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A daily guide to the most influential analysis from the Council on Foreign Relations, publisher of Foreign Affairs.

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The New American Way of War
Max Boot
From Foreign Affairs, July/August 2003

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Summary:  "The American way of war" refers to the grinding strategy of attrition that U.S. generals traditionally employed to prevail in combat. But that was then. Spurred by dramatic advances in information technology, the new American way of war relies on speed, maneuver, flexibility, and surprise. This approach was put on display in the invasion of Iraq and should reshape what the military looks like.

  Max Boot is Olin Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power.

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"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 information technology, the U.S. military has adopted a new style of warfare that eschews the bloody slogging matches of old. It seeks a quick victory with minimal casualties on both sides. Its hallmarks are speed, maneuver, flexibility, and surprise. It is heavily reliant upon precision firepower, special forces, and psychological operations. And it strives to integrate naval, air, and land power into a seamless whole. This approach was put powerfully on display in the recent invasion of Iraq, and its implications for the future of American war fighting are profound.


This new American way of war has been a long time in the making; its roots trace back to defense reforms of the 1980s. In recent years its most high-profile advocate has been Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Around the Pentagon, his mantra of "transformation" has become a bit of a joke -- a buzzword that is applied to just about any weapons system or program championed by any of the services. (The army claimed that its canceled Crusader heavy howitzer was, you guessed it, "transformational.") But when Rumsfeld and his senior aides, such as Stephen Cambone and Dov Zakheim, talk about "transformation," they are referring to much more than a change of weapons systems. They are referring to a change of mindset that will allow the military to harness the technological advances of the information age to gain a qualitative advantage over any potential foe.

The transformation of the American military was showcased in Afghanistan in 2001. Instead of blundering into terrain that had swallowed up past invading armies, the United States chose to fight with a handful of special operations forces and massive amounts of precision-guided munitions. This skillful application of American power allowed the Northern Alliance, which had been stalemated for years, to topple the Taliban in just two months. Although generally successful, the Afghan war also showed the limitations of not using enough ground forces. Osama bin Laden and other top terrorists managed to escape during the battle of Tora Bora, and even after a new government was established in Kabul, warlords were left in control of much of the countryside.

The second Gulf War has proved to be more impressive than the Afghan war because it was a truly combined-arms operation. An examination of the conflict shows the potential of the new American way of war and offers some lessons for the future.

Coalition forces in the second Gulf War were less than half the size of those deployed in the first one. Yet they achieved a much more ambitious goal -- occupying all of Iraq, rather than just kicking the Iraqi army out of Kuwait -- in almost half the time, with one-third the casualties, and at one-fourth the cost of the first war. Many will argue, in retrospect, that Saddam Hussein's forces were not all that formidable to begin with, and there is no doubt a great deal of truth in this. But they were capable enough when they fought the Iranian army to a draw in the 1980s and put down Kurdish and Shi'ite insurgencies in the 1990s. And, on paper at least, the Baathist regime's military enjoyed a big numerical advantage over U.S. and British forces. Although the Iraqi army was much degraded from its pre-1991 heyday, it still deployed more than 450,000 troops, including paramilitary units, the Republican Guard, and the Special Republican Guard, whose loyalty had been repeatedly demonstrated. Traditionally, war colleges have taught that to be sure of success, an attacking force must have a 3 to 1 advantage -- a ratio that goes up to 6 to 1 in difficult terrain such as urban areas. Far from having a 3 to 1 advantage in Iraq, coalition ground forces (which never numbered more than 100,000) faced a 3 to 1 or 4 to 1 disadvantage.

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