Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 6, Issue 3  /  

Strategic Anarchy and the American Way of War*

Strategic Anarchy and the American Way of War* Strategic Anarchy and the American Way of War*
To cite this article: Echevarria, Antulio J. II, “Strategic Anarchy and the American Way of War”, Infinity Journal, Volume 6, Number 3, Winter 2019, pages 10-14.

*The author is currently an Adjunct Fellow at the Modern War Institute (MWI), United States Military Academy. This article developed from a paper he presented at the MWI annual conference held in November 2018.


Pundits of all types have recently warned that revolutionary technologies—especially artificial intelligence (AI)—are changing life as we know it.[i] The age of the algorithm is upon us, and machines capable of vast computations at lightning speed are rapidly replacing functions normally performed by humans. China and Russia, currently the West’s chief antagonists, are investing great sums of money into ways of exploiting AI for military purposes. Meanwhile, the “weaponization” of social media, as evidenced by Russian interference in the US presidential election of 2016, is presenting democracies with a new challenge, some would say a new way of war, that leverages freedom of speech to create doubt and to undermine political will.[ii] This news comes at the heels of sustained and largely successful efforts by China and Russia to operate aggressively under the threshold of war, that is, in the so-called gray zone between war and peace.[iii] These and other developments raise serious questions about the West’s, and especially America’s, ability to keep pace with the changing character of contemporary conflict. Is the American way of war, as some claim, too in love with conventional war and high-tech solutions to adapt to the 21st-century challenges it faces?

To answer this question, we must first explain what is meant here by the American way of war. In brief, it means the sum of the historical patterns of thought, or of practice, that characterize how the United States has applied coercive force against other parties. Patterns, of course, can only be known historically, that is, after they have happened. Also, the significance of any pattern is historically contingent, which is to say its importance depends on the historical context. For instance, Russell Weigley’s seminal work on the American way of war relied on an either-or, annihilation or attrition, model of strategy.[iv] However, Weigley’s argument drew from a sample of US wars that was too narrow. When we add the many US interventions in Latin America, the Middle East, and in parts of the Pacific, the strategic pattern that emerges most conspicuously is not one of attrition, but rather of decapitation, of “striking the head of the snake.”[v] Often the US goal was to neutralize hostile parties by removing their leaders and replacing them with individuals more to the liking of America’s leaders.

It is also inaccurate to say that military force has always been America’s first choice, though that belief remains strong. Rather, from the Truman administration onward, America’s first choice was usually economic power instead of military force. The typical model involved imposing economic or financial sanctions, followed by covert or clandestine operations carried out by the CIA, usually augmented by special forces and air power; conventional forces were normally introduced only as a last resort. As always, there are exceptions—such as George Bush’s impatience with economic sanctions in the run up to the Gulf War of 1990-1991—that prove the rule.[vi]

Accordingly, a more accuratxe characterization of the American way of war is to see it as a pattern of adaptation, adjusting pre-war models and expectations to accommodate the nature of the war at hand. The American way of war does, however, run into trouble when it adapts too slowly to a conflict, as it did in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. When that happens, America’s leaders begin to lose public support as well as the backing of their allies and coalition partners. That was largely the case with the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan which, even if the naive expectation of decisive victory is set aside, suggest America simply adjusted too slowly to the type of conflict it found itself confronting.


For that reason, the key trait the American way of war must have in the decades ahead is the ability to adapt much faster than its opponents to the nature of the war at hand. One step in the right direction, and likely the most profitable one, is for the emerging generation of American strategists to do something its predecessors have not done well in the past—develop a multi-dimensional model for understanding war’s nature. Such a model could serve as a foundation for conducting strategic analysis prior to and during a conflict, and it would provide a basis for formulating integrated strategic theories. With such a foundation, America’s strategists stand to increase the facility with which they can adapt to unexpected developments in the wars that might come.

This solution is not another version of the “whole of government approach,” a catchy slogan that ultimately yielded little in the way of new thinking, or new practices. To be sure, discord among the US government’s various agencies and departments is important to avoid, or at least reduce, in the execution of any strategy. It is also wise not to overuse one element of national power, such as military force, at the expense of others. However, one can unify the efforts of the agencies within the US government without a detailed understanding of the nature of war, or of the nature of peace for that matter.

A multi-dimensional model of war’s nature is also not “multi-domain operations,” a concept that endeavors to integrate the elements of national power into a coherent operational scheme of maneuver.[vii] Such a concept is indeed useful, and a multi-dimensional model of war’s nature could assist it. But, according to the US military’s understanding, domains are narrower and more limited than dimensions. Moreover, of necessity, multi-domain operations must concentrate on, and find solutions within and for, the military dimension of armed conflict.

Instead, the goal of a multi-dimensional model of war’s nature is to provide a framework for analyzing war’s socio-cultural, military, and political dimensions. That analysis, in turn, will shed light on how the forces of hostility, chance, and purpose are likely to affect the war at hand.

Clausewitz’s trinity can serve as a useful starting point for such a model. The trinity was never “paradoxical.” That adjective did not exist in the original text because the elements are not necessarily at odds. Michael Howard and Peter Paret replaced paradoxical with remarkable in their revised translation of On War, a term that comes closer to the German wunderliche.[viii] What’s more, the trinity is not just a representation of war’s irrational, nonrational, and rational forces.[ix] Rather it is about theory primarily and war only secondarily. In important ways, the trinity is Clausewitz’s advice to the theorist, who must arrive at observations through analysis: to determine the nature of any war, theory must maintain three perspectives simultaneously: socio-cultural, military, and political. The nature of any war is, thus, the composite of those perspectives, while the elements associated with each are subject to change.

Accordingly, the nature of war, as Clausewitz tells us, is both changeable and composite.[x] War is not a true chameleon because a chameleon can change only the color of its skin; whereas war’s entire composition can change. One of the lessons Clausewitz and the other Prussian reformers learned from Napoleon is that whenever warlike passions, the military’s ability to leverage chance, and the political purposes of the war are in alignment—as they often were for the French—these forces can generate a synergy capable of taking war to a more violent, more warlike level.[xi] War, in other words, can transform from a chameleon into a much fiercer animal, much like the transition from dynastic to national wars.[xii] The latter, he argued, possessed a natural force or logic that dashed eighteenth-century conventions to pieces and exposed war’s true nature.[xiii] He later revised that idea and placed the origin of war’s logic on policy and political circumstances. But he never retreated from the notion that certain elements of war’s nature, when combined, could produce a remarkable synergy, as they had under Napoleon. Instead, he conceded that this phenomenon had occurred only three times in history—with ancient Rome, with the Tartars, and of course with Napoleon; he also came to admit that such measures were not always necessary to accomplish the objectives of policy.[xiv]

In short, the larger point of Clausewitz’s trinity is that strategic theorists cannot afford to overlook any one of war’s dimensions, lest they be taken unawares. Theory must not see war only as a political instrument; otherwise it might overlook developments within armed conflict’s socio-cultural and military dimensions such as an epoch-changing revolution and the emergence of a particularly effective style of operational art. Rather, the key is to remain alert to all dimensions and to be sensitive to possible synergies.

At some point, however, we must decide whether Clausewitz’s trinity and its associated dimensions suffice for the twenty-first century. In 1970s and 1980s, historian Michael Handel suggested adding a technological dimension to Clausewitz’s trinity, thus squaring it, to capture the influence that nuclear weapons might have on war and were already having on US strategic thinking.[xv] For various reasons, that idea gained little traction at the time. In addition, Clausewitz tells us nothing about war’s economic or technological dimensions, neither of which was necessarily obvious to him nor to the other Prussian reformers who were impressed with the power of the warlike spirit of the French, unleashed by the revolution and harnessed by Napoleon. Arguably, by the beginning of the twentieth century, war’s economic and military-technological dimensions were all but decisive in great power contests, though not necessarily in others.


Unfortunately, American military theorists from Alfred Thayer Mahan to Arthur Cebrowski, the strategic canon of professional military education, have only focused on one or two of war’s dimensions at a time. The reasons for such limited scope owe partly to the historical context; many US theorists perceived themselves to be engaged in a revolution of sorts and thus saw one or, at most, two dimensions as more important than the others. A distant second reason is perhaps the nature of scholarly or academic writing, which usually necessitates strict focus.

Mahan’s theories of sea power explicitly linked the military and economic dimensions of armed conflict.[xvi] That linkage had become enormously important to the American way of war in practice; it is one of the chief legacies of the American Civil War, as exemplified by the naval blockade of the Confederacy and General Sherman’s march to the sea. That legacy was further cemented by America’s imperial wars and military interventions from the turn of the century into the 1930s, and which prompted two-time Congressional medal of honor winner, Major General Smedley Butler to claim, with more than a little justification, “war is a racket.”[xvii]

In the mid-1920s, William (Billy) Mitchell’s theories of air power maintained that military-economic linkage, but only tentatively.[xviii] His principal focus, like that of many air power theorists of the early twentieth century, was war’s new military-technical dimension and how it had revolutionized warfare. The central concept of these theorists was to using aerial bombing to inflict intolerable levels of pain on the hostile party’s populace and thus compel its government to concede. They assumed a direct connection existed between a foe’s political and socio-cultural dimensions, an assumption that proved problematic in the Second World War.

After the Second World War, limited war theorists, such as Bernard Brodie, Robert Osgood, and Henry Kissinger concerned themselves mainly with the political dimension of armed conflict, and to a lesser extent war’s military-technological dimension in terms of the development of nuclear weapons.[xix] They saw the chief purpose of war’s political dimension as twofold: to set limited objectives for a conflict and to control the military and socio-cultural dimensions of war in order to prevent escalation. Brodie and Osgood, especially, wrote of war’s nature as if it were a coiled spring: one ill-considered move might cause the whole thing to release with sudden, uncontrollable violence. The invariably quirky Herman Kahn challenged this model by suggesting that even major wars would not necessarily escalate automatically. One could identify several stages or steps, as many as 44, through which escalation might progress, and thereby offer opportunities for diplomacy to work.[xx] His escalation model, though controversial, at root reflects a more realistic understanding of the nature of war, one that incidentally approaches Clausewitz’s concept more closely than did the paradigms of the limited war theorists.

In the 1960s, Thomas Schelling’s theories of bargaining and compellence examined the political-psychological dimensions of conflict more rigorously than any theorist hitherto.[xxi] His focused chiefly on the decision logic of opposing political leaders, though it could also be modified to accommodate military leaders. Schelling’s efforts advanced game- or decision-theory tremendously, but they did so largely at the expense of the other dimensions of war.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the theory of strategic control advanced by Herbert Rosinski, and naval officers J.C. Wiley and Henry Eccles focused on achieving control within the military dimension of war.[xxii] However, their theory can be readily applied to other dimensions. Unfortunately, it remains underdeveloped.

The counterinsurgency theories of the 1960s and 2000s, drawing heavily from British and French writings, focused on the military and socio-cultural dimensions of war.[xxiii] Socio-political revolutions became important topics of study, as evidenced by Chalmers Johnson’s Autopsy on Peoples’ War in the Vietnam era.[xxiv] But while these works shed much needed light on war’s socio-cultural dimension, they were not integrated into a holistic model of war. Many counterinsurgency theories concentrated on achieving success in a foreign host nation, without fully taking into account how difficult it might be to sustain support for such efforts on the home front. That problem was especially acute if the home front experienced a social revolution of its own, as America did in the 1960s.

The maneuver theorists of the 1980s and 1990s, such as John Boyd and John Warden for airpower and William Lind and Robert Leonard for land power, explored the military-psychological dimension of armed conflict.[xxv] It was within this dimension, they believed, where the decision to concede was made, and thus it was vastly more important than war’s military-technological dimension. Every clash of arms short of nuclear war would require some degree of operational maneuver, they assumed; regrettably, operational art itself had declined as a field of study since the advent of nuclear weapons seemed to have rendered it superfluous. The maneuver theorists modelled their understanding of war’s nature around Clausewitz’s concept of friction. Their theories, though different in important respects, shared the underlying assumption that the shock of swift, violent maneuver could exploit war’s natural friction, induce strategic paralysis, and break an adversary’s willingness to fight.

The information revolution of the 1990s gave rise to an influential school of thought that concentrated on the military-technological dimension of war. Perhaps best reflected in the writings of William Owens and Arthur Cebrowski, this school of thought saw information technology as the key to changing war’s nature by eliminating Clausewitzian friction, or at least by reducing it to irrelevance.[xxvi] Not only was war’s nature changeable, it was tamable. Information technology seemingly enabled one to manipulate war’s nature and thereby make the employment of military force less costly and more useful politically.


As we can see from the above, American strategic thought has specialized on a limited number of war’s dimensions and, thus, has evolved into what Herbert Rossinski once referred to as “an anarchy of the most differently conceived military strategies.”[xxvii] American strategic thinking gives harbor to numerous schools of thought or intellectual regimes which, in Rossinski’s words, have drifted away from the “enviseagement of war as a whole.”[xxviii] For the American way of war to succeed in the 21st century, our limited focus on just a few of war’s dimensions must end.

Fortunately, returning to, and further developing, the theory of strategy as control as articulated by Rossinski, Wiley, and Eccles holds some promise. Control is, of course, implied in the very act of war. Clausewitz’s familiar definition of war, that it is “an act of force to compel an opponent to do our will,” certainly does not rule out control. Indeed, compellence requires not just sufficient pain, as Schelling assumed, but also enough control to deprive the adversary of other options. Compelling our adversaries to do what we want, while also deterring them from doing what we do not want usually requires achieving some degree of control in dimensions other than the military one.

To avoid strategic anarchy and achieve a Rossinski-like vision of war as a whole, therefore, the American way of war must decide how many dimensions of armed conflict actually exist, and which ones it can hope to affect. A theory involving four dimensions seems a reasonable starting point: socio-cultural, military, political, and economic. These, in turn, may have any number of sub-dimensions, each of which must be identified and examined through rigorous study. Furthermore, we need to determine what types and degrees of control we can realistically achieve in these dimensions. Additionally, we must reach a better understanding of how actions in one dimension might reverberate in another. It is almost pedestrian to suggest that the best way to resolve a tactical or operational impasse in the South China Sea or in the Baltic region is to increase our efforts outside the military-technological dimension of war. What is less pedestrian, however, is the idea that enlarging our understanding of war across all its dimensions might lead to the discovery of new, Clausewitz-like synergies that our narrow perspectives prevented us from seeing.

In any case, the first step is to develop an historically based, multi-dimensional theory of war. Such a theory will not be easy to arrive at; each of war’s dimensions is vast and complex. But one thing is certain—the American way of war cannot afford to accept strategic anarchy any longer.


[i] Paul Sharre, Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War (New York: W.W. Norton, 2018).
[ii] Peter Singer and Emerson T. Booker, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2018).
[iii] Antulio J. Echevarria II, Operating in the Gray Zone, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 2017; Nate Freier, Outplayed, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 2017.
[iv] Russell Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of US Military Strategy and Policy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1973).
[v] Antulio J. Echevarria II, Reconsidering the American Way of War: US Military Practice from the Revolution to Afghanistan (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2014).
[vi] Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh, Gulf Conflict, 1990-1991: Diplomacy and War in the New World Order (Princeton: Princeton University press, 1993).
[vii] Jen Judson, “From Multi-Domain battle to Multi-Domain Operations,” Association of the United States Army, October 9, 2018;
[viii] Carl von Clausewitz, Hinterlasseneswerk Vom Kriege, Ed. Werner Hahlweg, 19th Ed., (Frankfurt: Ferdinand, 1980), I/1, p. 213 [Hereafter, cited as VK]; Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 89 [Hereafter, OW].
[ix] Christopher Bassford, Clausewitz in English (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
[x] VK, I/2, 214.
[xi] Carl von Clausewitz, “Observations on Prussia and Her Great Catastrophe,” in Carl von Clausewitz: Historical and Political Writings, trans. and ed. by Peter Paret and Daniel Moran, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 33, 41, 75.
[xii] Clausewitz’s description largely agrees with that of R.R. Palmer, “Frederick the Great, Guibert, Bülow: From Dynastic to National War,” in Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Modern Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 91-119.
[xiii] Carl von Clausewitz, “Bekenntnisdenkschrift 1812,” in Werner Hahlweg, ed., Carl von Clausewitz: Schriften, Aufsätze, Studien, Briefe, 2 vols. (Göttigen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1960-90), vol. 1, 682-750.
[xiv] VK, VIII/3, 592-93; OW, 972.
[xv] Michael Handel, “Clausewitz in the Age of Technology,” in Clausewitz and Modern Strategy, ed.
[xvi] Michael Handel (Totowa, NJ: Frank Cass, 1986), 58-62.
[xvii] A.T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1890); The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812 (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1892); Sea Power in its Relations to the War of 1812 (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1905).
[xviii] Smedley D. Butler, War is a Racket (New York: Roundtable Press, 1935).
[xix] William Mitchell, Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power—Economic and Military (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1925).
[xx] Bernard Brodie, “Unlimited Weapons and Limited War,” The Reporter 11 (November 18, 1954): 16-21, and The Meaning of Limited War, July 30, 1958, published as RAND PM-2224, Santa Monica; Robert E. Osgood, Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy (1957); Henry Kissinger, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957).
[xxi] Herman Kahn, On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios (New York: Praeger, 1965).
[xxii] Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960); Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966).
[xxiii] Henry E. Eccles, Military Concepts and Philosophy (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1965); J.C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1967). Also, Nicholas Prime, “The Making of the Control School of Strategy: Joseph C. Wiley, Henry Eccles, and Herbert Rosinski at the US Naval War College 1950-1974,” Dissertation for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Kings College, London, 2017.
[xxiv] For a comparison see Major-General Edward G. Lansdale, “Viet Nam: Do We Understand Revolution?” Foreign Affairs 43, 1 (October 1964): 75-86; Lt. Col. John J. McCuen, The Art of Counter-Revolutionary War: The Strategy of Counter-insurgency (London: Farber & Co., 1966); David H. Ecko, The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the US Military for Modern Wars (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2009).
[xxv] Chalmers Johnson, Autopsy on Peoples’ War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).
[xxvi] John R. Boyd, “Destruction and Creation,” unpublished essay, Sept 3, 1976; John Warden, The Air Campaign: Planning for Combat (Washington, DC: NDU Press, 1988); William Lind, Maneuver Warfare Handbook (New York: Westview Press, 1985); Robert Leonard, The Art of Maneuver: Maneuver Warfare Theory and AirLand Battle (Presidio: Presidio Press, 1991).
[xxvii] James R. Blaker, Transforming Military Force: The Legacy of Arthur Cebrowski and Network Centric Warfare (Westport: Praeger Security International, 2007); also, William Owens and Edward Offley, Lifting the Fog of War (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2000).
[xxviii] Letter from Herbert Rossinski to Henry Eccles, dated December 7, 1959. Emphasis original.
[xxix] Ibid.

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