IN HIS NEWLY PUBLISHED ANALYSIS of how the United States has, throughout its history, waged war—Reconsidering the American Way of War (Georgetown University Press, 2014)—retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel Antulio J. Echevarria II confronts a significant disconnect between popular myths and actual practice: He notes that “many beliefs concerning the American way of war—such as its alleged apolitical and astrategic character and its reputation for using overwhelming force to achieve decisive results—do not, in fact, hold up to scrutiny.” In support of that observation, Echevarria, who is the editor of the U.S. Army War College’s journal Parameters, delivers a concise summary of the American military’s strategic and operational practice from the Revolution to Afghanistan.
Why is it important now to reconsider the American way of war?
It’s important from a political standpoint, because the debates on the American way of war, which really started to escalate around 1999–2000, have shaped how policymakers are considering the use of U.S. military forces. And it’s not just American policymakers—our allies, friends, and foes are looking at how we have used force in the past and are drawing some assumptions from that.
Where did the idea of an American way of war originate?
It really comes from Russell Weigley’s 1973 book, The American Way of War. He did a history-of-ideas approach to portray how Americans have thought about warfare historically—what kinds of strategic concepts we’ve used and what assumptions we’ve made. From Weigley’s perspective, we had either a strategy of exhaustion or a strategy of attrition; we went back and forth between those two. Eventually, though, according to Weigley, once we became a modern industrial power—a superpower actually—we just defaulted to overwhelming force because we could, and we gave less attention to developing another kind of strategy, more a guerrilla-warfare approach. But in fact, there’s a special forces community that has never really fought the first way. And the CIA has been part of the American way of war since 1955. Yet overwhelming force is the dominant characteristic that people look to.
If you can afford a military that can deliver overwhelming force, why would you not do that?
For the army and navy, even the air force to a certain extent, their way of going into war is largely that. But there are lots of wars where that kind of approach is not appropriate. Policymakers might not want to go that far, so they need more flexible tools. Which they actually have in special ops.
Does the idea of an American way of war really influence our thinking about the use of military force?
Yes. Largely, it’s people saying either (a) that we should go back to the “original” American way of war, which is to pound people, or (b) that there’s a new American way of war, using smaller packages and using them more precisely to accomplish limited aims.
Has anyone articulated a Russian or a Chinese way of war?
Rob Citino has done The German Way of War and British historian Robert Johnson has written The Afghan Way of War. We have seen recent attempts by Sir Michael Howard to look at a British way in warfare, and there are articles out now on a Chinese way of war. The danger is that some studies try to get predictive. If you can find certain patterns in a country’s past, then it’s tempting to predict that this is how they’re going to behave in the future. But that’s a really dangerous assumption, because situations obviously are going to be different, political conditions will be different.
You mention the “fictions” of long-held assumptions about how America has fought. What are those fictions?
Aside from the first and most obvious one concerning our use of overwhelming force, there’s also the assumption that the way we wage war is apolitical—that it’s all about defeating the other guy, and it’s not politically driven at all. But that’s not true. Then the third big fiction is that we’re astrategic, when we really have multiple military strategies.
Have the ideas of Carl von Clausewitz and Antoine-Henri Jomini strongly influenced American strategic culture?
Yes. Even though I’m not a fan of strategic culture as an idea, we can say that Clausewitz and Jomini both provided foundation concepts that we’ve built on in our doctrine and in the way we teach practitioners. Everything from the battle-centric concept that Clausewitz laid out to the Jominian maneuver-on-the-map and lines of operations and logistics approach—all are important.
You mention Helmuth von Moltke the Elder’s reference to strategy as a “system of expedients.” How does that apply to the practice of American military strategy?
You see it clearly in the early 19th century up to about the Civil War. Partly because we relied on militias a lot, we had a very small standing army, and even the navy was small. So we embraced what is now known as the citizen-soldier concept. We would raise a militia and try to go off and do great things. The War of 1812 was a good example of that.
And the limitations of that idea?
Some states had very different interests that conflicted with the federal government, and once the state militias were raised, they were federalized and nominally belonged to the federal government. But the states still had a lot of actual control over their use, and many of them did not want to see their militias squandered. That created a great deal of internal friction. In the Spanish-American War, we had a very small standing army. When we went to expand, we got 250,000 volunteers in short order—but no real mechanism was in place to train and equip them as rapidly as they showed up. That was still an issue until World War I, when we were forced into a full-scale mobilization.
You indicate that politics has played an important—if not decisive—role in how we go about using military force, even though Americans like to think of the military as being above politics. How much of a disconnect is there between the realities about politics and what we like to believe?
In the field of civil-military relations, there was an argument made throughout the 19th century—and later—that officers should be apolitical, that they shouldn’t be voting. But that was never really true in practice. And of course, political parties used war as a weapon in domestic politics. If any given war wasn’t going according to plan, the opposition party would use that to criticize the incumbent administration.
Is it fair to say that how we’ve used our military force and how we think about it have always been factors in domestic politics—going back to George Washington and the Continental Congress?
Yes, absolutely. Politics really has been at play throughout, not only during the fighting but prior to and after it. Yet we like to think that somehow there is this sharp break between all the stuff that happens before the shooting begins and the stuff after it starts and the generals take over. They win the war or not, then the politicians step back in. That’s a very simple model, and of course it’s not how things work at all.
Is it useful to distinguish between an American way of war and an American way of battle?
We have looked at battle as something that should be the telling factor: Once we’ve defeated someone on the field, we have assumed that they’d roll over and agree to our terms. That was not the case in our 19th-century and early 20th-century wars, but that fact seems to have been forgotten with our recent wars.
Many people see World War II as a standard kind of war. Was that a representative war
Really, for America it’s the asymmetric war of the 20th century. It’s the one that sticks out as atypical, in terms of the financial and personnel commitment. It became the war every other war is compared to, but really, it was the exception that proved the rule for us.