Small Wars Journal

Understanding Tendencies: How Evaluation of the American Way of War is the Key to Success in the Future

Sat, 04/08/2017 - 11:47am

Understanding Tendencies: How Evaluation of the American Way of War is the Key to Success in the Future

Richard M. Ingleby

Way of War theory is one of the hottest topics in current historical study and writing.  Without a doubt these efforts are of great value, as they contribute significantly to our understanding of culture and society and how these factors impact later battles.  Yet most of these studies have generally tended to devote their focus almost solely toward the strengths produced by a nation’s Way of War.  Again, while of great value, this approach misses the greatest benefit that such analysis also provides: the weaknesses in a nation’s Way of War.  The primary reason for studying a nation’s military abilities – at least for current policy makers and military leaders – should not be to affirm and extol the pleasant, but to expose and critically analyze shortcomings, allowing that nation to thereby improve itself going forward.  In the potentially zero-sum contest of warfare and national survival, doing so therefore is absolutely vital.  Clearly then, complete and proper study and analysis of Ways of War is highly warranted.

This is particularly the case in the study of the American Way of War.  There can be no doubt that the American Way of War has produced one of the most effective, superior and lethal militaries that the world has ever seen.  When opponents have chosen to meet and engage Americans in conventional combat, they have always done so to their ultimate peril.  But while the American Way of War is so immensely strong in many areas, we cannot fail to see that this Way also exposes several key weaknesses that foes can exploit with relative ease – and have done so in recent conflicts. 

For those not familiar with the concept, the premise is that a nation’s tendencies in warfare – or “way” – of fighting is the natural result of the cultural, economic and political circumstances from which its armies are derived; in short the way it fights, and why.  Some historians, such as one of the theory’s pioneers Victor Davis Hanson, have broadened the scope to look at it from a cultural level, such as his study of the Western, or European, Way.[i]  This of course has stirred its own debate, but let it suffice here to say that every nation has its own Way, the product of its history, culture and society. 

The United States clearly is no exception.  While it generally followed the examples of its European forefathers, its unique society, isolation and even its exposure and interaction with Native Americans produced military forces that fought quite differently from its European cousins.  This was apparent as early as the French and Indian War in the mid-18th Century, and one can easily argue that it was only after the British began to fully utilize American forces and adopt some of their methods themselves that they were able to turn a failing theater in their favor to their ultimate success.

After two centuries and multiple diverse conflicts, the US has indeed developed and refined its own distinct and unique Way of War – one that again has made it one of the most lethal opponents that the world has ever seen.  Many books have been written detailing what exactly this American Way is, however this author believes that it rests primarily along six lines: (1) a heavy reliance on firepower (to include air power), (2) being accustomed to great material wealth, to include technological and provisional abundance, (3) aggressiveness, (4) a high level of professionalization and efficiency, (5) a skill in flexibility and independence at the tactical level, yet – curiously – having a inflexibility at the strategic level, and lastly, (6) a strong national aversion to human loss, making fighting a protracted war difficult.  While these aspects have made the United States a very lethal opponent in conventional military conflict, they also come with clear vulnerabilities.  American military leaders should therefore immediately seek to recognize, understand and strengthen each of these tenets in preparation for future conflict. 

First, firepower.  Undoubtedly the natural result of its material abundance along with its aversion to loss, from the Second World War to present, the United States military has exhibited a heavy reliance on firepower in combat.  In virtually every conflict wherein the nation has engaged from the 20th Century to present, the United States has preferred to expend immense amounts of ordinance rather than risk exposing its soldiers to harm – far more so than perhaps any other nation at any period in history.  While undoubtedly this has contributed significantly to the minimization of harmful exposure to its troops, it has also made American armies extremely lethal and destructive in conventional combat – and the nation continues to become more so with each passing year as it continues to develop and refine its tactics and technology. 

In his seminal work The American Way of War, historian Russell Weigley claims that this use of firepower and lethality is the result of a different tenet in the American Way of War, annihilation – “seeking the literal destruction of the enemy’s armies as the means to victory.”[ii]  “In the history of American strategy,” he claims, “the direction taken by the American conception of war made most American strategists, through most of the time span of American history, strategists of annihilation.”[iii]  That may be a bit of a stretch, as America has fought in wars where in it did not attempt to annihilate, however those that have been on the receiving end of an American barrage may tend to agree with Weigley.  Regardless, because of America’s preference for firepower, its enemies have come to the quite natural realization that they cannot take on the United States in a conventional fight and win – apart from Saddam Hussein, who of course in 1991 gave the world a clear example as to why. 

Similarly, American dominance in industrial capacity and materiel output since the Industrial Revolution cannot be questioned.  American forces have always arrived on the battlefield the best equipped and supported of perhaps any Army in history.  Not only this, American materiel wealth is almost always extended in support its allies as well.  This has also meant that American armies always have arrived highly mechanized and technologically advanced; leading in virtually every aspect of the most advanced military technology of the time.  This dominance contributed greatly in sealing the fate of its opponents; most notably, destroying the Axis powers in the Second World War and driving the Soviet Union to collapse and dissolution in 1991.  But like the constraints in the first tenet above, the question that must be asked then is, can the Americans succeed in an environment where such material and/or technological superiority is negated, and they cannot rely so heavily upon the materiel advantage that they are so accustomed?

Next, and perhaps surprisingly and seemingly counter-intuitive given its adversity to loss, as will be discussed below, the American military has generally proven to be quite aggressive on the battlefield.  The nation usually reacts quickly, preferring to engage its enemies immediately and directly.  Perhaps the best example of this is seen in the American entry into the Second World War.  Although new to the over two-year-old conflict, the American mindset as they arrived in the European theater was firmly focused towards a desire to get after their German foe, pushing repeatedly for an immediate invasion of France to begin an advance directly towards Berlin.  Their more cautious British allies were able to deter the newcomers in 1942-43, convincing their partner to attack first in North Africa (1942) and Sicily-Italy (1943).  But after two years of “delay”, the British could no longer dissuade the Americans, who by then had built up an immense number of troops and materiel, and the seaborne invasion of the European mainland finally occurred in mid-1944.  In no small part due also to the tremendous sacrifice and efforts of their Russian allies on the other side of the continent, after the Allied landing in France, the greatest war in history was over in less than a year.

But like other strengths in the American Way of War, this aggressive attitude also has its setbacks, as it can over-reach its capabilities and preparedness.  Repeatedly, this impatience has gotten the United States mired in conflicts – particularly in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, where the nature of the conflicts turned out to be far different than the conventional conflict initially envisioned, causing the United States great difficultly and loss.  Again, Americans need to understand the strength of this aspect of their Way of War, but also realize that conflicts in the future will likely not play directly into these strengths.  This understanding will allow them to view diverse conflicts for what they are – arguably America’s greatest failure in recent conflicts – and to engage in ways that are most effective, not necessarily in the ways that they prefer. 

Americans are very good at warfare.  A mirror of the very business and corporate-minded society that they come from, their military is highly professionalized, and they constantly refine, consolidate and maximize their efficiency in all things pertaining to war.  From weekly inspections of vehicles to cannon crew drills, one would be extremely hard-pressed to find an American unit that did not have any action that it must perform not well-rehearsed, standardized and printed in some sort of publication.  As a result, in almost every instance, their doctrine and tactics, along with their individual training and education, are far superior to that of most – if not all – other armies.  Unless other nations restructure their cultures and societies to replicate the United States in this area, or the nation makes drastic changes to its military structure, it is not likely that this superiority will ever change.

Americans are also a very adaptive and innovative people, and this naturally translates quite frequently into the ranks of its military.  Time and again, the American military has either come up with its own innovative methods, or captured, incorporated and improved upon those of others quickly.  Likewise, they have also proven quite adept at successfully operating in a fluid tactical environments.  The little groups of American paratroopers scattered behind enemy lines in Sicily (1943) and Normandy (1944) for example, found themselves alone or with troopers they had never met, in the middle of the night, in a foreign and hostile place, lightly armed and miles from their objectives.  Yet they had no trouble quickly shrugging off their battle plans to simply just follow the sounds of the nearest gunfire to find and engage their adversaries. 

This American attitude is perhaps best typified by the words of Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., whose 4th Infantry Division landed several miles off its assigned Normandy landing beaches in early June 1944.  Who, upon judging the situation simply said, “We'll start the war from right here!” – and without question, they did.[iv]  Few armies in history can match this fundamental comfort with flexibility, and this has proven of great benefit when faced with the Fog of War that is the natural result of combat.  Undoubtedly this has to some degree played a part in virtually every battlefield success that the United States has ever had.

Surprisingly however, this tactical flexibility has not translated to the American strategic and operational levels, where American thinking seems institutionally fastened to what is familiar, understood and comfortable.  In his chapter dedicated specifically to examining the American Way of War, historian Colin Grey calls this a “suffering from a severe strategy deficit.”[v]  In almost every engagement from the Second World War to present – and in the periods between – US military leadership has shown a constant proclivity toward focusing on what is familiar and plays into their strengths, rather than study, understand and master the unfamiliar and uncomfortable.  

For example, after focusing almost solely on a potential war on the European mainland during the Interwar Period, its armies arrived relatively prepared for combat in the European theater when it entered the Second World War.  However, they had to make significant adjustments in its operations in the Pacific – a war that looked far more likely in the 1920s and 30s – despite the greatly foresighted interwar efforts of the United States Marine Corps.  Unfortunately, these adjustments came at a great cost, as veterans of places like Tarawa would attest.

Thus, as a result of their focus and efforts, when American armies arrived to the Persian Gulf in 1991, or to Kosovo eight years later, they found themselves generally prepared and in control.  Yet when they deployed to other campaigns, particularly those of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, where the conflict did not play exactly into what was prepared for, American strategy struggled to adjust – to put it mildly.  And in each of these conflicts the Americans left defeated and confused. 

Gray states that this is a result of “a persisting problem with the American way of war”, one characterized by “not so much how well Americans fight, but rather how well or poorly that combat and sacrifice have served the country’s political goals.”[vi]  But what Gray points to is a symptom of the problem, not the underlying cause.  The true cause of this shortcoming is that after each of these failed conflicts, despite its loss exposing a clear military weakness, American military leadership has repeatedly just simply chosen to revert to the previous doctrine and thinking that it knew and preferred – conventional combat – rather than attempt to honestly identify, address and correct their strategic failures.

It is no small wonder then, that whenever American troops arrive in a conflict zone, they tend to focus on familiar, comfortable traditional-combat operations, even if the conflict clearly calls for a different, even non-lethal, approach.  And although efforts have been made to incorporate “Stability Operations” into their doctrine at present, it seems as if this pattern is holding true even today.[vii]  There is clearly a pressing need therefore in the American Way of War for flexibility at the strategic and operational levels, much like their exceptionally ability at the tactical.

Lastly, Americans are averse to loss; more so than other nations.  Simply put, with its free-speech and republican governmental structure, the American public grows weary of protracted conflict quickly.  Individual life and freedoms are greatly respected in American culture, and military casualties in what is perceived as a stalemated conflict only exacerbate any war weariness.  While at times the nation has been successfully mobilized to fight long and difficult wars, conflicts that do not show clear progress quickly wear on American public opinion, ultimately causing the defeat of the great power in several instances.  

To simply argue then that Americans then need to decisively win their wars is an oversimplification of this tenet of their Way of War.  But this understanding reinforces the immediate need for mastery of counter-insurgency conflicts, because it seems that American patience declines further and further with loss and failure in these types of conflicts.  This is the most critical issue at hand for American military leaders at present – if the experience of the conflicts in the future continues to be like those of Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq, eventually American popular support for military action will erode to the point of exhaustion and mistrust, and the US military will have then lost its power entirely.

There can be no doubt that while still immensely strong, overall US military success in its major conflicts has clearly been on the decline since 1945.  It is imperative therefore that the US military fully understand this trend, then push itself out of its comfort zone by applying the strengths of its Way of War – particularly its instinctive study and efficiency – to areas wherein it is weak, thereby deliberately expanding its Way of War.  Only through so doing can the US capitalize on its strengths, adjust, and ensure its dominance in all of its conflicts going forward.  The good news is that America’s Way of War gives us the tools to do just that.


  1. Balkoski, Joseph. Utah Beach: The Amphibious Landing and Airborne Operations on D-Day. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2005.
  2. Gray, Colin S. “The American Way of War: Critique and Implications” in Rethinking the Principles of War by Anthony D. McIvor ed., Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005.
  3. Hanson, Victor Davis Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2002.
  4. Headquarters, Department of the Army, Army Doctrine Reference Publication No. 3-0: Unified Land Operations. Washington DC, May 2012.
  5. Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of the United States Military Strategy and Policy. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1973.

End Notes

[i] Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 2002).

[ii] Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1973), 145.

[iii] Ibid., xxii.

[iv] Joseph Balkoski, Utah Beach (Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2005), 180.

[v] Colin S. Gray, “The American Way of War” in Rethinking the Principles of War (Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2005), 34.

[vi] Ibid., 15.

[vii] Headquarters, Department of the Army, ADRP 3-0: Unified Land Operations (Washington DC, May 2012), 5.


About the Author(s)

Major Richard M. Ingleby is a Field Artillery Officer currently attending CGSC at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas with a follow-on assignment to the 82nd Airborne Division. He holds a BA in History from the University of Utah and a MA in Military History from Norwich University. He has served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the 4th Infantry Division along with multiple TRADOC assignments. He has served two tours in RC-East Afghanistan. The author always welcomes any feedback in the comments here or via enterprise email.