How We Fight

Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War


By Dominic Tierney

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Americans love war. We’ve never run from a fight. Our triumphs from the American Revolution to World War II define who we are as a nation and a people.

Americans hate war. Our leaders rush us into conflicts without knowing the facts or understanding the consequences. Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq and Afghanistan define who we are as a nation and a people.

How We Fight explores the extraordinary doublemindedness with which Americans approach war, and reveals the opposing mindsets that have governed our responses throughout history: the “crusade” tradition-our grand quests to defend democratic values and overthrow tyrants; and the “quagmire” tradition-our resistance to the work of nation-building and its inevitable cost in dollars and American lives.

How can one nation be so split? Studying conflicts from the Civil War to the present, Dominic Tierney has created a secret history of American foreign policy and a frank and insightful look at how Americans respond to the ultimate challenge. And he shows how success is possible. His innovative model for tackling the challenges of modern war can mean longstanding victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, by rediscovering a lost American warrior tradition.


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Unshakable resolve. The theme was a touchstone on the evening of September 11, 2001, as members of Congress gathered on the steps of the Capitol Building. The Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, announced that "Democrats and Republicans will stand shoulder to shoulder to fight this evil that's been perpetrated on this nation." The Democratic Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle, said that Congress "will speak with one voice to condemn these attacks, to comfort the victims and their families, to commit our full support to the effort to bring those responsible to justice."1 A day that began in fear that the Capitol itself would be destroyed ended in a tableau of togetherness, as congressmen warmly embraced.

And then it started. A soft and calming sound at first: "Stand beside her and guide her." The television cameras pulled back, and the surprised anchors grew quiet. On the steps, the voices of men and women, blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans, rose together in unison: "Through the night with a light from above." With fires still burning at the Pentagon just a few miles away, the song became huge: with pride, with tenacity, with sadness. "From the mountains, to the prairies, / To the oceans white with foam. / God bless America, / My home sweet home." It was a chorus that swept a nation, a truly United States of America, into a war to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

How things change. By 2010, many Americans saw the military campaign in Afghanistan as a futile endeavor. The layers of support for the war effort peeled away, one by one. Matthew Hoh, a State Department employee in Afghanistan, became the first senior official to resign in protest against the war. On September 10, 2009, he wrote that the families of Americans killed in action "must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can anymore be made."2 Conservative commentator George Will argued that the United States must end its hopeless nation-building mission in Afghanistan "before more American valor… is squandered."3

In December 2009, President Barack Obama announced a new strategy in Afghanistan in a speech at West Point: "It's easy to forget that when this war began, we were united—bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack, and by the determination to defend our homeland and the values we hold dear. I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again."4 Obama was right. Americans will summon that unity again—just not in regard to Afghanistan.

How had it come to this? Why did we shift from singing "God Bless America" to seeing America's blessed valor being squandered in a futile quagmire? Perhaps the mission in Afghanistan was simply a disastrous failure. But what if our experience of hope and disillusionment in the Afghan War reflected something deeper in the American mind and in American history? What if we are characteristically predisposed to revel in the overthrow of an evil regime and equally likely to see nation-building in Afghanistan as a grim and forbidding labor?

A Mirror on America

Sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, and looking toward the Capitol, where members of Congress gathered that night to sing, we can see America's vision of how war is meant to be.

Behind us is a marble Abraham Lincoln, enthroned in his temple and flanked by the national hymns of the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address. Straight ahead lie the Reflecting Pool and the World War II Memorial. The shimmering water bridges America's two "good wars": the first to save the Union and free the slaves from 1861 to 1865, and the second to defeat fascism from 1941 to 1945. The fifty-six pillars and the giant arches of the World War II Memorial signify America's common purpose when the home front and the battle front united to crush evil. Anchoring the military vista, at the far end of the Mall, is a statue of Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant. On a platform of Vermont marble, Grant sits atop his horse, calm amid the fury of battle.

A triumphant tale unfolds before us, with World War II bookended by the Civil War titans, Lincoln and Grant. It's a panorama of glory and victory, a narrative of liberation through force of arms: freedom born; global freedom redeemed. This is what war ought to look like: decisive victory, regime change, and the transformation of the world—a magnificent crusade.

But if we broaden the view from the Lincoln Memorial, our peripheral vision reveals a less comfortable military narrative. Hidden away behind trees on the right-hand side is a memorial to the Korean War (1950–1953). This was no splendid crusade. There was no decisive victory. There was no regime change or transformation of the world. Instead, the United States fought its opponents to a draw. For Americans, it was a bleak ordeal and a profoundly confusing experience.

The raw immediacy of the Korean War Veterans Memorial is utterly different from the abstract triumphalism of the World War II Memorial. The depiction of the Korean War focuses on the human experience of battle. A group of nineteen men, cast in stainless steel, slog their way uphill, sorrowful and exhausted, burdened with baggage and shivering under ponchos from the elements. The bushes and granite strips signify the rough terrain and horrendous conditions. We asked these men to fight in this environment, and they did.

Meanwhile, concealed under trees to the left is a testament to America's tragedy in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973. This is what war ought not to look like. The United States spent years engaged in a futile nation-building effort in South Vietnam, trying to stabilize a weak government while battling a shadowy insurgency. With each step forward, Washington seemed to get further bogged down in the quagmire.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a sunken black wall, inscribed with the names of the fallen. A knife cut into America's body exposes a dark wound. To read the names of the dead, you have to physically descend into the gloom. Facing the wall stand a group of U.S. soldiers, looking for something—perhaps their buddies, perhaps the meaning of this morass. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial does not commemorate the purpose of the war, but instead honors the sacrifice of the troops. There was no united home front to celebrate. In 1969, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered on the Mall to protest against Vietnam in the largest antiwar rally in American history.

Hymns of Battle

For soldiers and civilians alike, war is often a traumatic experience. It is bound up with our very identity. As a result, war is a subject of overwhelming interest, which has prompted the spilling of almost as much ink as blood. How do we unlock the puzzle of American thinking about this most emotive and critical of subjects?

The key is to distinguish between two types of military conflict: interstate war (where we fight against other countries) versus nation-building (where we fight against insurgents). Inspired by idealism and vengeance, we view interstate wars like World War II as a glorious cause to overthrow tyrants. I call this the crusade tradition. These same cultural forces, however, mean that we see nation-building in places like Vietnam and Afghanistan as a wearying trial, in which American valor is squandered. Whether the stabilization operation is a success or a failure in reality, we usually perceive it as a grim labor. I call this the quagmire tradition.

In other words, Americans are addicted to regime change and allergic to nation-building. During the second presidential debate in 2000, George W. Bush said, "I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war. I think our troops ought to be used to help overthrow the dictator when it's in our best interests."5 This sentiment is as American as apple pie.

The type of war that we are comfortable fighting is very narrow. The enemy must be a state and not an insurgency, and we need to march on the adversary's capital and topple the government. As soon as Washington deviates from this model, the glue binding together public support for the war effort starts to come unstuck. This insight explains why people back some conflicts but not others, how the United States fights, why Washington wins and loses, and how Americans remember and learn from war.

Many Americans view each conflict in history as a distinct and unique event, with no overarching sense of how these campaigns relate to our past and inform our future. But while America's wars don't repeat themselves, they do rhyme, producing a cadence in the nation's encounter with battle. Crusades like the Civil War, the world wars, and the Gulf War all follow a similar enthusiastic beat. Nation-building operations in Vietnam, Somalia, and Iraq hit the same weary notes.

If America's military experience is an epic song, each verse has a predictable rhythm. When the first shot is fired, the public rallies around the flag. Crusading enthusiasm sweeps the nation until the great dictator is overthrown. But once the United States begins nation-building in a conquered land, hope quickly turns to regret.

We saw this pattern play out in Iraq. In the spring of 2003, the public was confident and supportive as U.S. forces raced to Baghdad to eliminate Saddam Hussein's government. Then suddenly, the statue of Saddam fell, and Americans were in the midst of the greatest nation-building operation since Vietnam. As U.S. forces began fighting insurgents and overseeing elections, the entire tone of America's thinking about the war changed. By 2007, tens of thousands were protesting on the Mall against the intervention in Iraq.

This is a critical moment to reflect on the nation's experience of war. With fighting ongoing in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans are trying to understand the new era of terrorism and counterinsurgency. The decisions that presidents make in the next few years may steer the course of U.S. foreign policy for generations.

The crusade and quagmire traditions have often served America well. The crusading instinct guided the United States to total victory in the colossal struggles of 1861 and 1941. Fears of a quagmire have sometimes deterred Americans from unwise interference in other countries' civil wars.

But the world is rapidly changing. The end of the Cold War and 9/11 caused sudden seismic shifts, while globalization produces constant dynamism. The primary threats we face arise not from great powers such as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, but from the interconnected issues of terrorism, rogue states, failed states, and weapons of mass destruction.

In this environment, we must pursue military campaigns that do not fall within our blinkered view of idealized war, but rather in our peripheral vision of uncomfortable conflict. Modern technology is so destructive that we may need to avoid crusades and fight limited interstate wars with restricted objectives that fall short of regime change. After all, we can't always march on the enemy's capital. And it's certain that the United States will have to engage in nation-building and counterinsurgency to stabilize failed and failing states. This is the face of modern war.

But limited interstate war and nation-building seem un-American and are politically very difficult. We prefer smashing dictators, not dealing with the messy consequences. In Iraq, we are paying a terrible price for these attitudes. The failure to plan for post-conflict reconstruction proved catastrophic as the country descended into a vortex of looting and violence.

Can we adapt to a changing world? For inspiration, Americans can look back through history. Our tendency to envision wars as either crusades or quagmires emerged at the time of the Civil War. Lost in popular memory is a very different military ethos that existed in the first years of the Republic.

The earliest Americans did not demand expansive crusades to crush enemy tyrants. Instead, they favored restricted campaigns against other countries. And the Founders also supported the military's involvement in nation-building, to develop the United States and open up the West to settlement. American soldiers dug canals and erected bridges. They built roads, dredged harbors, and explored and surveyed the land. They aided travelers heading west and offered relief to the destitute. The Founders created a multipurpose army designed for a wide range of challenges, and so should we.

This argument does not fit neatly into traditional categories. It's not liberal or conservative. It's not Democratic or Republican. It's not hawkish, dovish, neoconservative, or isolationist. Rather, at a time when we face new threats and are divided by extreme partisanship, we need to uncover the hidden assumptions that guide our thinking and generate a fresh perspective on the vital questions of war and peace.

Ways of War

When we refer to "Americans," we are describing a general tendency, not an absolute rule. The United States is an incredibly diverse society, which has changed in fundamental ways over time. In every conflict, there are exceptions to the crusade and quagmire traditions. During the Civil War, the northern Copperheads rejected a crusade to free the slaves and transform southern society. There have even been enthusiastic nation-builders in American history as well, like Adelbert Ames, governor of Mississippi, who fought for black rights during southern Reconstruction, and General David Petraeus, who helped to orchestrate a new counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq.

Given this variety of beliefs, can we talk about a single tradition in interstate wars (the crusade tradition) and another during nation-building missions (the quagmire tradition)? After all, Walter Russell Mead, in his excellent book Special Providence, identified four competing traditions that constantly push and pull American foreign policy in different directions: the Jeffersonian tradition, the Hamiltonian tradition, the Jacksonian tradition, and the Wilsonian tradition.6 Similarly, in another superb work, Walter McDougall argued that there were actually eight traditions, running the gamut from exceptionalism to containment.7

There are benefits, however, in identifying a single dominant tradition in each type of military campaign. It means we can highlight what is most important. While Americans experience conflict in a multitude of ways, certain responses are more common than others. In every interstate war we have fought, there were people arguing for restraint and limited goals, but they were usually shouted down in the marketplace of ideas by a more numerous and vocal crusading block. And in every nation-building mission, there were true believers, but they grew increasingly lonely as the operation dragged on.

Identifying a prevailing tradition also makes prediction easier. It's hard to know which of McDougall's eight traditions or Mead's four traditions will emerge stronger at any one time. But the crusade and quagmire traditions offer a clear forecast about how Americans will respond to war, and the political pressures that will shape the decision-making environment for the president.8

This is an argument about America's "way of war," or our beliefs about military conflict, and how those beliefs shape policy. Russell Weigley popularized the term in his classic work The American Way of War.9 Weigley argued that since the nineteenth century, the U.S. military has adopted a strategy of annihilation in wartime, aiming to win a crushing victory and completely overthrow the enemy. My claim that Americans favor transformational crusades in interstate war is broadly consistent with Weigley's thesis.

But whereas Weigley focused on attitudes in the military, strategic doctrine, and battlefield events, I take a very different approach by examining wider public beliefs and the cultural origins of our way of war. And whereas Americans confidently look to overthrow the adversary in interstate war, they rarely have the same enthusiasm when fighting insurgents.

In the following chapters, we will travel from Gettysburg to Manila Bay, from the bloody killing fields of France to the improvised explosive devices in Iraq today. But this book is not a comprehensive chronology of America's battles. Rather, it introduces the crusade and quagmire traditions, and then uses these sets of beliefs as tools to help us discover important patterns in the nation's experience of war. We will see the United States roused into a crusading fervor before falling into deep regret, only to be roused again. We will reflect on the ways that we remember war and how these memories take hold of us, how they awaken and limit our sense of the possible. Finally, we will turn to the founding generation and consider a very different vision of conflict.

The book draws on a wide range of literatures, on strategic culture, public opinion, psychology, idealism, and revenge. The sources include opinion polls, letters, poems, novels, memorials, newspapers, posters, photographs, songs, movies, Star Trek, and the engravings on Zippo lighters.

But it's not with a poll, or a letter, or a novel that we start. It's with a speech, the words of which are etched into the Lincoln Memorial where we sit.


For Liberty and Vengeance:
The Crusade Tradition

It began with a rhyme and a reference to history: "Fourscore and seven years ago." In a grave, repetitive cadence on November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln dedicated the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. At a time when speeches routinely ran for hours, Lincoln delivered just 272 words and retook his seat before many people realized he had finished speaking.

The Gettysburg Address symbolized the transformation of the American Civil War from a limited conflict for reunion into a great moral crusade for emancipation. With the Declaration of Independence, "our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." There would be no compromise peace with the South, and no return to the Union as it was, flawed by the original sin of human bondage: "This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom."1

Lincoln's speech didn't just signal a radical shift in direction of the Civil War. It also set down a marker for an entirely new vision of war that would come to dominate the national consciousness: the crusade tradition. Once battle commences, Americans believe that the United States should use all necessary force to attain majestic objectives, including regime change, thereby transforming the enemy in America's own image.

We are crusaders in only one kind of conflict: interstate war. This is a campaign in which U.S. ground forces fight against the official uniformed military of another country. There have been ten such conflicts since 1861: the American Civil War (1861–1865), the Spanish-American War (1898), World War I (1917–1918), World War II (1941–1945), the Korean War (1950–1953), the invasion of Grenada (1983), the invasion of Panama (1989), the Gulf War (1991), the first weeks of the Afghan War (2001), and the initial phase of the Iraq War (2003).2

On the eve of an interstate war, America doesn't usually resemble a nation of zealous crusaders. Quite the reverse: as conflict looms, the public is often deeply divided over the wisdom of fighting. But when the bugle sounds, Old Glory is unfurled, and the bullets start to fly, doubts suddenly vanish, as Americans don their crusading armor and favor this unique approach to war.

The crusade tradition has two elements. First, it captures American thinking about the proper objectives of war. In other words, what are we fighting for? The aim of interstate war is not to seize a few provinces, call it quits, and sign a peace treaty. Such limited wars, fought for modest goals short of regime change, are an alien concept to Americans. Like aristocracy or cricket, it's something Europeans do.

The fitting objectives of interstate war are different and altogether grander: to compel unconditional surrender, create a new democratic government, and transform the world. The pattern is striking. The U.S. public has supported the goal of regime change in every single interstate war since the Civil War.3

We often begin wars fighting defensively for the status quo, but soon a crusader wave swells up, and we end up battling for a new world order. Intoxicated by the whiff of grapeshot, doves sometimes turn into ardent hawks, pressing for expansive war aims with all the zeal of a convert. The conventional wisdom is that Americans are casualty phobic and seek to withdraw from battle at the sight of body bags.4 But the death of U.S. troops in interstate war can strengthen the desire to fight for imposing objectives. An initial heady enthusiasm gives way to hardened political convictions and a steely determination to slug it out.

If the true objectives of interstate war are majestic, how are we to achieve these goals? The second element of the crusade tradition captures our preferences for the appropriate strategies and tactics. Put simply, Americans want to employ all necessary force to win. "If we are going to send even one more man to die," said John Wayne, "we ought to be in an all-out conflict."5

In peacetime, few countries have been as vocal as the United States in arguing for the need to protect civilians from the scourge of war. But once battle is joined, restraints on the use of force tend to fall away. More destructive weapons become acceptable. The list of legitimate targets is broadened. Noncombatants start to appear in the crosshairs. We prefer to use humane tactics as long as the enemy is not putting up much of a fight. But if resistance turns a campaign into a bloody slog, we will do whatever it takes to win.

German soldiers in World War II often executed civilians face-to-face. But U.S. troops tend to keep a healthy distance when killing noncombatants, whether they are destroying the crops of southern civilians in the Civil War but not sticking around to watch the subsequent deaths from malnutrition and disease, or obliterating German, Japanese, and North Korean cities from the heavens in World War II and the Korean War.

Despite such harsh wartime strategies, if the adversary surrenders and accepts its destiny of transformation, the United States is generous in victory, as, for example, with Germany and Japan after World War II. These are not wars of annihilation. They are wars of Americanization.

Once peace breaks out, the crusader wave crashes, attention reverts to domestic affairs, and the public's interest in transforming the world abruptly washes away. Following years of intense preoccupation with brutal conflict, people try to blank out memories of the fighting entirely. Shortly after World War I ended, novelist Robert Herrick wrote, "It is as if the war had never been."6

Democracy in King Arthur's Court

Alexis de Tocqueville did not live to hear of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, having passed away in 1859, on the eve of America's fratricidal slaughter. But the metamorphosis of the Civil War into a grand struggle might not have surprised the French writer and politician. Back in 1831, at the tender age of twenty-five, Tocqueville set out for the United States with his close friend Gustave de Beaumont. They brought with them a greatcoat, various hats, a leather trunk, two guns, an alarm clock, sketchbooks, and a flute—which they used to entertain their fellow passengers during the thirty-eight-day voyage across the Atlantic. After arriving in Newport, Rhode Island, the two men traveled more than seven thousand miles by horse, stagecoach, steamer, and canoe, from the cultivated East Coast cities to the wilderness of Michigan, meeting the sitting president (Andrew Jackson) and an ex-president (John Quincy Adams), all the while observing the progress of the young republic.

In his subsequent classic work, Democracy in America, Tocqueville predicted that Americans' usual love of peace could be transformed by conflict into a crusading zeal: "When war has lasted long enough finally to have wrenched every citizen from his peacetime activities… those very passions which made him attach so much value to peace will turn toward war." Military campaigning becomes "the great and only industry" as the country performs "marvelous feats."7 It was hard to rouse the public to fight, but it was also challenging, once emotions were awakened, to get Americans to lay down the sword. "There are two things which will always be difficult for a democratic nation to do: beginning and ending a war."8

We can also illustrate the American way of war with a time-traveling munitions manufacturer from Hartford. In Mark Twain's 1889 novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, an American named Hank Morgan is transported to the age of Camelot in the sixth century AD. After various adventures, Morgan ends up battling an army of English knights. Naturally, he adopts a very American style of fighting.

For a start, the Connecticut Yankee isn't interested in a negotiated settlement—only in total victory. As he informs the knights, "We offer you this chance, and it is the last: throw down your arms; surrender unconditionally to the Republic."9


On Sale
Nov 4, 2010
Page Count
352 pages

Dominic Tierney

About the Author

Dominic Tierney is an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from Oxford University. He is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a former visiting associate professor at Princeton University, a former research fellow at Harvard University, and the author of three books, including How We Fight and Failing to Win, which won the International Studies Association “Best Book of the Year” Award and was nominated for its “Best Book of the Decade” Award.

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