American Military Culture and Strategy

By Meilinger, Phillip S. | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2007 | Go to article overview

American Military Culture and Strategy


Meilinger, Phillip S., Joint Force Quarterly


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Culture is generally defined as socially transmitted behavior patterns, beliefs, and institutions that shape a community or population. These beliefs and behavior patterns influence the way a people fight, affecting not only goals and strategies but also methods, technologies, weapons, force structures, and even tactics. There is no denying that cultural analysis is exceedingly difficult; even a limited analysis of one's own culture is a complex endeavor with elements that are impossible to quantify even if they are not changing over time. Nevertheless, analysis must be attempted because the influence of culture is fundamental to a vast panorama of military art--from strategic communication to order and discipline.

The U.S. military subculture has obviously been shaped by American culture writ large. Although partly inherited from its European forebears, our approach to war has developed in its own distinctive way. Events since the Cold War have made our contemporary military culture more finely tuned to the demands of domestic and international politics than ever before. Increasing sensitivity to the use of force has shaped the way Americans fight today, emphasizing speed, precision, power projection, and information fusion to produce decisive results in a short period of time with low casualties--to both sides. In addition, the tension between a professional military and one composed of citizens--a national guard--continues to be a subject of intense political debate. Finally, civilian control of the military, the bedrock of American military culture, must be offered loyal opposition from military professionals to avoid political decisions to employ military power in ways that are antithetical to sound grand strategy.

Observations

Outside observers have stressed certain themes in American culture and their impact on military organization and strategy. Alexis de Tocqueville noted that Americans emphasized equality and democracy and believed they had a God-given mandate to further those concepts throughout the world, prompting him to write in exasperation: "Nothing is more embarrassing in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans." (1) A heightened ethnocentrism would become an American trait.

Regarding the military, Tocqueville noted that geography, in the form of a huge land mass bounded by oceans and weak neighbors, meant that a standing army was unnecessary. As a consequence, military affairs were little discussed by the average American or his politicians. This, in turn, led to naivete and lack of preparedness when a crisis did arise: "There are two things that a democratic people will always find very difficult, to begin a war and to end it." (2) This was a prescient observation.

Another foreigner observer was Alfred Vagts, who served in the German army during World War I but fled to America when Hitler came to power in 1933. A military historian, Vagts defined two related but fundamentally different terms. The military way sought to achieve specific war objectives with efficiency and dispatch. The military way was limited in scope and inherently scientific in its methods. Militarism, on the other hand, was a combination of "customs, interests, prestige, actions and thought associated with armies and war and yet transcending true military purposes." Militarism was an evil, focused on "caste and cult" rather than science, and was often antithetical to the military way. (3) Germany was militaristic, but Vagts' adopted country was not: "The American system at the outset was a military system, not a militaristic system. It conceived of the army as an agent of civil power, to be organized and disciplined with that purpose in view, not as an end in itself." (4)

The most influential authority on the culture of the American military has been Samuel Huntington. In The Soldier and the State, Huntington covered a wide range of topics including the nature of a profession, military professionalism, and civilian control of the military. …

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