The American Way of War: And Why it Brings so Much Baggage

It is said that Germans after World War II stated that they did not like to fight the Americans, as they never stuck to their own doctrine or tactics. Russian doctrine too stated that U.S. forces were unpredictable because all their plans went to hell once a battle had begun. Perhaps that is why one of the great U.S. Army maxims is “No plan survives first contact.” It is true that we tend to bring some “innovations” to war, intentional or not. This could be termed the “tactical” American Way of War. Scholars have spent a lot of time, ink, and breath arguing what the “American Way of War” is, or even if one exists. Russel Weigley has argued that the American Way of War is to bring overwhelming force to bear on the enemy and crush them in absolute and total victory. For myself, hardly daring to even call myself a scholar, I will leave that argument to others with more money and time, but I do have a theory on what I like to call the “American Penchant of War.”

It revolves around the use of technology and armaments to fight our wars for us. One, Americans are and have always been obsessed with technology. Two, Americans would rather spend money than sacrifice service members’ lives. While this is commendable, loss of life in warfare is inevitable, as boots on the ground still remains the only effective way to fight wars. When we speak of command and control (C2), it is difficult to believe that any commander can properly gauge the situation on the battlefield via drone feed without having someone actually on the ground providing critical information. But I digress. If one looks at the history of American warfare, there are multiple examples of the use of armaments and weapons that have been used to try to mitigate sending in troops. In the Civil War, the artillery barrage was brought to a new level that surpassed even Napoleonic tactics. Commanders used thousands of rounds to try to break enemy positions before committing troops. World War II saw strategic bombing campaigns that sought to break the initiative of the enemy. But the Normandy landings and island hopping campaigns in the Pacific still took place, as bombs could not replace the fighting initiative of boots on the ground. Similarly, in Vietnam, the Air Force attempted to “bomb them back to the stone age,” with similar results. Cruise missiles did not solve anything in Somalia in the 1990's. And now we have drones, the penultimate weapon in America’s reluctance to see casualties. With drones come a multitude of C2, intelligence, and legal issues: does merely killing terrorists help us in the global war on terror? Can they exisit in a Counter-Insurgency fight? Are strikes in other countries even legal? Again, I digress, but you get the idea.

This type of warfare brings a lot of baggage, literally. When America goes to war it does not pack light. We bring a logistical train with us that would make Napoleon jealous. It is the best in the world, but it is heavy. From vehicles such as tanks, MRAPs, haul assets, fuelers, engineer equipment, and your standard fleet of Toyota Hilux (and the oddly named Tatas), to aircraft: fighters, helos (attack, scout, general purpose), intelligence, surveillance, recon (ISR) airplanes, and cargo aircraft. Then there’s all the technical equipment to keep everyone connected in this digital age of warfare: computers, antennas, satellites, the list goes on and on. There’s artillery pieces, machine guns, and the litany of individual weapons, with all the repair kits and spare parts to support them. You have sandbags, HESCO barriers, T-walls, and enough containers to support the state of Texas for the next decade. Then there’s mountains of life support systems and housing that we build/bring with us. Simply put, we bring a lot to the fight, and quickly. Getting it home, well, that’s another issue altogether.

And that’s the world of Afghanistan today: the mad scramble to disassemble the American war machine and get it out of theater in time. Base closure is not merely taking out a few computers and sensitive items and rolling your guys out in a convoy. There are complex negotiations between the Army and the Afghan National Security Forces, as well as private landowners who own much of the land we’ve built on. We have to figure out safe ways to get rid of the residue, how to best road or fly equipment out, how to balance force structure to keep security as well as continue the retrograde process, and how to separate the necessary equipment from the unnecessary equipment. It is not for the faint of heart when it comes to dollar amounts, as retrograde, by the BBC’s report, is coming at the hefty price of about $6 billion USD. The process has been ongoing for years, but as 2014 enters its second month, the process becomes that much more important. For historians, or those in the military interested in lessons learned, this period should be one that is closely studied in the future.

Angry Staff Officer is an officer in the Army National Guard and a member of the Military Writers Guild. He commissioned as an engineer officer after spending time as an enlisted infantryman. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. For more from Angry Staff Officer, visit his Wordpress blog site.

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