The American Way of War in the 21st Century

by Diane Maye

We Know How to Strike, But Can We Achieve Victory? A Primer on the American Way of War in the 20th & 21st Centuries

What explains the US military's predilection for limited strike operations beginning in the 1950s? Diane Maye points to an institutional bias which has also negatively impacted the armed forces' ability to conduct counterinsurgency and stability operations..

The U.S. military has been, without a doubt, innovative during the past century of warfare. Advances in technology have allowed the U.S. armed forces to become the most expeditionary, precise, and lethal force in the world. During the Cold War, the bulk of defense spending went towards countering the Soviet threat. In the end, the strategy was a success; the Soviet Union fell without direct confrontation. In the meantime, the U.S. military’s culture adapted to the political and economic realities of the Cold War. Although the Cold War has technically been over for 25 years, elements of that era’s defense culture have proven extremely resistant to change.

This essay analyzes the U.S. military’s evolution towards a predilection for limited strike operations during the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st century. It then examines why American forces have proven so resistant (institutionally) to the complex requirements of “small” wars. This essay argues that the U.S. military has shown an institutional bias for limited strike warfare since the Vietnam War, which has negatively affected the U.S. armed forces’ ability to conduct counterinsurgency, counterrevolution, and stability operations on the ground today. Furthermore, it will seek to show that during the 1990's, recollections of the U.S. Air Force’s overwhelming victory over Iraq’s conventional defenses during Desert Storm, in conjunction with ‘revolutions’ in military technology provided the impetus for a military culture that believed airpower served to offer quick, decisive victories through strike operations.

In order to show how this culture has evolved, this paper assesses strategy and force planning frameworks across major strike operations involving U.S. forces including the Air Force’s role in the Vietnam War, the role of strike warfare during Operation Desert Storm and the opening phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) as well as the current use of strike operations with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). It will then offer four conclusions drawn from the last six decades of American warfare.

Case 1: Second Indochina War

Successful Strike, Bad Strategy

After World War II, the National Security Council (NSC) saw its most significant threat as a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. During the late 1940's the U.S. was dealing with the basic issue of a national strategy in regards to defending Europe. During this period, there was also a progression of disagreements between the three services regarding U.S. national security strategy. Initially, the debate centered on the Army’s preferred strategy of a “forward defense” in Europe versus the “peripheral strategy” advocated by the Air Force. The Army’s forward defense strategy put men on the ground and posts as far east as possible into Europe. The Air Force’s peripheral strategy relied on air and naval force projection, long-range strategic bombing and urban-industrial targeting.

In the late 1940's, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) mandated that two outside committees of unbiased experts assess the problem. The committees essentially took the Army’s position, but over time the Army began to believe that strategic bombing could be used in conjunction with forward defense. Consequently, the Army developed a strategy of a forward conventional defense, but advocated using strategic bombing on crucial targets and Soviet weak points. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, as NATO commander, was not convinced that the Air Force’s strategy of strategic bombing could win on its own and wanted no less than 50 conventional ground divisions in Europe.

In January 1950, the NSC outlined the nature of the Soviet threat in NSC 68. In this document, the National Security Council (NSC) recommended that Truman “develop a level of military readiness” which could be “maintained as long as necessary as a deterrent to Soviet aggression, as indispensable support to our political attitude toward the USSR, as a source of encouragement to nations resisting Soviet political aggression.”[1] The document is generally understood to have been an argument for a stronger conventional force, but throughout the 1950's and 1960's the DOD spent the bulk of defense spending on countering a strategic, nuclear threat. For diplomatic reasons Eisenhower (and subsequently President John F. Kennedy) did not want to let the Europeans know the Americans wanted to reduce forward presence, hence, the U.S. became further entrenched in a strategy of defending Western Europe, both conventionally and unconventionally, against Soviet aggression.

During the early 1960's, Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara maintained the view that the Soviet Union was the primary threat. They developed a policy of flexible response, whereby U.S. forces were postured to fight a conventional war of attrition or, as a last resort, a short war of nuclear exchange. During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the strategy and force-planning framework for the DOD was not designed for keeping a presence in a remote region in Southeast Asia ridden by civil-communal war. Moreover, U.S. armed forces were not trained on how to counter the North Vietnamese Army’s (NVA’s) guerrilla tactics. The situation on the ground in Vietnam called for forces prepared to defeat protracted, counter-insurgent, communist revolution, but the U.S. military was hampered by a rigid adherence to the strategic doctrine developed to counter the Soviet threat. This may be due to the fact that, in terms of the amount of destruction that could potentially be waged, the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal posed the greatest threat to American national security. Throughout the Cold War the bulk of American defense resources went to balancing the Soviet’s nuclear arsenal. In comparison, the emergence of a revolutionary movement in Vietnam was a much more immediate threat, yet in terms of the amount of destruction it could impose, it was of far less consequence than the Soviet’s nuclear capability. Furthermore, if the insurgents had not been communists, hence linked ideologically and materially to the Soviet bloc, the U.S. would not have prioritized threat posed by the Viet Cong.

During the U.S.’s transition from an advisory to a combat role in Vietnam, Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay “argued that a vigorous prosecution of the war could save friendly and enemy lives by ending the war sooner.”[2] To the contrary, the Johnson administration chose a strategy of gradual force escalation. The first major continuous strike operation against the North Vietnamese, Rolling Thunder, took place over a period of two years. The theory behind the Rolling Thunder campaign was largely based off the belief that U.S. firepower would overwhelm the NVA with constant psychological distress. It involved massing a bomber offensive against North Vietnamese bridges, railways, industries, and transportation routes. Throughout the conflict, the governmental bureaucracy continued to make decisions that “defied military logic”[3] and essentially fought “a conventional war in a limited war setting where success was unlikely if not impossible.”[4] One of the critical lessons learned during Vietnam was that “overwhelming firepower” could not “compensate for bad strategy.”[5] Furthermore, when “escalating doses of destructiveness failed to crack the enemy’s will, the United States had little strategic alternative but to pull out of the war in unfavorable circumstances or to increase the level of destructiveness without end.”[6]

Throughout the period immediately following U.S. involvement in Vietnam, U.S. military strategists reverted back to the tenets of NSC 68: deterring the Soviet Union with a sizable nuclear arsenal while continuing a conventional “forward strategy” in Europe. The Nixon administration focused on a one-and-a-half war strategy, whereby the DOD was postured to fight one major theater war (MTW), and one “half-war” in another region.[7] This strategy also prevailed throughout the Carter administration, whose strategists focused on the Persian Gulf as the region for the half-war. The bulk of defense spending, however, was budgeted for programs designed to counter the Soviet threat.

Following the U.S.’s disengagement from Vietnam, the DOD underwent a massive cultural change. The military ended the draft system, and transitioned to an all-volunteer force. Officers were indoctrinated in the teachings of Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Thucydides and other prominent military strategists.[8] In order to overcome the Soviet’s numerical superiority, the DOD implemented the concept of AirLand Battle, which relied on combinations of deep strikes and air interdiction. Furthermore, the military organized to “maneuver large formations of firepower at the corps level and above.”[9] The American way of war became defined by a conventionally postured force structure and “professional mind sets” resting upon “principles evolving from the Clausewitzian view of the battle’s center of gravity.”[10]

The first major review of the U.S.’s national security strategy since NSC 68's implementation came during the Reagan administration. Throughout the 1980’s the Reagan administration addressed the military balance and its compatibility with current strategies. In 1984, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger outlined his vision for when U.S. armed forces should be used in engagements. The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 served to promote “jointness” amongst the military services and established a position designated by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), to ensure its implementation. During the 1980's, future CJCS Colin Powell advanced Weinberger’s doctrine by advocating “national unanimity, mobilization of the full might of the American military, overwhelming force, [and] clear objectives” as a prerequisite to entering into any conflict.[11] The tenets of Goldwater-Nichols Act and the Weinberger — Powell Doctrine cultivated a post-Vietnam era military establishment that focused on protecting U.S. vital national interests through short, joint, conventional operations like Panama and Grenada, while at the same time containing the Soviet Union.

Case 2: Operation Desert Storm

Successful Strike, Limited Victory

The U.S.’s primary objective was to drive Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. The Air Force warplanning cell, ‘Checkmate,’ devised an air campaign designed around the tenets of overwhelming, instantaneous first order effects. The plan — initially designated as “Instant Thunder” — called for a bombing campaign directed at Iraq’s centers of gravity. This included “focused and intense attacks on the Iraqi leadership and its associated command, control and communications systems.”[12] The opening strikes paved the way for coalition ground forces to conduct a flanking attack from the west into southern Iraq. The operation itself demonstrated several key elements that were a product of post-Vietnam era military reorganizations. Amongst them was that “jointness” was essential for modern-day battlefield operations. Real-time technology and precision-guided weapons were also changing the nature of modern warfare.

Despite the coalition’s success at achieving their objectives, Operation Desert Storm was a limited military victory. Coalition forces were able to stop Saddam’s advances on Kuwait, however his regime remained in control of the Iraqi government. Furthermore, after coalition forces ceased major operations, the U.S. sustained a robust presence in the region throughout the 1990's working to contain that regime. This included the “continuation of economic sanctions on Iraq, no-fly zones over the northern and southern sectors of the country, and maintenance of international weapons inspection teams to find and destroy Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.”[13] Containing Saddam’s regime also drove the Iraqi people into further economic peril and provided that a generation of Iraqis matured within the grasp of an overwhelming adversary.

In August 1991, after major operations in the Persian Gulf ceased, the NSC put forth a national security strategy that reflected the “new world order.” The NSC stated that the “bitter struggle that divided the world for over two generations has come to an end. The collapse of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe means that the Cold War is over, its core issue resolved.”[14] The demise of the Soviet Union reduced the threat of global nuclear war, and conventional operations became the most likely wartime scenario.

During the 1990s, the Clinton administration budgeted for an armed force that had the ability to fight two conventional major regional contingencies (MRCs) and promoted a national security strategy of “engagement and enlargement” with potential adversaries. The 1995 National Military Strategy (NMS) called for the ability to achieve “decisive victory” in two MRCs and “rapid response” to areas of conflict.[15] The Clinton administration also sought to reduce the end strength of the military, but at the same time make it more efficient and effective. Throughout this period, the U.S. military continued to utilize rapid changes in military technology, including real-time intelligence, precision-guided munitions, stealth aircraft and ships, as well as the rise of information warfare.

Case 3: Operation Iraqi Freedom

Successful Strike, Civil Chaos

After the Cold War, the DOD perceived that the security threat to the U.S. had decreased significantly. Consequentially, throughout the 1990's, the DOD’s force structure was downsized. There was also a widespread belief after the Persian Gulf War that new developments in technology constituted a “revolution in military affairs” which drastically improved the power of the American military.[16] The Army went from 18 to 10 active divisions, the Navy planned to cut over one-third of its battle force ships and the Air Force cut half of its fighter wings. The cuts were designed to make the military leaner, cost-effective, efficient and more lethal. The strategy and force-planning construct that developed, however, was not designed to counter insurgencies or conduct stability operations.

Although U.S. forces were well prepared to initiate and seize Baghdad in early 2003, the DOD made several critical errors during the initial planning phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Throughout the early phases of the war the Bush administration downplayed the possibility of an insurgency in Iraq, later the insurgency has directly challenged the U.S. military’s transition from major combat to stability operations. The Army’s V Corps and the units under its command were well equipped and trained for the combat phase of OIF. One division commander is quoted as stating, “the 3ID is going to race right through and get up to Baghdad in a heartbeat.”[17] His assessment proved correct- from the time President Bush announced OIF on 8 March 2003, after the “Shock and Awe” strike phase, it took less than two months for V Corps to man a fully operational command post in Baghdad.

In March 2003, after Saddam’s Ba’athist regime fell, “so did all semblance of public order.”[18] Initially, coalition forces were not ordered to contain the violence, which proved to be a critical error in decision-making.” The impact of the looting and lawlessness was devastating. It compounded the already dilapidated state of Iraq’s infrastructure, making it far more difficult to provide basic services.”[19] The looting made it difficult for the coalition to operate under the plans they had devised for the post-war occupation and recovery. The subsequent de-Ba’athification of the internal security police and military forces only exacerbated the problem, which resulted in widespread lawlessness and an inability to control the people.

After the Iraqi regime was defeated by coalition forces, a slow power vacuum began to take hold as the CPA’s de-Ba’athification process removed power from Saddam-era elites.[20] The U.S. found it difficult to maintain security in the country of over 30 million, and after the withdrawal in 2011, its leaders were left to battle corruption and maintain order on their own. Once U.S. forces disengaged, the Iraqi government was faced with overwhelming opposition from insurgent groups and religious sectarianism. Today Iraq is faced with ever increasing sectarian violence and civil chaos.

Case 4: The New Era of Strike Warfare

Since the end of World War II, launch platforms for strike operations have typically been tactical aircraft, ships, or submarines. Over the past decade, however, there has been an exponential rise in the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, to conduct strike operations. Likewise, over time, targeting has become more precise and more lethal. While launch platforms can change, offering lower risk and extended flight times, they also reinforce the notion of a “distant enemy.” Paradoxically, this notion of a “distant enemy” is anathema to successful counterinsurgency and stability operations, which take place on the ground and in close contact. Furthermore, drones are not without fail, they are known to malfunction and depend on correct intelligence, and faulty intelligence has resulted in the death of innocent civilians. If history serves as a harbinger, drones may improve efficacy from a tactical standpoint, but they will never improve military strategy or be the impetus for a revolution in military affairs.


Throughout the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st century, the U.S. military has been challenged with conducting non-conventional operations and simultaneously achieving stability through peacekeeping and stability operations. Counterinsurgent warfare often targets perpetrators that pose as non-combatants and often dismiss Western codes of conduct. This reality typically brings forth reprehensible moral dilemmas as well as political forces that Americans tend to find “obscure and [inaccessible].”[21] Inevitably, the U.S. military has developed superior organization, training, and equipment for limited, conventional combat, as well as nuclear confrontation, but as an institution it has not shown the same level of preparation for “small” wars.

Conclusion 1: Counterinsurgency, counterrevolutionary, and stability operations are fundamentally different from decisive, limited military operations

During the 1980's and 1990's the DOD focused on developing a strategy and force planning framework based on short, decisive, conventional warfare epitomized by limited strike warfare. This was based, in large part, off the tenets of the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine. The first Persian Gulf War epitomized the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine of short conventional war, with limited aims. Throughout the 1990's the U.S. military culture embraced the paradigm of limited, short conventional war; and the first Persian Gulf War was an extremely successful use of this framework. To the contrary, instituting regime change, battling insurgents, and providing stability through occupation is a fundamentally different task than stopping a military advance or containing oppressive regimes.

Conclusion 2: The DOD mischaracterizes operations

Today, the DOD, like the U.S. military of 1960, is not postured to fight sustained resistance movements. The fact that the U.S. gets involved in these sorts of operations could be a psychological problem; a product of how the DOD classifies its military operations. Prior to massive U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia, the U.S. considered its primary threat as a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Hence, the “United States’ involvement in Vietnam might be considered on one set of calculations to constitute a limited, low-intensity commitment by the Americans themselves, but for much of the Vietnamese population the conflict constituted a massive deluge.”[22] U.S. policy makers did not foresee their limited war would become a long-term campaign. Today, there is a school of thought within the military that “limited” engagements or “low-intensity conflict” includes “stability operations,” thus, require limited manpower and limited scenario-based future planning. Nothing could be further from the truth. There also may be a psychological dilemma at hand; when adversaries do not have conventional weapons or a modern military they appear to be less of a threat. To the contrary, the amount of time and manpower it takes to obtain an objective may depend more upon the nature of the objective (i.e. “regime change without provoking Iran, Russia or China”), rather than the nature of the threat preventing that objective from being obtained (i.e. “Sunni insurgents”).

Conclusion 3: The DOD has a track record of underestimating the amount of time and manpower required for “limited” or “low-intensity” warfare

Critics have argued that the U.S. did not mobilize enough troops in the early phases to guarantee a successful transition to stability operations. In February 2003, U.S. Army Chief of Staff Erik Shinseki told the Senate Armed Services Committee that hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed if the U.S. was going to occupy post-war Iraq.[23] Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz contradicted Shinseki’s estimates, and advocated for assessments that called for closer to 100,000 troops. Rumsfeld sided with Wolfowitz’s position on the issue and sent hundreds of thousands fewer troops than the Army initially requested. During the reconstruction effort “top political officials in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) insisted publicly that greater military action was necessary to secure the country,” but their complaints were routinely denied by the DOD.[24][xxiv] Insurgencies, revolutionary and resistance movements are typically protracted, drawn out campaigns. In Vietnam the population perceived the conflict as a “total war.” Because of this, it takes an enormous amount of time and dedication to claim victory against an insurgency.

Conclusion 4: Strike warfare has a specific mission, it should not be misused

Finally, strike warfare is intended to reduce an enemy’s war-making capacity, destroy targets, provide armed reconnaissance and harass, neutralize or destroy enemy ground forces. Strike warfare may initially neutralize the enemy’s war-making capacity, but, alone it will never neutralize an enemy’s will.

While strike operations may be overwhelmingly successful at getting “bombs on target,” if a parallel strategy for political stability is not developed, military endeavors are almost always certain to fail.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author.


[1] NSC 68, [database online]; Internet; available from .

[2] Wayne Thompson, To Hanoi and Back; The USAF and North Vietnam, 1966–1973 (Air Force History and Museums Program: Washington, D.C., 2000), 22.

[3] George Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam (New York: McGraw Hill, 2006), 179.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Williamson Murray and Robert H. Scales, The Iraq War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 153.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Amos Jordan, et al. American National Security (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 83

[8] Murray and Scales, 47.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Sam C. Sarkesian, “Commentary on Low Intensity Warfare: Threat and Military Response” in Proceedings of the Low-Intensity Warfare Conference, 14–15 January 1986 (Washington D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1986), 10.

[11] Murray and Scales, 55.

[12] John Andreas Olsen, Strategic Air Power in Desert Storm (Portland, OR: Cass, 2003), 64.

[13] Jordan, 252.

[14] Air University, “The National Security Strategy of the United States 1991,”[database online]; Internet; available from

[15] The National Military Strategy of the United States (Government Printing Office: Washington D.C., 1995).

[16] Jordan, 547.

[17] Quoted in Rick Atkinson, In the Company of Soldiers (New York: Henry Holt and Co., LLC, 2005), 87.

[18] Celeste Ward, “The Coalition Provisional Authority’s Experience with Governance in Iraq” United States Institute of Peace Special Report (May 2005), 3.

[19] Christina Caan, et al., “Is This Any Way to Run an Occupation? Legitimacy, Governance and Sustainability in Post-Conflict Iraq,” (Washington D.C.: The United States Institute of Peace, November 2005), 4.

[20] Montgomery McFate and Andrea Jackson, “The Object Beyond War: Counterinsurgency and the Four Tools of Political Competition.” Military Review (January/February 2006), 23–24.

[21] Paul A. Gorman, “Low-Intensity Conflict: American Dilemma” in Proceedings of the Low-Intensity Warfare Conference, 14–15 January 1986 (Washington D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1986), 16.

[22] M.L.R. Smith, “Strategy in an Age of ‘Low-Intensity’ Warfare,” in Rethinking the Nature of War (London: Cass, 2004), 33.

[23] “Army Chief, US force to occupy Iraq massive” 25 February 2003 USA Today, p. A1.

[24] Larry Diamond, “What went wrong in Iraq” Foreign Affairs Volume 83 Issue 5 (September/October 2004): 34.

Diane Maye is a former Air Force officer, defense industry professional, and academic. She is a member of the Military Writers Guild, and a PhD candidate in Political Science at George Mason University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.


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