The American Way of War: A Review

After a long while of meaning to, I’ve finished Russell Weigley’s magisterial book The American Way of War. Took longer than it should have, but as a foundational text for understanding not only American strategy, but basic concepts of national strategy itself, this book is unsurpassed. It’s one of the few I can truly call “epic.”

Beginning with George Washington’s “strategy of attrition” during the Revolutionary War, Weigley traces the scope of American strategic thought up to the closing days of the Vietnam War. Structurally, American strategy falls into several phases. Washington eventually gives way to Halleck, who is then replaced by Ulysses Grant. Grant’s approach to war – “a strategy of annihilation” – then serves as the United States’ guiding principle until well into the twentieth century.

As was the case in most arenas, nukes changed everything. The beginning of the Cold War was a return to Marshall and MacArthur’s styles from World War II, but that emphasis on conventional war didn’t last long. Deterrence soon became the word of the day, and the strategic legacies that the army had inherited from Washington, Greene, Grant, and a host of other thinkers fell completely by the wayside.

The modern U.S. Navy is, of course, born out of the writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan. Mahanian naval thought went relatively unchanged until after World War II, but the dominance of battleships remained alive and well until relatively late in the war. The Air Force gets a similar ‘father figure’ in Billy Mitchell, and the struggle to become an independent branch of the armed services bears particular resonance now, with that very independence being questioned. The turf war between the navy and air force in the early days of the Cold War is very well-documented, with the emphasis on strategic bombers versus carrier aviation shown to be more important than a mere interservice spat.

Weigley’s writing is accessible in that rarest of ways – intelligible yet sophisticated. At times he explains fairly complex concepts, but manages to avoid getting too caught up in minutiae while still covering all the important details. Thinkers in every echelon of the military get a fair hearing, from the usual generals and Joint Chiefs down to the occasional major or even captain (Boyd: curiously absent). And while the overall relevance of The American Way of War is unquestionable, the rather abrupt stopping-point of 1973 is somewhat jarring, and one wishes that Weigley had continued to examine the evolution of American strategy.

For career strategists, The American Way of War might seem oversimplified, but for everyone else, it’s a perfect introduction to not just American doctrine, but national strategy as a concept. And perhaps most important, Weigley demonstrates just where we’ve come from, and how far we  have – or haven’t – come since Washington and Valley Forge.

Buy The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy at Amazon.com.

Crossposted at Goodreads.

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