Review: The Utility of Force

In The Utility of Force, retired British general Rupert Smith applies frameworks from Clausewitz and his own experience to the problems of today’s open-ended wars.

From about 1800 to 1945, the dominant mode of war was “interstate industrial war,” invented by Napoleon; refined by Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, Bismarck, and Moltke; and brought to apotheosis in the Second World War. The essence of industrial war is the destruction of the enemy’s military and industrial capacity to resist, leading to a collapse of will. (Gen. Smith makes frequent use of the Clausewitzean trinity of military, state, and people.)

The antithesis of industrial war is war amongst the people. Napoleon brought us this as well, via his Peninsular campaign. Notable practitioners, after the Spanish guerrillas, include Lawrence, the Boers, Israeli paramilitaries, Lenin, Mao, and Giap. The essence of war amongst the people is the destruction of the enemy’s will to resist by employing strength only at the tactical level,

to constantly and expensively undermine the stronger army and to thereby break the will of the government and the people to make war.

Among the distinctive characteristics of war among the people:

  • 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.
  • Our conflicts tend to be “timeless” (open-ended) since the desired end-state is a condition.
  • We fight so as not to lose the force, like pre-Napoleonic armies.

Today interstate industrial war has effectively ended. This is due partly to the absence of identified enemies and the development of nuclear weapons, but mostly to a change in objectives. Whereas in industrial war strategic victory could be attained by destroying the enemy’s force in the field, in war amongst the people our objective is to change the will of the people (“winning hearts and minds”). Force has much less utility with respect to this objective: military victories can only be tactical.

The methods of industrial war are counterproductive when applied to war amongst the people. Expectations and mental frameworks from industrial war are equally inappropriate. When transposed to war amongst the people by politicians, journalists, generals, bureaucrats, and voters, they cause confusion, misinterpretation, and faulty action.

Our political-military institutions (e.g., the Prussian general staff model or the regular/reserve structure) developed organically from and in parallel to industrial war – each a product of the other. This can be seen in our very level of comfort with conflicts that fit (or appear to fit) the industrial war paradigm (WWII, Korea, and the First Gulf War), as opposed to the tension, ambiguity, and lack of commitment that plague our policy in other conflicts (Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia).

Gen. Smith prescribes a wholesale reorganization of armed forces and related entities to achieve formally the elusive goal of “unified action.” Diplomatic, economic, police, and military arms would be combined. Because the largest effective unit in war among the people is the company, this integration would occur from the theater level as far down as the company or platoon level. The composition of military forces would also change, with relatively less emphasis on armor and artillery and more on intelligence, civil affairs, linguistics, public relations, and propaganda (something like Thomas Barnett’s Leviathan/Sysadmin proposal.) Weapons procurement must drive suppliers to develop systems specifically for minimum-force applications. Planning must take into account a variety of political and strategic questions that could be left implicit in industrial war.

The Utility of Force is a timely and insightful assessment of how we fight today, and for what ends. It is an essential companion to recent works on counterinsurgency, strategy, and foreign policy, such as The Pentagon’s New Map, Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife, Imperial Grunts, or The Sling and the Stone. It should be required reading for ROTC students, presidential candidates, and members of America’s soft, vulnerable underbelly: Congress and the media.

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One Response to “Review: The Utility of Force”

  1. Fighting Perceptions « Zeal and Activity Says:

    […] of War Amongst the People, as formulated by Gen. Rupert Smith in his The Utility of Force. In our review of the book last month, we quoted the General: The essence of war amongst the people is the destruction of the […]

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