Academic journal article Parameters

The Individualization of American Warfare

Academic journal article Parameters

The Individualization of American Warfare

Article excerpt

Abstract: Since 9-11, the United States has embarked on a decade of doctrinal and technical innovations focused on defeating networks and individual combatants rather than formations. This article examines this evolving model of individualized warfare within the context of current debates over the appropriate role of military landpower in an age dominated by persistent threats from non-state actors and unconventional adversaries.


In late 2014, the United States reached a milestone of the 500th non-battlefield targeted strike. (1) Beyond the numbers, this event is notable as one example of a new mode of state warfare based on military power being applied directly against individual combatants rather than formations. These so-called "targeted killings" are perhaps the most vivid example of the individualization of American warfare, particularly the Commander-in-Chief routinely reviewing and approving strikes against named combatants, a phenomenon "without precedent in presidential history." (2) However, this operational trend is by no means limited to high-level counterterrorism efforts. It represents a more systematic disaggregation of national security threats and the adoption of an individualized approach to military targeting that has dramatically transformed the American way of war. Within this paradigm, the targeting of "high value individuals" and networks has replaced conventional force engagement as the driving force of recent doctrinal change and technical innovation."

As the defining operational experience for a generation of junior leaders, this new mode of warfare reflects the culmination of a decade of tactical lessons, doctrinal adaptations, technical advances, and changes to the institutional cultures of the US military. Indeed, since 9-11 the US armed forces have "developed the fusion of operations and intelligence for the purpose of hunting high-value targets into a high art." (3) Yet even as these methods have been widely applied, there remains insufficient analysis as to their effectiveness and utility as an element of US military power. (4) This article describes the catalysts driving the individualization of American warfare and considers the implications for future national security strategy and the Army.

A Post-Westphalian Logic of Warfare

The rise of individualized warfare stands in stark contrast to the preceding Cold War era where focus of operational planning, intelligence analysis, and doctrine centered primarily on the conduct of large-scale conventional warfare against nation-state adversaries. The transition is even more profound as a departure from the foundational presumptions of the "Westphalian" system that defined the context of state warfare for over three hundred years. The end of the Thirty Years War was notable as the transition point from the age of private mercenary conflicts towards a modern construct of warfare in which combatants became instruments of the state, acting on behalf of political sovereigns rather than fighting for individual gain. (5) This period also marked the "depersonalization" of conflict as soldiers assumed collective identities as members of professional armies. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's seminal treatise on political power articulated the significance of this transition, noting modern warfare was no longer a "relationship between one man and another, but a relationship between one state and another, in which individuals are enemies only by accident, not as men, nor even as citizens, but as soldiers." (6) This shift provided the intellectual foundation for legal categorizations supporting the concept of lawful combatancy and the treatment of prisoners, wounded soldiers, and civilians on the battlefield.

As the Westphalian system depersonalized warfare, soldiers became "generic" members of their national armies in terms of legal status and appearance. Geo-political boundaries and national affiliations determined the application and scope of wartime protections, while uniforms emerged to distinguish soldiers from civilians and to provide the operational context for lawful targeting. …

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