Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Book Review: The Utility of Force by General Sir Rupert Smith

Reviewed by Jeffrey Caminsky

Like the advice to investors to “buy low and sell high,” the ancient advice of Sun Tzu to “avoid strength and strike weakness” is easier to say than to follow. In The Utility of Force, a brilliant exposition on the art of war and conflict in the modern world, retired British General Sir Rupert Smith, shows how far we have strayed from our ancient lessons, and how policymakers in and outside the military have failed to adapt to the changing nature of modern conflict.

Drawing on forty years of experience, Smith shows how our present notion of industrial, “total war” between nation states is a recent development, brought on by the advance of technology in the past two centuries. Since the days of Napoleon, our conflicts have grown to an epic scale. We have fought worldwide conflicts between nations and now see the great wars of the 20th Century—World Wars I and II—as the model for modern warfare. As nations and technology advanced, and entire nations were mobilized, our conflicts grew to include civilians among the enemy. In World War II, bombs fell on civilian non-combatants of both sides, ending only with the unconditional surrender of the losing side. Unfortunately, the author shows that by failing to keep pace with the changing nature of conflict, today’s leaders have lost the ability to harness our military muscle to our political aims. The price is often paid in the blood of our soldiers.

Our military is organized to fight what the author describes as “industrial war,” or warfare between nations. We plan for battles against the organized military of an enemy state, in which massed forces on both sides fight to resolve a conflict on the field of battle. And once having resolved the dispute by force of arms, the contending sides return to a state of equilibrium, until another confrontation ripens into open conflict, and warfare resumes anew. This follows a predictable, historic pattern—peace-crisis-war-resolution-peace—which we have known through most of recorded history. Both World Wars, and even our own Civil War, were examples of total war waged between organized states, ending in total victory for one side and total defeat for the other. In this kind of conflict, victory goes to the side with the most muscle—or, in a protracted struggle, to the side with the technology or industrial capacity to outproduce the other.

In the author’s view, the development of nuclear weapons has made “industrial” war largely a thing of the past. Total war waged between nuclear states would, for all practical purposes, annihilate the human race. And so we now fight our military conflicts on a smaller scale, while the larger conflict rages at the political level. The battlefield is now the people, who are the prize both sides seek to win, and who are caught between the warring factions. In such a struggle, recent history suggest that force alone can no longer be used effectively to force an enemy to submit and—as in the Cold War—is better used to help set the conditions for resolving a conflict by other means.

Unfortunately, generals and politicians often see the next war as an extension of the last one. As a result, it is easy to miss historical or technological changes that have altered the present. We sponsor a massive investment in forces and continue to organize our military along conventional lines, training to fight a conventional foe, on a conventional battlefield. But despite an overwhelming advantage in firepower, we often find ourselves using our forces on missions for which they are ill-trained, and for purposes for which the military is ill-suited. The outcome is not always pretty and, the author suggests, the reason is our tendency to confuse ends and means—using the wrong tool for a purpose which is often ill-defined.

We have, in the author’s view, entered an era of “war amongst the people.” Our modern adversaries are no longer nations, but groups organized along political, social, or religious lines that transcend national borders. Like any well-organized group, they have adopted the structure that best suits them, and they have also absorbed lessons from Sun Tzu that we have forgotten. They avoid our strengths, seeking to turn our own power against us, even as they find ways of converting their weaknesses into strengths. Where we have massive forces, they have small ones—and so they avoid pitched battles. They stage confrontations instead, hiding among the people and inviting us to attack them. When we attack in force, we often alienate the very population that we hope to win to our cause, and as long as they can avoid outright defeat, our enemies can maintain the fight, confident that time is on their side.

We have seen similar tactics succeed before—against the Americans in Vietnam; against the Soviets in Afganistan; even against the British during our own Revolution. Lacking a clear idea of the utility and limits of military force, the superpower stumbles over its own firepower. Today, our failure to recognize the nature of our new enemy, or the new kind of battleground on which we meet, means that in the conflicts of today our massive forces often have no practical utility.

To confront this “new paradigm” of warfare, the author suggests discarding many of our old concepts of confrontation and conflict. Conflict seems to be part of the human condition, and we need to understand that our new conflicts are likely to be timeless. We must recognize that military force is useful in a practical sense for only two things—killing and destroying, or coercing and deterring—and that to use this force effectively, we employ it as a mechanism simply for “doing something” in response to a crisis.

We must, in other words, come to understand that there will always be a link between political ends and military means. But for the military to be useful in this new paradigm—for the force to have utility, in the words of Sir Rupert—we must also recognize that while military means may contribute to the end, they will rarely be able to achieve the end. Unless the desired outcome is the annihilation of the enemy, the end will always be political, often making the blunt instrument of massive force counterproductive. Unless our aims are limited in scope, targeted precisely on the weaknesses of our adversaries, and focused on achieving a well-defined and attainable political aim, we risk sending our military forces on missions carrying much risk, but little chance of success. And so, without a clear understanding of the limits and uses of military power, we are at risk for future experiments, and may doomed to see our massive advantage in firepower squandered in misadventures yet to come.

The Utility of Force will probably not be the book of choice for a book-reading at the local literary society. It is not elegantly written and contains few lofty phrases. But its journeyman prose is quite readable, and the author brings depth and clarity to a subject that is painfully relevant to all of us, with a clearness of thought that is as rare as it is priceless. At a time when our politicians are offering little more than finger-pointing and a search for scapegoats, it offers insights into the nature of conflicts likely to arise in the years to come. For those who seek a better understanding of our present circumstances, and how to marshal our resources in defense of Western Civilization, it might best be described as “required reading.”

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a veteran public prosecutor in Detroit, Michigan, specializes in the appellate practice of criminal law and writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the exciting second volume in the Guardians of Peace-tm series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed The Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.

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