Winter 2005

The Utility of Force: What if War Is No Longer What It Used to Be?

Rupert Smith

War no longer exists. Armed forces, of both states and non-state entities undoubtedly abound all round the globe, as do confrontations and conflicts. However, the event know as War”, especially to non-combatants; war as battle in a field between men and machinery; war as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs; such war no longer exists.

Consider this: in 1914 the men of Europe marched under their countries’ flags in their thousands and died on the battlefields in their thousands, in the cause of their nation state in an almost industrial process. In 1939 they did it again, and in addition the states attacked the people and their industries in their homes and cities, in the Blitz, in the Strategic Bombing Campaigns, in the Holocaust, and with the Atomic Bomb. And in September 2001 a group of people using the apparatus of the state attacked the totems of that state, in such a way and to such effect that The War on Terror followed.

This is a war on a state of mind: a conflict in which the US, a state with the largest best-equipped military forces in the world, is unable to dictate the outcome desired. A conflict in which forces with great potential to exert power are unable to do so to advantage when challenged by forces that are by the same standards ill-equipped and disorganised. A conflict in which military force is unable to achieve the outcome desired as it did in the two World Wars.

It is our contention that this is not an anomaly but a radical shift in the very paradigm of war: instead of Industrial war there is now a new paradigm of War Amongst the People. The essential difference is that military force is no longer used to decide the political dispute, but rather to create a condition in which the strategic result is achieved. As a result we do not move in the linear process of Peace—Crisis—War—Resolution—Peace; we are now in a world of continual Confrontations and Conflicts in which the military acts support the achievement of the desired outcome by other means.

Interstate industrial war evolved throughout the nineteenth century on both sides of the Atlantic, and came to culmination in the two world wars of the twentieth century. It originated with the French Revolution, with the Napoleonic Wars and the creation of the modern nation state with its citizens, and it was most brilliantly conceptualised by Clausewitz. Much has been written of his monumental work On War, and much of this is distorted, especially the notion that war is a continuation of politics by other means. But there are two concepts originated by Clausewitz that remain crucial to our understanding of war.
The first was that a state at war could be considered as a trinity of the government, the army or military forces, and the people. These three can be considered as the sides of an equilateral triangle, in which the sides have to be in balance. Absent one side or reduce its size and the strength of the triangle is negated or weakened.

The second idea was that the outcome of a battle could be understood as the product of a Trial of Strength and a Clash of Wills. Take two well matched boxers, with an equal will to win: as the trial of strength, the exchange of blows, continues between them one or the other’s will may be eroded. At war, the military has the force and the will to win, known as morale. But this is all backed up by the government and the people, as per the Clausewitzian trinity: the political will to win is found in and expressed by government, but this will is founded in the people.

Industrial war was no longer viable after 1945, but the underpinning idea that War was an absence of Peace, and that events moved in a linear process from Peace-to Crisis-to War-to Resolution-to Peace remained. Worse still, the institutions that had been developed to conduct industrial war remained – and it is these that have dealt with our conflicts in the past sixty years, not realizing they were of another paradigm.

The antithesis to Industrial war also goes back to Napoleon, or indeed to the Napoleonic Wars. The Spanish people lost their Trial of Strength with the French, but continued with the Clash of Wills: the people rather than the formal army went to war and waged a Small War, the Guerrilla War. The basic tactic of the guerrilla is to engage only on his terms in the ambush and the raid, to avoid being pinned down in a fight for ground, and to depend on the people for support both physical and moral; in short to engage only in tactical acts. In the circumstances of the time these guerrilla actions were not, as we say these days, decisive. But they were certainly significant: they maintained the Spanish people’s spirit and individual national identity even though occupied, and became Napoleon’s running sore”, with their acts holding down 200,000 of Napoleon’s 300,000 soldiers in the peninsula.

The ideas of the Anarchists and the Communist revolutionaries added to the basic tactical idea of guerrilla war. They produced a generic strategy of three related components that enabled the use of the tactical acts to achieve a political purpose: 

  • The Strategy of Provocation: here one seeks to provoke an over-reaction so as to paint the opponent in the colours of the bully, the oppressor, the tyrant and thereby gain sympathy, support, credibility for ones cause, and recruits. One also tests the opponents tolerance and discovers the level at which he will react, so as to operate safely below that threshold. 
  • The Propaganda of the Deed: here one establishes ones’ importance. You have to be taken seriously and be treated with on equal terms. Publicity is crucial here, for by achieving publicity one exists, and by existing one becomes credible. And this attracts recruits and support. 
  • The Erosion of the Will: by operating to create a continuous and steady drain of men and resources with no prospect of a satisfactory cessation of the conflict, the will of those opposed to one is eroded. Minor concessions are granted or successes gained serially and can be built on incrementally. 

It is now worthwhile returning to Clausewitz and his Trinity. If we examine the trinities engaged in revolutionary war, in which the governance of the state is at issue, the people are common to both triangles: the government, the police and army-the security forces, and the people, on one side – that of the official state; and on the other the revolutionary leaders and their promise of a better life, the terrorist and guerrilla groups, and the same people. In other words the will of the people, the same group of people, is the identical strategic objective of both sides. And short of coercing their will in Stalinesque programmes of terror and mass deportation, this must be won by means and in a way other than the direct use of military force.

To be clear, at the tactical level, military force will have a part to play in order to provide the Deeds, the Provocations and Erosion of Will. The revolutionary or activist is using force and must be countered and defeated – however, he must be defeated in such a way that the military acts are coherent with the other measures to win the will of the people. And it is this way that is at the heart of War Amongst the People – a way which many military, political and policy officials have yet to learn or understand, since they are still thinking in terms of industrial war.

In industrial war the opponents set out with the primary objective to win the Trial of Strength, devoting all their forces and resources to destroying the opponents’ capability to resist and thereby win the Clash of Wills. In War Amongst the People the primary objective is to win the Clash of Wills. In industrial war the opponents seek to resolve the political confrontation that was its cause directly by military force. The objectives for the use of military force in such war are hard and simple, take, hold, destroy, defeat”, are the sort of words used, all describing the desirable outcome of a trial of strength. In War Amongst the People the objectives are malleable and complex, they describe a condition, which enables intentions to be changed or formed by other means, an example would be create a safe and secure environment”. In War Amongst the People military force does not resolve the confrontation directly, the conflicts or forceful acts contribute to one or other sides efforts to win the Clash of Wills and thus decide the confrontation.

So instead of a world in which peace is understood to be an absence of war and we move from one to the other in a linear process-peace-crisis-war, we are in a world of permanent confrontations. Within these conflicts, potential and actual, as the various opponents seek to influence each other’s intentions with military acts – the intentions being the confrontation, the conflicts being the conflicts. But to be effective these acts must be coherent with and allied to the other measures that affect intentions.

In this context a confrontation occurs when two or more bodies in broadly the same circumstances are pursuing different outcomes. Political affairs of all stripes, national and international, are about resolving confrontations. And when one or both sides cannot get their way and will not accept an alternative outcome, they sometimes seek to use military force to get it – they turn to conflict. But in taking this course of action, if a side is weak and has little to lose, it does not play to the opponent’s strengths, but rather follows the path of the guerrilla and the terrorist: avoiding set battle, it does not present the opponent with opportunities to strike the mortal blows. Or else it seeks to replicate his strength, and like North Korea and others develop an atomic weapon.

If you are very strong and have atomic weapons you have too much to lose in using them – which is why they have not been used so far. And if you are strong you still have to find a way to exert power, to use your strength; for as the philosopher Michel Foucalt said, power is a relationship not a possession”, an observation in vein with Archimedes’ understanding that given a fulcrum he could move the earth. And that is now the problem of the west, or those who use conventional armies against insurgents”: for if the opponent has moved amongst the people it is extremely difficult to establish this relationship to advantage since the underpinning idea of the strategies of Provocation and so forth is to establish the relation to the disadvantage of conventional military force. The result is that the conflicts are sub-strategic; frequently only tactical, in effect.

It is these Confrontations and Conflicts which are the Wars Amongst the People, and they have six trends. We fight amongst the people: Firstly, the objective is the will of the people. Secondly, the opponent often operating to the tenets of the guerrilla and the terrorist depends on the people for concealment, for support both moral and physical, and for information. And thirdly the strategy of provocation and propaganda of the deed require the people to work. But these conflicts take place amongst the people in another sense, through the media: we fight in every living room in the world as well as on the streets and fields of a conflict zone.

Indeed, a strong reason we still see war within the interstate industrial model is the media, which usually depicts it from the perspective of the conventional military forces sent in by nation states. Moreover, because the media have little time or space to convey information – a minute or three on screen or on air, a few inches in the daily press – they must work with cognitive images and jargon in order to be appealing to and understood by their audiences. These images and jargon are all of individuals and situations involving conventional armies in industrial war. In itself this has now created a new loop, since much of the audience and even segments of the media realize there is a dissonance between what is being shown and experienced and what is being explained – the former clearly being other forms of war, the latter being desperate attempts to use the framework of interstate war to interpret war amongst the people. Taking an example from our daily TV news flashes from Iraq, we see heavily armed soldiers patrolling in tanks through streets full of women and children; or else we see ragged civilian men and children attacking heavily armed soldiers in tanks. The pictures themselves clash with our cognitive senses, and the interpretation then laid on them by the reporter or studio commentator – attempting to explain the military actions of the soldiers – confuses us further. A new reality is being restructured into an old paradigm, for the most part unsuccessfully.

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

The justification and legitimacy of the acts based upon these objectives may be the concepts of the nation state, as in the pre-emptive action in Iraq in 2003; but equally they may often be based on concepts of human rights, and therefore defined as Humanitarian Operations. All these operations – which are still largely called wars in the media and amongst wide swathes of the population – are expeditionary: they involve sending a military force far away. This force will fight a variety of opponents, often quite poorly armed, but will nonetheless score quite a lot of success against the conventionally armed forces. Overall, the aim of these objectives is to establish a condition – a situation in which political interaction and negotiation is possible, for example – rather than a clear outcome. Indeed, if a definitive victory was the hallmark of interstate industrial war, then establishing a condition may be deemed the hallmark of the new paradigm of war amongst the people.

Our conflicts tend to be timeless: in industrial war there was a need for a quick victory since all of society and the state were subjugated to the cause. In the new paradigm it is but another activity of the state, and can be sustained nearly endlessly i.e. it is timeless. We fight so as not to lose the force, rather than fighting by using the force at any cost to achieve the aim. This is mainly because in these modern operations, as noted above, the outcome is not meant to be definitive – and therefore the operation has to be sustained open-endedly. The force must therefore be preserved. In addition, in an era of declining defence budgets and general interest in matters military (though this may not be apparent in the current US budget), all forces are double earmarked. The planner must be prepared to commit them to another venture as priorities change, even to the close defence of the kingdom – after all, that is what the tax-payer paid for. I believe I am the first commander since possibly Wellington to have to consider in 1990, as the British Divisional Commander in the Gulf, how to fight with my force so as to bring it back: I had with me every working tank engine in the UK. My abiding memory of my military visitors from the UK was their interest as to whether or not they would get the train-set back. Finally, the bogey-man of all military planners, especially in the US, is body bags, which are deemed totally unacceptable in the body politic and the public. (That said, one of the unspoken aspects of the US war in Iraq is a latent arithmetic: if approximately 3,000 Americans were lost on 9/11, then up to 3,000 casualties will be acceptable in the War Against Terror, wherever it takes place.)

On each occasion new uses are found for old weapons: those constructed specifically for use in a battlefield against soldiers and heavy armaments, now being endlessly adapted to war amongst the people – and mostly inadequately since the tools of industrial war are often irrelevant to war amongst the people. If we are not using these equipments for the purpose and in the way we had intended something must have changed. What is happening is that our opponents are operating below the threshold of the utility of our forces.

The sides are non-state: we tend to carry out these actions in multi-national grouping or in non-state groupings. Increasingly, we are in the former and the opponent is in the latter. These coalitions need not be the formal ones like the NATO Alliance or the UN or that in Iraq today, but are often – particularly in the theatre of operations – informal, and include in effect other agencies, such as the OSCE or the UNHCR, or NGO’s such as OXFAM or MSF ((Médécins sans Frontières), and local actors such as the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan or the KLA in Kosovo. 

The consequences and implications of this change in the paradigm of war and these trends are many and will vary with particular circumstances. There is no simple set of measures to be adopted; this is a complex matter and the balance between changes will need to be struck carefully.

The single most important thing to change is the way we think about the use of military force. To recognise the change in paradigm and accept that our institutional mindsets, developed and honed during years of industrial war, need to change. Force has utility, if it does not why are we so concerned about terrorist groups, the spread of nuclear weapons, war lords, ethnic cleansing, or is it genocide, in Darfur and so on? Why is it that our opponents appear to understand the utility of force rather better than we do? How do we bring our military force to bear to advantage?

In the first instance this is not a matter of equipments and military organisations or their tactical use. We must understand the confrontation in question and the outcome we desire from it in sufficient detail that we can decide what part military force has to play in resolving it. Only then can we usefully consider the nature of the forces necessary to achieve the result intended. We need to understand the employment of force rather than the deployment of forces. Deploying forces is easy, deciding when, on what and to what purpose to employ force is much harder, particularly when your objective is to alter intentions.

And this is made more complex because we must understand and decide on the other measures that are necessary to alter or form intentions: political, legal, social, economic and so on. Decide which has the lead or primacy, and in what circumstances, and thereby decide and designate the directing mind — the arrangements for command and control. I say this because all our institutional structures, thinking and process are based on the conduct of Industrial war; where the confrontation was to be resolved by military force with conflict at the strategic level. If conflict is only to take place at the tactical level, how do we make the tactical military acts coherent with and complimentary to the other measures necessary to change or form our opponents’ intentions and so win the our theatre and strategic level confrontations?

And how do we do this in our multinational groupings? How do we bring together the other measures with those of the military, and provide the essential direction for all efforts in the Theatre. NATO was designed to put a military strategy into effect — MAD, or mutually assured destruction. It has no capacity to handle political, legal or economic measures except as they affect its own existence. It only does force. The EU has great potential in this regard: it does have the other organs of power, probably more developed than its military, and could produce coherent direction and action. This may well provide for the political and strategic direction to win the confrontation, but this must be brought together under a directing hand in the theatre; for it is here that the opponent is faced and if we lack the driving logic necessary to guide our actions, we will fail. We are all engaging in War Amongst the People, states and non states alike, in which our opponents, those formless non state actors, appear to understand the utility of force better than we do. And until we understand the nature of War Amongst the People and adapt our thinking and institutional structures accordingly, our statesmen and generals will fail to deliver the victories and security we seek.

General Sir Rupert Smith commanded the UK Armoured Division in the 1990–91 Gulf War, was Commander UNPROFOR in Bosnia in 1995, GOC Northern Ireland 1995–98, and then Deputy Commander of NATO; he retired in 2002. Dr Ilana Bet-El is a historian and defence analyst, who writes and publishes regularly on European and international defence and security issues.