War’s Logic: Strategic Thought and the American Way of War

  • Published

War’s Logic: Strategic Thought and the American Way of War by Antulio J. Echevarria II. Cambridge University Press, 2021, 308 pp.

War’s Logic proceeds from the basic premise that war has a logic and that by learning the “grammar” of past conflicts, one is better armed for the future. This publication is the rare resource to military professionals offering not only valuable context for military strategy but also enjoyable reading on US history. Over the course of 10 chapters, the author argues that war’s nature can be viewed in distinct paradigms proposed by successive twentieth-century strategists. Paying equal tribute to luminaries’ personal lives and professional accomplishments, the book gives readers a vocabulary to appreciate American strategic thought and speak more intelligently about war.

Antulio J. Echevarria II is uniquely qualified to write a book that makes such lofty promises to the reader. He is professor at the US Army War College and former Elihu Root Chair of Military Studies. His publication is evidently the culmination of a career of research and extensive teaching experience. War’s Logic flows chronologically in four parts from the early principles of war to modern operational art. Each part focuses on two to four key intellectuals who left their imprint on US strategic doctrine. Interwoven with discussion of the evolution of US strategy is an approachable overview of general American history to provide context. After all, the book is US-centric, so a presentation of American developments in each era is key to understanding the background of strategic thought. The following is just one small example from Professor Echevarria: “1957 was the year in which . . . Kissinger’s Foreign Policy and Nuclear Weapons appeared, the Soviets launched Sputnik I and II into orbit, and Elvis’s ‘Jail House Rock’ energized a generation” (144). Current events in the US add a splash of color to an otherwise dense read focused on the military aspect above all.

War’s Logic pays substantial attention to innovative thinkers in the Navy and Army. Part of this is no doubt because before 1947, the Air Force as such did not exist. Still, it is most likely healthy for Air Force professionals to read from a viewpoint that is not overly deferential to icons of Air Force history. Joint operations are the current reality, so Air Force professionals will be better off having background on key historical figures of the battlefield and sea. Furthermore, Professor Echevarria does not hold any punches with respect to a few icons of Air Force history. Billy Mitchell, for example, is equally lauded for his idea to establish a unified air service and dismissed as a vainglorious, pig-headed personality whose court-martial was a tabloid fixture for months (33). In many Air Force curricula, heroes of airpower are depicted through a rose-colored lens; it is refreshing to find a portrayal that shows airpower legends warts and all.

Unsurprisingly, Carl von Clausewitz–military theorist, oft-cited luminary, and forbearer to modern discussions on war–looms large in most chapters. Clausewitz’s principles of war are, after all, the archetype for modern discourse, and few conversations evade his ample contributions to the field. Interweaving Clausewitzian observations, the author thoughtfully organizes his book around chronological contributors to military thought and their ideas and publications. A typical chapter summarizes an individual’s contributions, presents their life from upbringing to military career, and digests their publications and key contributions to war’s logic.

Professor Echevarria is skillful at connecting the dots in each chapter and among the evolving theories of war in the twentieth century. With each chapter standing alone, one can jump in at any point in the book, starting where one is most interested. Additionally, the text is approachable, written for laypersons and with several foundational terms that practitioners will recognize from any professional military education course. For example, most Air Force professionals will recognize the concept of “DIME”: diplomatic, information, military, and economic power as tools of state power in the chapter on Henry Eccles (116). Additionally, most any Air Force professional already knows the OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loop, one of numerous contributions from Col John Boyd (169).

War’s Logic is an important read for Air Force professionals because it illustrates the development of airpower from its earliest days to present. It also takes a step back to describe how political, economic, and diplomatic dimensions complement military offensives. What better way to do so than through the views and shifting doctrine of past prominent thinkers in the armed forces? The author emphasizes the thought that future practitioners “will surely develop other models of war’s nature” (227). In so doing, he invites readers to consider the next potential strategic models.

One has the distinct impression that with his PhD from Princeton University and more than 20 years of teaching experience, Professor Echevarria could speak to an audience about military history or the development of airpower with little or no preparation. But that is not to detract from the accomplishment of writing this book, which serves as an excellent jumping off point for advanced study. Further, while War’s Logic is backward-looking rather than predictive, this too is not necessarily a weakness. War’s Logic limits its scope to the past and adequately delivers on what it promises. It is a historical analysis and not necessarily a roadmap for the future. Any complaint that it does not presage the future would be unfair.

Professor Echevarria brings his book full circle with a colorful quote: “If war is a continuation of politics by other means so, too, is thinking about war” (227). While this quote is praiseworthy, it is hard to square it with the opening quote from Clausewitz: “Is war not just another form of expression employed by peoples and governments? Indeed, war has its own grammar but not its own logic.” Thus, for Professor Echevarria to title his book War’s Logic is to expressly accept Clausewitz’s challenge: to write out war’s grammar in furtherance of finding its logic. This goal may be a fool’s errand since many have observed that the act of war is inherently illogical. Still, the lessons and experiences from past theorists bring us closer to something resembling logic in wartime.

Capt Matthew H. Ormsbee, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."