Books: The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World

Gen. Rupert Smith
Author, British leader in Gulf War, Bosnia,
Thursday, January 18, 2007; 1:30 PM

Gen. Rupert Smith, author of " The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World," was online Thursday, Jan. 18, at 1:30 p.m. ET to discuss the analysis of the shift in military conflicts in the past century and the need for adaptability in a modern fighting force, the missions of which often are more political than military.

In the book, Smith examines the lessons learned from a life in the British military, which included stints in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and the Balkans. "On every occasion that I have been sent to achieve some military objective in order to serve a political purpose, I, and those with me, have had to change our method and reorganize in order to succeed," he writes.

A transcript follows.


New York: General, thanks for taking questions today. I have heard the intervention in Bosnia characterized either as a success or a failure, depending on who is speaking, but it certainly seems a success compared to our misadventure in Iraq. Wasn't the Bosnia solution primarily political and not military? Do you see it as a success or failure, or some of both?

Gen. Rupert Smith: All interventions are politically motivated. and while the military will have a part. the end result will be measured in political terms. In the new paradigm of war -- read my book! -- the military only will have tactical-level, very occasionally theater-level, successes. For them to have any value they must firmly be nested in the political -- or what I call the confrontational --activity. Bosnia/Balkans gives an excellent example of this when in 1995 military activity set the conditions for Holbrook's excellent diplomacy.


Milan, Italy: We've all seen the radical Islamic demonstrations in London, where threats are shouted against the U.K. Is any action being taken or are these threats being ignored?

Gen. Rupert Smith: There was a recent trial of one such case that I expect will establish the base line of what will be tolerated.


Wheaton, Md.: Within the United Nations, there is a complete unwillingness to confront, or even acknowledge, aggression and terrorism. Would you agree that this is one of the main reasons aggressor nations and terrorists continue their hostilities?

Gen. Rupert Smith: I do not agree with your assertion. For example the U.N. Secretariat and the SG have been telling the world about what is going on in Darfur, but the member nations have yet to respond effectively. However, I do agree that if the Security Council and the states of the United Nations acted more positively it would go a long way to deterring aggression whether by states or terrorists.


Oslo, Norway: Throughout the British Mandate period in Palestine, the British policy became more pro-Arab with curfews, restricting immigration and preventing land sales on the Jewish community, while failing to prevent attacks on Jews and posing none of these restrictions on Arabs. Was this a mistake by the British, and a breach of the Balfour Declaration?

Gen. Rupert Smith: I do not know enough of this particular period to answer this.


Lyme, Conn.: What good is having over one-half of the world's military expenses and having enough weapons to kill every person on Earth, and the technology to monitor every square-mile of Earth, if the enemy is going to be a sniper or a planted bomb? As we modernize, our military enemy adjusts to our weaknesses. What will it take to strengthen our weaknesses?

Gen. Rupert Smith: I cover this to a degree in my book. Essentially we must change the way we think about using military force. Our opponents are operating below the utility of our weapons in a tactical sense and strategically they act so that we tend to take military actions that play to their advantage. We need to start by finding their weaknesses and then attack them.


Princeton, N.J.: Do the British have the situation under control in Basra or is it chaos? I've heard both.

Gen. Rupert Smith: My knowledge of the situation is based on the media reporting -- as far as that goes they seem to have a handle on the situation.


Austin, Texas: Given your experience in Northern Ireland, what similarities do you see with the sectarian violence in Iraq and what lessons would the "coalition" forces be wise to adopt?

Gen. Rupert Smith: I see very few similarities and none at all above the most basic level.


Arlington, Va.: Would the United States government be causing more or less harm to Iraqi civilians by leaving the country?

Gen. Rupert Smith: I think that a withdrawal in the near-term would be likely to lead to greater instability and violence with even greater civilian casualties.


Suffolk, Va.: General: What is your assessment of the Bush administration's refusal to "negotiate with terrorists," thereby seemingly irrevocably committing the U.S. to the continued use of force ?

Gen. Rupert Smith: This is a difficult one because of the dilemma you outline. I think the approach -- again, outlined in my book -- is to understand the situation at two levels: the confrontation, essentially political/economic/etc, in which one is "negotiating" albeit not over the table, and the conflict where you carry out military acts to support you in gaining your position in the confrontation.


Brighton, U.K.: The recent Marine/Army counterinsurgency manual, co-authored by General Petraeus, seems to advocate measures in line with your book at the tactical level. But these measures seem unlikely to succeed in Iraq because the political solution that's being sought is too unrealistic. Would you agree?

Gen. Rupert Smith: I have had one quick read of the manual and it seemed to me to be saying all the right things. It is not so much that the political outcome desired must be realistic but that the military measures are coherent with all the others -- political/economic/law & order -- that go to achieving the outcome and support their achievements


Vero Beach, Fla.: I'm surprised that it took so long to publish your book in the U.S. The Guardian's review was very positive. The New Yorker magazine recently had a story on Australian military sociologist David Kilcullen, who's on detail to our State Department. I suspect his approach to knowing the enemy resembles yours.

Gen. Rupert Smith: Now you are into the mysteries of the book trade -- but thanks to Amazon the U.K. edition published Sep 2005 was being bought in the States -- so some have read it!

From what I understand of Kilcullen he and I would analyze the opponent in a similar way.


Washington, D.C.: General, I expect that I will read your book and perhaps the answer lies there. Recently I read that the books dealing with guerrilla warfare as developed during the Vietnam was were removed from the shelves at the U.S. War College about five years ago on the basis that we would not fight such a war in the future. Now we seem to be fighting that kind of war and yet our generals, many of whom were in Nam, still do not appear to know how to fight such a war. Do you have an answer for that? Is there a way to make modern armies, which I assume are trained to fight wars on a grand scale, capable of retooling for these small wars? Thanks

Gen. Rupert Smith: Please buy and read the book! The answer to your question is in there.


New York: It seems that -- in the U.S. at any rate -- decisions regarding military hardware and weapons systems are made according to who has the best lobbyists and biggest checkbook as opposed to what global realities dictate (as seen in the film "Why We Fight"). Do you think that the lobbying/political contributions of military contractors are huge factors in why we've often failed to adjust to the changing landscape of war? Forgive me if you've covered this in your book, which I have not read yet.

Gen. Rupert Smith: Yes I touch on this subject in the book but in the end it is governments advised by their generals and admirals who state the requirement and sign the checks -- if the Chiefs said they wanted a ____ they would get one, albeit probably the one that came fro mm the best source of votes and lobbying. The important thing is that we change the way we think to match the paradigm of what I call War Amongst the People -- which is not a new name for counterinsurgency


Washington, DC: We have all these problems with Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and there seems to be a great deal of talk but little practical activity, so what can be done to move things forward? Thank you.

Gen. Rupert Smith: Please see some of my other answers -- essentially we need to change the way we are thinking about the use of military force. Military force has utility otherwise why are we so troubled by terrorism, nuclear proliferation, ethnic cleansing, etc. What we have to learn is how to apply it effectively in our current circumstances or we will win every engagement, as we do, and lose the war


Washington: How should we be restructuring defense spending to get the biggest "bang for our buck" in fighting the "War On Terror?"

Gen. Rupert Smith: Please see my answer to a similar question


Fort Leavenworth, Kan.: Gen. Smith -- many view the troop surge in Iraq as too little too late. Gen. Petreaus is scheduled to take charge in a few weeks -- what advice would you give him for success?

Gen. Rupert Smith: I do not know enough of the situation to know whether the 'surge' is too little or too late -- it is not so much the numbers involved as what they are to do and how what they do is to support the achievement of the overall confrontational/political outcome.

As for giving advice to Gen Petreaus: It used to irritate me when distant commentators gave me advice, and I am not about to irritate him!


Princeton, N.J.: Historians who study civil conflict point out that these rarely are decided without a bloody war in which one side comes out ahead, e.g. 200,000 people died in Bosnia & the Serbs clearly were ahead. Should we then withdraw from Iraq and see if a real state emerges from the expected bloodbath?

Gen. Rupert Smith: But the Serbs are not ahead now, which is why, at least in part, we intervened. And having invaded Iraq and if we withdrew now, are we prepared to watch, with the rest of the world, your anticipated bloodbath and then accept whatever regime formed in its aftermath? -- I think not.


Gen. Rupert Smith: Well I must go to another appointment, I hope I have answered most of the questions and those who did not get an answer can deduce one from a reply to a similar question. Best of luck and have a good afternoon

Rupert Smith


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