The New American Way of War

Total War 2006: The Future History of Global Conflict

by Simon Pearson
Hodder and Stoughton, 428 pp., £6.99 (paper)
Admirial William Owens
Admirial William Owens; drawing by David Levine


More than a decade after the cold war, America still spends more on defense than all of its NATO allies combined and five to six times more than its rivals. In the coming year, the American defense budget will be close to $300 billion, compared to between $40 and $64 billion for the Russians and $37 billion for China.1 No nation in history has ever outspent its rivals to this degree or done so at such low relative cost. For the truly astonishing feature of American defense expenditure is that it amounts to no more than 3 percent of gross domestic product. This is what Paul Bracken means when he talks about “superpower lite.”

The question about “superpower lite” is whether this expenditure actually buys military readiness or just waste and a false sense of security. A related question is whether the emerging American way of war—which emphasizes the avoidance of risk and casualties—is gradually making American power more and more vulnerable.

America owed its military renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s to Vietnam. Veterans like Norman Schwartzkopf, Colin Powell, Alfred Grey, Charles Krulak, and Wesley Clark returned home angry and ashamed at their defeat and rebuilt all-volunteer, professional armed forces from the ground up. Besides going back to basic military skills and trying to re-create the warrior ethos of their profession, the Vietnam generation embraced what became known as RMA, the revolution in military affairs: the use of computers and knowledge management systems to improve battlefield command and control; the development of precision-guided conventional weapons; and the deployment of stealth systems, new types of armor, and unmanned platforms, which reduced risk for American combatants.

The key element of the revolution in military affairs was not technological but political. By reducing risks to American personnel and reducing diplomatically costly forms of collateral damage to its enemies, RMA has made it much easier for an American president to use military force. This helps to explain why George Bush and Bill Clinton resorted to military force more frequently than any other commander in chief since Roosevelt and did so with relative impunity.

In Desert Storm in 1991, American technology gave a ruthless and stunning demonstration of how far RMA had transformed the American way of war. For the first time, cruise missiles made their appearance as an offen-sive weapon, and for the first time in twentieth-century combat, air power led and ground forces followed. Forty-two days of relentless aerial destruction made it possible for ground forces to win victory in less than one hundred hours. Indeed, so swift was the victory that some commanders, like General Barry McCaffrey, have been accused of firing on retreating or surrendering troops.2

Desert Storm was seen by the military establishment and by some politicians as avenging Vietnam, but it left behind dangerous illusions. The victory was so decisive, and information about it so…

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