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The Utility of Force

The Art of War in the Modern World

Two reviews of the book

It is not just nuclear weapons that have changed the world but also democracy and self-determination... Now it is the people who are in charge and the strategic objective is their hearts and minds. Wars are now fought for the people, among the people, and it is the people who are the prize and the strategic goal. And whereas aggressors once aimed merely to eliminate a state, now they may want to eliminate a people.

The Utility of Force: the Art of War in the Modern World

by General Sir Rupert Smith

reviewed by Robert Cooper, The Sunday Times, London, September 18, 2005

General Sir Rupert Smith is one of Britain’s most distinguished soldiers. He commanded the British Armoured Division in the first Gulf war in 1991 and the United Nations Protection Force (Unprofor) in Bosnia in 1995; he was the senior European officer in Nato during the 1999 Kosovo campaign. When there was serious business to be done, he was the man to whom the government turned.

The Utility of Force combines profound thought and practical experience. In particular the experience of Unprofor seems to be burnt into Smith’s thinking. The chapter on Bosnia is one of the best short accounts anywhere of the mess we got ourselves into: “The starting point to understanding all operations in the Balkans in the 1990s . . . is that they were without strategies.” This book is about achieving workable strategy in a complex world. It deserves to be read at the highest levels.

The unique authority that Smith brings to his subject is not wasted on reminiscences or platitudes. The central thesis of the book is radical. “Industrial war”, the all-out sort of struggle that disfigured the 20th century, is dead. Instead, we fight “among the people”. The Weinberger/Powell doctrine formulated as America recovered from Vietnam is a doctrine for industrial war: fight only for vital interests; fight only to win; fight only as a last resort; fight with overwhelming force; and finish it quickly. Such a doctrine was right for the second world war. (“What is our aim?” asked Churchill. “Victory. Victory at all costs.”) But it hardly fits the kind of wars we fight today. In Northern Ireland, where he was General Officer Commanding, it was important to use minimum force. The fault in Bosnia (one of the many faults) was precisely that we used force as a last resort. Bad doctrine costs lives. We did better in Macedonia in 2000, where we ignored the Weinberger doctrine and intervened early — without many forces but, crucially, with a political strategy.

If war is a matter of national survival, then the only acceptable outcome is unconditional surrender. In that case, the strategic goals are purely military, and overwhelming force is not such a bad idea. But in Smith’s view such wars came to an end with nuclear weapons: the absolute war would lead to absolute destruction. In the cold war, both sides prepared vast arsenals for a war they never fought and never intended to fight. (“First we lose the conventional war. Then we lose the tactical nuclear exchange. Then we blow up the world,” was Henry Kissinger’s summary.) The real cold war was a political struggle with occasional military episodes; Lech Walesa’s Solidarity, and western unity and prosperity, were more important than any tank or missile. As a war, it was in some respects an imaginary event.

All this time we were fighting real wars — Britain in Malaysia, Kenya, Cyprus and Northern Ireland; France in Vietnam and Algeria; America in Vietnam. These were Wars among the People. They were political events with military characteristics. They were mostly without battlefields and finished in political settlements rather than military victories. Fighting them as though they were industrial wars did not work. (In Vietnam the Americans even appointed Robert McNamara, one of its great industrialists, to run the war.)

Clausewitz describes war as both a trial of strength and a clash of wills. Industrial war is about the former. War among the People is about winning the battle of wills. The objective is not to crush but to change minds. The confrontation in Malaysia was won by political strategy (the promise of independence) as much as by military tactics. And the battle of Algiers was lost because there was no political strategy. The objective, as Smith puts it at one point, is to show the people how bad the insurgents are and how good your forces are. Not far from Marshal Foch’s comment that war is the domain of moral force.

It may be that the world is not quite as new as Smith suggests. The first Gulf war resembles the limited wars of the 18th century; so does our unwillingness to take large casualties. Then, as now, soldiers were professional, scarce and expensive. And Napoleon’s objective also was to change regimes and, in the process, change the map of Europe. Not so different from American ambitions in the Middle East. But Smith’s main point is right: the 21st century is quite different from the 20th, though our armies and our mindsets still seem to be formed by the industrial wars of what is now long ago.

It is not just nuclear weapons that have changed the world but also democracy and self-determination. Napoleon changed regimes by overthrowing kings and replacing them with relatives. Today this does not work. If you want democracy then the people are in charge. War among the People is one result of a democratic age. Smith makes much use of the Clausewitzian trinity: army, state and people. The balance between the three has changed. Once armies dominated — as they still do in the country of warlords; later, states were able to command the complete obedience of their people. Now it is the people who are in charge and the strategic objective is their hearts and minds. Wars are now fought for the people, among the people, and it is the people who are the prize and the strategic goal. And whereas aggressors once aimed merely to eliminate a state, now they may want to eliminate a people.

As Smith says, our forces remain configured for wars we will not fight; but he gives only a few hints of what we should do instead. Condoleezza Rice famously stated that it was not the job of the 101st Airborne to take children to their kindergarten; true — but not because this is the wrong task, rather because we have the wrong forces for it. Probably we need less armour and artillery and more infantry, more intelligence, more deployable police, even more linguists and anthropologists. If you fight among the people you had better understand them. And more media specialists: war has become a spectator sport. As Smith points out, the expression “theatre of war” now has an ironic tinge.

Using force effectively is not just a matter of having the right forces. You must also have the right direction and must tune the military campaign to the political goals (has this always been done well in Iraq?). Defence, foreign and aid policy need to be brought together. Clausewitz recommended that the head of the armed forces should sit in the cabinet, not so that the politicians should receive military advice, but so that the army should understand exactly what political goals it was fighting for and could conduct the campaign accordingly. We need to find the modern equivalent.


Why the Strongest Armies May Lose the Newest Wars

by William Grimes, The New York Times, January 18, 2007

Right now in Iraq the mightiest army on earth is being fought to a standstill by insurgents using rocket-propelled grenades, rifles and improvised roadside bombs. This should not come as a surprise. In nearly every respect the war in Iraq fits a new paradigm of conflict that has been operative since the end of World War II, although military and political leaders have been slow to recognize it. Until they do, conventional armies, applying conventional wisdom, will continue to misapply their power and risk defeat at the hands of seemingly inferior enemies.

This, in brief, is the hypothesis put forward by Gen. Rupert Smith in ''The Utility of Force,'' a closely argued, searching textbook on strategy and the efficient use of military power in the post-Cold War era. General Smith, whose more than 40 years of service in the British Army has included command positions in Northern Ireland, Iraq and the Balkans, maintains that the world has entered a new era dominated by nebulous, open-ended conflicts that are as much political as military.

Modern armies and their civilian masters are ill suited to win these new-style conflicts, largely because they fail to recognize that the old conceptual model of all-out industrial war between nation states has evolved into what General Smith calls ''war amongst the people'' -- political struggles in which combatants do not wear uniforms, mingle with the people and battle as much for hearts and minds as for outright victory on the battlefield.

To make his case General Smith gives a detailed history lesson. Throughout this difficult, challenging book, you can almost hear the pointer hit the blackboard as he works his way rigorously through each argument and sub-arguments A, B and C, before proceeding to the next step. At times the history lecture becomes a forced march over very familiar terrain, but patient readers will discover that there is indeed a final destination.

From time to time General Smith enlivens the narrative with personal anecdotes from his own experiences in the field. This helps, as does a detailed final chapter on his command experience in Bosnia, intended to illustrate the book's theoretical principles.

General Smith starts with Napoleon, creator of warfare's first modern paradigm. For several hundred years European states had fought static, nonideological wars intended to rearrange the map without drastically altering the overall balance of power. Rulers and governments were expected to remain in place.

Napoleon changed all that. He invented the idea of war as an event marshalling all the resources of the nation, both material and spiritual, with the aim of destroying an opponent and installing a new political order. Carl von Clausewitz, in ''On War,'' gave theoretical coherence to this new kind of warfare, and Prussia, in a series of sweeping military reforms, built an army and a powerful state dedicated to winning what General Smith calls interstate industrial war, epitomized in the two world wars of the 20th century.

General Smith, as he does throughout, analyzes the changes in how force was applied to achieve specific goals. This is his all-embracing idea. He also stops to note, in his discussion of the Napoleonic Wars, the first stirrings of a new kind of conflict, in which spontaneously organized, irregular forces carried out campaigns of ambush and harassment. The Spanish Peninsular Campaign, as General Smith describes it, was nothing less than the first war amongst the people, a baffling, rule-breaking conflict in which hopelessly outnumbered and poorly equipped guerrillas fought, not to win, but to keep alive the idea of Spanish independence, and to redeem it once Britain and its allies prevailed.

The atom bomb made industrial war obsolete. But industrial-style military forces remained in place, along with industrial-war thinking. The old paradigm lingered, although it had no life. ''Throughout the Cold War military and political leaders on all sides clung to it, building armies to its specifications, swearing by its redeeming capabilities in time of need,'' General Smith writes. To an alarming extent they still do, which is why the French faced defeat in Indochina and Algeria, why the United States lost in Vietnam, why NATO fumbled in the Balkans and why General Smith decided to write ''The Utility of Force.''

Many readers will find it tempting to jump right to the second half of the book, in which General Smith analyzes modern guerilla movements and looks at present-day conflicts in Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East. With variations, these are wars amongst the people, and they present seeming intractable problems for conventional forces. The Israeli Army, countering the Palestinian intifada, found its armored vehicles and superior firepower useless in a struggle that required careful intelligence-led searches for the enemy.

As often as not, failing to grasp the new rules of warfare, political leaders and military planners rely on force in situations when it has no utility, commit troops without defining strategic and political objectives and -- operating on the old industrial-war model -- plan for the decisive engagement that never comes. In war amongst the people, he writes, ''no act of force will ever be decisive: winning the trial of strength will not deliver the will of the people, and at base that is the only true aim of any use of force in our modern conflicts.''

In the new paradigm, General Smith argues, war does not lead to victory and peace. Rather, confrontation leads to conflict, which subsides into confrontation. The weapons, instead of cruise missiles, are machetes, AK-47 assault rifles and suicide bombers. Only carefully defined and tightly intertwined political, diplomatic and military missions can hope to be effective, if only temporarily. That's another feature of the new paradigm: No war, but no peace either, only conflict without end.


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