Prophets or Praetorians? the Uptonian Paradox and the Powell Corollary

By Cassidy, Robert M. | Parameters, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

Prophets or Praetorians? the Uptonian Paradox and the Powell Corollary


Cassidy, Robert M., Parameters


"A [military] philosophy grows from the minds and hearts, social mores and customs, traditions and environment of a people. It is the product of national and racial attributes, geography, the nature of a potential enemy threat, standards of living and national traditions, influenced and modified by great military philosophers, like Clausewitz and Mahan, and by great national leaders like Napoleon." (1)

"The major risk of a big-war predilection is that the US Army will retain the thinking, infrastructure, and forces appropriate for a large-scale war that may not materialize while failing to properly adapt itself to conduct simultaneous smaller engagements of the type that seem to be occurring with increasing frequency." (2)

Those quotations highlight the salience of military culture as an influence on how military institutions perceive and conduct war. Military culture as an explanation of behavior may be particularly relevant to the US Army now because the Army is transforming, is still engaged in a small counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, and is currently engaged in stability operations to counter terrorist and subversive paramilitary elements and thugs who use guerrilla hit-and-run tactics against coalition forces in Iraq. In short, military culture comprises the beliefs and attitudes within a military organization that shape its collective preferences toward the use of force. These attitudes can impede or foster innovation and adaptation, and military culture sometimes exhibits preferences for big wars in favor of small wars. This article discusses one characteristic of US military culture that since the end of the 19th century has had a profound influence on how the American military views the nexus between politics and war.

This characteristic is the Uptonian paradox, named so because Emory Upton's influence on American military thought contributed to the following contradiction: the US Army has embraced Clausewitz as the quintessential oracle of war, but it has also tended to distance itself from Clausewitz's overarching theme--the linkage of the military instrument to political purposes. To be sure, the propensity of 19th- and early 20th-century Western militaries to divorce the military sphere from the political sphere was not solely Uptonian--this inclination stemmed at first from the widespread influence of Jomini, whose work was more influential than Clausewitz's for most of the 19th century. In Upton's writings, however, he strengthened the tendency to separate the civil and military spheres by advocating minimal civilian control to maximize military effectiveness. (3)

A similar phenomenon, engendering similar tendencies, manifested itself after the Vietnam War. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the US military underwent an intellectual and professional renaissance after hitting its nadir at the end of the Vietnam War. This renaissance displayed an Uptonian character because it refocused the Army exclusively on the big-war paradigm, eschewed several studies that captured the true lessons of Vietnam, and embraced a book sponsored by the Army War College that asserted the US military failed in Vietnam not because it didn't adapt to counterinsurgency, but because it didn't fight that war conventionally enough. Consequently, the big-war-only school was ultimately codified in the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine--a prescription for the use of force that essentially proscribes anything other than conventional war. This article postulates that the Uptonian paradox remains an important influence on the US military and is shown in two tendencies: the inclination to separate the military and political domains after a war begins, and the tendency of the US military to prescribe its preferred paradigm for war to its civilian leadership.

Regular Army officers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries viewed Emory Upton, whose ideas included an unconcealed contempt for civilian control of the military, as a warrior prophet. …

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