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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
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. 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.”  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. 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.”
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.” 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.  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. 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.” 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. 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. 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. 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. Crucial differences, such as discipline, cohesion based on community association, and superior equipment, often ensured Greek victory despite being outnumbered by the enemy. 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.” 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.  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. 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.” 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. 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. 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.”  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.
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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).
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 Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1977), xxii
 Brian M. Linn, The Echo of Battle: The Army’s Way of War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 3.
 Brian M. Linn, “‘The American Way of War’ Revisited,” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 66, No.2 (April 2002), 503.
 Ibid, 530.
 John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003), 321.
 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.
 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.
 Gaffney, “The American Way of War through 2020” 1.
 Max Boot, “The New American Way of War.” (New York, NY: Foreign Affairs, July/August 2003).
 Antulio J. Echevarria II, “An American Way of War or Way of Battle?” (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2004).
 Gaffney, “The American Way of War through 2020” 18.
 Victor Davis Hanson, The Western Way of War (New York, NY: Suffolk, 1989), 223-225.
 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.”
 David Kilcullen, Counterinsurgency (Oxford, 2010) ix-x.
 Max Boot, Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (New York, NY: Basic Book, 2002), xvi.
 United States Marine Corps, Small Wars Manual (New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing, 2009), 32 (first published: Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1940).
 National Security Strategy, (White House, May 2010) http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/rss_viewer/national_security_strategy.pdf (accessed Nov 9, 2011).
 The Israelis also have a similar strategy integrated into their operational paradigm.
 Ibid, 32.
 Ibid, these various methods are discussed throughout Section III, Advancing Our Interests, 17.
 Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2004).
 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).
 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 87.
 Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, xx.
 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).
 Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, (New York, NY: Simon & Shuster, 1994), 833.