chapter  4
23 Pages

The American strategic approach: A cultural analysis

In hoc signo vinces [In this sign you shall conquer]. (Roman proverb)

Awake your senses, that you may the better judge. (William Shakespeare, c.1599)436

As in the case of all meta-narratives, that which is the “American way of war” is rife with depictions. One such depiction is that given by two DoD officials, who have written: “The effort to identify and characterize the American Way of War is – in many ways – an attempt to understand how US warfare evolves once freed from the bilateral and all-consuming competition with the Soviet Union.”437 Most depictions of America’s war-fighting approach, however, are more historical in scope, with the weight of attention being devoted to the nation’s tendency to pursue war in its absolute vice limited form. Antulio Echevarria, for example, gave summary treatment of many such characterisations in his compelling monograph, Toward an American Way of War, which included a brief overview of Russell Weigley’s landmark thesis, The American Way of War. In his 1973 study, Weigley analysed the American strategic approach over a period spanning roughly 200 years. Moving through time from the generalship of George Washington to the brinkmanship of Robert McNamara, Weigley’s treatise found the American way to be one that historically has met the letter and spirit of what Clausewitz dubbed the “absolute” form of war. Exception was given only to the period surrounding the country’s founding. In Weigley’s view, America was at her birth a nation forced to pursue a strategy of “attrition” – or, a “limited” form of warfare, according to Clausewitzian parlance. It was, however, America’s burgeoning economy coupled with the rise of ambitious foreign policy aims that cut short the development of attrition strategists. In their stead arose a new cadre of strategists, the sine qua non of whose approach to war would be annihilation, or the “destruction of the enemy’s armed force and with it the complete overthrow of the enemy.”438 Weigley agreed with a key finding of his contemporary, Thomas Schelling,439 who pointed to America’s failure to place the institution of war in its “proper” (read, Clause-

witzian) theoretical context. Weigley wrote that Americans tend to perceive war as an alternative to, rather than a process of, bargaining between state actors.440

“In other words,” as Echevarria explained: