Decisive Force: The New American Way of War

Decisive Force: The New American Way of War

Decisive Force: The New American Way of War

Decisive Force: The New American Way of War


The existence of a national style of warfare, an American Way of War, has been used to characterize fundamental elements of American military strategy. During his tenure as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell became the proponent for a strategic framework to guide the consideration of how military forces should be used to support national policy objectives. His framework was reflected in the Chairman's National Military Strategy published in early 1992 after Desert Storm under a concept titled "Decisive Force." This book traces the development and evaluates the merits of a "New American Way of War" embodied in the Decisive Force concept. Military attitudes and lessons about the utility of force are drawn from four recent conflicts.


For the past twenty years, ever since the last helicopter ignominiously left the rooftop of the American Embassy in Saigon, our country has debated how to use military force to serve the Nation's interests. This issue remains unanswered today. Despite a rich legacy of examples to draw from, our reluctance to conduct critical strategic studies limits our grasp of the problem and a deeper understanding of our own history.

In the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, there was a deeply emotional debate about the political, social, and moral aspects of the war. Many serving military officers participated in this debate, but the military as an institution pushed the memories of the Central Highlands and the Mekong Delta out of its consciousness. Instead the Armed Forces focused therapeutically on the threat the Soviet Union posed in Europe. Over time, the "lessons" of Vietnam passed implicitly into the military culture, into its doctrine, training and education, and thought process. The collective conclusion can be reduced to the simplistic cry of "No More Vietnams."

Most observers agree that Vietnam was lost at the political and strategic level of war. The existence of a national style of warfare, an American Way of War, was raised as a fundamental and immutable element of American strategy. The American Way of War is built around a strategy that employs the vast economic and technological base of the United States to grind down opponents with firepower and mass. Our style is built around economic production capacity and resources. Because of its costs, this style is predicated upon national mobilization and national commitment. This national style reflects both our comparative advantages and the limits of a democratic government.

The American Way of War has become a convenient and useful description to characterize our unique approach to warfare, an approach that reflects the collective history, attitudes, geography, and political culture of the American experience. It is admittedly somewhat of an overgeneralization, but it is a useful one. National styles . . .

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