A Warhorse of a Different Color

Read Time:
5m 57sec

The Art of War in the Modern ­World.

By Rupert Smith. Knopf. 448 pp. $30

Reviewed by Andrew J. Bacevich

Nearly two decades ago, Francis Fukuyama undertook to describe the nature of politics after “the end of history.” Now British general Sir Rupert Smith has set himself a similar task: to define the role of arms and armies now that war is obsolete. According to Smith, a new military paradigm has emerged, and The Utility of Force is his effort to identify and distill its ­essence.

Though Smith served for 40 years as an officer in the British army, the biographical note appended to The Utility of Force carefully avoids identifying him as a soldier. Instead, it describes him as “one of the most senior international practitioners in the use of force.” This nebulous characterization is a ­tip-­off to both the virtues and the defects of the book as a whole. In his assessments of the ­present-­day role of military officers and the complex nature of contemporary armed conflict, Smith argues with considerable effectiveness that old verities about war and warriors no longer stand up to careful scrutiny. But the new verities he offers in their place do more to obfuscate than to ­clarify.

The Utility of Force defies easy categor­ization. Smith laces his account with references to personal experiences in Africa, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and the Persian Gulf (he commanded the UK Armored Division during Operation Desert Storm), but the result is not really a memoir. Neither does the book qualify as history, though its first third recounts the evolution of war since the French Revolution. Instead, it is a ­lengthy—­and at times ­repetitive—­meditation on the ambiguous and shifting relationship between armed force and politics in our ­times.

The opening sentence makes the essential point: “War no longer exists.” Conflicts and confrontations persist, but the traditional conception of war as a collision of armies in which one side emerges victorious is no longer meaningful. Of this Smith is quite certain. The old model, which he describes as “interstate industrial war,” had “ceased to be a practical proposition with the invention of the atomic bomb.” During the decades that followed the bombing of Hiroshima, a host of conflicts in places ranging from French Indochina to the West Bank illustrated its limits. America’s defeat in Vietnam was only the most prominent example. Time and again, attempts by ­machine-­age armies to impose their will on irregular forces supported by a sympathetic population failed. Smith himself commanded the United Nations Protection Force in Bosnia throughout 1995, and left persuaded that the old paradigm of war was not only obsolete but even ­pernicious.

Nonetheless, other events during the postwar ­decades—­above all the several ­Arab-­Israeli ­wars—­sustained the illusion that this old paradigm had not yet breathed its last. The exploits of Israeli generals such as Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon seemed to reinforce the tradition of heroic leadership that produced decisive battlefield victories, exemplified by such World War II commanders as German field marshal Erwin Rommel and U.S. general George S. Patton. As a conse­quence, Western soldiers, politicians, and publics clung to their belief that the best guarantee of security lay in putting the right mix of tanks and ­fighter-­bombers into the hands of ­warrior-­generals. But this was an illusion, as even the Israelis eventually learned at the hands of Hezbollah and Hamas.

According to Smith, the aftermath of the Cold War fully “unmasked the new paradigm that had long been lurking.” In this new form of armed ­conflict—­in Bosnia and Kosovo, Somalia and Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan—“political and military activities are constantly inter­mingled throughout.” Whereas the hall­mark of generalship had once been the orchestration of a climactic battle or campaign, it was no longer possible for “a single massive event of military decision” to produce “a conclusive political result.” In one instance after another, Western armies deploying into these zones of disorder found that decision itself had become a chimera. Once begun, conflicts sputtered on indefinitely.

Old-­fashioned war had been waged in the material world, with the intent of dealing death and destruction. In Smith’s view, the new mode of conflict tends toward the psychological. The aim is not to defeat your ­enemy—­that’s probably ­impossible—­but to change the way he and his supporters think. Ordnance matters less than ideas, firepower less than information, combatants less than the noncombatant population for whose allegiance both sides compete. In short, Smith argues, getting the hang of “war amongst the people” will require Western armies to abandon the outdated dogmas of interstate industrial war and embrace a radically different set of principles. The name of the game is no longer to win but to influence.

No American witnessing the way that Presi­dent George W. Bush and his generals have bungled the Iraq war can deny that our leaders, civilian and military alike, will have to get a lot smarter if the U.S. armed services are to persuade the Islamic world to embrace the blessings of democracy. Oblivious to history, the civilians who conceived of Operation Iraqi Freedom launched their war in utter disregard of the realities that defined the nation they presumed to liberate. Confident of the invincibility of U.S. forces, the unimaginative generals who directed that campaign failed to anticipate that decisively toppling Saddam Hussein might mark not the end of their task, but its ­beginning.

Clearly, fresh thinking is needed. Still, there are at least two problems with Smith’s new ­paradigm.

First, “war amongst the people” is not especially new, as any historically literate British officer should appreciate. The American war of independence that began in April 1775 and concluded in October 1781 was nothing if not an example of “war amongst the people.” Whatever the importance of battles such as Saratoga and Yorktown, the outcome of the war turned ulti­mately on whether the inhabitants of the 13 colonies saw themselves as British or American. Through a combination of political and military ­action—­including methods that today would fall under the rubric of ­terrorism—­the ­home­grown revolutionaries proved more effective in tipping the balance of opinion than the representatives of the Crown.

Second, the obituary that Smith writes for the old model is almost certainly premature. After all, though Operation Iraqi Freedom evolved into a “war amongst the people,” it began in 2003 as an interstate industrial war. A resump­tion of hostilities on the Korean penin­sula or a showdown between India and Pakistan, neither of which would come as a complete surprise, would likely resemble the interstate wars of the 20th century.

Smith would have us believe that war is no longer A; it has instead become B. Yet history suggests that war is both A and ­B—­not to mention C, D, E, and F. Carl von Clausewitz had it right: War is a chameleon. Based on circum­stance, it changes its appearance, even as its essential nature remains fixed. International practitioners in the use of force should remember this. So too should soldiers.

More From This Issue