Enduring Lessons on Life and Citizenship: “The American Way of War . . . and Why it was NOT ‘Exceptional’”

Enduring Lesson
Enduring Lessons on Life and Citizenship: “The American Way of War . . . and Why it was NOT ‘Exceptional’”
Enduring Lesson

We have looked at a number of ways in which the USA was an exceptional nation—a Christian, mostly Protestant religious tradition, common law, private property with written titles and deeds, and a free market economic system. But one way in which it was not exceptional, though it was extremely effective, was in the American way of war.

9/26/2019

We have looked at a number of ways in which the USA was an exceptional nation—a Christian, mostly Protestant religious tradition, common law, private property with written titles and deeds, and a free market economic system. But one way in which it was not exceptional, though it was extremely effective, was in the American way of war.

Victor Davis Hanson, in Carnage and Culture has written a superb analysis dating back to the ancient Greeks on Western warfare, and how it developed distinctly different than anywhere else in the world. It wasn’t a difference in courage, he argued, nor even, really, in technology (although the Western scientific revolution ensured the West, before long, would have superior weapons). Rather, he claims, Western dominance came from the cultural attitudes of the West that simply did not exist anywhere else in the world. Those attitudes included the sanctity of life, which demanded Western societies never undertake war lightly and do whatever they could to limit casualties; individual autonomy, in which no caste system prevented talented people from rising to command; the notion that because wars needed to be short (sanctity of life again) they needed to be conducted in an all-out, brutal fashion that would result in a quick decision instead of an ongoing truce that would continually be broken; that meant wars were fought to unconditional surrender; and finally that Western militaries were under civilian control, which further limited adventurism.

One could, of course, find exceptions to one or two of these points at some time or another. But overall, his theory has held up. Western militaries are different; and when combined with free markets and industrial power, and the freedom of inquiry produced by the Enlightenment, opponents’ options were quite limited when confronting a Western power.


Other than the emergence of militias in the American military character, U.S. armies tended to look like the Europeans: heavy use of order and drill, with an emphasis on staying in rank vs. simply killing the enemy; a high level of autonomy among lower ranked officers; concern for life (“leave no man behind”); and as much reliance on firepower, vs. human life, as possible. Over time, the U.S. had its own industrialists (like Eli Whitney and Sam Colt) who could furnish American-made weapons, or Andrew Carnegie, who could make world-class steel for ships. But America’s burgeoning industrial and free-market base soon began to spur a number of inventors, including Richard Gatling, a New York doctor who conceived of a type of machine gun based on rotating barrels; a Swedish-born inventor in the US named John Ericsson who conceived of the “crackerbox on a raft,” the famous ironclad vessel with a rotating turret (the Monitor); American-born Hiram Maxim, who, having failed to sell his water-cooled machine gun to the U.S. Army, moved to England where the Maxim Gun became a fixture with the British Army; the Wright Brothers; and so on. The point is, a free market system that rewarded entrepreneurship—even in weapons—soon gave the U.S. massive advantages in wartime. Of course the government paid for the weapons, but that only made entrepreneurs turn them out faster.

In World War II, Henry Kaiser’s ship yards were turning out Liberty ships in less than a week, and set a record building the Robert E. Peary from scratch in four and a half days. Moreover, the freedom of the American system meant that many remarkable ideas didn’t pan out as hoped, including Howard Hughes’s “Spruce Goose,” his giant airplane that only made a single short test flight. What is little understood, however, is that in failure, entrepreneurs like Hughes and Preston Tucker told us about what did not work, which was valuable information. 

By the 20th century, a regular standing army was in place and was strongly expanded during wartime by the draft. But with a few exceptions—World War II, Korea, Vietnam—the American practice was to rely on a professional volunteer army, then train it like crazy. Consequently, especially after Vietnam, the military’s emphasis on training has been near-obsessive. With it came falling casualty rates. Of course, better battlefield medical units and evacuation techniques helped. From 1941 on, however, the American way of war has, even more than Europe, relied on using air and naval power, along with long-range artillery, to as totally decimate an enemy as possible. This can be seen in the Gulf War, where American (and Allied) airpower so devastated Iraqi ground units that they literally fell apart when confronted by U.S. armor and infantry. 


International trends suggest the U.S. may be pulling back from “on the ground” commitments. If that is true, look for more of the former and fewer of the latter.



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