The Debate

Has the US Military Really Lost ‘The Art of Killing’?

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The Debate

Has the US Military Really Lost ‘The Art of Killing’?

Why the U.S. military’s obsession with decisive battle is not a good thing.

Has the US Military Really Lost ‘The Art of Killing’?
Credit: U.S. Air Force

The U.S. Naval Institute published an article in the December 2017 issue of Proceedings Magazine titled “Can’t Kill Enough to Win? Think Again.” The authors, two retired U.S. military officers, argue that existing military rules of engagement prevent U.S. forces from acting with the “necessary savagery and purposefulness” to kill their way to victory.

The U.S. military, they charge, has lost “the art of killing” and consequently, unlike during the U.S. Civil War and World War II, has been unable to break the will of “Islamic terrorists worldwide,” which has doomed U.S. military efforts over the last decade to failure.

I don’t intend to refute the entire argument of the article here or point out its reductionist view of military history — e.g., the Germans (like the French during the Napoleonic Wars) were much more effective killers in the First and Second World Wars but still lost. There is a lot of analysis of the many shortcomings of the article out there already.

One critique, written by Adam N. Weinstein over at Task & Purpose, however, offers a good departure point for addressing a larger issue in current military thought: “What could have been an interesting critique of U.S. military tactics at the operational level by Bolgiano and Taylor instead became a disjointed bravado-filled tirade that reeks of a longing for a time when war was simpler.“

The idea of going back to a time when war was bloodier but simpler (in other words, going back to World War II, conventional style warfare) indicates a much larger theme implicit in Bolgiano and Taylor’s reasoning: The allure of decisive and destructive battle. This has underpinned the arguments of all of those advocating for a “gloves are off” approach to warfighting that culminates in a big slaughter of the enemy to break “his will to continue the struggle,” as Clausewitz wrote.

Ever since the Ancients Greeks, the American and Western ideal of war has been the bloody head-on collision of two armies that produces mass casualties and determines the outcome of a military campaign or even the entire war. As the Greek historian Herodotus wrote: “When they [the Greeks] declare war on one another, they find the fairest and most level piece of ground, go down onto it, and fight, so that the winners come off with great losses; I say nothing at all about the losers, for they are utterly destroyed.”

A couple of hundred years later, the Greco-Roman historian Polybios reiterated this ideal (for it was an ideal, rather than the reality, as the Peloponnesian War proved): “The ancients chose not to conquer their enemies by the deception, regarding no success as brilliant or secure unless they crushed their adversaries’ spirit in open battle.”

This obsession with killing the enemy in large numbers in a big battle has been a constant in Western military thinking, according to some military thinkers. One of the most prominent has been Victor David Hanson, who even detected a distinct “Western Way of War” beginning with the Ancient Greeks that survives until today from this strain of thought. While he points out many factors, one of the most important components of this purportedly distinct way of war is military drill in mass-formations and a willingness to face the enemy head on.

This is not as farfetched as it may sound. As I have pointed out previously, it was much more due to military drill than fire power that European countries managed to conquer large chunks of the world in the 18th and 19th century: “During the 17th, 18th, and for the first six decades of the 19th century it was the determined charge of well-disciplined European-trained soldiers with bayonets fixed on their muskets in massed formation, often preceded by volley fire at close range, that was perhaps the single most important tactical factor in deciding the outcome of battles in Asia.”

Yet, the idea of a “Western Way of War” (several scholars, by the way, doubt the existence of a distinct Western way of waging war) centered around fighting decisive battles that inflict mass casualties and break the enemy’s will to resist is rather one-sided and does not take into account the actual complexity of military conflict. For one thing, “shock and awe” tactics alone rarely break an enemy’s will to resist. More importantly, it fails to offer a clear path to military victory in a conflict after the mass killing. The U.S. military has won the majority of battles it has fought since the end of the Korean War, consistently inflicting higher casualties on the enemy than it sustained. Nonetheless, the result was more often than not a military stalemate rather than a clear-cut victory.

This is not surprising. As the historian Cathal J. Nolan writes: “There [is] no single approach to combat in the jagged history of the West, let alone in the wider world. War is not reducible to one thing, be it a presumed tradition or fighting style or even the idea of a decisive battle. Enemies adjust. War evolves.” Nonetheless, the notion of killing one’s way to victory will remain a constant as long as the idea of the “Western Way of War,” dominated by the quest for swift, lethal, and decisive battle, continues to influence Western military thought, as the recent Proceedings Magazine article illustrates.

One of the major problems with this thinking is that it actually lowers the threshold for military conflict. The idea that the application of swift, lethal, and overpowering military force can prevent wars of attrition, reduce casualties, and achieve victory is as old as military history itself. (Among other factors, it is precisely this idea that got the United States into Afghanistan and Iraq in the first place.)  It just seldom plays out that way. While wars have been won by such methods in the past (e.g., the First Gulf War), they are the exception and not the rule (without even factoring in counterinsurgency warfare). And that alone should give us pause before advocating mass killings. Just ask Napoleon or the Kaiser.