The Utility of Force

General Sir Rupert Smith

Review by DNI Editor Chet Richards

May 16, 2006

The Utility of Force  - finally available in the United States.  Order from Barnes & Noble or Amazon.
Published in the US by Knopf Publishing Group, January 2007.  448 pp.

Joining the growing collection of books and articles describing what went wrong in Iraq is this unique contribution by a senior British officer. It is unique because the officer in question did not participate in the 2003 invasion but held senior command in three other conflicts, Desert Storm, Northern Ireland, and Bosnia. It is a book about Iraq that spends little space on that subject, instead leading the reader through several hundred years of military history and thereby gently guiding him or her to conclusions about the utility of military force in Iraq and beyond.

Is force still useful?

There will be a need for such force, Sir Rupert maintains, because there are still people around the world who see the resort to organized armed conflict as a useful tool. However, in the era of nuclear weapons, the use of this tool stops short of war – that is, the use of force between states, “as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs.” What we will see instead is confrontation, itself sometimes on a massive scale as in the Cold War, and on occasion, that confrontation will escalate into conflict – the use of armed force. What distinguishes such conflicts from true war is that their purpose will not be to defeat another military force on the battlefield but to set the conditions for resolution by other means.

So in Bosnia, for which Sir Rupert provides an engaging first person narrative, there was confrontation between the three primary populations – Croat, Serb, and Bosniac (Muslim) – and this confrontation produced some nasty conflicts – Sarajevo and Srebrenica to cite just the two best remembered. But we rarely read of battles between Serb armies and Bosniac forces. Much more common was the use of military forces in and against largely civilian targets in order to influence the world community and local populations. Sir Rupert was the UNPROFOR commander in Bosnia during both Srebrenica and the military strikes that broke the Bosnian Serb stranglehold on Sarajevo (July - September 1995). His description of how he turned Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic’s arrogance into a weapon, and a most effective one, repays the effort to locate a copy of the book.

What force is useful for

He calls these new kinds of conflicts “wars amongst the people,” where the people themselves have become the battleground. Unlike “industrial” wars – where the people were at best a nuisance and in any case were assumed powerless to do anything against military force (e.g., bombings) directed against them – war amongst the people recognizes that the people hold the key to victory. If they do not acquiesce in an occupation, as is the case in Iraq, they can make the occupier’s task impossible.

In this paradigm (to use Sir Rupert’s term), the people are much more than a passive sea in which the guerrilla swims. Like a political-military analog of Heisenberg, the guerrilla influences the sea for or against his cause as he swims in it. In fact it is this struggle for “sea control” that is the real “war amongst the people” and not the firefights with insurgents that we see on CNN.

This is a rich book, tying together Leninist practice (the “propaganda of the deed”) with the techniques of Maoist insurgency and the decline of the state system. Like TX Hammes’ recent introduction to fourth generation warfare, The Sling and the Stone, it grapples with changes in the nature of war itself brought about by the elimination of the purpose of traditional warfare, the destruction of the armed forces of another state. Along the way, Sir Rupert provides a most readable introduction to modern military doctrine while he proceeds to demolish that doctrine, the institutions that support it, and the absurdities that follow from it, such as “asymmetric warfare,” “network centric warfare,” and weapons that are so expensive that no commander dare risk losing them.

The nature of war is really, really changing

If the book has a weakness, it might be that Sir Rupert perhaps does not appreciate how drastically he is changing the paradigm of war. He states, correctly in my opinion, that in “war amongst the people,” one or both sides will be something other than the armed forces of a state. Often, the “good guys” will be a coalition or alliance (and his adventures in trying to lead such conglomerations should be a warning to those who see large multinational forces as the solution to all the world’s problems), while the “bad guys” may be almost anything.

In such a situation, it becomes more and more difficult to keep Sir Rupert’s simplified Clausewitzian model of people-army-government meaningful.1/ For example, here is his description of how a modern transnational “terrorist” group operates:

The centre will reinforce successful cells with funds, skills and weapons, seeking to establish a sanctuary from which to develop. It will allow cells considerable latitude in the method they adopt to suit the local circumstances – provided that security is not breached and that the cell is both successful and in its actions no more corrupt than condoned by the movement. (329)

The centre is not a government, the cells are not an army, and the members of the cells are not "the people." This is non-state, non-trinitarian warfare, to use the phrase coined by Martin van Creveld in The Transformation of War some fifteen years ago. It is war by ideology and franchise, as Sir Rupert does note, and not war by states proceeding rationally to employ war as a continuation of policy by other means. It is fourth generation warfare.

This criticism in no way diminishes the value of Sir Rupert’s book. John Boyd used the Clausewitzian trinity to explain the difference between maneuver warfare and guerrilla warfare, which in Boyd’s system are manifestations of a single underlying set of principles. But when the paradigm changes sufficiently, we need a new mental model.

Sir Rupert gives several illustrations of the dangers posed by locked mental models – Vietnam, Algeria, Iraq – but perhaps his most telling involved Malaya. The British campaign in Malaya (1948-1960) is held up as a shining example of how to conduct counter-insurgency, and so its methods became imprinted in doctrine. But it was not the methods that were the key to success. Sir Rupert relates that many years later he met Rhodesian veterans of the campaign against the insurgency in Zimbabwe. They had studied the Malayan experience in detail and carefully applied all of its lessons – and lost and never understood why. Similarly, he notes that

The French military, many of whom had fought in Indo-China, believed they understood the situation they confronted – and set out to apply [in Algeria] what they thought they had learned there. (246)

Of course, they lost, too.

This book gives a healthy dose of realism to those who believe that social reengineering on a national scale is a matter of sending in enough forces. This is old-style thinking, where we are going to defeat an enemy army and impose a new government on the people. In Sir Rupert’s new paradigm, the people are the battlefield and the military just one among many ways of influencing them.

Sir Rupert uses this paradigm to explain the cause of our failure in Iraq:

With this in mind, the analysis and planning would have started with the understanding of the strategic objectives – the will of the Iraqi people and their leaders, and the necessary measures to capture it, or at least keep it neutral … The lead agency for this planning should therefore not have been the military specifically but rather those responsible for reaching the desired outcome and conducting the occupation. It appears from the evidence available that this was not the case. (395)

British understatement at its best.

Sir Rupert dodges the question of whether a successful occupation was possible in Iraq, that is, whether the fact of invasion by a foreign army sharing few cultural or religious values with the population would be enough to kindle armed opposition. That is, was the strategic objective attainable? He does, however, insist that this question must be raised before the operation, and if it cannot be answered in a way that leads to achievable objectives for the military, then perhaps alternatives to military force should be considered.

Otherwise, the occupying military force, faced with unattainable objectives, will likely take its frustrations out on the population. This hands victory to the enemy:

The dangers and costs of coercing the people have already been discussed, and if, as history keeps showing, they are used, then the coercive measures must be maintained, or the spirit of freedom and independence will break out. (277)

[Chet Richards is the author of A Swift, Elusive Sword, Certain to Win, and Neither Shall the Sword – Conflict in the Years Ahead. He is a retired colonel in the Air Force Reserve.]


1/ Most readers will recall that Clausewitz’s “wonderful trinity” actually consisted of primordial violence and hatred, the effects of probability and chance (which open the door to creativity and courage), and the subordination of war, in Clausewitz’s opinion, to policy, (which subjects it to reason). He goes on to assign violence, hatred and enmity “mainly” to the people, the creative spirit enabled by chance to the commander and the army, and reason to the government. By modern standards of democracy and government of the people – which was an anathema to a Prussian aristocrat like Clausewitz – this assignment produces a primitive construct more suited to war using the people – as cannon fodder – than for war amongst the people. The first way Clausewitz stated it, as the unpredictable interplay of emotion, chance, and rationality like a metal object suspended between three magnets, is profound and justifies his reputation in some quarters as a precursor of modern complexity theory. Whether fourth generation warfare is non-trinitarian in this sense is an interesting but unsettled question.

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