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

Mackubin T. Owens

April 1, 2008

The Echo of Battle by Brian McAllister LinnThe Echo of War: The Army’s Way of War
Brian McAllister Linn (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 320 pp.

The idea of an “American way of war” gained currency in 1973 with the publication of the late Russell Weigley’s book of the same name. The thrust of Weigley’s work was that previous wartime experiences of the United States had generated a distinctly American “strategic culture” shaping how Americans approached the conduct of warfare. For Weigley, US military policy, strategy, and doctrine had been forged in the crucible of combat, as practiced by the likes of George Washington, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, John J. Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, and Curtis Lemay.

In his important new book, The Echo of Battle: The Army’s Way of War, Brian McAllister Linn, professor of history at Texas A&M, takes issue with the idea that “ways of warfare” arise primarily from the experience of war itself. He argues instead that the concepts of war that have shaped the American military experience are less the result of actual combat than of ideas that have arisen during long periods of peace. Thus when it comes to the way Americans have thought about war, “military intellectuals” such as Joseph Totten, Emory Upton, and Donn Starry have played a more important role in establishing an American way of war than practitioners such as Grant or MacArthur. Linn shows that it is the latter group that has been responsible for defending their services’ martial identity, identifying their missions, determining professional standards, and creating distinct ways of war.

To speak of a national “way of war” presupposes an understanding of war as a concept. But as Linn persuasively argues, the US defense establishment does not possess an agreed-upon understanding of “war.” Thus during the 1990s, some influential individuals argued that emerging information technologies and “information dominance” had changed the “very nature of war” by eliminating “friction” and the “fog of uncertainty” in war. Others, taking their cue from the 19th century Prussian “philosopher of war,” Carl von Clausewitz, argued just as adamantly that, while the character of war changes depending on the circumstances, the nature of war remains fixed.

The failure to agree on a unifying philosophy of war has led to conceptual confusion, creating an intellectual void often filled by buzzwords—”asymmetric conflict,” “fourth-generation warfare,” “shock and awe,” “full-spectrum dominance”—that upon reflection are shown to be devoid of any real meaning.

Linn writes that a military institution’s concept of war is a composite of its interpretation of the past and its perception of present and future threats. Looking specifically at the US Army, Linn argues that for two centuries, the American defense debate has been shaped by three intellectual constructs of warfare. While they have evolved over time, their underlying assumptions and concepts have remained remarkably consistent. “Like a braid, each strand will, for a time, be visible on the surface and at other times will disappear, only to emerge farther down the braid. At times, the strands are so closely knit as to be indistinguishable; at other times they practically pull apart.”

Linn calls the oldest Army school of thought the Guardians. This tradition, which manifests itself today as concerns about homeland security and ballistic missile defense, is best understood as an engineering approach to war. For the Guardians, war was and is both an art and a science, “the former consisting largely of the application of the latter.” The Guardians have reduced war to scientific laws and principles, which if applied properly allow practitioners to anticipate and predict the outcome of conflict.

The earliest manifestation of the Guardian tradition was the creation of a system of coastal fortifications to repel sudden naval raids. Guardians envisioned the employment of the newest weaponry manned by a “small, elite corps of military specialists supported, if necessary, by masses of patriotic citizen-soldiers.” Such a system, the Guardians contended, provided a cheap means of deterrence.

One manifestation of the Guardian tradition today is what this reviewer has called “technophilia,” a conception of war that is linear, mechanistic, technocentric, and wholly disconnected from what our adversary may think, want, or do. In the formulation of the technophiles—today’s Guardians—war takes place in a predictable, closed-loop environment from which friction, chance, and uncertainty are banished. The Guardian mindset can also be discerned in “strategic monism,” the belief that one weapons system or one doctrine provides the solution to all strategic problems.

Linn calls the second martial tradition the Heroes. Heroes view war in its simplest terms as armed violence directed toward the subjugation of an adaptive adversary in which the human element, martial virtues such as military genius, experience, courage, morale, and discipline, is dominant. Heroes have stressed adaptability and innovation, disparaging those “who seek to impose predictability and order on a phenomenon they view as chaotic, violent, and emotional.” The exemplar of the Hero is George S. Patton.

At its best, the Heroic tradition provides both an intellectual and practical framework that contributes to success on the battlefield. But at its worst, the Heroic mindset can lead to “emotional posturing, to elitism or selfishness, to General Tommy Franks’ grandiose proclamation, ’I’m a warfighter, not a manager.’” It can also lead to what Linn calls “muddy boots fundamentalism” and an anti-intellectual reductionism that sees war as an end in itself rather than as a means to achieving a political goal.

Finally there are the Managers, who view war as an organizational problem. The Managers argued that the American Civil War and the Wars of German Unification had transformed the nature of armed nation-state conflict into ’modern warfare,” requiring the creation of a mass armies and the total mobilization of the nation’s people and resources. The best of the Managers, e.g. George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower, were the architects of victory during the World Wars. However, the Managers have been “indifferent to small outbreaks of violence, postconflict operations, and unconventional missions.”

The Echo of Battle sheds much needed light on recent and current defense debates. Linn calls into question the traditional narrative that interprets past and current military thought as “a struggle between progressives and conservatives” in which “mavericks” and “reformers” take on the establishment and its conventional wisdom. Thus today’s advocates of “transformation,” like the “military reformers” of the 1980s, are recycling old arguments, often without really knowing it. One is reminded of John Maynard Keynes’ observation regarding the influence of old ideas: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some… academic scribbler of a few years back.”

This reviewer has been among those who have praised the Army’s recovery from its post-Vietnam malaise. In many respects this transformation remains a remarkable accomplishment. But Linn reminds us that this transformation had problematic elements. For instance, when Saigon fell in 1975, the United States Army, badly hurt by the Vietnam War, concluded that it should avoid such “irregular” conflicts in the future. In the 1970s, the Army discarded what doctrine for small wars and counterinsurgency it had developed in Vietnam, choosing to focus on big wars, where its heart really lay. The Army’s decision seemed to be vindicated in 1991 with Desert Storm, when a revitalized US military evicted Saddam’s forces from Kuwait in short order.

In March of 2003, history seemed to repeat itself as US forces rushed from the Kuwaiti border to Baghdad in record time. But in early April, the situation changed as the enemy began adopting guerrilla tactics, leading the commander of the Army’s main maneuver element in the drive to Baghdad, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, to remark “The enemy we’re fighting is a bit different from the one we war-gamed against.” Subsequent events would illustrate the degree to which the Army’s vision of future warfare once again denigrated the importance of “irregular” warfare. But as Iraq and Afghanistan have illustrated, we don’t always get to fight the war we prefer. The enemy always has a vote, and any approach to war that depends on the cooperation of the adversary is doomed to failure.

As a military historian, Linn would seem to be predisposed to accept the premise that historical analysis can clarify contemporary military issues, such as the meaning of war. But he shows that the military’s use of history has all too often been rather the abuse of history, a matter of the selective use of historical examples—”cherry picking”—to buttress a particular conceptual framework. Rather than encouraging informed analysis and critical thinking, the military’s use of history instead enforces complacency and a “comfortable view of war.” As a result, the Army’s three intellectual traditions have usually failed to prepare the service for the wars it would be called upon to fight.

Despite his criticism of the weakness of the Army’s intellectual traditions, Linn appears hopeful about the future. He points to the efforts of Gen. David Petraeus to develop and apply counterinsurgency doctrine in Iraq. In one respect, it too is a manifestation of one of the schools—the frontier-imperial Heroic tradition that guided officers on the Western frontier, during the Philippine Insurrection, and in “nation-building” in the Caribbean before World War II. Nonetheless, he suggests that recent changes in Army thinking seem to avoid the conceptual “straightjackets” that have constrained how the service has envisioned war in the past.

But for what Linn calls the “GWOT-inspired Heroic renaissance” to have a lasting impact, it must be accepted and assimilated by the Guardians and Managers. For a variety of reasons, this is not altogether certain. As always, he observes, whether military intellectuals can create a new Army way of war depends on “what they choose to hear in the echo of battle.”

Mackubin T. Owens is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center and professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, RI. He serves as editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.