Return to the American Way of War

By Captain Steve F. Kime, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The (Formerly) American Way

In the post–Cold War age of limited, non-nuclear warfare, we have not shown much wisdom in the use of conventional military power. Carl von Clausewitz’ dictum that “war is the continuation of politics by other means” has been abused by American politicians who dabble with non-nuclear military force as if they are playing a game. The traditional American way of war is to tolerate situations until the security of our nation is genuinely at risk, then to crush the enemy with overwhelming force. We mobilize the American militia from farms and streetcorners and go kill the Kaiser, Hitler, or whomever. This American way of war is clear, clean, and moral. It is the American way of interpreting Clausewitz.

But modern technology, like drone aircraft and Tomahawk missiles, helps to distance the American population from the battlefield and gives an illusion of “sanitized” war. We become insensitive to “collateral damage.” Worse, having an all-volunteer force leads to a disconnect between the larger consumerist culture on the homefront and the military subculture, composed of those who sign on out of patriotism, lack of economic opportunities, or both. Because it is a volunteer force, society at large is able to compartmentalize it, if it even thinks of it at all. There is a temptation to misuse volunteers in prolonged conflicts with moral and economic costs that cannot be sustained. This destroys the very soul of an essential American concept: that an American militia rises up when needed to defend the homeland.

The military is a powerful form of political currency abroad. Conflicts that are relatively painless to the upper class and the political class have come into vogue. If they were not so horrible, they might be dubbed “boutique wars” for the political elite. This ugly trait separates morality from conflict, and it harbors great risk.

‘Why Don’t We Use Them?’

Americans understand that war is nasty and brutish, but also that it should be short. It is not the American way to play around with the lives of our youth in uniform. We do what we have to do and leave. We do not get mired down either by the enemy or by a lack of will to complete the job with overwhelming force. America should not bomb small countries to make a point or take sides in a regional dispute. When politicians violate the American way of war, America bogs down in conflict abroad, and the politicians are rejected at home.

Politicians reveal their ignorance and callousness when they assert, “We have all these people in uniform—why don’t we use them?” Our soldiers are not toys for politicians with an ax to grind. A great nation does not bomb Danube bridges to impose its view of local bad guys and good guys. In the case of the Balkans in the 1990s, there were plenty of very bad guys on both sides, but that is not the point. The point is that America is not a police force. The threat of force obviously has political utility, but war is not a game or a “tool” in the American way of thinking.

Americans will not support for very long the bombing and invading of a country to make it conform to some U.N. resolution or even a U.S. image of how a sovereign state behaves. Invasion of a country, even if its leader is a tyrant, cannot sustain broad support unless America is actually threatened. It is simply not the American way of war. We support democratic principles by being a shining city on a hill, not by being an arsenal.

The adventure in Iraq was not in the American way, even before we decided to pour billions of taxpayer dollars into the country to make over in our image the Cradle of Civilization, a place in the desert thousands of miles away with several thousand years of history. “Nation-building,” by the way, is not the American way of peace. Nation-building, especially if based on military forces, cannot work in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else.

The American bombing of Afghanistan to remove terrorist training camps, rout al Qaeda, and crush an enemy for an unprovoked attack on the United States was certainly a modern, just, expression of the American way of war.

The stationing of troops in Afghanistan and the attempt to make Afghanistan more like us was and is pure folly. We have the means, and the right, to answer every transgression and to bomb anyone who attacks us. But it defies history, politics, and common sense to pour our children’s blood and our taxpayers’ treasure into the valleys and mountains of remote Southwest Asia to make Afghanistan more like us.

And the recent attack on Libya, despite the NATO subterfuge and the “humanitarian” justification, is not the American way of war. The nation’s interests are only indirectly and remotely at issue.

Morality and War: Killing and Dying

Politicians sometimes conclude that a situation in another country warrants some killing, but is not worth dying for. “No-fly zones” and standoff air or missile attacks are attempts to kill without dying. Americans will support limited use of standoff lethal force to correct a manifest injustice, but not for very long. Americans will die if it is necessary to defend their country, but we are not killers.

Making war without declaring war is not the American way. We have ignored this fact for more than half a century. It is an important national and moral failure. A declaration of war requires national consensus that America faces a threat that justifies killing, and dying. The representatives of those very people who must kill and die are supposed to declare war—not the Chief Executive. This is a matter far more important than the legal wrangling that surrounds the issue of whether the War Powers Resolution of 1973 is constitutional. That resolution, passed over a Presidential veto, was an imperfect but workable effort to make the use of American forces fit the American way of war.

The creation of an all-volunteer military force made the debate over the War Powers Resolution less urgent. This reflects a serious moral issue. When their children are not at risk, wealthier and well-positioned Americans care much less about whether or not a war is a legitimate expression of the will of the people in the face of a threat to the nation. Privileged youth can go safely to college, rise to positions of power, and send less privileged military volunteers to die. Again, it is about killing and dying: Killing is much more acceptable when the dying that accompanies it is done by someone else’s children.

The all-volunteer force was a morally bereft compromise of the vision that the Founding Fathers had about war. Militias were to be raised to defend the nation. In fact, there is no Constitution-based authority today for maintaining a standing army. If there were truly a threat to the existence of the nation that justified a declaration of war, the question of who serves would be moot. Killing would be justified and the dying would be shared.

9/11 and the American Way of War

On first hearing that the World Trade Center had been attacked, many thought it was some kind of ruse. Disbelief may reflect the most important strategic and conceptual facet of American thought that was revealed by 9/11.

America had been safe and snug between two oceans for almost 200 years. When vulnerability arose with nuclear-tipped rockets, we countered the threat with such overwhelming, superior capacity that it was effectively neutralized. “Duck and Cover” was quickly put in the back of the American mind. We accepted the American way of war—smash the enemy if provoked and go home—and rejected military adventures and interventions. Americans, in spite of pinpricks by discontented foreigners, did not think about an attack on the United States. 9/11 was a bolt from the blue. A new element to the American concept of war had appeared overnight.

It remained valid for America to use the bulk of its military force to smash the enemy and go home. Terrorist camps and hiding places should have been bombed back to the Stone Age, and America should have declared its intention to do this at will until we thought it was enough. A formal declaration of a war on terrorism was in order. Troops on the ground were not.

What was new was war at home. It was a totally new kind of war to America, and required totally new approaches that would involve civil society as never before in our history. We erred by trying to apply traditional forces to the threat in Southwest Asia, but we started in the right direction by addressing the problem at home. Still, we have not yet fully accepted the idea of a persistent, genuine threat at home. This needs work. Americans will eventually come to a new and more realistic trade-off in their minds between individual liberty and public safety, and this new mindset will become a part of the American way of war. But it will take time.

The nation must adapt its concept of war, and the disposition of its military power, to this new reality. The Department of Homeland Security needs a uniformed border-guard force that absorbs current customs and transportation-security functions. We need to rethink how we maintain and use National Guard and Reserve forces. The Founding Fathers would agree with this and seek new approaches to their “well-regulated militia.”

We must go back to the drawing board. A new, comprehensive national military strategy is needed. The foreign component of this strategy must return to the American Way of War and recognize that our well-regulated militia is for national emergencies and not a plaything or a “tool” of international diplomacy in the hands of politicians. The domestic component must review the policies and the forces cobbled together by both federal and state governments and arrive at coherent strategies aimed at inchoate, but very real, threats to the nation.

Captain Kime, a former U.S. Naval Institute board member, earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University. He was U.S. Naval Attaché to the Soviet Union in the 1980s and has taught at the American University, Georgetown University, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the National War College. He served as president of Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges.


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