On War and Politics

The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World by Rupert Smith (Knopf, 448 pages)

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Why, in spite of immense superiority, have North Atlantic democracies had such difficulty accomplishing political ends through military force? Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and its allies have used force in Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and the former Yugoslavia, in each case enjoying a massive material advantage over the enemy. Every time, however, the military advantage has failed to produce a decisive political outcome.

British General Sir Rupert Smith participated in most of those conflicts, and has concluded that the West fails because it uses an obsolete tool; the conventional military organization.

Smith builds his new book, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, around the oft-cited Clausewitzian argument that war and politics are deeply interrelated. He weds a detailed discussion of how the structure of the modern military organization has evolved over the past two centuries to this insight about war and politics. The modern military organization is the product of the Napoleonic Wars, the two World Wars, and the Cold War, yet has, as Smith tells it, failed so far to evolve into a post-Cold War form.

Smith argues that the military aims of the West are fundamentally at odds with the structure of Western military organizations, a contradiction which leads military operations into difficulty and potential failure. This has left the West in a quandary, he writes, resulting in both unrealistic planning for military engagements and unrealistic expectations about the consequences of the use of force. In Bosnia, which Smith discusses in some detail, the contradiction had tragic results, as the West developed no single political strategy for how force ought to be used.

Smith's experience gives him an ideal perspective on how the West (defined as coalitions of North Atlantic democracies) wages war in the post-Cold War period. During his 39 years in the British Army, he commanded the British 1st Armoured Division in the Gulf War, and later acted as Commander of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Sarajevo during the conflicts erupting from the disintegration of Yugoslavia. His final duties before retiring in 2002 involved serving as Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe during and after the Kosovo conflict.

Although Smith directs his argument towards a Western, rather than specifically American, audience, his case resonates with the American military experience of the last half century. The Vietnam War had searing political consequences for the United States Army in particular and the military more generally. Internally, the Army directed blame for defeat away from itself and toward the political authorities. Politicians, the story went, had "tied the Army's hands." In a move borrowed from the German experience, the Army and its conservative allies developed a stab-in-the-back narrative to deflect responsibility.

The corollary to this argument was that politics and military operations ought not to mix. Having settled on launching a war, politicians should sit back and let the military do its work. That this narrative bore not the faintest resemblance to the actual situation in Vietnam was irrelevant. The consequences of the narrative in the United States have included a reluctance on the part of the military to engage in or prepare for stability operations, and an enduring focus on total conventional victory at the expense of limited war for political purpose, such as the Kosovo campaign.

Smith makes no effort to directly apply his argument to the Bush administration or the ongoing fiasco in Iraq. Nevertheless, much of what he discusses has clear and unmistakable implications for the evaluation of that conflict. The effects of a disjuncture between military force and political ends are tragically predictable. It's commonly argued that the Iraq War had something for everyone; humanitarians got a humanitarian cause, evangelical democrats got to promote democracy, realists got to eliminate chemical weapons, partisans of the "Ledeen Doctrine" got to beat a small country to a pulp, and "national greatness" advocates were able to demonstrate the power and reach of the United States.

Each of these political ends, however, places different limits and emphases on the use of force. Unsurprisingly, these limits do not always agree, and often vary in dramatic fashion. Beating the enemy to a pulp and destroying chemical weapons call for certain military means directly antithetical to humanitarianism or the development of democracy. In Iraq, the inability to describe a single compelling political justification for the war led to a confused, haphazard, and ultimately self-defeating use of military force. The marketing campaign necessary to launching the war ultimately doomed it to failure.

Smith's history of warfare since the Napoleonic Era is readable, but not particularly remarkable. Specialists will find this part familiar, if occasionally frustrating. For example, Smith implies that the Civil War was a conflict between Confederate volunteers and Union conscripts, when in fact the Confederacy enacted a conscription law nearly a year before the Union.

His first-hand accounts of the Gulf War and the siege of Sarajevo are quite good, however. Curiously, Smith doesn't have much to say about the relationship between the professional military officer and the civilian leader. This is odd, given his focus on how politics and the use of force constitute one another. An exploration of the relationship might have been particularly interesting given his discussion of war among the peoples, which posits an alternative relationship between political doctrine and military execution.

Smith also neglects to discuss the development of the professional officer corps, which would have been appropriate in his chapters on the development of modern war. After all, the role, values, origin, and career of a professional military officer have changed considerably since the Napoleonic Era. These changes, as discussed by Samuel Huntington in his classic study Soldier and the State, have both political and military consequences, especially regarding how we think about the interaction between military force and political ends. It's conceivable, for example, that just as the material and formal structure of our military organizations are at odds with current political realities, the profession of military officer as it has developed since the Napoleonic Era may be growing obsolete. Huntington describes the military officer as a manager of violence, but in contemporary context the duties and responsibilities of an officer range so far that this description, and the training and professional development associated with it, may no longer hold. As a very successful professional officer, Smith is uniquely qualified to discuss such issues.

I would have also liked to see Smith devote a few pages to the capability and focus of military organizations, even in within the Western cross-section that he examines, diverge considerable. For example, "continental" militaries such as those of the United States, Germany, and Russia seem to differ in systematic ways from those of states with colonial histories, such as France and the United Kingdom. Is this the result, I wonder, of a different kind of thinking about the utility of force? Does it have implications for how the modern military organizations (and perhaps political leadership) of these countries think about force?

Samuel J. Newland has argued, for example, that the Prussian military system in particularly came to think of war as total but quick, and that this understanding deeply influenced U.S. military thinking in the 19th and 20th centuries. Although a survey of military organizations was not Smith's purpose, exploring themes of similarity and variety among non-European military organizations might have shed further light on thinking about the interaction between politics and military force.

The critical contribution made by The Utility of Force is to bring to the fore the disjuncture between military means and political ends. It has often been argued that Clausewitz is a "sphinx without a secret", and On War a text that can support any argument about the use of force. The Utility of Force helps put that argument to bed, and reasserts the centrality of the political to the use of force. It is well worth the time of both the specialist in military affairs and the amateur interested in how states use force and what they can hope to accomplish.