James Holmes

Unorthodox and Chaotic: How America Should Fight Wars

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James Holmes

Unorthodox and Chaotic: How America Should Fight Wars

“A serious problem in planning against American doctrine is that the Americans do not read their manuals.”

War on the Rocks has been running an amusing contest asking readers to summarize the American way of war in 25 words or fewer. Scope it out. Some of the entries are lighthearted, others serious to a fault. You know which way the Naval Diplomat leans.

Here's my navy-specific input, drawing liberally on an old joke that's been littering my files for the past two decades:

"The reason the U.S. Navy does so well in wartime is that war is chaos, and the U.S. Navy practices chaos on a daily basis."

The quotation comes from an unnamed (and quite possibly apocryphal) German officer from World War II. A companion observation, from a (probably just as apocryphal) Soviet author of Cold War vintage:

"A serious problem in planning against American doctrine is that the Americans do not read their manuals, nor do they feel any obligation to follow their doctrine."

So basically the U.S. military is a bunch of freebooters, hard to fight because you never know what they might do. Woohoo!

It's tough if not dangerous, though, to reduce an entire culture to a sound bite. If allowed more than 25 words, the portrait of the American way of war gets a lot more complex. Such a portrait ought to contain three faces: George Washington, Robert Rogers, and Nathanael Greene. Washington, of course, is the face of conventional battlefield combat. He longed to draw up forces against the Redcoats and give them a "fatal stab" that would bring victory for the Continental Army and the revolutionary cause — and lasting renown for the army's commander. It's fair to describe conventional battle as the U.S. military's cultural preference. And why not? If it was good enough for the Father of the Country, it's good enough for posterity.

Frontiersman Rogers represents an opposite, highly unconventional strand in U.S. military culture. He raised and led a company of "Roberts' Rangers" during the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), whose North American theater was known as the French and Indian War. The Rangers shocked upper-crust British opinion by recruiting on merit alone. Indians and freedmen fought alongside whites. Rogers prescribed a set of 28 rules to govern small-unit tactics. Set-piece battles of the sort Washington fancied were not among his methods. When Robert Kaplan urges American ground-pounders to venture into "Indian country" in search of non-state armed groups he has something like Roberts' Rules of Ranging in mind.

And then there's Greene, "Washington's general"  and a favorite son of Rhode Island. (A moment of silence shall be observed.) It's fashionable to speak of "hybrid warfare" as though it's something new and innovative, but in fact using conventional forces in concert with irregulars is a method as old as war itself. Greene raised hybrid combat to a high art during the Southern campaign of 1780-1781, working with the likes of "Swamp Fox" Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter to divide, harry, and outrun Lord Cornwallis' crack army. Greene cheerfully conceded that no general ran away more often than he — but that he ran like a crab that could scuttle in any direction, toward the enemy as well as fleeing from him. And it worked.

Interestingly, the American way of war at sea is different from that on land. Decisive sea combat eclipsed the counterpart to Greene and Rogers — raiding enemy merchant and naval fleets — toward the end of the 19th century. Partly because of the advocacy of pamphleteers like Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt, partly because the republic took on sizable overseas entanglements after 1898, relying on strategies of the weak appeared impractical. Getting to theaters like the Philippines or Western Europe meant using the sea lanes, which in turn meant building a fleet capable of dueling enemy fleets for access. Conventional fleet actions are at the heart of the American way of maritime war.

It would be healthy for the U.S. Navy to rediscover its guerre de course past, and to take inspiration from the likes of Greene and Rogers. If you plan to fight within someone else's zone of military supremacy, and if you plan to win, it's best to think in unorthodox terms. That could well be the case in the Western Pacific and China seas in the coming decades. Small-unit naval tactics, anyone?