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The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World Paperback – February 12, 2008
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“One of the most important books on modern warfare in the last decade. We would be better off if the United States had a few more generals like him.” —The Washington Post Book World
“An impressive and absorbing work of military analysis. . . . Smith is the Clausewitz of low-intensity conflict and peacekeeping operations. . . . He brilliantly lays bare the newfound limits of Western military power.” —The New York Times Book Review
“It is hard to overstate the devastating nature of this book as an indictment of almost everything the West has done in recent years, and is doing today.” —The Sunday Telegraph
“A closely argued, searching textbook on strategy and the efficient use of military power in the post-Cold War era.” —The New York Times
About the Author
General Rupert Smith spent 40 years in the British Army, commanding the UK Armoured Division in the Gulf War, general in charge in Northern Ireland, commander of the UN forces in Bosnia and Deputy Commander of NATO. He lives in London.
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The major thesis of his book is that war has shifted from what he calls "War Between the People," typified by separate nation-states fighting till decisive victory on a distinct battlefield, to what he calls "War Amongst the People" which will feature conflict including non nation states, waged indefinitely and indecisively on an amorphous front that includes both physical lands and intangible ones such as the media.
The book is very strong in several regards. First, General Smith's elucidation of Clausewitzian strategy, as well as providing the historical backdrop for when, how and why it was developied, is simply first rate. The biggest lessons drawn from Clausewitz that are still relevant today are that force must be applied to achieve some pre-determined purpose (hence the "utility of force," it is not merely the destruction of your opponent), and the concept of the trinity of government, military and the people. The best way to defeat an enemy is to break this trinity. In War Between the People this could be done conceptually more simply by flat out destroying the enemy military or their government, or perhaps more elegantly by dissolving the people's allegiance to the policies of their government and military, more effective against a democracy such as North Vietnamese efforts to reinforce and inflame the anti-war movement. Second the book's military history from Napoleon to the end of the Cold War is truly outstanding, worth the price of the book itself.
Smith is certainly not alone in sensing a major shift in the type of wars we have found ourselves in for the past nearly two decades now, and in pointing out the intellectual bankruptcy of our "Revolution in Military Affairs," more a techno-advertisement than a strategic realignment of our military forces based on an understanding of our current world and the permanence of human nature. In his new War Amongst the People the Clausewitzian trinity of government, military and people still exists, clearly and distinctly for state actors, but in a much more diffused and maleable way for non state actors such as terrorists. Therefore breaking their trinity becomes a much more confusing and difficult thing to achieve, -but none the less necessary- and much of the military theory for fighting the wars of the past are no longer applicable.
Unfortunately his prescriptions for how to fight our current and future wars, beyond the simple and now hopefully universally agreed upon maxim that your war must have a vision of peace you want to achieve by expending your blood and treasure, are complex and ultimately confusing. Due to being deployed to the Middle East and out of internet access for 6 months I have had to wait that long to write my review for this book, and can barely remember any of his concepts and suggestions for fighting and winning future wars, which doesn't bode well for someone trying to develop a new conceptual framework for our warriors and our society for facing the future. The biggest thing I do remember though is a much more coordinated effort needed between the military, the state department, aid groups, and especially the media. He also appears fatalistic that Wars Amongst the People are essentially intractable and will require a practically permanent peacekeeper presence like we have in the former Yugoslavia, where he commanded forces during the fighting, and developed and employed much of his thinking, and where his final chapters focus. (There is little direct application of this thinking to Iraq and Afghanistan.)
The Utility of Force is an excellent work nonetheless, and highly recommended for people trying to understand the current state of the world and what we can actually do to protect ourselves. For counterpoint the works of Lt. Col. Ralph Peters are suggested too.
After an excellent discussion of Clausewitz, the Napoleonic era, and the development of the general staff, Smith traces the evolution of warfare through the 19th century through WWII, tracing the gradual transformation of conflict into total "industrial war." General Smith argues that, although nations still prepared for total war during the Cold War, the "industrial war" that culminated in WWII was made obsolete by the development of nuclear weapons. Smith's overview of military history is solid, but although he interjects Clausewitzian insights and begins to develop his concept of "war amongst the people," at times it is a bit mundane.
The post-WWII world has seen the emergence of "war amongst the people," and this is what Smith argues too many current leaders - political and military - have not adapted to. Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Balkans, and now Iraq are all examples of war amongst the people. Smith identifies six characteristics of war amongst the people: military force is indecisive without supporting political action; the fight is amongst the people and not on a battlefield; the conflicts are timeless; we fight to preserve the force rather than risking all to gain a military objective; new uses are found for old weapons; and the sides are mostly non-state, both multi-national organizations and non-state parties or groups.
Smith concludes with recommendations on how modern states can adjust to the new paradigm of war amongst the people. He argues that the militaries can transform themselves to fight the new war (he points out that the Impressionist artists were trained as Realists; they used the same tools and medium to see the world anew), although I believe it will be difficult to change the conservative mindset of the modern Western military. Just as importantly, though, political leaders must understand how to employ military force as part of a larger policy and realize that military objectives don't solve the problems of war amongst the people. Finally, Smith concludes that war amongst people is best conducted as an intelligence and information operation.
This is an excellent book, and Smith does a fantastic job tying Clausewitzian concepts into the modern world, although his recommendations at the end of the book are easier to write than to implement. At times this book reads like Wesley Clark, recommending the measured use of force to support political goals; at other times (when describing Smith's command in Bosnia), it reads like General Romeo Dallaire's "Shake Hands with the Devil," as Smith describes the maddening difficulties of commanding a multi-national force that is handicapped by a lack of political will. This book should be read by anyone interested in the modern military or in modern foreign policy or politics.
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