The American Way of War

Mackubin T. Owens

December 1, 2003

There seems to be a general consensus that today’s United States military is in a class by itself. It is a truly global military instrument, able to project power over great distances and sustain it for extended periods of time. To do so, the US military force has developed the means to overcome a number of “operational challenges,” among them the “tyranny of distance” created by America’s geographical position and the global nature of US national interests, the proliferation of military useful technology, potentially expanding the “deadly zone” faced by US forces, and the likelihood that adversaries will resort to asymmetric strategies in an attempt to deny US forces access to a geographical area of interest.

The ongoing war in Iraq illustrates the ability of the US military to overcome these operational challenges in the pursuit of US national interests. By any standard, the performance of US arms in this campaign has been nothing short of breathtaking. In just three weeks, US and Coalition ground forces slashed through Iraq with minimal losses to capture not only Baghdad, but also every other major city in the country.

Coalition air forces owned the skies from the moment the war began. Not a single Iraqi aircraft attempted to take on allied air assets and only a handful of Coalition aircraft were lost, fewer yet to Iraqi antiaircraft fire. US planners adapted to the refusal of Turkey to permit the Coalition to open a major northern front of the war. True, Coalition forces still face an active guerrilla war, but the recent capture of Saddam Hussein indicates that the corner has been turned in that phase of the war as well.

Certainly there has been criticism of some military aspects of the war: that the war plan pushed by the civilian leadership was based on unrealistically optimistic assumptions; that it did not take into account the possibility of an “asymmetric” response by the Iraqis, a guerrilla war designed to interdict the Coalition’s dangerously extended supply lines and to exploit the Coalition’s desire to minimize civilian casualties; that it reflected an over-reliance on technology and airpower, that the air campaign did not accomplish “shock and awe”; and that the ground force was too small for the task it was assigned. But such criticism was directed at the civilian leadership and not the uniformed military.

AMERICAN ARMS have not always been judged so favorably. In the 1980s, historians routinely criticized the performance of the US military. They pointed not only to the US failure in Vietnam, but also to the wars in which the United States was victorious, such as the Second World War. They claimed that the US success in World War II had little to do with operational and tactical excellence. They contended that the German Wehrmacht was far more operationally competent than US forces, but its superior fighting power notwithstanding, it was simply worn down by massive US firepower.

For many such critics, the problem could be traced to a uniquely American “strategic culture” based on history, geography, and political tradition. Military historian Russell Weigley claimed that this culture, which he called “the American way of war,” relied on the mobilization of vast material resources to grind down an adversary with firepower and mass. Employing the categories of 19th-Century German historian Hans Delbruck, Weigley argued that the American way of war was based on “a strategy of annihilation” rather than “a strategy of attrition.” It also tended to stress military factors at the expense of the broader political goals of the war.

Weigley traced the origins of this approach to the American Civil War, calling it the “strategic tradition of Ulysses S. Grant.” According to the conventional wisdom, the American way of war may have led to ultimate victory in World War II by wearing down Germany and Japan, but it failed in Vietnam because the Vietnamese communists refused to fight the war the US preferred, and the American people did not have the will to carry the resulting war of attrition through to the end.

When the United States extricated itself from Vietnam and began to refocus its attention on a possible war with the Soviet Union, critics claimed that the American way of war would lead to a slugfest with Soviet forces that the US could not win with non-nuclear forces.

In the late 1970s, the US military began to make substantial changes. To begin with, planners began to recognize that US reliance on nuclear weapons to deter war was becoming increasingly risky as the Soviets fielded new systems. The idea that the US and NATO could stave off defeat in a conventional war by escalating the conflict to the nuclear level was now in doubt. Since the US and NATO could not hope to match the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact soldier for soldier, airplane for airplane, and tank for tank, planners began to search for non-nuclear operational doctrines that could offset the Warsaw Pact’s numerical advantage in conventional forces.

The result for the Army and Air Force was a “deep attack” doctrine called AirLand Battle, designed to neutralize the “follow-on” echelons of attacking Warsaw Pact forces. For the Navy it was the “Maritime Strategy,” really a strategic doctrine designed to exploit the maneuver space of the world’s oceans in order to attack the maritime flanks of the Warsaw pact in the event of war.

The Soviets referred to the development of new technologies and doctrines during this period as a “military-technological revolution” and a “revolution in military affairs” (RMA). The latter phrase was adopted by some American defense specialists in the 1990s to describe the hypothesis that “available and foreseen” technological advances in areas such as precision weaponry, surveillance, and computer systems had the potential to transform the way wars would be fought in coming decades as profoundly as did the development of strategic bombing, armored warfare and carrier aviation during 1918-39, or the appearance of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles following World War II. Some preferred the term “military revolution,” which one writer described as a dramatic increase in combat power that fundamentally alters the character and conduct of conflict.

Many observers saw the first Gulf War of 1991 as an indicator of an emerging RMA. New doctrines and technology, especially information technology, seemed to indicate a discontinuous change in the character of war.

Yet the ease with which the coalition triumphed caught many experts by surprise. It is sometimes forgotten that before the war, many of these experts believed that a conflict would be costly for the US. After all, they reasoned, Iraq had previously fought a skillful war against a numerically superior Iran. The Iraqi army had perfected defensive tactics that were responsible for inflicting massive casualties on the attacking Iranians. Employing extensive minefields and other obstacles, the Iraqi defenders channeled the Iranians into killing zones where they then destroyed them with the massed fires of artillery or by armored counterattacks. Finally, in April of 1988, the Iraqis launched their Tawakalna Ala Allah offensive, which in five major battles over four months, drove the Iranians back from the Al Fao Peninsula.

Many of these same experts had criticized the US military during the 1980s for not “reforming” itself more quickly. They argued accordingly that in a war against Iraq, US forces would bog down in the desert, that the US military’s high-tech equipment would not work, and that while US forces would eventually prevail, they would suffer high casualties. What all of these critics had in common was an apparent ignorance of the remarkable changes in doctrine and technological advances that had occurred within the US military over the previous decade.

Indeed, these changes constituted a remarkable shift to a new American way of war that aims at neither annihilation nor attrition, but paralysis of the adversary. The first Gulf War only adumbrated this accelerating transformation. For instance, in 1990-1991, it took the US nearly six months to build up the force necessary to launch the war. Saudi ports and air fields were required to build up the “iron mountains” of supplies and equipment necessary to sustain major combat operations. Before launching a ground assault, the coalition carried out a five-week air operation designed to paralyze Iraqi command and control. And despite the fact that the war was fought after the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act, described by its supporters as landmark legislation to enhance “jointness” (the ability of the separate US military service to operate together in a seamless manner), those services, as they had during the Vietnam War, essentially fought their own “stove-piped” wars.

While the first Gulf War took place sequentially, the plan for Operation Iraqi Freedom sought to cause paralysis and the collapse of the regime by means of the simultaneous applications of air, ground, and special operations against the pillars of Saddam’s power: the Ba’ath party, internal-security forces, and the Republican Guard. This required a force far more capable than the one that fought the first Gulf War in 1991.

This force is more “joint,” more mobile, more rapidly deployable, and better able to exploit stealth and information technologies. It is a “networked” force with the ability to execute compressed operational cycles and to launch extended range precision strikes in response to “real-time” intelligence. During the march to Baghdad, ground forces were able to move rapidly toward the objective, depending for the most part on mobility and speed to protect their flanks. Air and ground forces have demonstrated flexibility and adaptability in responding to rapidly changing circumstances, including the shift to constabulary operations once the major military objectives had be achieved. This force is “enabled” by US command of the world’s “commons” (sea and space), protecting US sanctuary while threatening the sanctuary of its adversaries.

DESPITE THESE remarkable advances, Operation Iraqi Freedom shares certain characteristics with earlier wars. One of them is the persistence of “friction,” which the 19th century Prussian “philosopher of war” Carl von Clausewitz called “the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper .Everything in war is simple but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war….This tremendous friction, which cannot, as in mechanics, be reduced to a few points, is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance.”

Another is that in war, the interplay of chance and uncertainty wreaks havoc on plans. Accordingly, planners must be able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and surprises, both large and small. When outside observers criticized the US war plan for Iraq after some things went wrong several days into the war, they were missing the essence of planning for something as uncertain as war.

As Helmuth von Moltke, the chief of the Prussian General Staff during the wars of German Unification, once observed, “the commander must keep his objective in mind, undisturbed by the vicissitudes of events. But the path on which he hopes to reach it can never be firmly established in advance. Throughout the campaign he must make a series of decisions on the basis of situations that cannot be foreseen. The successive acts of war are thus not premeditated designs, but… are spontaneous acts guided by military measures. Everything depends on penetrating the uncertainty of veiled situations to evaluate the facts, to clarify the unknown, to make decisions rapidly, and then to carry them out with strength and constancy.” In other words, the new American way of war cannot eliminate friction and uncertainty in war.

The new American way of war that has been on display during Operation Iraqi Freedom does not in any way represent a complete break with the past. Despite the claims of some of the more zealous “technological optimists,” emerging technologies have not “changed the very nature of war” by making it possible for US military forces to achieve “battlefield dominant awareness – the ability to see and understand everything on the battlefield” and to dissipate the “fog of war” and “friction on the battlefield,” ensuring the future success of American arms.

Indeed, Operation Iraqi Freedom illustrates the fact that real military transformation – innovation on a grand scale, undertaken by a military institution that believes the character of conflict has changed in significant ways – is not an “all-or-nothing” proposition. It is not necessary to replace the entire existing force with entirely new systems and force structures.

The transformation fueling the new American way of war is based on developing operational concepts and new organizations to exploit existing technologies in an innovative way; and combining legacy weapons and emerging systems to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the forces.

Operation Iraqi Freedom illuminated the vastly improved capability of the US military to operate jointly in all operational environments: land, sea, air, space, and across the electromagnetic spectrum, both now and in the future. This is the essence of the new American way of war and as such represents a significant improvement over the old.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is an associate dean of academics and professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.