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The Echo of Battle: The Army’s Way of War

by Brian McAllister Linn, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2007, $27.95.

In an era of extended warfare, the message of Brian McAllister Linn’s important new book is that there is no such thing as a uniform “American way of war” or an overarching “American military mind.” Linn argues that one must assess how professional soldiers combine the lessons of the past, the perception of current threats and predictions about the nature of future conflict. If looked at in this light, there is scant consistency and coherence in the approach of U.S. military leaders and theorists to the study and practice of war. Linn asserts that without a shared philosophy of war, “doctrine”— the tactical and operational blueprint that guides training and combat— becomes a hodgepodge of poorly conceived nostrums anchored in fantasy, prejudice and wishful thinking. The result is that American forces continue to confront enemies they are ill prepared to fight—a harsh verdict given U.S. dominance of Iraqis in the Persian Gulf War and Serbs in Kosovo.

Linn points to a pattern of mistakes and misreadings by U.S. defense theorists and practitioners that can be traced to their membership in one of three schools: guardians, managers or heroes.

Guardians, who dominated the republic’s opening century, focused on the use of coastal engineering and a militia of armed citizens as a defense against a European invasion, all supervised by a cadre of West Point–educated professionals.But invasions patterned after 1812 never came in the mid-19th century, so the citizen-soldier model took the offensive in the Mexican and Civil Wars, with mixed results. In modern times, guardians seek to apply scientific principles to strategic planning to produce predictable outcomes in the machine and managerial age. Their defensive, technocratic approach proceeded through Billy Mitchell’s airpower plans in the interwar years, to Cold War deterrence theory, to the Great Wall of the “missile shield,” resurfacing after 9/11 as Homeland Security.

Managers emerged during the Civil War and hit their stride under Marshall and Eisenhower in World War II. As the quintessential practitioners of modern warfare, managers materialize from an intellectual tradition that sees war as the product of political and economic rivalry, and a key ingredient in America’s rise to global power. They focus on building mass armies, procuring quality armaments and maneuvering considerable forces to crush the enemy. Managers understand that military force is only one component—and the least attractive one—of national power. Their legacy has been the Weinberger–Powell Doctrine of the 1980s, calling for the United States to wage only wars of vital national interest with the full support of the American people by the application of overpowering force with the clear intention of winning. The “war only as a last resort” proviso of Weinberger–Powell was regarded as an unacceptable restraint by the Bush administration, which tossed it in 2003 to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).

Heroes, Linn’s third school, abhor the guardians’ narrow “technicism” and defensive mentality. War for such heroes and military romantics as John Pershing and George Patton is won by fighters, not bean-counting managers. War is battle, in which soldiers imbued with the greatest warrior ethos prevail. Their modern manifestations—muddy boots fundamentalists like OIF Commander Tommy Franks and most of Special Operations Command— complain that the managerial preparation for titanic clashes between peer competitors causes them to overlook, or forfeit, victory in unconventional operations.

The beauty of the path to victory sketched out by the three schools has been that each contained a built-in explanation for failure. Vietnam really put the cat among the pigeons, as each school sought to deflect responsibility for defeat onto the others. All schools united, however, in a collective sense of “martyrdom and entitlement” to concoct a durable alibi that indicted Jane Fonda, the media, the Congress and the American people for plunging a “knife in the back.” How else, they argued, could one explain an outcome in which, according to Harry Summers, influential author of On Strategy (1981), American forces had won all its battles but nevertheless forfeited the war? Linn concludes that blaming the civilians offers a convenient cover for soldiers who seek to divert attention from their inability to put their own house in order.

The debates Linn records are not disputes between visionaries and conservatives. All three schools are composed of “traditionalists,” even those attempting to incorporate new weapons into old paradigms. And all the players are preparing to fight the last war. The problem was and continues to be that they cannot agree on which version of the “last war” they are preparing for. Each group bolsters its orthodoxy by reaching back into the past to plunder lessons that support their views. As a result, they produce doctrines that seldom reflect the realities of war, and hence fail to endow the Army with the capabilities required to win it. Therefore, Linn says, U.S. wars open with a catalog of mistakes and misconceptions that are only gradually, if at all, overcome.

Linn’s analysis is timely and original, and the historical examples are well tailored to his points. However, his judgments appear at times a trifle harsh. After all, predicting the future is hard to do, and debate in peacetime is a healthy sign of an organization’s willingness to question its fundamental assumptions. In fact, Linn undermines his own argument that there is no American way of war by demonstrating the continuity, complementarities and methodology shared by all three schools. The difference is on emphasis. The U.S. Army wins most of its conflicts and probably deterred others, even as it makes mistakes up front—but what organization doesn’t make mistakes?

Nevertheless, Linn has produced a provocative and innovative book that deserves to be taken seriously in a time that requires greater reflection about the choice of battles and the crafting of a doctrine that will enable the U.S. military to prevail.


Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here