Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

What Is Wrong with the American Way of War?

Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

What Is Wrong with the American Way of War?

Article excerpt

Our understanding of the American way of war begins in 1973 with the publication of historian Russell Weigley's classic work, The American Way of War: A History of U.S. Military Strategy and Policy.1 Weigley maintained that after the Civil War, American military strategy essentially narrowed from the practice of two types, annihilation and attrition, to one, annihilation. As the United States experienced a "rapid rise from poverty of resources to plenty," he argued, so too the American way of war tended to opt for strategies of annihilation, largely because it could.2 As a consequence, however, the further evolution of strategies of attrition was cut short, and American military strategy became unidimensional, or imbalanced. That, according to Weigley, was part of the problem with the Vietnam conflict. The other part of the problem, in his view, was that the era of using military force rationally to achieve the aims of policy was nearing its end.

Between 1973 and 1999, fewer than one dozen pieces were published on the American way of war, and many of them were simply reviews of Weigley's book. From 2000 to 2012, however, the number of articles and books concerning the American style of war tripled. One of the reasons for this increase is that the agenda associated with the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's related transformation program drew attention once again to Weigley's American Way of War. Between 2000 and 2003, both the old and new American ways of war became popular topics among defense policymakers and scholars.3 Research into one way of war inevitably drew attention to the other.4 Although much of the literature in this period mischaracterized Weigley's thesis, the idea that there had been a traditional way of war became the foil against which the "new" style was defined.5

After 2004, as the war in Iraq transformed from rapid and decisive to prolonged and ambiguous, the literature on the American way of war became preoccupied with identifying what had gone wrong. Many experts were convinced that something, or several things, had indeed failed, but it was not clear whether the failure belonged to the new American way of war or was deeply rooted in the U.S. approach to war more generally.

It Was the RMA

There were two basic answers to this question. The first pointed to the U.S. military's transformation as the crux of the issue, but it was divided. Some scholars held that transformation had gone too far, while others felt it had not gone far enough. The first group argued that transformation had proceeded too quickly: it had involved only a limited set of capabilities, concentrated on only a narrow segment of the operational spectrum, and ignored war's nature, in particular the elements of chance and uncertainty6 The second view countered that the real problem was that transformation had not gone far enough because Service cultures had resisted it, preferring to shape new technology according to their own traditions and preferences rather than maximizing the revolutionary potential such technologies afforded.7 To be sure, the story of the transformation of the U.S. military took place over three decades, not three years. Still, Secretary Rumsfeld's idea of transformation was, at root, about developing fundamentally "new ways of thinking" that would permit employing evolutionary capabilities in revolutionary ways.8 Thus, the push in the late 1990s and early 2000s was to realize the RMA in the form of new concepts.

One thing this debate clearly tells us, albeit inadvertently, is that an RMA was precisely the wrong approach to take in transforming the U.S. military after the Cold War. Revolutions are not open-minded affairs in search of optimal solutions. For revolutionaries, the best solutions are already known: no testing is necessary. As with the French or Russian examples, revolutions rely on faith and conviction, not logic and skepticism. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.