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  • The American Way of War Debate:An Overview
  • Brian McAllister Linn (bio)

What does the "American Way of War" mean? Historians of my generation will be gratified to know that (at least as of today) the number one Google entry for the term is Russell F. Weigley's 1973 book that first popularized it. But continue Googling, and you will soon stumble into a controversial and often acrimonious debate that has little to do with Weigley's thesis. Instead, the American Way of War—whether defined by filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, neoconservative Max Boot, strategic thinkers Tom Barnett and H.H. Gaffney, or others—is a vibrant and evolving discussion about current and future U.S. defense policy. If senior American military historians have difficulty understanding this hijacking of "their American Way of War," then other scholars must be completely at a loss. With much oversimplification, this essay attempts a broad categorization of four of the more prominent interpretations of the American Way of War advanced by either military historians or by analysts who make extensive use of history. These categories are individual and reflect my own biases and assumptions, and I recognize there is considerable overlap between them. For example, the difference between culturalists and policy advocates is often one of degree and emphasis: one derives from a study of American culture an analysis of military policy; the other derives from its study of military policy an analysis of American culture. This caveat aside, the categories may serve as a starting point for further discussion on the American Way of War debate.

Among those who define themselves entirely as military historians the debate over the American Way of War is largely confined to a discussion over the demerits and merits of the late Professor Weigley's thesis. Weigley focused on the conduct of U.S. military operations and strategy from the War of Independence to the Vietnam War. He posited that a decisive change from a strategy of attrition to one of annihilation occurred during the Civil War. Thereafter, and in some cases regardless of political objectives, American military leaders attempted to shatter the enemy's military forces on the battlefield. Generally unchallenged for many years, Weigley's thesis has recently been criticized by some military historians for blurring the annihilation-attrition dichotomy, for being more applicable to certain wars than others, and for failing to allow for strategic improvisation and evolution during the course of a conflict.

In the past few years scholars have proposed a number of alternative explanations for the American Way of War. The following is by no means a complete list, but it does provide a sampling of some of the approaches. John Grenier's The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814 (Cambridge University Press, 2005) emphasizes the importance of the incessant frontier conflicts between colonists and Native Americans, all but ignored by Weigley, in shaping American attitudes and theories concerning warfare. Andrew J. Birtle's two-volume study of U.S. Army counterinsurgency operations and doctrine provides the best overview of the "alternative" way of unconventional war.

Some scholars have focused on the importance of the U.S. armed forces' "strategic culture"—its assumptions, concepts, traditions, practices—in determining the conduct of war. Thomas G. Mahnken's Technology and the American Way of War since 1945 (Columbia University Press, 2008) explores how the services have adopted and employed those weapons that best suit their institutional prerogatives. Fred Kagan's Finding the Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy (Encounter Books, 2006) provides a succinct and often critical overview of the various fads—transformation, the Revolution in Military Affairs, network centric warfare—that too often have served as a substitute for strategy in the post-Cold War military services. In The Echo of Battle: The Army's Way of War (Harvard University Press, 2007) I argue that it is less the wars themselves than how military officers perceive their "lessons" that creates a "way of war." The military intellectuals' interpretation of the past shapes their service's concept of war, which in turn influences its procurement, organization and training, doctrine, and planning for future conflicts. These and other alternative...