Book review: The utility of force


General Rupert Smith published his “The Utility of Force – The Art of War in the Modern World” to well-deserved acclaim some years ago. The UK’s Evening Standard called it “provocative and startling … an update of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu for our time”. British editor and author Max Hastings added in the Sunday Telegraph that it was “hard to overstate the devastating nature of this book as an indictment of almost everything the West has done in recent years, and is doing today. If [it] does not prompt red faces in Downing Street and at the White House, it is only because their occupants are too shameless to be capable of embarrassment.”

US lawyer and historian Phillip Bobbitt called it a “work of exceptional clarity and depth, that ought to set the agenda for the next transformation in how armed power is used and even why. Former NATO Secretary General and European Union High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana – more to the point – said it was a “book to help us understand how to do politics right.”

This cuts to the chase: Smith, a retired four-star, was well placed during his long career to observe the warring classes: the politicians, diplomats, think tanks and media who clamour for various reasons to apply force to some situation. He was UN commander in Bosnia at the time of the Srebrenica massacre (1995), was GOC Northern Ireland towards the end of the violence there and NATO deputy supreme commander at the time of the Kosovo campaign (1999). He found the political and diplomatic classes unwilling and/or unable to provide political guidance and leadership – especially on the ends they sought to achieve through the application of organised force. This was aggravated by an outdated view of “war” in these circles, largely drawn from popular culture as well as memories of World War Two and compounded by an aversion for risk.

This results in forces being deployed to conflict areas “to do something” under rules of engagement, mandates and status of forces agreements that effective prevent their useful employment. When the anticipated “victory” – another archaic term – fails to materialise, much head-scratching and navel-gazing occurs. But can one expect better in a system where multinational commanders, whether NATO or UN do not really command (their nominal subordinate contingent commanders have backchannels home through which orders can be vetoed, changed or delayed) and where the use of the word “force”, as in “peacekeeping force” is an exercise in irony.

So far the review might suggest The Utility of Force is a bitter Brit whinge. But it is not. It is an exceptionally sharp, clear and crisp look at the use of armed force in the modern world, building on the foundation cast by Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz in his seminal On War two hundred years ago. His book comes in three parts, which can be read in whole or in part, in sequence or otherwise. The first part studies the rise of industrial war as championed by Napoleon Bonaparte and the consequent creation of mass armies, mass mobilisation – and the modern nation state. It is these developments Clausewitz mulls.

For Smith, the atomic bomb put an end to the utility of industrial war. Since the 1950s, then, he argues we have had “war amongst the people”, no longer alternating cycles of peace-war-victory-peace but variations of confrontation, conflict, and, sometimes, combat. Smith lucidly explains what he means, by way of many, colourful, examples in the second part of his book, using Clausewitz’s trinity of “army”, “state” and “people” as a framework – hence the assertion of other reviewers that this is an update of Clausewitz for the 21st Century, a view this reviewer supports.

The reviewer would challenge whether “war amongst the people” is a new development or a return to a perhaps more advanced form of pre-industrial war. James F Dunnigan made a similar point in his How to Make War : “Much of what we currently call war is merely well-armed disorder… This is an important distinction, as a great deal of military skill is not needed to create armed disorder. You don`t need trained troops to create a proper insurrection or civil war. All you need are angry people and some weapons.”
“War amongst the people” is characterised by six interconnected trends, Smith avers. First, the objectives of conflicts have become less absolute, with fighting meant to achieve general conditions rather than specific and tangible ends like the destruction of the enemy force or the overthrow of the opposing state. Second, armed forces conduct operations literally in the midst of civilian society and figuratively in front of it, via the global media, making the “theatre of war” a very apt term. Third, given the often intangible objectives for which they are fought, conflicts tend to be timeless. Fourth, Western armies increasingly fight in ways that minimise losses to their own forces. Fifth, armies are required to put old weapons to new uses. Finally, the actors in conflicts are often non-state entities
such as terrorist groups or multinational coalitions.

These trends come together in the third part of the book where Smith applies the thesis to the circumstances he encountered in Bosnia and surrounding Kosovo. It makes for somewhat depressing reading, the more so as it again eloquently demonstrates the maxim that “the only lesson we ever learn from history is that we never learn”: The faults Smith identifies and addresses in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda (1994) and Iraq (1991 and 2003) are being repeated in Libya, Sudan and Afghanistan.

Indeed, this makes it just all the more important that we study this book and “educate our masters”, political, diplomatic and the public at large.

Other reviews:

The UK Independent
New York Times
The UK Guardian
US Air War College
Interview: UK Sunday Times

Rupert Smith

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