Thoughts on Rupert Smith’s “Utility of Force”

Media darling?

Media darling?

Gen. Rupert Smith’s The Utility of Force is one of those enormously popular books that I resist reading exactly because of its popularity. Shortly after its publication I noticed that the media was using it as a cudgel against the Bush administration and I heard that Smith appeared on The Daily Show which made me suspect that it was another opportunistic screed against the Iraq war. I had seen the Book TV interview back in 2008, but since the interview was conducted by a bumbling and incompetent “beltway bandit” eager to score political points, I didn’t learn much about Smith’s ideas, though I was impressed by his performance in the interview. Eventually I acknowledged that not reading the book was intellectually irresponsible so I bought a copy and I’m glad that I did.

Overall I thought it an excellent work: very well-written and well-argued, with points that are manifestly relevant to the current ongoing wars. However, there are a few aspects about it that I was uncomfortable with and which have not received much comment in the other reviews that I’ve read. I’d like to share some of these thoughts. Let me be clear: these comments focus on the critical, but I am not condemning the whole of his work.

In brief, Smith posits that recent centuries have seen two major paradigms of warfare: “industrial war” and “war amongst the people.” According to Smith, industrial war originated in the Napoleonic era and dominated international affairs until 1945. What characterizes industrial war is the decisive use of regular military forces at the strategic level for clear political objectives, usually via the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces. With industrialization, victory became as much a matter of having superior means to wage war (factories, wealth, population) as of triumph on the battlefield. The pursuit of victory demanded that all society be militarized and dedicated to supporting the war. As a consequence, society itself – including the civilian population – became viable military targets: total war. This paradigm culminated with the two World Wars and ended with the advent of nuclear weapons. Since 1945 however, the operative paradigm has been “wars amongst the people.” What characterizes this paradigm is that the object of war is the will of the people itself, and this is not always delivered after the destruction of their armed forces. Consequently, military force is not the decisive element in these conflicts; it is only one part of a strategic program that must include all other instruments of state power. The “utility of force” in this paradigm is that it can establish conditions that are conducive to the long-term resolution of the conflict.

My first observation is that Smith’s central argument – that in “war amongst the people,” military force alone is not sufficient for victory – is not revolutionary or unique by any means. In fact, it’s somewhat banal. No doubt it is a new concept for the general public and most journalists, but those immersed in the field have already absorbed the point as a guiding assumption in the conduct of strategy. Anyone who has made a sincere effort to understand Clausewitz has already digested Smith’s main thesis. In both Book I and Book VIII of On War, Clausewitz repeatedly emphasizes that war is a component of politics and that military force alone is unable to achieve certain objectives. To take one example, in Chapter 1 of Book 1 Clausewitz writes that “if we keep in mind that war springs from some political purpose, it is natural that the prime cause of its existence will remain the supreme consideration in conducting it.” This sentence alone encapsulates many of Smith’s key ideas. There is also the following ever-popular line (which Smith himself uses, though to my abject horror he cites the Graham translation):

The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make it to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.

I’m not using this point to criticize Smith’s book, only the widespread perception that the argument is unique and revolutionary. After all, repackaging esoteric ideas in a format that the public can understand is a duty for all scholars, especially in a sphere as important as war and strategy.

My second observation is that there are serious flaws with Smith’s two paradigms which are the planks that support the rest of his argument. Both are insufficiently defined and as a consequence they become catch-alls that muddle rather than clarify the discussion. His definition of “industrial war” seems to correlate with regular inter-state war, but that existed thousands of years before industry. Smith writes that

industrial war has the overarching purpose of achieving the desired political outcome by the destruction of the opponent’s ability to resist. It is essentially a trial of strength leading to a loss of will to resist…In industrial war the object is to destroy the opponent’s army and to prevent his government from making war and protecting the people, thus breaking the triangular linkage [referring to Clausewitz’s “remarkable trinity”].

This definition is similar to many others that have been given for the phenomenon that I prefer to call “regular war.” However, the examples that Smith uses to illustrate what he means (the Napoleonic wars, the U.S. Civil War, the German unification wars, the two World Wars) and the explanation given as to its origin (the emulation of Napoleonic military reforms by all the Great Powers) suggest that “industrial war” is analogous to “total war”: the complete militarization of society toward an objective that is nothing short of the enemy’s utter annihilation. This is problematic because I would argue that “regular war” and “total war” are very different concepts, though the latter rests within the intellectual framework of the former. With the victory-or-death stakes of total war, it is only natural that these conflicts degenerate into meat-grinding wars of exhaustion. But there have been many other wars fought for limited objective; industrial war writ small. These involved the same institutions and military doctrines as total war, but did not involve the complete militarization of society, yet they achieved decision. In other words, not all “industrial wars” involved full mobilization or strategies of attrition, as Smith seems to suggest.

The book argues that a paradigm shift occurred with the advent of nuclear weapons:

The people – massed in their cities; the source of manpower and industrial power; the polity of the state – were now the only target worth attacking, since their cities were the most plausible objectives: constant, sitting targets of mass. And when the cities were destroyed, the forces in the field, cut off from the source of their purpose, direction and supply, could either surrender, be picked off in detail, or else concentrate and be struck with an atomic weapon. Mass industrial armies could no longer be effective in the face of a weapon of mass destruction.

Again, this is only true of total war, and there are qualifications even to this point. Full-scale conventional and thermonuclear war was a distinct possibility throughout the Cold War. Smith disagrees, explaining the Cold War confrontation in Europe as a period of mutual deterrence when both sides maintained large conventional formations to serve as “trip-wires” and hostages for the enemy’s nuclear weapons, all under the umbrella of mutually assured destruction. This is certainly the dominant Western narrative of the Cold War, but applying it to the Soviet side is a case of mirror-imaging. Since the end of the Cold War, it has come to light that the Soviets regarded MAD as a duplicitous Western conspiracy to disarm the communist world. When they discovered – to their astonishment – that we actually based our strategy around it, they thought we were either naive or stupid. Soviet doctrine was exactly what they said it was: a nuclear first-strike to disarm the U.S. followed by a massive conventional invasion to seize Western Europe. Deterrence did exist during the Cold War, but it had little to do with MAD, and more to do with Soviet political psychology.

Therefore, I think Smith’s argument that the advent of nuclear technology caused a dramatic paradigm shift needs to be qualified; the total industrial wars of the 19th and 20th centuries are no longer possible, but conventional wars between states remain so.

The author’s concept of “war amongst the people” suffers from a similar lack of clarity. In Smith’s own words,

the new paradigm of war amongst the people is based on the concept of a continuous crisscrossing between confrontation and conflict, regardless of whether a state is facing another state or a non-state actor. Rather than war and peace, there is no predefined sequence, nor is peace necessarily either the starting point or the end point: conflicts are resolved, but not necessarily confrontations.

The confrontation/conflict model is a useful intellectual construct, but its relevance applies to all war, not just “wars amongst the people.” Smith contrasts this model to industrial war where events move in the sequence peace-crisis-war-resolution. However, this does little to define either paradigm, because “peace” is a straw man. Even in 19th century Europe – a time when “industrial war” reigned supreme – rival powers would engage in all manner of diplomatic intrigue against one another; “peace” did not exist and the confrontation/conflict model is useful for understanding even this era. In short, the key distinction that Smith uses between the paradigms is no distinction at all.

All that said, Smith does a good job of explaining the six major trends of modern war:

(1) The ends for which we fight are changing from the hard absolute objectives of interstate industrial war to more malleable objectives to do with the individual and societies that are not states.

(2) We fight amongst the people, a fact amplified literally and figuratively by the central role of the media: we fight in every living room in the world as well as on the streets and fields of a conflict zone.

(3) We fight so as not to lose the force

(4) On each occasion new uses are found for old weapons

(5) The sides are mostly non-state

The rest of the book consists of recommendations on how to wage war in this new paradigm in a manner that has utility. All of this is valid and mirrors much else that has been written about military affairs in recent years (proper planning at the political/strategic levels, detailed analysis of all contexts, unity of political and military action, etc.) Many recent works on counterinsurgency echo similar ideas, which brings me to a slightly unrelated point. Counterinsurgency writing has almost become a literary genre recently. What concerns me about all these books is that with their emphasis on “winning hearts and minds,” conducting military operations within the rule of law, proper treatment of the media, etc. they create the impression that such wars must be tidy affairs that tolerate no error whatsoever. So when a car fails to stop at a checkpoint and is consequently riddled with bullets, the incident is immediately seized upon as evidence of military/strategic incompetence and the glaring need of “reform.” When military performance is judged by such an impossible standard, we blind ourselves to any real progress that has been made; we will endlessly rectify failure but we will not reinforce success.

Finally, I think Smith errs when he argues that a complete transformation of all our institutions is necessary to properly wage war in this new paradigm. That assumes “industrial war” will never again plague the earth, which is a very dangerous assumption. A military geared for counterinsurgency, peacekeeping operations and law enforcement is doomed when matched against an enemy willing to fight regular war. That the enemy’s victory is not decisive without the will of the people is small comfort to the defeated who have just witnessed the annihilation of their army. Just ask the Georgians.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Rupert Smith’s “Utility of Force”

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  3. Thankyou General Sir Rupert Smith,
    this book is a good occasion for a quality discussion about politicians and good politcs.
    Here in Italy just few people are really interested about good strategies for global security.
    I wish ,one day, to hear from some President that terrorism and narco traffic is the same organization and that a new era has to start throughouth a new global politic about drugs legalization under medical control.
    Sorry my orrible english…

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