This article revisits an argument that appeared nearly twenty years ago in two publications: a short monograph entitled Toward an American Way of War (2004) and in a book chapter, “Transforming America’s Way of Battle: Revising Our Abstract Knowledge” (2005).[i] Each of these publications argued America did not yet have a way of war; instead, it had a way of battle. This distinction is an important one; for, at the time, the United States had difficulty thinking about armed conflict as more than a series of battles aimed at destroying an opponent’s military might. Once that destruction was accomplished, victory was expected to follow in the form of an enemy’s capitulation or by granting any number or type of concessions. This manner of thinking typifies a way of battle. It assumes winning battles suffices to win wars. Whereas a way of war means having the ability and the inclination to view an armed conflict not only militarily but also politically and in socio-cultural terms. The assumption that winning battles suffices to win wars is a risky one, and it has plagued American strategic thinking since at least the Vietnam War. As that conflict shows, winning battles or engagements does not necessarily equate to accomplishing one’s political objectives. Instead, closing the gap from battlefield victory to policy success can prove quite difficult, especially within the context of a modern limited war. It is simply much more difficult to achieve “compellence” in a modern limited conflict in which the belligerents, or their allies, are armed with nuclear weapons.
Two major campaigns and nearly two decades later, it is worth asking whether America has found its way of war, or whether it still has a way of battle. Unfortunately, the answer is its way of battle persists. Integral to answering that question, however, was another, underlying one: whether the US Army—which is charged with winning America’s wars—has succeeded in transforming its way of battle into a way of war. The answer, again, is negative. Obviously, the US Army’s doctrine does not exist in a vacuum. It is a subset of the body of doctrine that applies to the entire US Joint community in which the US Army has a strong and influential voice. Some of the observations that follow would certainly apply to US Joint doctrine; however, the focus in this article is on the US Army’s share of America’s warfighting doctrine. The principal reason for this focus is that many of the activities necessary to transform battlefield victory into policy success transpire on land, which is the US Army’s responsibility. Getting the US Army’s doctrine right is, thus, an essential first step in driving the larger process of doctrinal reform for the US Armed Forces; it will also strengthen the linkages between the US Army’s claim to be a profession and its corpus of professional knowledge. As a profession, the US Army is responsible for cultivating and disseminating the bulk of the professional knowledge that pertains to land combat.
The US Army is not necessarily representative of other Western militaries either in size, organization, or culture. Yet it enjoys considerable influence among those (and many non-Western) militaries, as do its doctrinal publications. Furthermore, many of America’s allies and strategic partners have adopted the spirit, if not the letter, of US Joint and US Army doctrine to minimize friction when conducting multinational operations. The perspectives the US Army holds with respect to armed conflict may differ less than one might expect from those of other armies. Ergo, while this article examines America’s way of battle as it is manifested in US Army doctrine, much of what it says may apply just as well to other states and their ground forces.
I. Doctrine as the US Army’s Professional Knowledge
The major doctrinal publications of the US Army not only provide officially sanctioned guidelines they also offer a basis for how the US Army defines itself as a “Profession.”[ii] According to the US Army’s own definition, professions possess a special expertise that enables them to perform vital services for the societies to which they belong. Professions “focus on generating expert knowledge,” and that body of knowledge enables members of a profession to apply that expertise to new situations.[iii] Just as lawyers and physicians apply their expertise to new cases, military professionals apply to their unique expertise to new strategic situations requiring the management of violence. For reasons that are unclear, the US Army has deliberately excluded concepts and concept development from its definition of professional knowledge; the US Army’s network of doctrinal publications is, therefore, the repository of its expert knowledge. The members of the US Army must master that knowledge, or at least the portion of it which pertains to their individual branches and ranks, to be considered legitimate professionals. The state of a military organization’s doctrine, therefore, is critical to its status as a profession. If its doctrine is fundamentally flawed, its status as a profession will be dubious—unless it subscribes to a different definition of a profession.
The US Army owns and updates literally hundreds of doctrinal publications. The list below, however, identifies those publications most crucial to the conduct of war. The hub of these publications is FM 3-0 Operations (2017). It is the US Army’s authoritative statement regarding the conduct of military operations, and it is the base document for such publications as FM 3-07 Stability (2014) and FM 3-24 Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies (2014).
- Army Doctrine Publication ADP 1 The Army (2019);
- Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 1-01 Army Doctrine Primer (2019);
- ADP 3-0 Operations (2017);
- ADP 6-22 Army Leadership and the Profession (2019);
- Field Manual (FM) 3-0 Operations (2017);
- FM 3-07 Stability (2014);
- FM 3-24 Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies (2014);
- FM 3-24.2 Counterinsurgency Tactics (2009);
- Strategic Document 01, Chief of Staff of the Army Paper 01: Army Multi-Domain Transformation (2021);
- Strategic Document 02, Chief of Staff of the Army Paper 02: Army in Military Competition (2021);
- Army’s Multi-Domain Task Force (2021).[iv]
II. Essential Observations
Space limitations do not permit an extensive discussion of each of these documents; hence, this section presents only essential observations. The first of these concerns FM 3-0. Given the central role FM 3-0 plays in the US Army’s fighting doctrine, it ought to convey a conceptual understanding of a way of war. To its credit, it contains several statements suggesting a general awareness of a way of war, such as: “Tactical success wins battles, but it is not enough to win wars.”[v] But FM 3-0 assumes the nature of battle is the same as the nature of war, and it describes the conduct of operations based on that assumption. Section III below defines the difference between the two in more detail.
As graphic evidence of this battle-centric perspective, we have the oft-maligned Joint Operations Phasing Model (see Fig. 1) [KL1] also known as the “Sand Chart,” which clearly emphasizes Phase III “Combat Operations” as the most important of the phases. While the model holds true for some cases, it is more atypical than typical of the situations the US Army is frequently tasked to resolve. Figure 1 shows a dark-blue line indicating the reality that many opponents, recognizing US superiority in Phase III, have “backloaded” their resistance efforts into Phases IV and V; in this way they can employ small, militia-type organizations more effectively. The light-blue line indicates the relative degree to which information operations and other condition-setting measures have increased in importance to the goal of “dominating” the situation. This rendition of the Sand Chart is now under revision. But it is unclear how much it will be changed. Instead of depicting an ideal case, US Army and US Joint doctrinal publications should show multiple cases and thereby downplay the traditional assumption that dominance is typically achieved through battlefield victories.
In addition, FM 3-0 stresses the centrality of the tenets and principles of the concept of AirLand Battle (agility, initiative, depth, and synchronization), which characterized the US Army’s operational doctrine through most of the 1980s and 1990s. These battle-centric tenets and principles were successfully applied in the annihilation of Saddam Hussein’s forces during Desert Storm. But one decade later, in the aftermath of the rapid collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regular forces, these principles proved insufficient for the extensive counterinsurgency campaigns US military forces and their coalition partners had to conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hence, counterinsurgency principles had to be rediscovered and reintroduced to America’s military leadership, which in turn sparked considerable controversy.[vi] Unfortunately, battle-centric perspectives of this sort generally focus on only one type of military “grammar” at a time (where grammar is a given set of principles) and tend to want to refine that grammar to perfection, often doing so without considering policy’s logic which may require alternative grammars. Whereas Clausewitz famously said war has its own grammar but not its own logic, battle-centric perspectives tend to reverse that precept, allowing military grammar to drive policy’s logic.
The principles and tenets of AirLand Battle have definite merit and reincorporating them into FM 3-0 was hardly wrong-headed. But the US military ought to have had an opportunity to debate their limitations and constraints, and to have had the resultant caveats incorporated into the latest doctrine. For example, encouraging battlefield commanders to take initiative invariably means accepting the possibility that they will have to act without, or contrary to, political guidance, especially because the speed of combat in the twenty-first century is too fast for centralized control. That possibility, in turn, means some loss of political control over military operations will likely occur, particularly because political processes can be complicated and require time—and thus policy changes can arrive too late. One of the differences between a way of war and a way of battle is the former acknowledges the potential political and/or sociocultural implications of applying a given principle or tenet. Thus, the US Army’s expert knowledge must follow suit and discuss the potential political and sociocultural tradeoffs that might come with applying a specific military grammar.
The 2017 edition of FM 3-0 has the appearance of having been rushed into publication. Perhaps it was. After all, interest in strategic competition has been increasing since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and the seemingly rising possibility of a major conflict with Russia or China, or both. Hence, the US Army (among others) may well have updated FM 3-0 and other doctrine, albeit hastily, to signal it was still conceptually prepared for large-scale operations. Yet the signal it sent has not been deconflicted with messages sent by the emerging guidance on “Multi-Domain Operations (MDO)” and “All-Domain Operations (ADO),” which is moving the US military toward different principles.[vii] Even if FM 3-0 (2017) is only an interim publication intended to reorient the US Army toward large-scale operations, the publication’s battle-centric focus is worth noting so follow-on publications can avoid the error.
The second doctrinal publication this article considers is FM 3-24 Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies (2014). The previous edition of FM 3-24 appeared in 2007/08 with great fanfare. It was intended to assist the US Army and US Marine Corps in reorienting intellectually from how to achieve success in large-scale, force-on-force operations to how to defeat insurgencies. Regrettably, FM 3-24 is not well synchronized with FM 3-0 (or ADP 3-0) which, again, may be a function of the hasty, interim nature of FM 3-0. Indeed, FM 3-24 and FM 3-0 read as if they were written by authors from two different armies, each completely isolated from the other. FM 3-24 does, unfortunately, share an important similarity with FM 3-0, namely, its lack of appreciation for the political and sociocultural implications of the concepts it describes; for instance, it sheds little light on the fact that counterinsurgency campaigns essentially amount to wars of exhaustion that can transcend administrations, sap political will and resources, and compromise political agendas such as President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Program in the 1960s, nearly as much as large-scale operations. They are often characterized as low-intensity conflicts, but they are rarely low-intensity efforts.
Furthermore, FM 3-24 fails to make use of recent academic research on insurgencies and counterinsurgencies. An example includes Small Wars and Big Data by Eli Berman and Jacob Shapiro.[viii] Admittedly, keeping up with academic research can be difficult, particularly when it deals with topics as controversial as the debate over the effectiveness of counterinsurgency methods proved to be. The research itself, if conducted properly, requires time. Publishing the results of the research, regardless of the outlet, requires yet more time, and academic findings can often be refuted or inconclusive. Moreover, the falsifiable hypothesis, a scientific method made popular by Karl Popper in the 1950s and 1960s, only arrives at a defensible answer or answers by systematically reducing the population of plausible answers to as few as possible.[ix] As scholars are aware, that approach, while better than its antecedent, positivism which relies heavily on induction, is not foolproof. Falsification itself has limitations rooted in our ability to identify the population of plausible answers with confidence. Despite such difficulties, and the fundamental problem of understanding what knowledge is and how we obtain it, the US military must actively engage academic research and incorporate it into its body of expert knowledge. The expert knowledge of military professionals, which is essential to the direction of wars, serves too important a function not to do so.
In addition, Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies, FM 3-24 does not describe how to initiate an insurgency against an adversary such as Russia or China, despite suggesting such in its title. The rationale for this omission is that instigating an insurgency is not a mission for the US Army or the US Marine Corps, but rather for US Special Forces. However, this justification is unacceptable as it leads to yet another “knowledge stovepipe,” which only serves to reinforce the seams and boundaries in US (and other Western) military structures that so-called hybrid warfare and gray-zone operations have sought to exploit. Moreover, Western militaries will seldom have enough special forces to accomplish such missions on the scale likely required in a major conflict. Hence, responsibility for, and knowledge of, such missions must be broadly shared with general purpose troops. It should be self-evident, moreover, that learning how to initiate an insurgency goes a long way toward educating military professionals how to defeat one.
III. Defining Battle versus War
US Army doctrine essentially defines war as battle writ large. While progress toward a more holistic definition of war has been made in the US Army’s recent doctrinal publications, the earlier battle-focus remains strongly evident throughout. ADP 1-01 (2019), for instance, defines war as “socially sanctioned violence to achieve a political purpose.”[x] This is an instrumentalist definition, which relates to war’s larger utility, and it provides a useful, if problematic, starting point. Armed conflict in the current strategic environment remains a social activity involving the use of violence to achieve a political purpose; however, it is increasingly less true that war is “socially sanctioned.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is a case in point. It was not sanctioned by any responsible member of the international community, nor by those portions of the Russian public which protested it. What’s more, evidence suggests attitudes about whether war is ever a legitimate recourse have been shifting toward the negative for some time.[xi] As a minimum, the wording in ADP 1-01 must be modified. But more importantly, the expert knowledge of the US military profession must be adjusted to accommodate the growing belief that resorting to force is not necessarily a legitimate course of action; ergo, military personnel may find it increasingly difficult to recommend certain courses of action or to claim professional status at all.
In contrast to ADP 1-01’s attempt to provide an instrumentalist definition, ADP 6-22, C1 (2019) offers an experientialist definition by referring to war as a “lethal clash of wills and an inherently human endeavor that requires perseverance, sacrifice, and tenacity.”[xii] This definition resembles that found in ADP 3-0 (2017), which states war is a “chaotic, lethal, and a fundamentally human endeavor … a clash of wills fought among and between people.” It goes on to say, “All war is inherently about changing human behavior … by force of arms.” And it stresses the fact that “human context,” as influenced by culture, economics, and history, is critical to understanding an enemy’s will.[xiii] These reflect experientialist definitions, meaning they highlight what it feels like to be engaged in battle, rather than war.
Obviously, armed conflict can be both an instrument capable of being used by political leaders in multiple ways and a uniquely dangerous and debilitating experience for those directly involved in the fighting. The point, therefore, is that the US Army’s professional knowledge should give equal time to both definitions, as both do capture essential and salient characteristics of armed conflict. Military personnel must understand they are instruments of the political regimes to which they belong, their efforts might not be socially sanctioned and may instead be roundly condemned, and the judgment of all concerned will be affected by fear, the fog of uncertainty, and other sociocultural forces.
Even after nearly twenty years and two major campaigns, the US Army still has a way of battle rather than a way of war. That is not to say the US Army, or its partners in the US Joint community, want war. Instead, it means the US Army’s doctrine does not yet reflect a broader view of armed conflict. If some of the US Army’s senior leaders have such a view, they did not acquire it by studying the expert knowledge of their profession. Instead, they acquired their views despite what their doctrine says, not because of it. Winning battles and destroying an enemy’s military might can prove necessary in any conflict; however, the assumption that battlefield victories suffice to win wars can result in prolonging conflicts unnecessarily, increasing human suffering beyond what is bearable, and delaying or seriously undermining the accomplishment of national security objectives.
The US Army’s operational doctrine avoids explaining how different political and socio-cultural contexts can affect military operations and the principles and tenets that govern them. This oversight must change. The US Army profession deserves, indeed is owed, a more robust discussion of the relationship between military operations and political and sociocultural conditions. In its current state, the US Army’s operational doctrine is not performing its function as a corpus of expert knowledge. Not only does it still retain its bias toward battle rather than war, it also is at times highly subjective in nature due to the fact that “lessons learned” in one conflict are not necessarily transferable to another, and due to the military’s tendency to modify knowledge to protect individual and institutional interests. But the more subjective it is, the less generalizable it is. The tendency to modify knowledge is also to be expected in an institution that actively identifies itself as artists rather than scientists, and its vocation as an art rather than a science. It is not clear the US Army (or any military institution in general) understands the difference between art and science; for it thinks of the latter as a search for fixed formulae and predictive doctrines.[xiv] Science, in fact, is little more than the use of the scientific method, rather than guesswork or superstition, to gain knowledge or to solve problems. If it wishes to preserve its status as a profession, the US Army would do well to acknowledge its debt to the scientific method and avoid placing its faith in superstition or guesswork. In fact, so many of the processes the US Army uses in its missions—from after action reviews to the military decision-making process—derive from some form of the scientific method. The search for fixed formulae and predictive doctrines do not capture the entirety of science, and instead stem from specific scientific fields, such as physics which rely on equations to transmit knowledge, and these simply should not be applied to dynamic activities like armed conflict. In sum, the US Army and the larger Joint community require a more objective process for generating, correcting, and updating professional knowledge.
Regrettably, if the US Army’s Professional Knowledge is foundationally weak, then by its own definition its status as a profession is also weak—unless it changes that definition.[xv] Its contract with the American public is predicated on trust that it will school itself properly to perform essential tasks, not unlike the medical and legal professions. Unfortunately, a flawed foundation of professional knowledge means the US Army is internalizing flawed ideas, which means the public’s trust is misplaced. This problem does not mean the US Army’s operational doctrine must be perfect. The professional knowledge of lawyers is not perfect; nor is that of the medical profession. But both can be corrected through accepted processes.
In sum, the US Army has three choices. First, it could do nothing and continue to muddle through with a way of battle, allowing itself and America’s national leadership to struggle in complex conflicts which do not fit neatly into a battle-centric framework. Second, it could retain its way of battle and its status as a profession by finding a different model of a profession, one that does not require the US Army to have a body of expert knowledge or which defines it differently, possibly outside doctrine. As a final option, the US Army could choose to revise its way of battle, moving it toward a way of war, and thereby preserve its status as a profession according to its current definition. The latter is the better choice for the US Army and for the public it serves.
V. Recommendations: Toward a Way of War
If the US Army opts for the latter choice, it should take the following steps. First, it should require its doctrine writers to identify, consistently and explicitly, the basic political and socio-cultural assumptions underpinning operational doctrine. This step is not meant to punish or unduly burden doctrine writers, but rather to require them to ask the questions necessary to identify those assumptions before, or while, they begin writing. This will not be an easy process at first. But it will lead to clearer expert knowledge and to a better understanding of the conditions under which the doctrine may be reliably considered valid.
Second, the US Army (and ultimately the US military) needs to develop a rigorous process for determining what elements of its operational doctrine can be verified objectively, and what must be accepted on faith. In every profession, some room must exist for the testing of unproven concepts, particularly when novel technologies appear or when unexpected sociocultural situations develop. Otherwise, it is difficult to encourage innovation and to develop new techniques and new knowledge. The US Army’s doctrine will, in fact, fail to keep pace with a rapidly changing strategic environment, characterized by technological and sociocultural changes, if it adheres only to proven concepts. While military doctrine should consist of proven and unproven concepts, the ratio between the two must not damage the credibility of the military as a profession.
Third, the US military must educate itself to distinguish between verifiable knowledge and articles of faith. As stated above, it clearly needs both. But it must understand the limitations of each. Unfortunately, academe may avail little in this regard, though partnering with it is essential. Most of academe will pursue knowledge for its own sake, not for the purpose of improving military practice. Thus, academe will typically generate knowledge according to a timeline that may be largely independent of strategic necessity.
The last step may well be the most difficult one. The US Army in coordination with the rest of the US Joint community must develop a defensible theory of knowledge. To be sure, little agreement exists among philosophers, epistemologists, and others who have studied the nature of knowledge and how humans come to know what they know. Nonetheless, if the US Army desires to be a profession and if cultivating a body of expert knowledge is a prerequisite to having a legitimate claim to being a profession, then the US Army (and eventually the entire Joint community) must decide what expert knowledge is and how to represent it in its doctrine. This need not be a complicated, philosophical definition. But the US Army needs to give thought to it and to dedicate resources to it, perhaps through a series of symposia. A practical, defensible definition may be all that is necessary to prevent the US Army from confusing knowledge with articles of faith and war with battle.
[i] Antulio J. Echevarria II, Toward an American Way of War (Strategic Studies Institute, Carlisle PA: 2004); and Antulio J. Echevarria II, “Transforming America’s Way of Battle: Revising Our Abstract Knowledge,” in Don M. Snider and Lloyd J. Matthews, The Future of the Army Profession, Revised and Expanded 2d Ed., (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005), 367-84.
[ii] ADP Publication 1-01, Army Doctrine Primer (2019), chap. 1, p. 1.
[iii] Snider and Matthews, Future of the Army Profession, 13; ADP 6-22 Army Leadership and the Profession (2019).
[iv] Army Doctrine Publication ADP 1 The Army (2019); ADP Publication 1-01, Army Doctrine Primer (2019); ADP 3-0 Operations (2017); ADP 6-22 Army Leadership and the Profession (2019); FM 3-0 Operations (2017); FM 3-07 Stability (2014); FM 3-24 Insurgencies & Countering Insurgencies (2014); FM 3-24.2 Counterinsurgency Tactics (2009); SD 01 CSA Paper 01 Army Multi-Domain Transformation (2021); SD 02 CSA Paper 02 Army in Military Competition (2021); Army’s Multi-Domain Task Force (2021). These publications can be accessed at: Army Publishing Directorate Website (https://armypubs.army.mil/).
[v] FM 3-0 Operations (2017), chap. 1, p. 39.
[vi] David H. Ucko, The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the US Military for Modern Wars (Georgetown: Georgetown University Press, 2009); Fred Kaplan, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2014).
[vii] See: SD 01, CSA Paper 01, Army Multi-Domain Transformation (2021); SD 02, CSA Paper 02, Army in Military Competition (2021); Army’s Multi-Domain Task Force (2021).
[viii] Eli Berman, Jacob Shapiro, Joseph H. Felter, Small Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).
[ix] Karl R. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (London: Hutchinson of London, 1959).
[x] ADP 1-01 (2019), chap. 1, pp. 1-2.
[xi] Raimo Väyrynen, ed., The Waning of Major War: Theories and Debates (London: Routledge, 2006), 1-30.
[xii] ADP 6-22, Change 1 (2019), chap. 1, p. 1.
[xiii] ADP 3-0 (2017), 2.
[xiv] For a concise history, see Milan Vego, “Science vs the Art of War,” Joint Force Quarterly 66, 3 (2012): 62-70.
[xv] ADP 6-22.York: Basic Books, 2000), 32-45.
[xvi] Biden, “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,” 7, 17.
[xvii] Everett C. Dolman, Pure Strategy: Power and Principles in the Space and Information Age (New York: Routledge, 2005), 5-17.
[xviii] David G. Chandler, “Napoleon, Operational Art, and the Jena Campaign” in Historical Perspectives of the Operational Art, ed. Michael D. Krause and R. Cody Phillips. (Washington, DC: US Army Center for Military History, 2005), 27-39.
[xix] Brett A. Leeds, “Do Alliances Deter Aggression?” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 47, no. 3 (July, 2003), 427-439.
[xx] Charles R. Bowery, Jr., The Civil War in the Western Theater, 1862 (Washington, DC: US Army Center for Military History, 2014), 30-33, 61-62, 70-71.
[xxi] Allan R. Millett, The War for Korea, 1950-1951: They Came from the North (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010), 239-251.
[xxii] US Army, TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1, The US Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028 (Fort Leavenworth, KS: US Army Training and Doctrine Command, 6 December 2018), v-xii.
[xxiii] US War Department, Logistics in World War II: Final Report to the Army Service Forces (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1947), 244-252.