “victory.” Bryan lost anyway, but one might generalize the entire Cold War period as a continuous “strategy” of sorts that espoused the concept from the Kegan Telegram/NSC-68 phase of “containment” and evolved along several harmonious threads forward along multiple presidencies. Détente, and Reagan’s revival after Carter (I will cede that the Carter Administration was indeed a strategic blunder of enormous proportions) all followed a basically unified strategy that supported long-term American goals.

3. The author jumps from tactical to strategic theory in a way that makes me ponder why she never addresses the operational level of war? One should not attempt to suggest “perhaps it is time to examine again the American way of war in order to evaluate its application for future conflicts” if one is going to ignore the major linking concept between tactical and strategic planning/execution! Now, if the author contends that unusual position that there is no “operational level”- she could state that in her introduction to frame her organizing logic a bit tighter.

4. “In terms of values, the American way of war strategically promulgates the advantages of American democratic ideals with American leadership committing itself to the fight to spread democracy and capitalism, which inherently means committing forces to fight against differing ideologies, from Communism during the Cold War to Islamic extremism in Afghanistan.” - Really? Should we consider the term “Banana Republic” in the context of our 20th century foreign policy actions in South America? How many democratic nations did we collapse or inhibit out of our overarching fear of Communism, or the lobbying interests of capitalist venture that might lose their profit through nationalization efforts? We like to claim that we spread democracy, except many times we enforce dictators, be they African, South American, or Middle Eastern and help us with other more important foreign policy ventures.

5. “The strategic American way of war includes advancing these enduring national interests through various means, whether through all out military intervention, deterrence, limited war, or simply political negotiation. The key remains turning military intervention authorized by the President into quick, tactical military success that, in turn, translates into policy success during the short presidential term.” - I must disagree with this as well. Once again, strategic goals often outlast any presidency…and either by design or accident, assimilate into subsequent administrations despite their political positioning. Case in point- Afghanistan. The Obama Administration is significantly different from the Bush Administration on foreign policy goals, although both clearly share a desire to prevent the export of globally significant terrorism out of Afghanistan. I use the term “globally significant” to reflect that fact that we indeed can live with a residual Taliban element in Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan…and we will. We can even live with a pro-Taliban style Kabul regime, if they end up getting elected in 2014. That is one reality- provided that they are unable to export terrorism on a global scale. People deserve the government they get, and the Afghans are included in that, especially if they vote for it. Now, the Obama Administration HAS continued the Bush Administration’s strategy of nation building, despite them changing their lexicon and refusing to say “Global War on Terror.” From 2003 forward (the Afghan conflict from 2001-2003 was indeed a small-scale UW campaign that did quite well until we began to do the following…) we began attempting to change Afghan society at a core value level. Organizational Theorist Mary Jo Hatch models this in her cultural wheel of transformation; we over time intend to change how Afghan society empowers women, enjoys a political process, economic transition, literacy issues, and even ideological preferences (moderate Islam over radical or Takfiri Islam). These are massive transformations that cannot possibly be implemented and completed in a 4 or even 8 year term. We might see some quantifiable success in 20 years, or perhaps 30. That is well beyond the next election cycle- yet there is an organizational logic within our Afghan military strategy that endures (and will continue to endure in some form) despite the oval office gaining a new rear end in the chief’s chair. There are of course ways each administration changes course, but this is not like turning a car on a dime- it is steering a multi-billion dollar aircraft carrier in the Panama Canal. It also begs the question of why? This leads to synthesis, and gets us out of the rote description of the majority of this article. Linn wrote this…Weigley wrote this…Kilcullen wrote this…

6. Last point in my rant. “This discourse also includes the U.S. military regularly and methodically conducting after action reviews in order to study military history to not repeat mistakes, to improve theory, and change or shape needed doctrine.” - Again, I think the author fundamentally misunderstands AARs and how our military organization thinks, and “thinks about thinking.” In the many AARs I expect our vast SWJ military audience to have experienced at National Training Centers, military schools (okay Ranger, you are a no-go…), and in combat, how often does our organization question the METHODOLOGY versus question the performance of the soldiers? This goes right back into the ridiculous self-licking ice-cream cone logic of Jominian strategy: “if you follow my principles of war exactly, you will always win regardless of what conflict you enter…and if you lose, you lost only because you failed to follow my principles correctly.” Our military culture does this in virtually every AAR- we blame the soldiers for failing, not the doctrine, methodology, or logic we use. We are unable to be critical thinkers if we cannot examine how and why we think; why we approach conflicts and see things the way we prefer versus the way they are. Indeed, our AAR processes are “methodical” as the author states, but they are usually a finger-drill if the soldiers were not the problem. Now, humans make mistakes and can always improve- but what about when the humans follow the procedure and doctrine perfectly…and catastrophically fail? Do we fire the humans, or fire the doctrine? You tell me…I’m just chewing gum.

- Hubba Bubba

I had much the same reaction to this article, especially with respect to point #3 above. But the central issue comes forward in Hubba Bubba's point #6: what is the role of doctrine, and are we even knowledgeable enough about the doctrine - and its antecedents - to apply it in the context of "lessons learned", or have a debate on what doctrine recommends. When NTC went in, the one favor that the OC teams did TRADOC was to take what was presented in the "How to Fight" manuals seriously. Very quickly, theyu discovered that there was a range in which the doctrine worked, and if you went outside that range, bad things happened. So the net effect was to reinforce doctrine and challenge it at the same time. The truth is that we both need the soldiers and we need the doctrine. The crack at Jomini is symptomatic of the problem - at least Jomini tried to distill what he had experienced of war into something theoretically useful, something that could be demonstrated as true or false in the light of continued experience. Archtypes and metaphors have exactly this virtue, that they enable the communication of experience across time and culture. How else can we profit from studying the past - even our own past experiences ? Yes, it is common sense to opine that a program of social change imposed from outside requires a long term commitment of resources and a determination not to give up. Even so, one should not imagine that an abandoned project will leave no marks. Building roads in Afghanistan is one of the more concrete and irreversible tokens of America's presence there. Why not accept this for what it really is ?

My thought as I went through Leavenworth, reading Weigley and others, is that much of what has been postulated as the "American way of war" might be more accurately characterized as "war between nation-states;" where one must defeat the opposing populace, and not merely their military, or sieze their capital, as one can to secure a victory over a Kingdom.

The US has been among this movement of transition to more populace-based governance from its inception, and our major wars have been against other such nation-states primarily. Thus "the American way of war." My take was that Grant was the first military leader to key in on this at the strategic level, while Lee clung to a passe world of grand tactics of army vs army, and games of "capture the flag" that no longer mattered in the harsh, cold realities what it takes to defeat a populace-based nation state. Lucky for us, Sherman's march would have looked like a Sunday school parade compared to what would have happened if Lee had avoided Antietam and Gettysburg those two summers, and instead unleashed his forces on the populace of the North. I suspect the populace of the North would have quit, and the defense of Washington and the grand Army of the Potomac would have been moot testimonies to a bygone era. Bypassed like MacArthur bypassed Rabaul. But Lee didn't get it. Our military history and doctrine still does not get it.

The fact that we do not understand our own history is why we convince ourselves that we can, oh, say, defeat the Republican Guard, capture Baghdad, and then proclaim victory. Perhaps if we'd left Saddam in power to acknowled defeat and force the same upon the people. But getting him out was the goal, and at that point Iraq became a very disjointed collection of populace-based groups that were nowhere close to being defeated. Defeat of an Army or Fleet, or capturing a Captital in merely the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end. THAT is the reality of "The American way of war."

First, this well written article should certainly provide for a lively discussion, being that it focuses mainly on research presented more for the purpose of clearing the air than an attempt to assert yet another theory. As such those with a theory, or personal support of a theory, will certainly find at least some fault with some aspect of this presentation. For knowingly positioning herself without a specific camp on her side, in the middle of so many opinions, I must applaud the author and thank her for stoking the debate.

Concerning the article more specifically, the author provides a good accounting of the varied historical record, and in doing so enables readers to consider the options not only based on her conclusion, but also from the evidence that American involvements in previous wars provides. It does seem an apparent fact that we have a more reactionary and obscured American purpose for many of our recent wars. Albeit possible that sound discussions may occur at the National Security Council, it is rarely evident in the political commitment that follows. This might explain why we tend to have very nebulous end states for many of the conflicts the US gets involved in, ranging from weak resolve in the duration to an unwillingness to employ enough resources to secure the best outcome versus a passable success with as few resources as possible.

The notion of having selectivity, as cited from Kissinger, I would presume is not one of who, what, when, and where, as some commenters have interpreted it, but rather one of reasons for involvement, answering the question why are American lives and resources to be wagered in support of American national interest. This accounting would naturally require defining our a short term and long term American Strategy antedating a current conflict. In other words, as a nation, our resources must return some gain preeminently to America, as unpalatable as that may be to some more egalitarian tastes. American military resources are not a social benefit for the world to consume; they are a means, a powerful and at times brutal means, towards American goals. Other countries may benefit from our actions, but their benefit should never be our overarching reason. Just as tactically we may try to "win the hearts and minds" in another country, we are not there with the objective of building roads and schools, rather because doing those actions aids in our attempt to accomplish US military and political tasks toward realizing the American national objectives that required our involvement to begin with.

The article's address of political involvement highlights the US model of civilian authority over our military, as is taught to our officers as a valued and sacred American attribute reaching all the way back to GEN Washington. Here again the notion of selectivity would apply. Our constitutionally defined form of government clearly distinguishes between the national interest and individual political interest. Allowing the American way of war, national interest, and strategy be influenced by the transient career goals of elected officials was not the purpose and is both detrimental to the nation as a whole and supremely selfish with regards to sacrifice of our service members. Where and how this is addressed may be beyond the scope of this journal, but still requires acknowledgement.

Another point of importance that the author raises is the the difference between tactics, strategy and a Way of War. It often seems in discussions and recent literature that these terms often get combined, mixed up, and misused. Tactics are methods of combat, the strategy is how the elements of national power will achieve the American end state in support of American interest and goals, and as mentioned above the Way of War is why we wage war and the national character that defines our values as applies to the use of war as a means. This can be flexible, but even flexibility has boundaries. These boundaries should be known lest we bend to far and break, becoming something that is other than America.

As the popular term "irregular warfare" often injudiciously describes anything other than a very limited definition of regular warfare, it is certainly a regular form of warfare to those that employ it, not random and unconsidered. So must our Way of War be, perhaps flexible, but never random. To allow flexibility and avoid random action and random outcomes, it is essential to discern, perhaps only abstractly, the American Way of War. With the myriad of variables involved and as difficult and polarizing as it may be, this seems to be what the author ultimately challenges us to do. Let's to it!

Is it not a good thing that there is not a definitive American Way of War? How hopeless would it be to be able to pigeon-hole American cultural, societal, governmental, military, and economic thought into one, giant, monolithic input/output block from which we can determine all that has gone before and all that will come. Such a block would be indicative of a nation absolutely incapable of coping with resolving the lessons of the past, the change of the present, with the needs of the future.

The very fact that a definitive American Way of War seems so undefinable is actually a positive indicator that a large group of diverse people occupying a good sized portion of the northern part of the Western hemisphere have been able to demonstrate an ability, albeit not always efficient or pretty, to adopt to the world around them instead of reacting to every situation with the "American Way."

A survey of history indicates that this nation has fought some major wars and lots of little wars, conflicts of short duration and conflicts measuring decades, engagements involving a trickle of blood and engagements involving a torrent, wars of great public involvement and wars of little public interest. For every quick Grenada we have simmering Indian Wars, for every hasty exit from a Somalia, we have years spent in Haiti (1915-1934), from every hot headed entry into a Spanish-American War, we have the incrementalism of a Kosovo. Some have gone well, some have gone bad - but what they all indicate is that dependent upon the countless variables of national sentiment and national power at any given time, decisions about the use of force, and how much force, have truly occurred in context, not according to a checklist or pre-determined national "characteristic."

I truly thank the author for such a great summary of scholarly thought on this subject - but I am equally opposed to the author's apparent recommendation that we create some sort of "plug and play" approach to an "American Way of War" for future effectiveness - a relative term. As messy as it is, the inherent inefficiencies of our democracy serve as important computing engines through which decisions on the use of force must pass. They are the best means to ensure that using force, and employing force, occur appropriately to time and place.

It is a bit - dispiriting - to see a soldier, even a citizen soldier put out an article that contradicts everything the US Army has taught about the relationship between strategy, the operational art and tactics for the last 30 years. Far from drawing on the historical sources, the author's assertions strike me as anachronistic. Is the current generation's grasp of American military history really this bad ? Well, if so, that becomes self-confirming evidence of the truth of Colin Gray's 13 theses listed in footnote 7.

Perhaps like this article, the historical record of American arms is like the Rohrschach blot in which one induces images formed by one's preconceptions rather than the perceptible form of the image. At this critical juncture, we as a community appear to be at a loss. At a loss for a clear path forward into the future. At a loss to deal with the immediate dilemmas of ends and means. At a loss for success stories to teach our men and women in uniform, so as to spur them to excel in sacrifice.

Every canine form has its day, and so we may indeed be seeing the "revenge of the attritionist nerds" who have been so badly handled in our doctrine and training literature. For while one way of dealing with that ugly old attritionist past is to suppress it, and another way is to embrace it and make it one's own. I really don't know which side this article is taking.

On the question of transforming the Army into a more pliable instrument of state policy, we of course have seen this Youtube video before. My sense of it is that we would not like, and could not sustain a US military establishment that was so well tailored to low-intensity conflict that it was very good at it. Calls for quick and decisive victories ring hollow, whether or not one calls these situations "wars of attrition" or some other derivation of Fabian methods. While it is probably a policy imperative to escalate the intensity of the conflict against any insurgency the United States may face in the future, the pitfalls of that approach are self-evident, as the history of 1967-68 indicates, even as much as the history of 2006-7 and 2010-11. A real change to the American Way of War would be to accept that we must live within the laws of strategic gravity.

I'd offer that the last 30 yrs of US Army teaching is at the heart of the problem. The officers that started their careers as 2LTs after 1973 were part and parcel of the shift over the next 15 yrs to a "never another vietnam" mentality. All of a sudden we were studying the Somme and drive to the Rhine mixed in with 18/19th century theorists for a grand view of warfare.

As a cadet, I never once learned anything about LICs other than that they exist and that they aren't as hard or interesting as HICs. As an Armor officer commissioning as Iraq kicked off the story was no different. Everything in my professional military education prepared me for Mar-May 2003. After that....crickets. Ironically, going through NTC as late as early-2009 in preperation for deployment in a manuever brigade my most valuable and sophisticated training was kinetic. Aside from react to IED (overglorified react to stepping on a mine) the rest of my training was notional across the board. Conduct Key Leader Engagement is summed up as "drink tea, never promise money, ask about the Sheikh's family". React to indirect contact is "run around looking for casualties, plot a POO on a map". And most damningly of all, cultural training is "don't touch/look at women, shake only the right hand, don't decline tea". Thank god I'm wasn't a 2LT from Kentucky on his first trip OCONUS encountering funny dressed brown people from Disney's Aladdin...because college or not, I would be lost!

More to the point of history. That is one subject that every facet of American life outside academe is pitiful at. We never learn of the US action in Philippines, Mexico, Plains Territories, Cuba, Korea (1945-1950), etc. And we most certainly never learn about how US military operations integrated (or not) with diplomacy or any other effort that one might expect in a strategy. All 3 generations of officers knew how to do was kill people and break things, and we were damn good at it.

TRN

Great article! And a great contribution to the growing body of literature on the dissonance between the way Americans manage warfighting and warfare.

The frustrating inability of US policy to capitalize on tactical victory since 1945 is difficult to explain without straining post-WWII western democratic exceptionalism. The thesis that ties this strategic incompetence to the American political system is on solid ground. At no level in the US government, from civil servant to POTUS, is strategic thought incentivised in any meaningful, real-time, way. On the contrary, tactical decision making tied to artificial decision cycles is the norm (I would also throw the 'targeting cycle' in this formulation). This is a product of our populist-trending political evolution, and its corollary is seen in the stock market, where financial reporting quarters drive decision making with no less weight than election cycles.

A similar disconnect (in this case a fortunate one) is seen in the perpetual squandering of Wehrmacht's tactical victories by the Third Reich's strategic-level leadership. Eventhough fascist megalomania on a national scale gave the Reich momentum, the operational and technological excellence of its armed forces simply prolonged a war rather than playing a role in realizing a sustainable strategic objective for the country. While we should count our lucky stars that the Germans failed to have a similar debate in 1939, the effects of this disconnect are nevertheless instructive. Tactical/operational excellence in the absence of a strategic framework and plan is a pointless exercise in destruction.

I would challenge Maj. Lopez Keravouri on her conclusion, however. I gather from the last paragraph that the Armed forces should be reserved for "appropriate use", itself defined as selective involvement in situations of national interest. How does this address the issue of the absence of strategic planning and followthrough? A "selected involvement" can be formulated as simply as "Lybia but not Darfur because one has oil and is easier to get to" but it doesn't articulate how it is that a tactical victory is supposed to be translated into a strategic one. If it's simply a matter of where one gets involved then a simple ultra-conservative international policy that keeps us out of most things most of the time would suffice. If, on the other hand, its a matter of how one gets involved, then competent strategic thought is required.

Regards,

TRN