Small Wars Journal

The Service Dogma Debate. Why is the U.S. Army Different?

Tue, 04/02/2019 - 3:29am

The Service Dogma Debate.  Why is the U.S. Army Different?


Jonathan C. Nielsen


Does the U.S. Army need a dogma?  Before you say yes or no, let’s consider a few points worth debating.


An ageless dogma is the foundation for any organization. It conveys a consistent message, focus, and priority regardless of the time period, situation, or location.  An ageless dogma is an accepted or promoted guiding principle of a group.  Lacking one, opens up arguments to question the attributes that make an organization unique and essential.  Moreover, the absence of a dogma allows new, untested, untimely, and cheap ideas to seep in and drastically, and at times quickly, change the direction, focus, and energy of an organization. 


In the profession of arms, a dogma supports a defined way of war.  Russel Weigley’s article The American Way of War proposes that America holds two distinct strategies for warfare:  annihilation or attrition.1  Weigley’s analysis from the War of Independence to Vietnam concluded that as a weak nation, the United States focused on a strategy of attrition to defeat economically and numerically superior foes.2  However, as the military and industrial might strengthened, the United States began to pursue a strategy of annihilation to rapidly defeat an adversary with overwhelming force.3  The nation’s transition to an annihilation strategy saw the birth of the United States’ Navy and Air Force dogmas.


The U.S. Navy and Air Force have evolved institutionally and technologically since their inceptions.  Regardless of these changes, both services may argue that the “American Way of War” was revealed more than a century ago and the current force must properly employ the resources and technological advancements to implement it.  These changes in the characteristics of war have altered the tactics in which both of these services wage war; however, two leading scripts that guide both services’ priorities and strategy today rest in the ideas of two men: Mahan and Douhet.


Former United States Naval Officer Alfred Thayer Mahan’s work The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1650-1783 frames the dogma that defines the strategy of America’s sea power.  Mahan, considered as the Jomini of naval theory, concluded that sea control rested in decisive naval battles, blockades to control trade, and bases in large continental locations to ensure power projection.4   Sound familiar?  Mahan’s piece is just as true today as when he wrote it 129 years ago.  Mahan’s contributions have framed the principles that guide the focus of naval innovation, operations, and strategy regardless of time period or location.  Mahan’s ideas are true today in the contested waters of the South China Sea, carrier presence in key economic straits, and naval bases at critical geographic locations.


Not all dogmas are universally endorsed.  This is also true regarding Mahan’s perspective of sea power. One may raise a contradictory argument that Mahan’s ideas never anticipated a threat outside of rival industrial nations.  Moreover, skeptics of Mahan may raise awareness to the fact that his ideas were discredited in WWI and even more so with the Japanese defeat in WWII.  Regardless of such critics, Mahan’s ideas ring loud today.  Perhaps the Mahan dogma has survived in the U.S. Navy because America’s maritime dominance has not been challenged since 1945.


Similar to Mahan, the United States Air Force’s dogma is derived by the strategic bombing contribution of Giulio Douhet.  Douhet, an Italian general during the interwar period, advocated for the importance of air power to break the will of the people.  Douhet was a total war advocate whose theory provided the framework for the assumptions of the U.S. Air Corps Strategic Bombing Doctrine.  Some of those assumptions where that vital targets could be identified and were vulnerable to precision bombing, enough targets could be bombed enough times to collapse the enemy economy, and the enemy will have no effective countermeasure.5  Reading these assumptions that were determined over 79 years ago, one may conclude that they are similar to the assumptions used to define U.S. air strategy today in various regions and against different adversaries.


Similar to Mahan, Douhet’s ideas face resistance with air power advocates.  Douhet’s principles of strategic bombing focused on destroying cities with poison gas and fire.  Such an approach is far from the current precision bombing mantra that the U.S. Air Force prides itself on today.  Even with these defined differences, Douhet’s principles outlined during the interwar period still apply today and guide the precision bombing strategy of the U.S. Air Force.


Why is the U.S. Army absent of a dogma?  One may assess that the main reason is that the U.S. Army consistently changes strategies with each generation, conflict, threat, or region.  Moreover, according to a recent study by the Rand Corporation, the land component service sees itself as taking on every tasks and the only service that understands war.6  As such, does the U.S. Army consider the need for a dogma differently than its fellow services?  If the U.S. Army had a dogma, would it be more like the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy or a more defined version of itself?  Addressing each of these questions may help better define this debate.


Perhaps the U.S. Army’s organizational characteristics resist an enduring dogma.  The U.S. Army takes pride in defining itself as a learning organization.  One that studies, adapts, and improves during and after each conflict.  The U.S. Army may not win the first battle, but its investment in improvement and adaptation will win the war.  Such an observation is not to say that the U.S. Navy and Air Force do not learn, but the U.S. Army’s operational environment requires this flexibility more than the other services.  Put simply, since WWII the United States has been far more contested on land than sea or air.


To observe this continuous cycle of learning, one needs to look no further than the ideas that have guided the force during changing and uncertain times.  Such examples include Field Manual 100-5 “Operations” (1976), Air Land Battle (1982), Weinberger Doctrine (1990), Field Manual 3-24 “Counterinsurgency” (2006), and Field Manual 3-0 “Operations” (2017).  These adapting ideas defined by leaders such as GEN Maxwell Taylor, GEN William DePuy, GEN Colin Powell, GEN David Petraeus, and currently GEN Mark Miley have all directed and changed the tactical, operational, and strategic focus of the U.S. Army against different threats, environments, and technology.


Critics of the U.S. Army’s approach would argue that an absence of a dogma fostered these repeatedly inadequate approaches.  GEN Taylor and GEN DePuy’s ideas were rejected and later argued as incomplete.  Air Land Battle’s only success was against a depleted Iraqi military.  The Weinberger Doctrine was faulted for the strategic losses of the Gulf War.  The Counterinsurgency manual proved to be an Iraq specific approach that failed in Afghanistan.  Last, the verdict is still out on FM 3-0, but skeptics may doubt a refocus toward large-scale combat operations at a cost of discarding the lessons learned from almost two decades of counterinsurgency operations.


The collection of these constantly-changing doctrinal ideas of land warfare demonstrates the U.S. Army’s reluctance to an enduring dogma.  Such an unwillingness should not be interpreted as a weakness.  Yet, one may argue that it is the ability to foresee the changes of modern and future warfare and adapt when, where, and by the appropriate means.  One in disagreement of this assessment may lean on the idea that Prussian General Carl Von Clausewitz’s perspective provides the framework of the guiding dogma that is consistent throughout each new idea, irrespective of threat and time period.  Although such a stance may be true, Clausewitz’s perspective was a theory of war and not the focus or priorities of a particular service.  Thus, eliminating Clausewitz from serving as the guiding principles of the land force.


A defined dogma might benefit the U.S. Army, but not change its message, focus or actions. The recognition and adoption of a dogma would establish an operational and strategic framework that provides the basis for development, innovation, and investment.  By doing such, it would reduce and hopefully eliminate the tendency to explore, invest, and test unneeded options that do not support the U.S. Army’s defined enduring strategic priorities.  However, regardless of a dogma, the U.S. Army’s message would continue to remain the same.  Although the U.S. Army is the nation’s oldest branch of service, it is constantly in a struggle to promote and defend its message.  The environment, threat, technology, and political objectives are constantly changing, causing the U.S. Army to repackage, rebrand, and promote its capabilities with each situation. For sure the existence of a dogma would help define the parameters of what the U.S. Army can and should do.  If so, how would a land force that prides itself as being able to win in the most challenging and uncertain situations rebrand itself?


Considering all of these thoughts may not ignite a discussion for the need of a U.S. Army dogma.  One of the most difficult questions to answer is what and who amongst all of the U.S. Army’s different ideas would provide the principles for a timeless dogma?  As new threats emerge in remote locations, resistance to an enduring dogma will allow for a new operational focus to define the current priorities of the U.S. Army.  Perhaps the contents of this piece have not swayed you one way or the other.  However, you are now armed with the framework to carry on the debate.  It is time for you to pick a side.


End Notes


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


Weigley, “The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy,” 3-17.


Weigley, “The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy,” 128-152.


Julian Corbett, “Some Principles of Maritime Strategy,” (United Kingdom: Naval and Military Press, February 2009), 170.


Williamson Murray and Allan Millett, “A War to Be Won, Fighting the Second World War,” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 31-34.


S. Rebecca Zimmerman, Kimberly Jackson, Natasha Lander, Colin Roberts, Dan Madden, and Rebeca Orrie, “Movement and Maneuver, Culture and the Competition for Influence Among the U.S. Military Services,” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019), 22.




Corbett, Julian. “Some Principles of Maritime Strategy.”  United Kingdom: Naval and Military

Press, February 2009.


Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan.  “A War to Be Won, Fighting the Second World War.”

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.


Weigley, Russell F.  “The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy

and Policy.” Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, June 1977.


Zimmerman, S. Rebecca, Jackson, Kimberly, Lander, Natasha, Roberts, Colin, Madden, Dan,

and Orrie, Rebeca. “Movement and Maneuver, Culture and the Competition for Influence Among the U.S. Military Services.” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019.


About the Author(s)

Jonathan C. Nielsen, PhD, is an infantry officer in the United States Army and currently an operations officer in 3rdBrigade, 101stAirborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Kentucky.  His assignments include tours in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.  Follow him on Twitter @J_C_Nielsen