The American Way of War

Sat Jun 7 01:33:11 2008
Antulio Echevarria, in his essay “Toward an American Way of War,” looks at a variety of ideas and approaches that attempt to define an American Way of War. While almost all of them are prescriptive, a few are descriptive and highlight different approaches to using history. He mentions three that are of particular interest.

Russell Weigley, in his classic, The American Way of War, (1973) saw two dominant ways of war in the history of the US—the war of attrition, or as he would later call it the war of erosion, and the war of annihilation. War of attrition/erosion was the standard approach in the early years of the republic. War of annihilation became the paradigm during the Civil War and has been the dominant approach ever since.

Victor Davis Hanson, in Carnage and Culture, (2001) sees not an American but a Western way of war. He claims that the pitched battle of infantry—bloody, decisive and short—arising out of a culture of independent agrarian citizens is the Western way of war that has lead to the position of world military and economic dominance.

Max Boot, in The Savage Wars of Peace, (2002) describes the American way of war as frequent, small interventions of various degrees of ferocity, duration and intent. His main thesis is a repudiation of Weigley and the Powell doctrine—that wars have been, can and should be fought without exit strategies, declarations of war, popular approval, vital national interests, mass mobilization or overwhelming force.

Hanson originally applied his understanding of rural viniculture learned in Northern California wine country to a similar culture in ancient Greece and created the insights in The Western Way of War. Carnage and Culture attempts to extend this idea across almost 2500 years of history, represented by only nine battles. The sheer amount of generalization in this task makes his argument hard to accept.

Weigley looks at ten conflicts that cover a period of 200 years but the Civil War and World War II dominate the narrative as well as his argument. Boot on the other hand looks at over 35 conflicts and interventions over roughly the same period. Together, Weigley and Boot mention close to 50 different conflicts yet only two are included in both books, the 1801-05 war against the Barbary pirates and the Vietnam War. It is no wonder they come to opposite conclusions.

But Boot has the details on his side. The Savage Wars of Peace provides a sense of what the US military is doing at any time in its history, while The American Way of War looks to the emblematic and mythic. If there is any reconciliation I think it is that Weigley provides a description of the popular American understanding and expectations of war, but Boot provides a better description of the actual practice of the American way of war.

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~ by severalfourmany on June 7, 2008.

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