The success of the surge in Iraq was entirely predictable; so too are the tough times ahead. Should we choose to stay in that war-torn land, our professional military will face new and horrible challenges from the enemy, adjust and achieve new successes that will force the terrorists to changes their tactics again. We will defeat those too. So the process will continue, as Iraq moves in fits and starts toward its own version of democratic governance that, with our ongoing assistance, will be tolerably stable.
That has been the pattern from the beginning in Iraq, where our fighting men and women conquered a conventional force in the dizzyingly successful initial campaign, then were surprised by the part-criminal, part-ideological insurgency that followed. They adjusted and crushed the large-unit insurgents, faced a new threat from small-unit insurgents using booby traps, and adjusted again to limit the effectiveness of such attacks. Seeing the hostile elements turn toward localized attacks on civilian populations to try to foment civil war they adjusted once again with the surge to provide localized security for Iraqi civilians. And all this was done while training Iraqis to do the job themselves.
Our professional military has long been an adept at this move-countermove dance of small wars, be they on the Indian frontier or in distant lands like the Philippines, Afghanistan, or Iraq. But you wouldn't know that to follow the news over the past five years. You wouldn't even know it to listen to the professionals themselves, who are suffering through an ongoing existential crisis over their own perceived failings. So the questions need asking: from where does this knee-jerk self-criticism come? What is it about the American mind at war that leads to such a stunning lack of perspective?
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In 1973, as the United States ended its participation in another unpopular war, Russell Weigley published an enormously influential study of American military history. The American Way of War had at its heart the captivating idea that Americans at war preferred above all else to annihilate their enemies through direct confrontation on the battlefield. It was a heritage originated by Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War, and it reached its pinnacle in the blood-soaked clashes of World War II. Sure, there were other options—campaigns of maneuver, for example—but annihilation, that was the American way of war.
A concept like this, as historian Edmund S. Morgan has written, is a metaphor, one that resists empirical confirmation and instead draws its power from the author's ability to persuade the reader that it makes sense. Metaphors raise history above the level of trivia and allow it to provide explanation. The most powerful explanations become traditions, and those traditions set expectations and inform actions. So powerful was Weigley's metaphor that he unintentionally helped convince a generation of military leaders that annihilation was exactly how Americans fought wars in the past and, just as important, should fight wars in the future.
Not surprisingly, recent years have seen a spate of challenges to Weigley's thesis. U.S. Army War College professor Antulio Echevarria has maintained that what Weigley diagnosed, and what America practices, is only a way of battle, because Americans give very little attention to linking battlefield victories with strategic interests. The Savage Wars of Peace, Max Boot's study of America's small wars, posited that such conflicts had as much or more to do with an American way of war and rise to world power than Weigley's big conventional wars. Historian John Grenier looked further back into the pre-revolutionary era to the colonists' bloody and destructive campaigns of extirpation against the Indians, campaigns that constituted what he calls America's "first way of war." British iconoclast Jeremy Black has noted that there is nothing particularly unique in the Western world about the way Americans fight, denying altogether the existence of an exceptional American way of war.
Into this discussion steps Brian McAllister Linn with The Echo of Battle, a highly critical history of the U.S. Army's expectations and preparations for war since the Revolution. Agreeing with Echevarria that the American way of war was really a way of battle, and not satisfied with a single unified way in any case, Linn divides Army thinkers into three distinct groups: Guardians, Heroes, and Managers. Guardians enjoyed special preeminence in the 19th century with their focus on coastal defense supported by cutting edge technologies. They saw the primary goal of the military as deterring war. Heroes challenged the guardians by rejecting technological determinism and emphasizing the intangibles of conflict. They saw war as art rather than science, and thought individual genius and inspiring leadership from military officers the keys to victory in war. Managers rose to prominence in the 20th century as the purveyors of the belief that preparing for modern industrial war was essentially an organizational problem, and that only through efficiency in mobilization could the American military be effective on the battlefield. Although he favors the Heroes' emphasis on the human element in war, Linn excoriates all three schools for their repeated failures in forecasting future wars. Since his focus is on peacetime preparations and not the wars themselves, it is unclear how he thinks Americans managed to do so well for so long, but be that as it may, Linn's work is an essential addition to the debate.
Where does that leave us? Given this catalogue of interpretations, little wonder that some (like historian Michael Pearlman) have thrown their hands up and declared that the host of competing interest groups, ideologies, and personalities in our pluralist democracy inhibits coherent strategy-making, leaving us to muddle through, hoping for the best. And what has the Iraq war looked like but muddling through? The American way of war, the metaphor that once so ably explained our warmaking, has lost its power, and without that explanation we've gone adrift, cut loose from our anchor of tradition.
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Or perhaps not. The ways of war, some of which seem to be diametrically opposed, are in fact linked by a common consideration. Professor Echevarria was not wrong in his critique; Weigley's way of war was only a description of how America fights, offering little consideration about why it fought that way. That is true for all the ways of war mentioned here. And this is where the metaphor fails, because the common consideration lies in the "why." Why did Grant seek to annihilate the rebel armies in the field? Why did the wars of the frontier so often turn into wars of extirpation? Why did the small wars for American power fly for so long under the radar? Why did Guardians believe they needed to protect the coasts first? Why did Heroes lean so heavily on charisma? Why did Managers feel compelled to organize and reorganize America's fighting forces?
The answer, at its root, is the same for all of these questions. American political and military leaders have long understood that they must contend with the inescapable and unique reality of the American democratic polity, a population that is collectively quick to anger though individually hesitant to go to war. Americans as a group have a way of life that they jealously defend, so much so that they cannot stand to see it diminished by real or imagined losses. That same way of life that is so worth defending makes the peacetime homefront an enormously attractive place. Americans have from the beginning distrusted standing armies because of the inherent threat such armies present to republican government, but even more so because standing armies require soldiers, and Americans are too caught up in their own lives to be soldiers. If Americans must take up arms to defend what they hold dear, they demand victory, and that it come soon. That consideration, more than any other, is at the core of the American mind for war.
Grant knew it, and he fought relentless campaigns because he understood that in a people's war there was no way to get himself and his men home short of annihilating the rebel armies, particularly Lee's army, in the field. The fighting men on the frontier turned to wiping out Indian villages when it became clear that the Indians would not stand and fight and accept the outcome of ordered battles, and certainly not on a schedule acceptable to farmer-militiamen who had to get back to their crops. Small overseas wars usually did not involve civilians, so Americans did not thoroughly concern themselves with the course of such conflicts, and generally forgot about them when they were over. Guardians saw coastal fortifications, an aggressive navy, and air power as the only available options for protecting America given the polity's aversion to service. Heroes hoped personal leadership and individual acumen could inspire troops mobilized for war, and thus overcome the citizen-soldiers' woeful lack of experience. And at least in the old days, Managers prepared to rapidly and effectively mobilize a society that did not want to prepare in peace and or stay at war for very long.
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Because of this American mind for war, America's conflicts have fallen into two broad types: professional wars and citizen wars. Professional wars were small wars fought by the volunteer standing military, in which professionals were left alone to do their job. Citizen wars, on the other hand, drew in the American public—through conscription, mass voluntary enlistment, or direct attacks on the population—and thus had to be won quickly. That is not to say the American mind for war is amoral, but rather that morality, like so many other aspects of American thought, is pragmatic. If wars can be won by bombing military targets with as few casualties as possible, Americans will seize the chance. If wars can be won by capturing capital cities or winning decisive battles without involving civilians, wonderful. But if not, the American mind for war dictates that attacks grow steadily more devastating to enemy armies and then enemy populations until they have no choice but to give up the fight. The sooner the war ends in victory, the better-for everyone, but especially for us. It is brutal logic, but logical nevertheless.
If the circumstances of Vietnam and the current conflict have created disaffection among Americans, it is because they violated the American mind for war. The draft made Vietnam a citizen war, but the United States could not ramp up the brutality because of the threat of escalation to a conventional or nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The conundrum of Vietnam short-circuited the American mindset for warfare so totally that it sent spasms of discontent through American society and culture that can still be felt, well beyond even strategic after-effects like the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine and Vietnam Syndrome.
The current war is disconcerting in its own ways, because the precipitating incident on 9/11 did draw the civilian population into the war. Then the initial rhetoric from just about everyone about the Global War on Terrorism linked the conflict to great citizen wars of the past, and the American public became engaged emotionally. Yet the country did not mobilize in any meaningful way. Whatever their feelings about Afghanistan and Iraq, the citizenry never felt the pain of separating from their peacetime lives. The military has fought the war with the professional force that has kept the brutality to a minimum—probably even to the extent that it has hampered their fighting effectiveness. This feels like citizen war, but it is being fought like a professional war, which drives the American mind for war half-mad.
Of course this American mind for war is just another metaphor, meant to explain rather than guide. There is nothing about this explanation that should be interpreted as a step-by-step guide to war the American way. There are no easy answers. Rather, it is a warning that we have a mindset for conflict with which we must always grapple when we go to war. If we accept that reality then perhaps we can gain a much-needed sense of perspective. The alternative, as we know all too well from five years of petty rancor, is as ugly as it is unproductive.