Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Thinking About the "American Way of War"

The current issue of National Review
(May 5) carries my review of a very important book by Brian Linn, a historian at Texas A&M, which looks how the United States Army has envisioned war since the beginning of the Republic. An expanded version of the review appears on the Ashbrook site here.

Brian takes issue with the idea that "ways of warfare" arise primarily from the experience of war itself, the view of the late Russell Wiegley in his influential The American Way of War. Instead, Brian argues, 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. He 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. The current debates about what kind of military we need follow the patterns that have gone before.

I was happy to review the book because I will have the pleasure of teaching a course on the "American Way of War" with Brian for the Ashbrook Master of American History and Government during the last week in June. Our syllabus is here.

The course is an overview of US military history with a focus on how the nation thinks about, prepares for, and conducts warfare. As such it examines the interaction of the military, cultural, social, material, institutional, and international factors that have shaped the "American way of war." The course will address several main questions: 1) How has the American form of government shaped the way the United States fights its wars? 2) How have those responsible for the actual conduct of war, especially the military profession, thought about war as a phenomenon? 3) Has the intersection of these two questions produces a uniquely "American Way of War?"

If Brian’s book is any indication, it should be fun.

Discussions - 2 Comments

Many thanks for that syllabus. I wish I could take the course!

Prof. Owens, I would be fascinated to hear how you and Prof. Linn assess David Hackett Fischer's argument in Washington's Crossing that key military and political aspects of the American way of war-making can be clearly seen even as early as Washington's correspondence with Congress and other writings in 1776. I don't have Prof. Fischer's book at hand, but I recall him pointing out that Washington grasped very well the need to limit American casualties (for instance through the use of superior firepower: he brought an overwhelming 18 guns to the fight at Trenton), understood the crucial need to maintain high morale and support for the war effort among the general public, and without prompting affirmed the clear supremacy of civilian officials over military commanders including himself. There may be more items that Fischer stipulates, but I can't recall them off the top of my head.

While Washington is known to have owned and read a fair number of books on military topics (I think Joseph Lengel has written on this), I can't imagine how Washington could have picked up the above stipulations from "military intellectuals" (if such even existed in the first three-quarters of the 18th century). So would Hackett Fischer's account of Washington in your opinion weigh as evidence for Weigley's view that doctrine is shaped amid the experience and pressure of warfare itself?

Your course really does look outstanding, by the way. I too wish I could take it.

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