The 9/11 Reading List: Utility of Force

Christopher Coker reviews 'The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World' by Rupert Smith

Christopher Coker reviews
The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World
By Rupert Smith
Allen Lane, 2005

‘Only the dead have seen the end of war’. This quote appears as an epigram of Ridley Scott’s film Black Hawk Down (2001), which depicts the ill-fated 1993 Mogadishu raid. General Rupert Smith does not agree: War, he declares in his new book, no longer exists. Violence does; indeed it is flourishing.

So who is right? Is war as we traditionally understood it really coming to an end? Is war between states obsolete or will it come back into fashion as Colin Gray warns in his most recent book, Another Bloody Century? Or is Smith right? Is warfare now largely between peoples; is the violence Smith saw at first hand in Bosnia now the norm?

Plato, as it happens, never claimed that only the dead had seen the end of war. The quote can be found in General Douglas Macarthur’s farewell address to the West Point graduates of 1962, and Macarthur attributed it to Plato, probably innocently enough since the quote was in general currency at the time. It even appears on the wall of the Imperial War Museum in London. It seems to have been coined, in fact, by another philosopher, George Santayana, an American who studied at Oxford during the First World War.

Much depends, of course, on what we mean by the word ‘war’. If you read Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War – and some of its more vicious episodes such as the siege of Kerkyra (modern Corfu) – you will find a war between the peoples. He was describing civil war in the streets rather than pitched battle between opposing armies, and as if to underline the topsy-turvy abnormality of the conflict, Thucydides points out not only that women but also slaves fought on the democrats’ side. The very conjunction of the two groups, both disenfranchised in the male dominated world of Athens, now openly active in a public, civic context, was antinomian. For a good Greek like Thucydides, true war meant battles between opposing armies of males. True bravery in pitched battle was beyond the natural capacity both of slaves and women.

Nonetheless, Thucydides had no doubt that he was describing war, however perverse. Rupert Smith is therefore unwise to tell us that war is over. But hyperbole aside, what he is really claiming is that it is being transformed. His preferred word is ‘rhizomatic’, a term he uses to describe how terrorism propagates like a weed by the roots below ground, swiftly and unseen. Fifty years ago, the greatest twentieth century commentator on Clausewitz, Raymond Aron, preferred the word ‘polymorphous’ to describe how war (he was writing about the conflict in Algeria) constantly ‘morphs’. What he found in Algeria was sometimes a war of terrorism; sometimes a war of liberation; sometimes a conflict involving a large criminal element, including the type of warlords that Smith encountered in person in the Balkans. Were Aron alive today, he might prefer to use the word ‘polymorphous’ in terms of our computer-fixated age, for the insurgents in Iraq are like computer viruses that proliferate. We are told that in the first twelve minutes that Microsoft software is switched on, computers now have a 50 per cent chance of catching viruses. They proliferate. Some leap from user to user and then lie dormant for months. Some evade immediate detection only to pop up later. Some are even programmed to undergo spontaneous mutations. Their importance is they have no function apart from their own reproduction. Most important of all, to use a Darwinian term, there is no necessary connection between their own reproduction and the good of anything, between their fitness from their own point of view and their contribution to the general fitness, however the ‘general’ may be defined.
Like computer viruses, polymorphous actors proliferate even faster than they did in the traditional guerrilla wars of the last century. They are complex, adaptive systems. Like living organisms they adapt to attacks against them and the reality they constitute is always shifting, so much so that they confuse local commanders on the ground. Terrorists, Smith warns us, find it much easier to adapt than do states. The terrorist, he adds persuasively, demonstrates a better understanding of the utility of force in serving his particular purpose than those who are opposed to him, both political leaders and military establishments.

Smith has had personal experience of both at the highest level both as a divisional commander in the first Gulf War, as the UNPROFOR commander in Bosnia and as the General Officer Commanding (GOC) in Northern Ireland. War alas, is not over. The eye-catching quote detracts from the force of his own argument. War is merely metastasizing. It always does but it never succeeds in killing off its host body.

Smith is absolutely right, however, to condemn the failure of both governments and the generals who advise them to have grasped this in time. Their failure both in Bosnia and Iraq (and possibly soon in Afghanistan, too) to identify and think through the true strategic object of these campaigns and its implications is regrettable indeed. ‘The starting point to understanding all operations in the Balkans in the 1990s…is that they were without strategies’.

So good, up to a point. But was the war in Bosnia really a ‘war between peoples’? Isn’t this diagnosis misleading also? The conflict was not between peoples or even ethnic groups, but ambitious politicians and their ‘home boy subcontractors’ (the phrase is the anthropologist’s, Clifford Geertz) who killed in the name of Milosevic, Karadzic, Tudjman and Izetbegovic, the warlords who emerged from the detritus of Tito’s Yugoslavia. It was these private armies, eighty-three in all, who carried out murders for profit. Cruel when winning, they rarely put up much of a fight when losing. But then we never put their resolution to the test, so convinced were we by reading second-hand accounts by journalists such as Robert Kaplan (the author of the highly misleading book Balkan Ghosts) that suggested that any intervention by the outside world would end in the kind of mess we are witnessing in Iraq today. This is why, Smith writes, that no nation that sent forces to UNPROFOR, the force he commanded, had any intention of committing those forces to battle or indeed of risking them at all. Because they had an imperfect understanding of the nature of the conflict they frightened themselves into inaction.

When it comes to Iraq the force of Smith’s criticism is much greater. When General Franks completed his plan for Operation Iraqi Freedom he turned to his aides and remarked, ‘this is what they call grand strategy’. It isn’t. Winning on the battlefield is what is called tactics. Strategy is winning the war – to quote Clausewitz: winning the battle of wills. The objective is not to crush, but to change minds. Since the summer of 2003 the war in Iraq has mutated into a contest of wills between the Coalition and over sixty identified groups. Some are in for the long haul (Al-Qa’ida); some are fly-by-night organizations; some will fight hard; others won’t stay the course if pressed too closely.

In this kind of conflict, Smith tells us, we have armies with the wrong equipment and the wrong doctrines. They need more language skills, and more anthropologists to tell them what is going on; and more intelligence of enemy intentions. Donald Rumsfeld loves to quote Sun Tzu: ‘Know your enemy’, but what Sun Tzu meant by this was knowing the enemy’s intentions, not capabilities. Our technological gizmos and sensors can detect the latter, not the former. There is no alternative to spies in the enemy camp. Assessing capabilities is not enough.

No wonder that the morale of the American armed forces in Iraq is fast ebbing as it did in Vietnam. All morale tends to ebb not in adversity or even defeat: for the lessons of defeat can be learned quickly. It tends to ebb when soldiers have little confidence in their generals or politicians; when they suspect, often correctly, that they don’t really know what is going on. The Americans talk of ‘Military Transformation’ but what is really being transformed is war itself. We should read Smith’s book as a warning to the future. His experience, distilled in a book sometimes too controversial for its own good, should become standard reading in every military academy.

Christopher Coker
Professor of International Relations
London School of Economics

This book review was first published in the RUSI Journal (Vol. 150, No. 6, December 2005).


Explore our related content