The Utility of Force (by Rupert Smith)

The End of War as We Know It

Gen. Rupert Smith
Gen. Rupert Smith (Defence Picture Library)
Reviewed by Eliot A. Cohen
Sunday, January 21, 2007


The Art of War in the Modern World

By Rupert Smith

Knopf. 430 pp. $30

The British military is smaller than the U.S. Marine Corps; the British defense budget costs less than the Pentagon's research and development budget. But when, a year ago, an outraged British brigadier wrote a slashing (and according to some American officers, deeply unfair) critique of the U.S. Army's conduct of the Iraq War, attacking everything from its jargon to its general officer culture, something remarkable happened. The U.S. Army published the piece in its premier tactical journal, Military Review, and the Army's chief of staff passed the article around to our general officers.

The reason is that, with all of its limits, the British Army -- as ever, underfunded by a treasury more interested in welfare than warfare, underappreciated by a society whose representatives rarely visit wounded soldiers (some parked in geriatric wards) and overstretched by a cabinet and prime minister liberal in commitments and stingy with resources -- remains an extraordinary outfit. It has (in my experience, at least) a higher quotient of sophisticated leaders who have thought hard about the profession of arms and are more intellectually equipped to hold their own with civilian leaders than most militaries -- including, quite possibly, our own. Its soldiers have been engaged in operations at a pace that, until recently, exceeded that of the United States because it is a smaller and more frequently deployed force. Why, it even produces generals who write books -- serious, important books.

One such officer is Gen. Rupert Smith, who spent 40 years in the service, beginning in the sunset days of the British Empire in 1962 and concluding as the deputy supreme allied commander in Europe. He led the British armored division in the 1991 Gulf War, commanded the U.N. peacekeeping force in Bosnia in 1995 and spent many years in Northern Ireland. In each of these posts, he performed superbly -- an important point because the more remote Americans become from military life, the more they forget that not all generals are created equal.

The Utility of Force emerges from his experience and reflections. The nub of the argument lies in the final third of the book, after an extensive analysis of the modern system of war, which he dates to Napoleon and explores competently, though not particularly remarkably. But then, in a series of sharp blows, he describes the new model of war:

"The ends for which we fight are changing from the hard objectives that decide a political outcome to those of establishing conditions in which the outcome may be decided."

"We fight amongst the people, not on the battlefield."

"Our conflicts tend to be timeless, even unending."

"We fight so as to preserve the force rather than risking all to gain the objective."

"On each occasion new uses are found for old weapons and organizations which are the products of industrial war."

"The sides are mostly non-state, comprising some form of multinational grouping against some non-state party or parties."

The rest of the book explains and develops these themes, drawing largely on his own experience in Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia and the Middle East. But the larger argument is one of central concern to the United States -- indeed, to all developed nations.

If Smith is right, the U.S. military still has a long way to go in adapting to the world in which it finds itself. On the walls in our war colleges still hang the portraits of Grant and Lee, the paintings of the Leyte Gulf and the massed bomber formations over the skies of Germany in 1944. In our curricula are Chancellorsville and Inchon. But these, Smith believes, are not only the wars of the past -- they are the wars of a different era of conflict, and he has written his book to explore the patterns of new kinds of struggle.

The Israelis got a taste of this last summer, when they found themselves up against the Lebanese militia Hezbollah -- a queer amalgam of light infantry equipped with the latest Chinese and Russian technology, local guerrillas, international terrorists, a social welfare movement and a political party, trained by Syrians and Iranians and backed by volunteers from all kinds of places, including Africa. The war was not over territory or a concrete dispute but over symbols; it took place in a densely populated area in southern Lebanon and northern Israel where the "villages" had the population of a concentrated suburb outside a large American city. This was a different kind of war for the Israelis, and it's the kind of war we can expect too. To some extent, it is already the war we are experiencing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Utility of Force suffers somewhat from the limited perspective of even so widely experienced a soldier as Smith. While war "amongst the people" is now a very large (perhaps the largest) part of the world of military affairs, it's not the whole of it by a long shot. The threat, if not the reality, of old-fashioned, conventional wars still remains, particularly in Asia. A Japanese air force general looking coldly across the Yellow Sea might be forgiven for thinking in more traditional terms about protecting the airspace and ocean approaches of an island nation; so too might American admirals in Honolulu ruminating about the defense of Taiwan, or Indian generals pondering the lessons of the Kargil war of 1999. But these reservations aside, Smith has clearly written 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. ยท

Eliot A. Cohen is Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

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