- The American Culture of War: The History of U.S. Military Force from World War II to Operation Iraqi Freedom
This well-researched book offers a critical survey of U.S. military policy and practice since World War II. It culminates in an indictment of the current war in Iraq (to 2005) and expresses serious reservations about the All Volunteer Force.
At the outset, Lewis proposes a set of cultural axioms leading to "an American Way of War" as a framework to account for the twists and turns of American military policy and practice in the sixty-odd years since the last mythic war. The theory informs but does not determine the narrative that follows. It is an intriguing approach, though sometimes it seems a bit contrived and privileging assumed cultural biases can overshadow the limitations of strategic context on policy choices. The account of the evolution of defense policy is informative, thought provoking, and not a little unsettling.
If the author has a governing conclusion, it is summarized late in the book in the Chapter titled "The New American Way of War." Lewis writes:
The most significant transformation in the American conduct of war since World War II and the invention of the atomic bomb, was not technological, but cultural, social, and political—the removal of the American people from the conduct of war"(p. 377). [End Page 1329]
The book's final paragraph is a plea for a return to inspired universal military service. Just as Tolstoy wrote a great novel to justify a coda on his philosophy of history, Lewis seems to have written a stimulating history to warrant a venting of outrage about the ongoing war and to express serious concerns about its implications for the professionalized military, not least the growing dependence on defense contractors for what were formerly uniformed functions.
Lewis's account neglects, indeed denies, one surprising feature of the American version of professionalization of the armed forces, the extent to which the positive emotional connection between the soldier and the American people has been maintained in the current war. Notwithstanding the voluntary nature of current military service, the public's emotional bond with those fighting remains surprisingly strong and much of the contemporary antiwar energy is fueled by concern for soldiers' and marines' burdens and losses. A professional army is not necessarily a mercenary army, dissociated from the wider society, though it can become such. Maintaining the affective relationship over the long haul is one of the principal challenges to the health of the American political experiment.
This book should be mandatory reading for current defense leaders and could profitably serve as the subject of a semester seminar at staff and war colleges, both to examine critically the adequacy of Lewis' account, and to explore the implications for the role of the armed forces in twenty-first-century democracy. For its comprehensive survey, the book deserves at least a tentative place on the shelf next to Russell Weigley's and Walter Millis's now dated synoptic texts. The place is provisional because Lewis is less able than his distinguished predecessors to escape his own experiences and political prejudices.