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Searching for the Real American Way of War
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.[1] 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."[2] (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,"[3] as Abraham Lincoln put it, until his far greater resources and manpower would finish off his opponent.

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 North America.

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 consequences.

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"[4] 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 problems.

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 military.

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.


[1]. Russell Weigley, The American Way of War, New York: MacMillian, 1973.

[2]. Max Boot, "The New American Way of War," Foreign Affairs, July/August 2003, Volume 82: Number 4, pages 41-58, quote page 41.

[3]. Carl Van Doren, Editor, The Literary Works of Abraham Lincoln, New York: The Heritage Press, 1942, page 268.

[4]. C. Stedman, The History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War, Volume II: London: Printed for the author, 1794, page 420.

* * *

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 articles.

Published online: 06/08/2008.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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