Technology and the American Way of War Since 1945
by Thomas G. Mahnken, Columbia University Press, New York, 2008, $29.50.
Thomas Mahnken has achieved the near impossible. He has taken a topic that has consumed several forests worth of paper in descriptions, explanations, mea culpas and clarifications and reduced it to its essentials. Thus, Technology and the American Way of War is now the starting point for any study of American strategy and conflict since World War II.
Technology and the American Way of War explains how nations have determined the divergent technological paths of each service and how, in turn, breakthrough technologies have affected their cultures. This alone would have been a valuable addition to the existing literature. But Mahnken goes further, detailing how the American military culture has adapted and put to use the impressive technological advances of the last few decades, exploring what has worked, what has failed and what was never tried. He insists that most technology is only ancillary to the men and women who use it. On this score, it’s interesting to note the divergent views of the Navy and the Air Force on how to improve their poor dogfight kill ratios in the last years of our involvement in Vietnam. The Air Force sought a technological solution, while the Navy focused on developing new tactics and upgrading pilot training. As a result, in the last year of the war, kill ratios among Navy pilots far exceeded those of Air Force pilots.
Mahnken also examines how the Army’s big five (the Abrams tank, Bradley fighting vehicle, Apache attack helicopter, UH-60 cargo helicopter and an advanced air-defense system), all designed to defeat Soviet forces in the Fulda Gap, were later adapted to fight a new kind of warfare in the deserts of Mesopotamia. Considering the result, Mahnken’s review of experts who predicted the technology would fail and that the U.S. military, facing a battle-hardened Iraqi army, would meet disaster makes amusing reading.
Despite the title, Mahnken is not a slave to the slogan “Technology Über Alles.” As he states, “Technology is only as effective as the strategy it serves.” To prove his point, Mahnken presents examples of how technologies harnessed to flawed strategies failed to achieve hoped-for results. He goes on to explore how best to employ advanced technology in the war against extremists, arguing that the key to victory lies in finding workable strategies to enhance the efficient use of technology.
This compelling and accessible book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the nature of the American wars over the last half-century.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.