UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Toward an American Way of War

Toward an American Way of War - Cover

Authored by Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria II.

March 2004

29 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The author examines the principal characteristics and ideas associated with the American way of war, past and present. He argues that Americans do not have a way of war, but rather a way of battle. LTC Echevarria contends that moving from a way of battle to a way of war will require some fundamental thinking about the roles of the grammar and logic of war, about the nature of U.S. civil-military relations, and about the practical resources necessary to translate military victory into strategic success.


Understanding of the American approach to warfare begins with historian Russell Weigley’s classic work, The American Way of War. He concluded that the American style of waging war centered primarily on the idea of achieving a crushing military victory over an opponent. Americans—not unlike many of their European counterparts—considered war an alternative to bargaining, rather than part of an ongoing bargaining process, as in the Clausewitzian view. Their concept of war rarely extended beyond the winning of battles and campaigns to the gritty work of turning military victory into strategic success, and hence was more a way of battle than an actual way of war. Unfortunately, the American way of battle has not yet matured into a way of war.

The subject is important not just for academic reasons, but for policy ones as well. Assumptions about how American political and military leaders conceive of war and approach the waging of it tend to inform their decisions in matters of strategic planning, budgeting, and concept and doctrine development. The assumptions underpinning Defense Transformation, for example, appear to have more to do with developing an ever exquisite grammar than they do with serving war’s logic.

A Way of War Uniquely American?

Much of what Weigley said about the American way of war would apply to the German, French, or British methods of warfare as well. Yet, the picture he presents is incomplete. Hence, one would do well to consider Max Boot’s Savage Wars of Peace, which contends that Americans actually practiced another way of war with regard to history’s “small wars”—such as the Boxer Rebellion and the Philippine Insurrection—that did not necessarily involve wars for the complete overthrow of an opponent. In the final analysis, Boot rounds out the picture of the American approach to warfare, thereby augmenting Weigley’s thesis rather than overturning it.

A Way of Battle.

While these two interpretations approach the American tradition of warfare from different perspectives, they agree in one very critical respect: the American way of war tends to shy away from thinking about the complicated process of turning military triumphs, whether on the scale of major campaigns or small-unit actions, into strategic successes. This tendency is symptomatic of a persistent bifurcation in American strategic thinking—though by no means unique to Americans—in which military professionals concentrate on winning battles and campaigns, while policymakers focus on the diplomatic struggles that precede and influence, or are influenced by, the actual fighting. This bifurcation is partly a matter of preference and partly a by-product of the American tradition of subordinating military command to civilian leadership, which creates two separate spheres of responsibility, one for diplomacy and one for combat. In other words, the Weigley and Boot interpretations are both important for implicitly revealing that the American style of warfare amounts to a way of battle more than a way of war.

A New American Way of War?

A growing amount of defense literature refers to a so-called new style of American warfare that emphasizes “precision firepower, special forces, psychological operations, and jointness,” rather than overwhelming force. The characteristics bear a conspicuous resemblance to the qualities of “speed, jointness, knowledge, and precision” that underpin the model of the new American way of war currently championed by the Office of Force Transformation (OFT) and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). Unfortunately, the new American way of war seems headed for the same trap that snared both the Weigley and Boot versions of the traditional one, that is—it appears geared to fight wars as if they were battles and, thus, confuses the winning of campaigns or small-scale actions with the winning of wars.

Whose American Way of War?

OSD recently took unqualified possession of the emerging American way of war, and began supplanting the traditional grammar of war with a new one. However, this new grammar— which focuses on achieving rapid military victories—was equipped only to win battles, not wars. Hence, the successful accomplishment of the administration’s goal of building a democratic government in Iraq, for example, is still in question, with an insurgency growing rapidly.

Toward a Way of War.

To move toward a genuine way of war, American military and political leaders must address two key problems. First, they must better define the respective roles and responsibilities of the logic and grammar of war, and, in the process, take steps that will diminish the bifurcation in American strategic thinking. Second, political and military leaders must habituate themselves to thinking more thoroughly about how to turn combat successes into favorable strategic outcomes. Such thinking is not new, but it is clearly not yet a matter of habit. Failure to see the purpose for which a war is fought as part of war itself amounts to treating battle as an end in itself.

Until Americans clarify the roles of grammar and logic and develop a habit of thinking about war that goes beyond battles, they will have a way of war in name only.

Access Full Report [PDF]: Toward an American Way of War

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list