Reality, revolution in modern warfare

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Tthe opening sentence in Gen. Rupert Smith’s provocative military study The Utility of Force (Knopf, $30, 430 pages) reads: “War no longer exists.” However, Gen. Smith, a highly regarded British officer, quickly qualifies that bold statement.

To be sure, conflicts rage around the world — in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Palestinian Territories and the Congo, to name only the most conspicuous. “Nonetheless, war as cognitively known to most non-combatants, war as battle in a field between men and machinery, war as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs: such war no longer exists.”

In a nutshell, Gen. Smith argues that powers such as the United States and the United Kingdom must learn to cope with conflicts involving “war amongst the people,” rather than “interstate industrial war.” And they must learn to resolve “a deep and abiding confusion between deploying a force and employing force.”

Gen. Smith speaks from his painful experience as commander of UNPROFOR, the units the United Nations sent to Bosnia in 1995 under orders that barred them from using force.

The frustrated commander “spent a lot of time trying to explain to a range of senior figures in the UN and in various capital cities precisely this issue: that keeping over 20,000 lightly armed troops in the midst of the warring parties was strategically unsustainable and tactically inept; that presence alone amounts to little. Or, as I used to put it to my international stake holders, you become a shield of one side and a hostage of the other.”

As another example, Gen. Smith cites the establishment of no-fly zones over Iraq preceding the 2003 war, “when targets were constantly being hit by coalition aircraft far away from the media glare (apparently known amongst some pilots as ‘recreational bombing’)” but of no consequence to the “continuing horrors of the Saddam Hussein regime.”

Gen. Smith sees the new reality of conflict as part of a progression that has shaped the means by which men have fought over the centuries. And he offers what some military commentators have termed “a new take on Carl von Clausewitz,” the Prussian officer whose doctrines stood the test of two centuries but now seem dated.

At the risk of over-simplification (his famed “On War” sprawls over eight volumes), von Clausewitz urged raising vast armies motivated by patriotic zeal and sending them smashing into the weakest point of the enemies’ lines.

Essentially, he taught the world how to wage “absolute war.” (Gen. Smith helpfully puts into context Clauswitz’s often misquoted axiom, by giving us the entirety of the key phrase, that war was “not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.” He made plain that military and political goals must be identical for success.)

Gen. Smith is at his most readable when he traces the impact of industrialization on war — the advent of steel and steam, the increased mobility afforded by railroads, the telegraph and swiftness of communication, the advent of artillery and automatic weapons. These all contributed to the horrible slaughter that mankind inflicted upon itself in the two world wars.

At first blush, I took exception to Gen. Smith’s dismissal of the term “cold war;” he maintains “cold confrontation” is the more accurate, because the conflict between the West and the USSR never escalated into a war. But, as he points out, five decades passed without the use of vast standing armies, and the USSR ultimately failed of its own inadequacies.

Gen. Smith’s concluding chapter, “What Is To Be Done?” has his audience reading and re-reading pages, for as he concedes his “solution” is not a simple one. He stresses that political leaders must realize that “whilst conflicts may be won, not all confrontations, including those that started the conflicts, may be resolved by the use of force.” Above all, the military must be used to accomplish definable political goals.

Not an easy read, to be sure, but a book that should circulate widely in the Defense Department and the service academies.

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