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The American Culture of War

The History of U.S. Military Force from World War II to Operation Enduring Freedom


Adrian Lewis


New York: Routledge, 2012 (Second Edition)

Paperback. xx + 566 p. ISBN 9780415890199. $47.00


Reviewed by Robert E Kelly

Pusan National University (Korea)



This book is a tremendous missed opportunity. The author clearly knows modern US military history in great detail, and the book’s range and erudition are vast. It aspires perhaps to be the Basil Liddell Hart’s History of the Second World War for the conflicts of America’s superpower career. Unfortunately the book’s flaws are serious—a relentless partisanship on behalf of the army that eventually destroys the reader’s sense that this is a fair treatment of US military history; independent variables so loosely drawn that they are causally indeterminate; far too little data throughout to support the many sweeping assertions made about war and US attitudes toward it; and constant, glib political editorializing that gives the book a distinctly militaristic, Starship Troopers-feel that is both wholly out of place in scholarship and genuinely disturbing on occasion.

The book appears to be intended for undergraduates (it includes a website), but I am not really sure. It is very long (over 500 double-columned pages), packed with copious, frequently unnecessary, amounts of army bureaucratic detail, deploys a great deal of jargon with minimal set-up (a ‘pentomic’ division; an ‘artificial, limited war;’ a torrent of acronyms), and shot through with such a patriotic,rah-rah tone (using the first person plural in speaking of the US; references to the ‘enemy’ rather than the Vietnamese, Iraqis, etc.; regular politicized descriptors like ‘heroic,’ ‘disgraceful,’ ‘proud’) that I would hesitate to assign this, except as an illustration itself of the conservative politicization of the US military in recent decades.

Among academics the book will appeal mostly to diplomatic historians and international relations (IR) scholars. Unfortunately both the doctrinal debates (MAD, graduated response, AirLand Battle, things like that) and the presentations of US campaigns are basic enough that we already know most of this. The great revelation however, the book’s big value-added, is its deep exposé of the disturbingly severe inter-service rivalry in the US military. Diplomatic history/IR academics not in the particular area of civil-military relations will find much of this new, and for American readers, who likely never knew the rivalries were this ugly, the author has performed an important public service.

The book’s basic argument is that a state is seeded in a culture, which in turn constrains the way the state uses force. In this way the title is misleading. The book does not trace a culture of militarism in the US. Instead, the research design sets the book up as an American case study of cultural constraints on a government’s use of force. If the state’s use of force is contextualized in the culture around it, that culture will generate certain expectations about how force will be used, who will serve, what war ‘should’ like it, how victory will (or not) be achieved, and so on.

In itself, this is theoretically intriguing. It follows a trend in the social sciences generally toward cultural explanation, and in IR specifically toward constructivism. This constructivist claim is creative; I cannot think of much work in IR that attempts to bound the use of force at the international level through domestic level cultural variables (usually those variables are political or economic).

Unfortunately, the basic argument is poorly developed, and this undercuts the rest of the book for the social science reader. Given the huge scope of possible literatures on culture and war, and length of the book, the core theory section [10-17] is far too short. The argument that cultural traits impact war is established mostly by quoting several anthropologists (Geertz, Bourdieu) to establish culture, and then some military historians (Gray, Hanson, Pollack) to suggest that culture impacted a few states’ use of force. This is woefully inadequate.

No general theory of culture impacting the use of force is presented. No explanation of which cultural traits matter more than others is given, where these traits come from, and how they might change over time. (As operationalized in the casework, culture is effectively reified; no matter how many culturally ‘irregular’ wars the US fights, Americans’ cultural attitudes toward war do not evolve over the seventy years covered. Such stasis is very unconvincing.) The lack of comparison cases to build general theory—how did French culture constrain Napoleon? how did German culture constrain the Kaiser?—cripples the theory presentation. No wider generalities are available to illuminate and structure the coming American case. Indeed, the theory chapter concludes with a bizarre, almost disturbing, discussion of the ‘genetic soldier’ who carries the ‘risk-taking gene.’ No meaningful discussion of biology or genetics undergirds this; the concept is never used again in the book; and its unnerving ring of eugenics is undiscussed.

The lack of a robust theory of culture’s impact on national war-making is apparent in chapter 2 when the author lists his independent variables, his determinant American cultural traits of how the US will use force. With no wider theory to guide him, he apparently cherry-picks ten variables [37-38] with no obvious methodological reason to select these over others. While they have basically face validity—American readers will notice immediately that they in fact repeat US debates about force since 9/11—they are not substantiated with public opinion data to firm up their validity, nor do they flow from an established body of theory. Nor are they ‘cultural’ in the natural language/undergraduate sense of that word; they do not meaningfully relate to American art, letters, music, dress, hobbies, food, folk stories, religious beliefs, language tropes, etc. They do however, unsurprisingly, fit the moral-narrative thrust of the coming casework—that the US army is badly undermanned, overcommitted, and underappreciated.

Further, the variables are drawn so broadly that they can explain almost anything a researcher wants to find. For example, US warfare-constraining cultural tenet #5 is that Americans believe ‘only losers serve in the Army;’ #6: ‘Americans covet wealth and symbols of wealth;’ or #9: ‘Americans have tended to be isolationist and unilateral.’ All of these are highly contentious statements, not supported with the mountain of statistics and data scholars would demand before accepting them, and badly under-specified as determinant causal mechanisms. Methodologically, this is a classic illustration of curve-fitting and the dangers of working from one case.

The author then moves into an extraordinary (if annoyingly partisan) history of US doctrine, inter-service rivalry, and warfare in the case chapters which constitute the rest of the book. The usual pattern is to introduce a conflict—WWII, Korea, Vietnam, etc.—and then delineate the doctrinal discussion it unleashed; the inter-service struggles it sparked over force totals, weapons systems, and budget access; and the course of the conflict in varying levels of detail.

Undergraduates will find much of this new of course. By contrast, scholars in this area will find the discussions of doctrine and the conflicts well-known territory. However the history of inter-service rivalry is as revelatory as it is discomforting. The turf-wars—filled with leaks to the media, end-runs around the Secretary of Defense, and bureaucratic resistance against the White House—are deeply unnerving; the author says repeatedly that the services fail basic jointness and non-redundancy expectations. This is an important contribution and the best part of the book.

Given how complex tracking ten interlocking variables would have been, the actual casework thematically collapses toward this more manageable, but no less controversial, causal chain:

1) Americans ‘culturally’ prefer total wars where they win completely through the application of total national power. →

2) Nuclear weapons made total war too dangerous, resulting in ‘artificial limited wars’ (a neologism, at least in IR) like Korea and Vietnam: protracted strategic defense, instead of quick, thorough strategic victory. But Americans disliked these unwinnable wars as ‘culturally irregular.’ →

3) The cultural ‘irregularity’ of the Vietnam and Korean wars created mass social discontent with service in the citizen-soldier military, thus requiring an all-volunteer force (AVF). The AVF can be conveniently used in conflicts no matter how ‘irregular,’ because there is little popular push-back. The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are illustrations. →

4) The average US citizen is now disconnected from wars fought on his behalf and from the military generally. This has made him soft and sallow, and sapped his sense of citizenship. She is incognizant of the sacrifices of the military, especially the army. This path is ‘unsustainable.’

Unfortunately, this does not track well from the book’s research design; no public opinion data are presented to document that American cultural attributes drove these shifts; and all sorts of obvious objections remain unanswered. Why do Americans ‘culturally’ prefer total wars? (Is that a legacy of exterminating the Native Americans? Of Sherman’s march through the South? WWII’s ‘unconditional surrender’?) Given the obvious destructiveness of nuclear weapons and the passage of seventy years since WWII, have Americans still not learned that total war is impossible? I daresay no social scientist would accept ‘culture’ to be that immutable. Without invoking big cultural tropes, can we not just say that Americans fatigue with wars that are not obviously in the national interest (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq)? That seems far more intuitive and parsimonious than an elaborate ten-variable structure to posit anything less than total victory as ‘culturally irregular.’ And what about the desire of both political and military elites after Vietnam to convert to an AVF, precisely in order to escape extensive public intervention in the military’s affairs? It is rather hypocritical to complain of public indifference—which is not true in any case; the public's attitude today is more like reverence—when the military assiduously sought this independent state, right down parallel institutions on US bases, like housing, shopping, or medicine, which insulate the military from the surrounding community.

Finally—and this must be said, unfortunately—this interesting, if mixed, presentation is inundated by a flood of institutional partisanship on behalf of the army and unscholarly editorial commentary. The presentations are frequently uneven—the very brief Persian Gulf War gets outsized attention, one suspects, because it went so well for the army—and heavily biased by a retrodictive, ‘see, the army was right after all’ reading that unfairly blames decision-makers at the time for information that they could not possibly have known. Truman and Johnson particularly are unfairly savaged in this way, while Bush II is somehow lauded for his ‘tenacity and perseverance’ in Iraq. After several chapters, I simply gave up on the author’s objectivity and read this instead as outburst of post-Iraq army anxiety.

Point-scoring at the expense variously of Congress, the press, the other services, war protestors, and the civilian leadership of the Pentagon is relentless, frequently unscholarly and petty, and entirely predictable. Off-hand sentences and paragraphs throughout the book drop derisive, dismissive judgments, frequently with no argumentation or citation. Congress comes off like bureaucratic hacks interested mostly in reelection and military contracts in their districts. ‘Distrusted’ by the army, it requires ‘guidance’ by ‘military leaders.’ The counterculture helped lose the war in Vietnam and predictably does not appreciate the sacrifices warfighters make on their behalf; no mention is made that their moral concerns about the US use of force in Southeast Asia might have had grounds. The other services waste money replacing one over-priced fighter with another submarine that will never be used.

The press helped lose the Vietnam War, even though by the author’s own standard it was not winnable anyway (because the US was unwilling to fight China). Thankfully, the ‘liberal media’ was much better ‘handled’ in the Gulf War. The basic democratic value that the press should be independently reporting the truth about the wars (and everything else in American life) is never affirmed in the book. The author openly flirts with ‘censorship.’ This is shocking to read from an American and is the greatest normative reason I would not assign this book. It treats the media like a tool to popularize wars to the electorate rather than a vital public service that might uncover unpleasant truths, most obviously recently, the use of torture in the war on terrorism (which the author predictably side-steps).

SecDefs and their staffs are frequently condemned as arrogant, dilettantish civilians with little idea how war is fought, prone to fads and politicization. These critiques, which will be immediately familiar to readers versed in the disagreements over Vietnam and the war on terror, unsurprisingly flow from the book’s persistent army parochialism, and are the same well-worn indictments we have heard before, especially on Vietnam. McNamara & co. are predictably condemned, as are Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. While these judgments are not very controversial in themselves, they are frequently made in a trite, off-the-cuff manner that is both unscholarlly and disturbingly  derisive of the elected civilian authorities. And the critiques themselves are nearly cliché at this point: basically Pentagon elites are chicken hawk pols who got in the way of military leaders who knew what they were doing. Indeed it is depressing—and revelatory in its own way—to see the same old Vietnam-era score-settling all over again despite forty years passed.

Further, the political tone of these condemnations—especially the raw spite in repeatedly name-calling McNamara an ‘intellectual elite…whiz kid’ who doesn’t understand the tactical grit of war in mud—is frequently democratically alarming regarding civilian control of the military. Again and again, the book flirts with Heinlein’s notorious distinction between civilians and citizens, insisting that those who have not been in the military cannot understand it or war, and have therefore poor credentials to lead the country or at least the Pentagon. (How tactical experience translates up into good grand strategizing is never explained.) Conversely, the author consistenly romanticizes and lionizes the uniformed American warfighter on the ground, the ‘brave soul,’ over the rest of the body politic which he reads as soft, obese consumerists. The implication, never openly stated of course, questions civilian control, which at one point the author terms a ‘luxury.’

In contrast to the political leadership, the treatment of Army leaders is generous all around. MacArthur and McChrystal’s challenges to civilian authority are soft-pedaled; Westmoreland is misunderstood; Abrams was winning Vietnam until the politicians pulled the plug; Casey’s inability to get handle on Iraq, resulting in his replacement by Petraeus, is unmentioned; and Petraeus gets pages of glowing praise for the pacification of Iraq while the Anbar Awakening gets a paragraph. Any of these judgments is defensible individually, but together they smack of institutional defense not scholarly judgment. (Thomas Ricks’ new article on recent US army leadership and its problems is far more nuanced and less defensive.) More generally, that US warfighters have occasionally been involved in disturbing battlefield behaviors, including civilian killings, trophy-taking, torture, sexual assault, and other unprofessionalisms, goes unadmitted. No Gun Ri, My Lai, and Wikileaks are not mentioned, and Abu Ghraib’s one paragraph introduces it as a public relations problem (!) for the Iraq war.

In the end, this wave of macho right-wing talking points—‘war placed real value and meaning on concepts such as duty, honor, freedom, and equality;’ Reagan ‘clarified the confusion that held America in near paralysis;’ ‘war is still the ultimate determinant of human activity on Earth’—swamps the otherwise well-done historical presentation and the interesting, if disputable, theoretical claim. Indeed, the book inadvertently demonstrates just how Republican the US officer corps has become, how disturbingly wide the civil-military gap is now, and why war is still too important to be left to the generals.


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