The New American Way of War

Courtesy Reuters


"The American way of war." That phrase -- popularized by the military historian Russell Weigley in his 1973 book -- has come to refer to a grinding strategy of attrition: the strategy employed by Ulysses S. Grant to destroy Robert E. Lee's army in 1864-65, by John J. Pershing to wear down the German army in 1918, and by the U.S. Army Air Force to pulverize all the major cities of Germany and Japan in 1944-45. In this view, the Civil War, World War I, and World War II were won not by tactical or strategic brilliance but by the sheer weight of numbers -- the awesome destructive power that only a fully mobilized and highly industrialized democracy can bring to bear. In all these conflicts, U.S. armies composed of citizen-soldiers suffered and inflicted massive casualties.

Much the same methods characterized the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, though with decreasing levels of success; the former being a costly draw, the latter a bloody failure. The first Gulf War was much more successful, but in many ways, it still fit the traditional, firepower-intensive mode: more than five weeks of relentless bombing was followed by a massive armored onslaught. Although the "left hook" that swept around Iraqi forces entrenched in Kuwait showed some operational flair, it was hardly a gamble -- the eight-division allied force was so heavy that it simply crushed everything in its path.

As with all generalizations, this view of the American way of war has always needed some qualification. There have always been some generals, such as Stonewall Jackson and George S. Patton, who favored dazzling maneuvers over costly frontal assaults. And there have been many "small wars" in America's past that were carried out in a far more modest manner. But as a description of the main U.S. approach to major conflicts, the American way of war has stood the test of time.

Its time is now past, however. Spurred by dramatic advances in

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