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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 351


Review:  The American Way of War, by Russell F. Weigley


In his introduction, Russell Weigley noted, "Military policy is based on two main elements, the structure of a nation's armed forces and the strategy of their use."  The American Way of War focuses on the history of American strategy rather than the structure, which gives it quite a different perspective than most military histories.  The book is organized into chapters relating to different general areas of strategic thought, not necessarily chronological.  For instance, Weigley separated World War II into two chapters, dealing with the different strategies that prevailed in the Pacific and European theaters.

Although he deliberately avoided structural issues, Weigley nonetheless managed to give a coherent and detailed account of most of American military history.  The role of technology in military history is brought out naturally by examining its effects on strategic thought, such as the debate over air power between the world wars.  Through his use of thematic rather than strictly chronological organization, Wiegley successfully made his book both readable and understandable.

The American Way of War is a powerful analysis of the historical foundation of the American military's quest for "total victory," which was laid during the Civil War and reigned supreme during World War II.  Weigley's thesis was that technological and social developments have robbed war of its power of decision, resulting in wars in which the cost of victory exceeded the results, referring specifically to the Vietnam War.  On one hand, nuclear weapons mean that total war serves no rational purpose, leading to the negative strategy of deterrence.  The other option, limited war, is not likely to be successful because "America's opponents in the locality involved . . . will almost certainly feel too much larger a stake in the outcome . . . than does the United States itself, to prove susceptible to manipulation by measured applications of violence," pushing the Americans towards more "unlimited, annihilative aims." (p. 476)

Weigley excelled both in his analysis of current strategic dilemmas and in his comprehensive coverage of American military history from a new perspective.  He concluded that "at no point on the spectrum of violence does the use of combat offer much promise for the United States today." (p. 477)  This conclusion is well-supported for all types of nuclear warfare, but his sweeping conclusion about "nonnuclear limited war" is weaker.  He based it on the Korean and especially the Vietnam War, but neglected to examine the specific circumstances that might have qualified his conclusion.  Overall, however, The American Way of War successfully illuminates both the history and the current problems of American military strategy.

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