April 20, 2008

COIN Book Club #8 : The Utility of Force

"War no longer exists. Confrontation, conflict and combat undoubtedly exist all around the world...Nonetheless, war as battle in a field between men and machinery, ar as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs: such war no longer exists."--Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force

Rupert Smith has written a masterpiece on violent conflict.

I am both shattered and revitalized, for to read The Utility of Force is to understand for the first time what you have looked at as you have fought and studied the conflicts of the Nuclear and Information Age. Simply, it is the most profound work I have read since Clausewitz.

Smith shows that war as we conceive it was an international confrontation between states decided by the trial of arms on the battlefield. This kind of war was the natural heritage of Napoleon, although it took almost a century for leaders to begin to understand the implications of national, industrial war. The trinity of government, people, and army united until the full resources of all were dedicated to decisive victory or defeat in the clash of armies. This unification of the trinity toward a singular purpose--decisive victory--was a social construct. In cases where all sides did not engage in national mobilization into massed armies--as Napoleon discovered in Spain--emerged the antithesis of "industrial warfare," which, after the dropping of the atomic bombs became the paradigm of modern war.

Smith's reasoning is complex. He walks us from Napoleon to the 2006 War in Lebanon, detailing not only theoretically but also from his one-time seat as the chief of UNPROFOR in Bosnia the challenges at the heart of modern conflict. It would not do justice to summarize the full argument--nor the philosophy of violence and the history of warfare that he expounds--but a brief summary of Smith's conclusion is in order.

Smith argues that the modern world is beset by long-term confrontations of interests. At times, these confrontations result in armed conflict. Yet unlike the World Wars or the Franco Prussian War, these armed conflicts rarely have the desired effect on the outcome of the confrontation, i.e., the decision of the confrontation in favor of the winner on the field of battle. While violent conflict does not solve the confrontation, states continue to maintain armies designed to inflict decisive, industrial victories by destroying an opponents armed forces.

Wars of this new paradigm follow several important patterns that separate them from industrial war.

  • The ends for which we fight are changing from the hard objectives that decide a political outcome to those of establishing conditions in which the outcome may be decided
  • We fight amongst the people, not on the battlefield
  • Our conflicts tend to be timeless, even unending
  • We fight also so as to preserve the force rather than risking all to gain the objective
  • On each occasion new uses are found for old weapons and organizations which are the products of industrial war
  • The sides are mostly non-state, comprising some form of multinational grouping against some non-state party or parties.

This new paradigm of warfare Smith calls war among the people. The people themselves, rather than their army, have become the necessary object to win--either through their eradication (which is morally abhorrent not to mention physically difficult to do--look at the Soviet attempts to "drain the sea" in Afghanistan) or through their commitment to the desired solution to the ongoing confrontation. In these wars, force directed solely at destroying the opponent's military has limited utility as destruction of the army will not necessarily yield the end of the confrontation.

For those such as myself who feel that the term insurgency does not adequately describe the multi-faceted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan while feeling also that the 1990s (even though not characterized by anti-Western insurgency) offered much from which we might have learned had we chosen to, Smith offers a unifying vision of conflict that focuses on the nature of modern conflict itself rather than its specific manifestation whether that be "peacekeeping," "peace enforcement," or "counterinsurgency." For those now stressing the need for US Armed forces to maintain a full spectrum capability, Smith answers the obvious underlying question, "A full spectrum capability to accomplish what?"

The answer is the ability to engage in wars among the people. Yet, as Smith points out, 50 years from the death of the Industrial War paradigm we still remain far from organizing our government, let alone our Armed Forces, for modern confrontations. Smith's greatest weakness is in only offering some general hints at what this organization would look like. Yet that weakness can be overlooked in a work that is quite simply an intellectual tour de force and should be well-thumbed on the bookshelves of every policy maker, politician, and military professional.