The Utility of Force

Here’s a great book I borrowed from a friend of mine.

Personally, I know jack about military history and theory, other than the bits I’ve picked up here and there. The author, a retired British general, gives you a high-level overview of how militaries used to be too precious to risk losing, turned into mass-conscription armies that could take huge casualities, and then turned back into too precious to risk losing. Additionally, the industrial war that existed in the middle period there, of huge armies colliding, is gone and not coming back.

“War no longer exists,” Rupert Smith proclaims in his very first sentence, by which he means that the industrialised clash of mass armies inaugurated by Napoleon, which culminated in the two world wars, will never happen again. What will also not happen, obviously, is the city-smashing fight we supposedly prepared for during the nuclear confrontation between the west and the Soviet Union, although “lesser” nuclear exchanges between new nuclear powers are unfortunately still a possibility. Smith makes these points so strongly because he believes that political and military leaders and their publics, in the west, are still wedded to the structures and expectations of industrialised war. They are wedded to the assumptions - but also increasingly unable to provide the men, the motivation and the industrial muscle that once went with them. In the range of conflicts the world has actually experienced over the past half century, and particularly since the end of the cold war, armies of this kind have often not done well and governments with these expectations have usually been disappointed.

It overlaps a lot with the whole COIN thing. Myself I found it useful because I think it actually explains why lots of people have unrealistic explanations of what to expect in Iraq based on WWII or whatnot - why, just kick them bad enough, and we win. He goes into some detail on how all wars are now “wars among the people”, so that doesn’t work anymore.

More here.

Smith argues that the military aims of the West are fundamentally at odds with the structure of Western military organizations, a contradiction which leads military operations into difficulty and potential failure. This has left the West in a quandary, he writes, resulting in both unrealistic planning for military engagements and unrealistic expectations about the consequences of the use of force. In Bosnia, which Smith discusses in some detail, the contradiction had tragic results, as the West developed no single political strategy for how force ought to be used.

Smith makes no effort to directly apply his argument to the Bush administration or the ongoing fiasco in Iraq. Nevertheless, much of what he discusses has clear and unmistakable implications for the evaluation of that conflict. The effects of a disjuncture between military force and political ends are tragically predictable. It’s commonly argued that the Iraq War had something for everyone; humanitarians got a humanitarian cause, evangelical democrats got to promote democracy, realists got to eliminate chemical weapons, partisans of the “Ledeen Doctrine” got to beat a small country to a pulp, and “national greatness” advocates were able to demonstrate the power and reach of the United States.

Each of these political ends, however, places different limits and emphases on the use of force. Unsurprisingly, these limits do not always agree, and often vary in dramatic fashion. Beating the enemy to a pulp and destroying chemical weapons call for certain military means directly antithetical to humanitarianism or the development of democracy. In Iraq, the inability to describe a single compelling political justification for the war led to a confused, haphazard, and ultimately self-defeating use of military force. The marketing campaign necessary to launching the war ultimately doomed it to failure.

I don’t particularly care to discuss the political implications for Iraq much in replies; P&R is kind of a bolt-on for it. Still, interesting stuff.

I don’t know that I agree with the idea that war has fundamentally changed so that we’ll never see mass wars again, but that doesn’t invalidate the idea that the smaller scale conflicts we see now need to be fought differently. I do think it’s a mistake to think these kinds of conflicts are something new, however. We forget about the Boer War or the guerilla war the US faced when we first acquired control of the Phillippines after the Spanish/American War.

Conflicts like Bosnia and Iraq are proof that politicians can screw up the military so that it ends up repeating the mistakes we thought we had learned from Vietnam about the need for a specific, pre-defined political objectives that the military action is expected to achieve.

Conscript armies can’t take high casualties? I wish he’d let the Germans and Russians know.

I must not have been clear enough - he goes into how the 20th century mass conscript armies are the only ones that could politically take high casualties. The professional small armies we have today, run by democracies, and the pre-Napoleon small professional armies, by contrast, largely couldn’t.

No, you were clear enough. Jakub just didn’t read what you wrote carefully ;).

Indeed I did not.

If you are interested in the sociology of war and its history in big picture terms, I can’t recommend Gwynne Dyer’s War: The Lethal Custom enough.

From what you describe, I’d say he’s a complementary thinker to what in American military circles is described as “fourth generation warfare”. I’ll have to check it out, thanks for the recommendation.

Oh cool, I’ll check out that Dyer book.

If you’re already up on this it may not be worth bothering with; it’s really reads like a beginner’s introduction.

Oh, that’s been on my shelves for ages - I could never get that far in, must give it another stab.

I really need a website like netboox for something like this. I can’t afford to buy all the books I’d like to read.

Like I said, it’s really more of a sociological history than a specifically strategic text, but the crossover is there. His approach is reminiscent of John Keegan’s most successful book (in terms of me actually completing it), The Face of Battle, which chronicles great battles in history reconstructed from the perspective of the man on the ground, in that he manages to convert huge swaths of information and research into digestible chunks tied together by a compelling theme. It’s more “gimmicky” than the straighter histories, but a great deal more accessible imo.

Colonel Hammes’ book that I linked above was difficult to put down, but that may have been the immediacy of reading it while in the environment where its analysis should have been applied.

If you’re already up on this it may not be worth bothering with; it’s really reads like a beginner’s introduction.

Well, that can be a deceptive distinction. Thanks for the recommendation, though, I need to fill my “books about war” quota with something other than the Iraq books I’ve been plowing through thanks to Generation Kill on HBO.