|Searching for the Real
American Way of War
by Bruce Brager
"The American Way of War," the almost clichéd term from military and defense
analysis, is not likely to go away. One solution to this seemingly lack of
imagination in the use of the English language is to find another term, to
undertake a modicum of stylistic effort for the sake of readers. This essay
looks for another solution. It seeks to redefine the American Way of War, to
come up with its own new term, the Real American Way of War, to find a new way
of looking at the American military experience.
Historian Russell Weigley introduced the term "American Way of War" several
decades ago. A recent essay described the customary definition of the
American War of War succinctly, but not entirely accurately, as: "The awesome
destructive power that only a fully mobilized and highly industrialized
democracy can bring to bear." (Look at the awesome destructive power of the
Soviet Union.) Awesome destructive power, of varying types, was a key tool of
victory in the three biggest wars the United States fought, the American Civil
War, World War One, and World War Two.
Sheer power, of different types, should remain a tool in the American defense
arsenal. Overwhelming application of force can end a war quickly, or prevent a
war before it starts, at minimum human cost. Using material resources is
certainly preferable to using manpower resources. Eliminating the "resource
resource" might eliminate the possibility of quick and efficient Desert Storm
type victories, and lessen the chance of an opponent thinking twice before
starting a war. Decreasing conventional power might increase the need for
nuclear weapons in a future mass war.
However, the traditional "American Way of War" can be a two-edged sword, to use
another cliché. The American War in Vietnam showed what could happen when the
United States relies too much on sheer power, too little on understanding the
hearts and minds of our enemies. September 11th showed the limits of massive
force capabilities in the era of violent unexpected asymmetry. The attacks of
that day showed what can happen when enemies sufficiently motivated, enemies
unburdened by conventional moral scruples, discover holes in even the biggest
and best defenses, particularly if the defenses lack fully effective
intelligence gathering and quick response capabilities.
"The American Way of War," in its traditional meaning, is an accurate, but
simplistic way of looking at history. If we look only at grinding attrition, at
overwhelming our enemies with massive force, we miss the real lessons of
American military history from the past and for the future. We miss the need to
recognize that sheer application of power is a fall back strategy best applied
only when other methods, soft and hard – starting with trying to avoid the war
to begin with – have failed.
We miss a lot if we assume that even our "resource based wars" were just
resource based. They were more complicated. If we presume, for example, that
the World War Two was solely a resource war, and that we won only because we
had more resources – forgetting about frequent supply shortages at the fronts
-- we miss the chance to debate whether Dwight D. Eisenhower had the right
approach in calling for the Western allies to advance over a single unbroken
front in Western Europe, north to south. Did this prevent a quick strike
directly into Germany that might have ended the war six months earlier? Or did
we avoid providing an opportunity for a German counterattack to cut off and
damage, if not destroy, the thrusting column? Could the Germans have done to us
what we did to them at the Battle of the Bulge?
We overlook interviews with German commanders after the war ended. They
respected and feared our material power, but also praised, at least on the
tactical level, American persistence and imagination, our flexibility in doing
what we needed to do to win. Did American leadership exhibit the same
imagination and flexibility on a strategic level? No need to ask if we just
look at power.
World War One, to move backwards in time, was noted for slogging attrition that
lacked even the saving grace of the most critical view of World War Two –
movement. When American troops first began to arrive in Europe in sufficient
numbers to make a difference, commanding general John J. Pershing rejected
using American troops to beef up French and British units in the same type of
trench warfare as the three years before. American troops were not always used
as well as Pershing wanted. But the war quickly took on far more fluidity when
American troops were used in any great numbers, starting about August 1918.
Three months later, the war ended, with what Pershing chillingly described as
the premature acceptance of the German request for an armistice. Twenty years
later this led to a vivid example of the law of unexpected consequences – to
every action there is a reaction, but usually neither equal nor opposite.
Ending a war is usually a good thing. However, more grinding attrition, more
bloodshed, to put it crudely, would have been valuable here. A lesson to the
Germans that they lost World War One, that they were not stabbed in the back,
might have saved 50,000,000 lives by preventing World War Two. .
During the last year of the American Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant did not
initially seek to trade casualties with Robert E. Lee, until Lee's smaller army
ran out of men. (Throughout the Civil War as a whole, Grant actually lost a
smaller percentage of men under his command than Lee lost of those under his
command.) Grant originally tried to outmaneuver Lee, to bring Lee to battle in
the open, to fight where the Federal advantages of size, and of artillery,
could best be used. Resource use, yes, but when that gave thought to how best
to use the resources. Grant understood the basic military reality of trying to
get the enemy to fight your battle, not his.
Even without the unfortunate lesson of the Federal defeat at Chancellorsville,
a year earlier, Grant would not have wanted to fight a major battle in the
twisted second-growth forest so aptly named "The Wilderness." This thick
woodland was a defensive blessing for a smaller force, a nightmare for a large
advancing force. The United States army finally solved the problem of fighting
under such conditions, and fighting at night, a century and a half later, with
modern night vision and more advanced technology, some of which was used for
the first time in the March 2003 war with Iraq.
Grant tried to move through the Wilderness. But his subordinates did not move
their men as quickly as Grant wanted. After 40 days of slogging warfare, in the
Wilderness and further south, Grant realized he had to just grab and "hold on
with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible," as Abraham
Lincoln put it, until his far greater resources and manpower would finish off
The total Federal effort under Grant's command also included William Sherman's
forces cutting a vast swath through the productive heartland of the South,
striking at their will to resist as well as at their resources for resistance.
Other Federal raids and columns maneuvered further west. Grant used massive
force to defeat Lee. But Sherman used maneuver, and targeting the enemy's
economy, and morale, as equally effective tools of victory. Attrition was a
major operational and tactical tool, but it was only one of Grant's tools.
An excellent way to find ideas for the new American Way of War is to go back to
before this country was a major industrial power with a large population. Go
back to the beginning, to the colonial and Revolutionary periods. The
struggling colonials lacked the manpower or the technology or the supplies for
attrition. They lacked the brawn available for later wars, and had to rely on
brains. Colonial Americans had to rely on understanding the context for
applying our limited resources. The Americans won the Revolutionary War with
the flexibility of mind to recognize the real issues of the war, and to use
their strengths to shift the war's context.
The Americans began to win the Revolution twenty years before it started, with
the French and Indian War of 1754. In one of the interesting ironies of
history, the war was touched off, though not caused, by the errors of an
inexperienced 22-year-old militia officer, George Washington, who lost control
of some of his men. Within a century and a quarter of Washington's errors,
aided by the "force multiplier" of additional errors and bad judgment, and by
opportunities not missed, five of the six major players in the North American
continent were destroyed, or had left the scene, or were substantially reduced
in power and influence. So someone learned, and avoided past errors.
Britain and France, the two primary world powers of the day, had a continuing
long term cold war, punctuated by frequent hot wars. These were powers with
asymmetrical strengths. Britain, with a relatively small home territory, was a
maritime power. France was the strongest land power in Europe. However, France
also had overseas colonial interests. In North America the land power situation
was the reverse of that in Europe. 45,000 French settlers, in an arc stretching
from New Orleans to what is now Quebec, surrounded about 1.5 million British
settlers. The French feared British expansion; the British feared a French
military move to split their colonies in half.
Britain concentrated its expansion efforts overseas. France was primarily a
continental power. Though there would seem to be little inherent conflict
between British and French interests, there were significant areas of tension.
The British royal house had been imported from Hanover; part of what is now
Germany. King George II also ruled Hanover, and wanted to defend that flat and
easily invaded area. Britain also wanted to prevent French control of English
Channel ports a short sail from British home territory.
French efforts to strengthen control over disputed territory and stop the
spread of British colonists, and British reaction, led to a young Virginia
militia officer, George Washington, being sent to the area. American Indians
under Washington's command massacred some French prisoners after they had
surrendered, at a place in western Pennsylvania called Jumonville's Glen. Two
months later, at what he named Fort Necessity, Washington was forced to
surrender to a larger French force. He and his men were promised safe conduct
back to Virginia, as long as he signed a document. Mistranslated by one of his
men, Washington thought the document said his men had "killed" the French
prisoners. When he signed the document, just a few minutes before midnight on
July 3, 1754, Washington actually confessed to "assassinating" -- a far more
politically charged word -- the French.
Washington touched off what came to be called the French and Indian War. Two
years later, Prussian military adventurism in Europe started what came to be
called the Seven Years War, of which the American war became a part. The
British nearly lost the American war at the start. They refused to recognize
that fighting in the heavily forested North America was different from fighting
in the far more open Europe of the day. The British government was critically
slow to accept the literally and figuratively different environment of war in
Two years after the war started in America, about the time the war spread to
Europe, William Pitt joined the British cabinet. He was effectively prime
minister, though that formal title would not exist for another 75 years. Pitt
took a more creative and activist approach to the war. He threw ability at the
war, picking commanders in American, even colonials, on the basis of
qualifications rather than political connections or aristocratic birth. He also
threw money at the war, particularly in Europe, where Britain basically paid
for the Prussian military, a financial resource war. Prussia did the bulk of
the ground fighting in Europe, with Britain focusing on naval affairs and on
the war in America.
Pitt won his war. Pitt also drained the British treasury. Replacing the money
through taxation of the British population was politically infeasible for
Pitt's successors. This money had been spent on defense of America, and would
be spent on future defense, so let the Americans pay, the British leaders
thought. With the elimination of the "French menace," the British government no
longer needed to treat the Americans as allies. However, there was no longer an
external enemy to justify tightened controls. The Americans, ironically, were
treated as British subjects, were given all the rights of Englishmen, but they
now had higher standards. The British did not realize, or refused to recognize,
this major change in the political environment. Victory can have unexpected
British efforts to restore political and financial control over the colonies,
and American resistance to these efforts, led to the American War of
Independence. Misgovernance, not evil per se, but a mix of good intentions gone
awry, carelessness and arrogance, led to the American War of Independence.
George Washington reentered the national military scene in 1775. This time he
brought with him an ability to handle things effectively, to evaluate his
environment based on accurate and sufficient information, and to determine the
best course of action. Washington fought battles, and actually won some of
them. But his main strategy was to keep his army alive; to keep the British
from winning while American diplomacy worked to change the nature of the war.
George Washington conducted a type of guerrilla war, using his army to strike
at targets of opportunity, but spending much of the war being chased about the
countryside by the British. Even the victory that ended the war, Yorktown, was
as much a matter of indirection, and maneuver, as military prowess. Washington
convinced the British that he was aiming to attack New York City. British
commander in the south, General Charles Cornwallis moved his forced to Yorktown
to await transportation back to New York. Washington secretly moved his forces
and French forces to Virginia and sealed off the British from land.
The deciding factor in the American/French victory at Yorktown was preventing a
rescue by sea of Cornwallis and his army. A French fleet defeated the British
fleet attempting rescue. That the French were there was a result of expert
American diplomacy, going with the American strength. Ironically this played on
French, and Spanish, desire for revenge on the British over the results of the
French and Indian/Seven Years War, which the Americans had played a major role
in winning. Benjamin Franklin, and the other American diplomats, assisted by
the clear American military victory at Saratoga in October 1777, convinced the
major European governments either to actively aid the Americans (France and
Spain) or to remain neutral (Russia, Austria and Prussia). When open French aid
prompted a British declaration of war, the war was converted for the British
from a local rebellion to a world war. America became a back issue.
The defeat at Yorktown, "so brilliant an event as the capture of a whole army,
and at its head a commander who was esteemed one of the bravest and most
enterprising of [America's] foes" convinced the British that the cost of
winning the war in America was too high for the results. Important elements in
Parliament and the military were strongly against continuing the war. Let the
colonies go, they argued, and concentrate on France and Spain.
What it comes down to is that the Americans outthought, rather than outfought,
the British. The Americans had a better understanding of the total context for
the war than the British and made the most of this understanding by managing to
change the context of the war to their advantage. The American side made the
goals of war asymmetrical. Winning became far more important to the Americans
than avoiding defeat was for the British. The Americans made the British fight
on American terms, moving from a war of force, which we would lose, to a war of
brains and diplomacy, which we could and did win.
The Americans had a better understanding of the total context for the war than
the British and made the most of this understanding by managing to change the
context of the war to their advantage.
Lessons for The Future
The inherent strength of the United States, of its military, its economy and
its resources, make it likely that it will be a long time before this country
faces a direct conventional or conventional nuclear military threat. We will,
however, face attempts to attack us where we are weak or vulnerable. This is
classic, effective, appropriate, and legitimate strategy when a war is on. But,
if we did not realize so before, in the last few years we have learned that
there are people out there with no limits on methods, targets, or circumstances
under which they will take action.
The most careful and comprehensive planning will never be able to predict and
prepare for all the possible ebbs and flows of the many currents at work in the
modern world. We cannot anticipate the details of surprise, but we can
anticipate surprise. We need a flexible frame of mind to maximize what we can
anticipate, and to respond as early and as effectively as possible to what we
did not anticipate. Inability to fully anticipate calls for the United States
to maintain a wide range of defense resources to cope not just with probable,
not just with conceivable, but with inconceivable events, developments and
We need to be able to apply massive force, and to apply force selectively. But
force alone overlooks one of the major tools the United States has in its
arsenal of military, political, and economic weapons -- the idea of the United
States itself. No country, or group, or individual, can really live up to the
heights of its own declared self-image. But our heights are among the highest,
a society in which all people can achieve to the limits of their capabilities.
We declare ourselves to be a free and open society, which not only tolerates
diversity but also recognizes diversity as strength – though this sometimes
slips into an obsessive concern with difference. Looking at our history shows
that we are stronger when we go with our strengths, philosophical as well as
We succeeded in the past when we applied the appropriate tools for the problem
at hand. We succeeded when we properly understood and reacted to the particular
problem and its general context, including an understanding of the consequences
of our action – to the degree, of course, than unanticipated consequences could
be anticipated. We succeeded when, whatever we told others, we are honest with
ourselves. We succeeded in various wars, by appropriate use of the rapier and
the bludgeon. We succeeded by knowing when to think as well as when and how to
act. This is the real American Way of War.
. Russell Weigley, The American Way of War, New York: MacMillian,
. Max Boot, "The New American Way of War," Foreign Affairs,
July/August 2003, Volume 82: Number 4, pages 41-58, quote page 41.
. Carl Van Doren, Editor, The Literary Works of Abraham Lincoln, New
York: The Heritage Press, 1942, page 268.
. C. Stedman, The History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the
American War, Volume II: London: Printed for the author, 1794, page
Copyright © 2008 Bruce Brager
Written by Bruce L. Brager. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Bruce L. Brager at:
About the author:
Bruce Brager is a writer specializing in military history, defense and foreign
policy. He is the author of ten published books and over fifty
Published online: 06/08/2008.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.