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


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.


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

American Military Culture and Strategy


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    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.