The American Way of War

The history of the United States is parallel to the development of the Western military. The American military is a hybrid of European traditions, democratic revolutions and unique war fighting methods that has continued to serve the same democracy for over 200 years.

In the American Revolution a ragtag group of farmers defeated what was considered the best army in the world at that time. The American Civil War is seen as the first modern war where men and machine were used in mass slaughter.

It was a blending of new and traditional forms of warfare that would influence armies all over the world for over a hundred years. Twice in the 20th century, America has saved the world, but after those wars, it showed no interest in taking control of the countries that were defeated (Clarke 2013).

The American military is a unique product of both the democratic and industrial revolutions and over time has evolved. Ultimately, the American military is a microcosm of the society it protects, and my belief is the best part of that society by living up to the highest ideals of sacrifice and service that has made our country a benevolent world power.

“The American way of war” was a phrase popularized by the military historian Russell Weigley in his 1973 book. His book has become a standard text used in military history classes throughout ROTC Program. Weigley argues that ‘the American Way of War’ has come to refer to a grinding strategy of attrition. American military strategy is much more than that. Like any story it is best to start at the beginning.


The Big Wars

The American Revolutionary War (1775–1783)

During the colonial period (1607–1775), the militia of the various colonies defended the settlers while they were establishing themselves in America and helped England eliminate the French from North America (Stewart 2004).  When the American Colonies decided to revolt the English King sent 30,000 British Regulars to deal with the Americans.

A common myth is that the American militia won the war firing from behind the cover of wall, trees and houses. The myth also states American militia would pore musket fire into the advancing Redcoats who stand there and die. When the American Revolution happened the British had 75 years of experience fighting in North America and were used to guerilla tactics.

This approach of warfare was perfected in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the name for the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War. This world-wide conflict was fought between Britain and France forces. Many of the leaders of the future Continental Army, including a young Major Washington, would get their first taste of combat fighting under British generals as American Militia.

General Washington did use a strategy of harassment to grind down the British forces instead of seeking a decisive battle. Most battles were fought using linear tactics, they would fire volleys and often stood in lines engaging each other.


The Continental Army and the militia would eventually master the art of 18th century warfare at Valley Forge under the instruction of Baron Frederick von Steuben, a Prussian Officer. The Continental Army won the war by standing in ranks and trading volleys and capturing battlefields at bayonet point.

Linear tactics remained the rule throughout the 19th century and the early 20th century. The mass carnage caused by the invention of the machine gun in World War I forced these time honored tactics to change.

In Europe at the end of the 18th Century and the beginning of the 19th Century a serious of battles known as the Napoleonic Wars.  Great Britain and France fought for European supremacy, and treated weaker powers heavy-handedly. The United States attempted to remain neutral during the Napoleonic period, but eventually became embroiled in the European conflicts, leading to the War of 1812 against Great Britain.

The French Revolution introduced the modern concept of the “nation in arms.” The American Revolution had given birth to the notion of fighting for ideals and words such as freedom and the concept of fighting for a national identity. Up to that point wars were relatively simple and restricted in area, forces, and objectives (Matloff 1968). These wars changed the way wars were fought and why all over the world.

The Civil War (1861-1865)

The technological advancements that came at the beginning of the Industrial Age changed in the American Civil War. With the use of trains and steam boats men and material could be moved greater numbers and quicker speeds. The use of a telegram sent over a thousand miles to deliver orders meant that Generals no longer had to be present to give orders.

Frightening advancements in rifles and cannons made the mass killing of Soldiers whole sale slaughter. The bayonet and saber as military weapons were no longer significant. For the first time in history thousands of Soldiers would die in a single day.  By the end of some of the epic battles of this long war tens of thousands would become casualties in a matter of hours.

Civil War

During the Civil War the principal combat arm was infantry. Its most common deployment was a long “line of battle,” two ranks deep. The new mission of the artillery was to bolster the defensive. Long-range shells and close-in canister, artillery became crucial in repulsing enemy attacks.

Small Wars of the 19th and 20th Century

From 1801 to 1805 America would fight two wars between the Northwest African Berber Muslim states as the Barbary States. President Jefferson’s first action after his inauguration in 1801 was declare war on the pirate states that had been kidnapping American sailors and stealing cargo that belonged to the United States. This war was America’s first brush with Islamic fundamentalism.

Barbary Wars
The First Barbary War

As America grew as a nation both in size and economy it would get involved in something known as small wars. Today the Army has several names for this time of conflict small wars,” “imperial wars,” or, as the Pentagon now terms them, “low-intensity conflicts.”  In the 1990’s the nation building campaigns of the Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Vietnam were further examples of this.

America’s force of choice for these type missions aboard was the Marine Corps.  The Marine Corps had a longer tradition in these kind of conflicts; its ‘Small Wars Manual’ published back in 1940, had noted that they “represent the normal and frequent operations of the Marine Corps,” which, from 1800 to 1934, had landed 187 times in 37 countries “to suppress lawlessness or insurrection,” mainly in Latin America but also far away as the shores of Tripoli, as the “Marines’ Hymn” put it (Kaplan 2013).

As America grew as a nation it experienced many “smaller” military actions, from the Tripolitan War circa 1801-1803 to the hundred years (1840-1941), that American troops were continuously stationed in China to the Philippine “Insurrection” (1900-1902) and to the many 20th Century American interventions in Latin America such El Salvador and Nicaragua. The America way of war changed as our country grew and expanded.



Boot, Max. “The New American Way of War.” Foreign Affairs, July 4, 2003: 41-58.

Clarke, Jeff. “Memorial Day: The Superpower.” The Ranger , 2013: 1-2.

Echevarria, Antulio J. II. What Is Wrong with the American Way of War? n.d.

Kaplan, Fred. The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War . New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

Matloff, Maurice- General Editor. American Military History 1607- 1967. Washington D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1968.

Stewart, Richard. American Military History Volume 1. Washington D.C. : Center of Military History , 2004.

Weigley, Russell. The American Way of War. New York : MacMillian , 1973.