Chasing Ghosts: Unconventional Warfare in American History; The Echo of Battle: The Army's Way of War; The New American Way of War: Military Culture and the Political Utility of Force

In This Review

Chasing Ghosts: Unconventional Warfare in American History

By John J. Tierney, Jr.
Potomac Books, 2006
308 pp. $26.95
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The Echo of Battle: The Army's Way of War

By Brian McAllister Linn
Harvard University Press, 2007
320 pp. $27.95
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The New American Way of War: Military Culture and the Political Utility of Force

By Ben Buley
Routledge, 2007
192 pp. $140.00
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"Americans have never felt comfortable in unconventional situations," observes Tierney. Even as the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have reaffirmed this, the question remains: Is such discomfort the result of institutional biases, cultural dispositions, or just a lack of aptitude for unconventional warfare? In his excellent book, Tierney demonstrates that when Americans have been disadvantaged in conventional war, as in the American War of Independence (or the Confederacy in the Civil War), they have adopted effective guerrilla tactics. The problems have come when their enemies have used such tactics themselves, in which case the U.S. response has tended to be brutal, punishing not only the fighters but their communities as well. In the second part of his book, Tierney covers U.S. overseas interventions, mainly in the Americas but also in such places as the Philippines and Vietnam. The record he lays out illustrates the problems: impatience with protracted and inconclusive struggles; a cultural preference for "conventional, frontal war"; forgetfulness about the importance of integrating a political with a military strategy -- all of which lead to a preoccupation with winning a decisive battle rather than securing political allegiances.

Linn's book complements Tierney's. Linn addresses how the U.S. Army has regarded its main business, which is preparing for regular warfare. In doing so, he makes the important point that key debates over missions and doctrines are apt to take place in peacetime, when there is a chance not only to reflect on past wars but also to ponder the next. Although he shows just how lively and imaginative these debates can be, Linn also notes that despite decades of contrary experience, "Army officers have consistently underestimated the difficulty of unconventional warfare, military occupation, and pacification." This, he suggests, is a reflection of the limitations of the army's three key traditional intellectual and martial roles: guardians, who have a scientific focus and a preoccupation with defending the homeland; heroes, practical men with a warrior ethos; and managers, who believe in the necessity of mobilizing all of society's resources to be well prepared for titanic struggles. This classification can be illuminating but faces the familiar problem of seeking to place individuals into categories they would not necessarily choose for themselves. Nonetheless, this is a well-researched book, full of insight and good sense.

Buley, who is interested in whether the "war on terror" has resulted in a "new American way of war" suggests that in this case the innovation has come during the course of the campaign, perhaps because both the military and the civilian leadership were so spectacularly ill prepared for what they were getting into. Buley, a fervent Clausewitzian, argues that the pursuit of a technocratic vision of "Immaculate Destruction" led to the neglect of the need to link military means to political ends and of the essential fact that conflict is always unpredictable.