Understanding US Strategic Culture

Be it the massively available literature on US strategic culture or the information related to historical events on this subject, if we analyze either of them carefully we shall understand that the crux of American strategic thinking is to overwhelm the enemy with superior conventional force. And to involve in the combat only if she thinks that greater liberal ideals are at stake. It is aptly recorded in pages of the Book “The Mammoth Book of How it happened “ on World War 1 by Jon E Lewis that President Wilson had to drag America reluctantly in to this war and American fire power was so enormous that victory of allied powers was assured.

Apparently any discussion on strategic culture of a country should necessarily start from their people’s historical experiences. There was famous dialogue in the movie – National Treasure 2: Book Of Secrets, a conversation between Ben Gates (I.e. Nicolas Cage) and his father Patrick Gates (i.e., Jon Voight) as follows.

Ben: Before the Civil War,
the states were all separate.

People used to say,
“The United States are.”

Wasn’t until the war ended people
started saying, “The United States is.”

Under Lincoln… we became one nation.

Patrick: And Lincoln paid for it with his life.

Civil war was a challenge to the unity of US as a nation which they have overcome with enormous sacrifices. Given similar circumstances not every country could emerge successful for eg: – India could never defeat the centrifugal forces, hence we have so many countries with in South Asia, which should have technically been formed part of Greater India. What was once a one nation is split in to multiple countries in South Asia?

After civil war, idea of national unity has been hardened in to the minds of Americans in such a way that any visible threat to their national unity was never taken lightly, hence they did what they did to Taliban after 9/11 or to Japan after Pearl Harbor, i.e., overwhelm the enemy with a superior conventional force. Hence the pedigree that says there is a connection between society at large and its strategic culture is true to most of the countries including US.

Nations have always worked on their strengths so as to compensate their weaknesses. In this regard lessons from Israel could be appropriate. Historically Jews were persecuted because of their religious association throughout the world except in India. Once the state of Israel was formed which was exclusively meant for Jews, they have resolved that they will not allow any entity to endanger their existence; this is clearly reflected in their strategic posture and responses to any threats, visible or otherwise. Hence history and the nature of society are indispensable in assessing a country’s Strategic Culture.

With that as a background the division of strategic culture on three levels is indeed convincing. The Society, military and military service. I have already referred Clausewitz depiction of three important elements or stakeholders of war as “The Holy Trinity”, if the enterprise of war has to succeed, there should be no friction between people, government and military. And it is an assumption that only when all three are in sync, the objectives of war will be met.

Americans have stumbled themselves between two extremes. If the enemy is a tangible entity and conventionally inferior then she wastes no time to mobilize all her resources to defeat the enemy. It worked in favor of America in all its wars with conventional enemies. Be it in World wars or Gulf wars. The question arose about the fighting capability of US and its dilemmas when dealing with a determined guerilla force i.e., irregular warfare, be it in Vietnam or the current war on terror, US was never in a position to claim a decisive victory.

US approach so far has been that if there is a force that threatens the liberal principles of the world, it is a moral duty to defeat such forces by the virtue of being a super power, it is a different matter that such an image has already been dented when it started allying with some middle east’s totalitarian Islamic Theocratic regimes for its narrow national interests. To negotiate with such forces was once considered as a taboo. With hastening up of decolonization process and the emergence of new nation states, a noticeable change has seeped in to its thinking.

If not negotiating with the evil forces was its approach, then why it is trying to negotiate with Taliban? Going by the recent press statement of White house, US is not even ready to call Taliban a terrorist group but an insurgent group; this is a remarkable change in its outlook when it realized that it has no skills to handle a protracted Guerrilla war. The initial projection which US gave to the world was being a super power also means being superior in moral aspects too in addition to military and economic prowess. That is why there was a little objection to its interventions in battles around the world, as all such actions had legal sanctity under the auspices of Humanitarian Intervention of UN Charter with some exceptions.

The anxiety to bring the war to a swift end was very much evident as we see the examples of Dresden bombing campaign, Nuclear bomb attack on Japan, Highway of death incident in Gulf war, Kosovo bombing campaign. All show the grains of US strategic culture. I.e., never negotiate with the enemy and end the war with a comprehensive victory on its side. Like I said this worked in favor of US only when the enemy was conventional and the kind warfare was primitive (first & second generation) and a near modern one (ie., Third generation).It hardly worked with an unconventional enemy and warfare which is fourth generation, where the nature of war is such that the forces have to fight an invisible enemy, while we are exposed to the enemy directly. It is precisely because of the nature of such a warfare it is struggling to win its war on terror.

I shall go along with Samuel P Huntington and say that for America a war is not a war unless it is a crusade against evil, this comes with a strong historical experience of fighting despotic regimes, be it Nazi Germany or Totalitarian North Korea. In American Psyche there was a never a limited war in Clausewitz terms, it had to be a total war. It is only with such an attitude of total war, she embarked herself on the journey to defeat the Jihadist forces in Global war on Terror without realizing and ascertaining the nature of warfare and methods enemy is going to employ. So far on global war on terror America cannot claim a comprehensive victory. After all Osama Bin Laden was only a mask of the enemy, the invisible and real enemy is Radical Islam, the ideology Bin laden represented. American planners never appreciated this truth.

As Colin Gray says, Americans always wanted a swift victory for which they are ready to sacrifice few men and resources. This is in stark contrast to British strategy of a slow naval encirclement and then compelling the enemy to surrender by taking out his advantages one at a time. May be that is why Europeans were so successful in colonizing most parts of the world?

Americas approach to war is industrial in its scale, it is precisely because of that it could mobilize its resources and build a Nuclear weapon to attack Japan with in a short span of time. Surprisingly Akio Morita, the founder of Sony Corporation in his book – Made in Japan notes, Japanese never imagined that Americans could build a nuclear weapon in such a short notice.

This is what the Leftwing Economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman had to say about America in his New York Times Op-ed

If you had to explain America’s economic success with one word that word would be “education” – PAUL KRUGMAN, “The Uneducated American, New York Times, Oct. 8, 2009

Its emphasis of application of technology in war comes from the fact that America has indeed provided the quality education to the majority of population and rewarded innovation of individuals, that is why most of the modern day inventors & discovers are from US. And that is why they have succeeded as a nation. The growth of hard power is impossible without the application of knowledge and innovation in military technology. It is not a surprise to know that American military officers are technology optimists. If a machine or a technology could get them a job done for which 10 soldiers have to dedicate themselves they would rather go for technology. From Unmanned drones to Nuclear Aircraft careers to advanced fighter jets, you name anything in military technology of contemporary times, be rest assured. America has it already.

It is only after Americans received their shocker in Vietnam, they have realized that technology alone is not a recipe for success. The military might of America could not help it meet its political objectives in Vietnam. All that top notch technology and precision guided munitions were rendered irrelevant.

In his book “Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare “, Hy S. Rothstein ends his extended argument with a prescient line from a failed American war – in Vietnam. “ At the end of combat a North Vietnamese colonel was told by an American that his armies had never defeated American combat forces on the battle field. His (Vietnamese Colonel) answer: “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.” “

It is precisely because of this approach to war; America could never win an irregular warfare. Hence no Powell type doctrines could help, which lays importance to assign technology a greater priority than a soldier. It is often said that the greatest weapon is a mind of the soldier (source: unknown), hence all the advanced weaponry could only complement the soldier not replace him. So this aversion to casualties has risen because of excessive reliance on technology. It is another matter that application of technology has a lot of benefits if properly used.

The birth of Nuclear weapon is a proof of American technological supremacy, though security & stability was assured at early stages, in modern context with 8 nuclear states and more countries having the potential to develop nuclear weapons this premise is certainly questionable. I.e., bringing the stability with Nuclear Weapons.

With a better nuclear technology and advanced long range ballistic missiles, geographically dispersed aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and the intention to decisively eliminate the enemy, American strategic culture can be rightly termed as the one that of continuity than that of change. Otherwise US could have secured stability and order within two years of launching Operation Enduring Freedom.

Note: On the explanation of first, second and third generation warfare, see the lecture of Ajit Doval – The Current NSA of India, given in Feb 2014 in Sastra University, where he discusses about different generations of warfare.

Disclaimer/Note: This review is primarily my reflection of reading the report – United States Strategic Culture by Thomas G. Mahnken for Defense Threat reduction agency on Nov 2006. All opinions are mine and sources are quoted appropriately where ever I am referring to other authors and thinkers.

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