March 1, 2007  

Old paradigms in new bottles

A strategy for fighting ‘amongst the people’

For more than a decade, since Martin van Creveld’s “The Transformation of War” was published in 1991, the security community has been besieged with reconceptualizations of war. Van Creveld foretold of a world of “nontrinitarian war” and the decline of the state. But his radical interpretation was dismissed by many after the rapid and traditional test of arms in Operation Desert Storm.

Later, after Operation Allied Force against Serbia, Gen. Wesley Clark wrote his own interpretation of the altered nature of conflict. In “Waging Modern War,” he detailed the rise of limited contests, the close fusion of political and military factors, an ever-present media influence and an increased requirement for continuous adaptation. His “modern wars” were, in effect, forms of coercive diplomacy, applying force with great precision to obtain limited objectives not defined by territory but by the opponent’s will. Currently, another wave of books and treatises on purported “new wars” has been offered in the U.S. and in Europe. The best of these has been T.X. Hammes’ “The Sling and Stone,” which highlights the West’s limited success against irregular approaches.

The latest entry in this debate is “The Utility of Force.” Penned by Rupert Smith, one of Europe’s most experienced generals — he enlisted in the British Army in 1962 and ultimately served as deputy supreme commander Allied Powers Europe — this book strives to explain a new paradigm that alters the use of military force in the pursuit of defined policy aims. It builds upon a lifetime of practical experience, in both conventional and irregular conflicts, by what is obviously a studious professional. His analysis of long-standing trends is thoughtful, albeit far from original. More important, his vision of the role of military force in resolving tomorrow’s conflicts and confrontations bears serious reflection and critical thinking.

The key argument of “The Utility of Force” is the purportedly new paradigm of war. “The first and second World Wars were essentially contests of will between great industrial states, involving head-to-head contests of their armed forces, and were aimed at the destruction of the opponent’s army. But this type of conflict no longer exists. The paradigm has changed,” Smith writes. “Instead, what has emerged is war amongst the people, where the strategic objective is to win the hearts and minds, and the battle is for the people’s will, rather than the destruction of an opponent’s forces.”

The essential difference between industrial wars and those “amongst the people” is that military force is no longer used to obtain a decisive resolution; it is used to create the conditions in which the strategic result is achieved by other means. Generally, the strategic object is altering the opponent’s intentions rather than destroying him. Because it involves the nature of the people and their belief systems, Smith argues that force retains its utility but is used only when there is a clear understanding of the nature of the conflict and a well-conceived strategy for achieving a goal. Clausewitz would find little to disagree with.

Instead of decisive wars, Smith argues that we live now in a world of confrontations and conflicts. Political affairs, national and international, are about resolving confrontations. But when one or both sides cannot get its way in a confrontation and will not accept an alternative outcome, it escalates to conflict and the use of armed force to attain desired aims. In Smith’s view, war was decisive strategically in industrial-age wars but is now used “sub-strategically.” The author finds that we are in a world of continual confrontations and conflicts, in which the military acts in the conflict to support the achievement of the desired outcome in the confrontation by other means — means such as diplomacy, economic development, and political and legal measures. Here again, Clausewitz would agree.

Smith defines “war amongst the people” with six characteristics or interacting trends. The ends for which we fight are changing. The strategic objectives for which we engage in conflict have changed from the hard, simple objectives of the industrial war — take, hold, destroy, unconditional surrender — to soft, malleable objectives that describe a condition. Smith notes we do not fight to defeat our opponents’ armed forces and take over their territory. The strategic objective today is to establish conditions on the ground or to change our adversary’s intentions. Deterrence and coercion are part of this new set of malleable objectives, as they relate to the intentions and will of our opponent.

The battlefield is no longer between the armed forces of two peoples. We no longer even fight as states, nor do we fight against a nation-state. Generally, we work within a collective of states of some type. These operations occur amongst the people — literally, amongst the people in their streets and in their living rooms.

We fight amongst the people in another sense, the author accurately observes, thanks to the ability of the media to reach those living rooms. Smith considers the media to be another intangible on the battlefield just like the weather, another medium within which you operate and about as controllable. Because of the influence of the media, he likens the theater of operations to a literal theater or a Roman arena. He also likens the role of a commander to that of a producer, responsible for developing a compelling narrative to influence the minds of people. Instead of Clausewitz’s duel, it’s a contest between producers. Combat and casualties are no longer the key cash transaction of war. The currency of war amongst the people is not firepower and attrition — it’s information.

Our conflicts are timeless. Industrial wars were fought with a blank check: The military was given carte blanche but asked to do it quick. Now, we fight to establish conditions on the ground in which the strategic result might be found by other means —and you have to hold that condition while that happens. This can take years or decades. No news here to Irish nationalists, Palestinians or Israeli statesmen. To this, Smith might have added that we are seeing a spate of conflicts fueled by religious fervor, which historically has led to protracted, brutal wars with deeply rooted antagonisms that cannot be negotiated by political or economic concessions. In addition to fighting for the people’s “hearts and minds,” we may have to add “souls.”

We fight so as not to lose the force. Smith admits to a “body bag effect” that influences when and how force is used. He also contends that military force is used sparingly because Western societies have declining populations and because there are no active tank or aircraft production lines to rebuild the army. The fundamentally Clausewitzian conception of correlating limited ends with limited means appears to elude Smith. Uncharacteristically for a British officer, he does not acknowledge the paradox that an excessive emphasis on force protection can be counterproductive, especially in irregular wars, where it may effectively isolate our forces from the population, our principal source of actionable intelligence and the center of gravity. The new Army/Marine counterinsurgency manual highlights this as one of the paradoxes of this mode of warfare.

On each occasion, new uses are found for old weapons. Because our forces were designed and equipped for industrial warfare, they are often irrelevant to the wars amongst the people. These instruments need to be reshaped for the new conditions and context within which they are employed. Examples include the extensive reliance on the reserves for civil affairs, engineering and information operations.

The sides are mostly nonstate. Rather than formal states, today’s conflicts often involve some multidimensional grouping or an ethnic entity.

Some of these trends are flashes of the obvious, but the implications apparently are not, given the poor track record that Western societies have in dampening conflicts in Europe, Africa and the Middle East of late. Wars amongst the people have proven to be complex and costly. Smith argues we need to change the way we think about the use of military force; reforge our institutional mind-sets, honed during decades of industrial war, to recognize that the ultimate objective in warfare among the people is to capture the minds of the people. He concludes that, institutionally, we do not have the capacity to link our military activities with a clear logic that can be carried on in the theater, to desired political outcomes. Until we can do that, we will not triumph. He also contends we need to find a way to bring other than military means to cement our successes on the battlefield into achieving the conditions desired. Here again, in the manifest failures during 2003 and 2004 in Iraq, who can argue with these implications?

Forged by a range of experiences in the real world, this book cannot be ignored. But it is not without faults. Clearly, the essence of war is a contest of political wills and Smith’s purported paradigm shift is less profound than he thinks. In fact, his distinction between military “tests of strength” and the political “clash of wills” may be illusory at best and dangerous at worst. As Colin Gray has tirelessly pointed out, there is far more to war than just warfare and fighting. The U.S. military is prone to the misconception that the clash of arms is somehow separated from the contest of wills, an apolitical orientation that is completely contrary to Clausewitz’s theory of war. Additionally, “The Utility of Force” undervalues the geostrategic continuities that may return existentialist interstate conflict to the fore.

But while it may focus excessively on the here and now, it aptly describes the many ambiguities and complexities that have haunted every U.S. intervention back to Beirut. Even if “war amongst the people” does not characterize all our future conflicts, it certainly captures the difficulties today in applying our unparalleled military power. The author’s implications for this mode of war offer policymakers and military leaders useful advice if we are to better match policy aims to our strategic tools. To paraphrase Sir Michael Howard, our military may not want to sign up for these kinds of wars, but they are the only kind we are likely to see for some time — and the only form of peace as well.