Category Archives: Warfare

CSA PRL Book Review: The Utility of Force by Rupert Smith

The new 2014 US Army Chief of Staff Professional Reading List (PRL) was released in the Summer of 2014 and I was relieved in the extreme to see that there was only one novel on the list, Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer.  The list is different than earlier lists because it is organized topically instead of by position as earlier lists were.  I have read many of the books on the list already and decided to read the ones I have not and post my thoughts on the books on the list.  This review is the third in that series.

The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World is an intriguing book, to say the least.  I will admit that after finding out a little more about the author, a retired British General, I was somewhat biased going into reading it as I then expected it to be a book advocating more soft power approaches to hard power problems.  As I got into the text itself that turns out to not be the case.

The book itself is 415 pages of text with an index.  It is separated into an introduction, three, topical three chapter parts, and a conclusion.  The topics of the parts are Industrial Warfare, Cold War Confrontation, and War Among the People.

The essential argument of the book is that the paradigm of war has changed in the past century and the dividing line is 1945 and the employment of nuclear weapons.  The premise goes that nuclear weapons changed the dynamic of war by making it realistically impossible for two nuclear armed states to fight each other out of fear of societal annihilation.  That is all well and good as far as it goes and actually makes sense within the context of historical occurrence since 21945 and the prevailing Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine of the east-west standoff we call the Cold War. He further goes on to explain the paradigm change in terms of war moving from a conflict between recognized forces belonging to sovereign states to one between sovereign forces and non-state forces that live among the people on whose behalf they are ostensibly fighting for.  It is this movement of war from being between defined forces to between undefined forces that makes for the paradigm shift by changing the way wars are to be fought.  That is the essence of the argument as I read it.

He makes several very good points within the narrative.  The first is he continually asserts the primacy of politics in the decision to use force.  In this he is absolutely correct.  In addition he makes clear that policy makers should not make the decision to use force without discussing the use of said force with their military commanders to find out if force is an appropriate tool. That is, can the use of force achieve the desired objective?  This is a point that is often lost or ignored by political leadership in many countries.

The Clausewitzean notion that rue generalship is the ability to impose your will on your enemy is discussed at length.  More importantly, he discusses how that concept has been applied in the era of non-state, non-centralized warfare in which we now find ourselves.  He correctly points out that decapitating the supposed leadership of what we think of as insurgent groups does not have a very stellar record as there seems to be an endless supply of leaders waiting in the wings when one leader gets killed or captured.  The resilience of non-state, non-centralized groups is one of their defining characteristics.

His discussion of the Darwinian nature of modern combat is revealing.  I remember having the same discussion among the NCOs and Officers of my Cavalry Troop in 2004-2005.  As we killed or captured insurgents the ones who remained got ever more competent and able to pull off their operations better.  The end result of such Darwinian, endless war is the creation of groups such as IS/ISIS/ISIL composed of men who have been trained by surviving the best we could throw at them.  They are a hard core of survivors and that much more capable and dangerous because of it.  I am reminded of the phenomenon that occurred in the World Wars where veteran units could accomplish missions that fresh units half their size could not because the men in those veteran units were the hard core of soldiers who just did not quit and had learned how to survive in the crucible of combat.

Lastly, Smith has a very useful discussion in his conclusion about how force should be used.  This is probably the only part of the book that is prescriptive in nature.  I agree with most of this and disagree with parts. Mainly I disagree with how thinks we should deal with the media.  Personally, I think the media should be treated as potential enemies and barred from the area of active operations.  I realize that is not really feasible though and some method of managing the media must be devised.  I suppose Smith’s prescription is as good as anybody else’s since it involves making certain the media understands what the military is doing and providing the context of military operations. More important is his discussion and prescription for deciding when, where, and how force should be used and why it is vitally important that all decision makers be on the same page.  Perhaps most vitally, he is correct in pointing out that an inflexible strategic end-state must be decided upon before force is used because an incoherent strategy leads to incoherent operations.  More importantly, flexible strategic goals almost ensure ultimate mission failure by precluding the proper planning and execution of military operations because it leaves commanders in the dark as to what their purpose really is.

This is an outstanding treatise on the use of military force in the modern world.  I may not agree completely that paradigm of warfare has shifted but Smith has undoubtedly correctly diagnosed why military interventions since World War II have been at best costly successes and more often even costlier failures.  I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in contemporary military theory.  Smith’s book is hopefully the opening of a conversation among generals and policymakers about the utility of using force in the modern world.


Reading and Military Service

There is an interesting piece on recently about basic training and encouraging new soldiers to read.  I read, and read a lot, and have always tried to encourage others to read, not only my fellow soldiers when I was in the Army, but people in general.

I find that the idea of having a reading list and free copies of said books available to basic trainees to read in their less-than-copious free time is an awesome idea and I am chagrined that I did not do it when I was a Drill Sergeant at Fort Knox many years ago.

I don’t necessarily agree with all the titles on the list, I would remove some and add a few others, mot notably Storm of Steel, The Face of Battle, and Helmet for My Pillow.  That being said, the idea is an excellent one and I would hope the Army would pick up on it and actually sponsor it so that Drill Sergeants do not have to finance such a worthy idea themselves.

The original article is linked below.  KNUCKLE-DRAGGERS NEED TO READ TOO:

The Battle of the Nations – 16-19 October, 1813

The October, 1813 Battle of the Nations in Leipzig was arguably as important as the 1814 Battle of Waterloo.  In English language historiography of the Napoleonic Wars it is often downplayed or only briefly mentioned however.  This is mainly because no English speaking armies fought in the battle.  The lions share of the fighting at Leipzig was done by Austrian and Russian armies and thus the English speaking world tries to ignore this decisive battle in which almost 50,000 men died.

The Battlefield at Leipzig
The Battlefield at Leipzig

After Napoleons’ defeat in the Russian Campaign of 1812 and the concurrent French defeat in the Peninsular Campaign the Allied nations of Europe joined together once again in the Sixth Coalition.
Napoleon was not quite defeated though. Between May and August he defeated coalition forces in three separate major battles at Lützen, Bautzen, and in front of Dresden.

Following their spring and summer defeats the Allies then held to their originally agreed upon strategy of avoiding battle with Napoleon himself but accepting battle with his marshals if the situation seemed favorable. The Allies inflicted defeats on the French at Großbeeren, Kulm, Katzbach, and Dennewitz. These defeats led Napoleon to consolidate his army in and around Leipzig in early October, 1813. The Allied armies followed him and converged there and forced a battle in mid-October.

As the allied armies grew closer to Leipzig Napoleon knew he was being encircled but planned to use his interior position to avert defeat and achieve local superiority. This plan eventually failed in the face of the massively superior numbers the Allies could bring to bear.
The allied armies approached from the north, west, and south with the only possible avenue of escape for Napoleon being to the east and away from France.

Army Positions on the first day
Army Positions on the first day

On the first day, 16 October, 1813, there were several areas of contact between the French and Allies .  Most notably in the areas of Mockern, Wiedentzsch, Lindenau, Connewitz, & Wachau.  The fighting was difficult but the French managed to essentially stay in position and the day ended in a bloody stalemate.

Day 2 saw only two minor actions. One between the Polish and Russians and between the Prussian and French Cavalry.  14,000 French troops arrived to bolster Napoleon.  However, two entire new armies, a Russian and the Swedes consisting of 145,000 troops arrived in the Allied Camp.

The third day of the battle
The third day of the battle

The third day was the culminating day of the battle as Napoleon was essentially encircled.  The fiercest fight of the entire battle was at Probstheida between the Russians and Prussians and French. The French successfully held off the attackers but at the cost of crippling casualties.  There was additional fighting at Paunsdorf and Schonefeld where the Swedes and Prussians attacked and defeated French forces defending these villages. The Saxons and Württembergers defected to the Allies during this action.  At the end of the day the French had held in the south but been pushed back in the north east.  Napoleon knew he was beaten.

During the night of 18-19 October Napoleon began withdrawing his army to the west across the Elster. The Allies were unaware until 0700 on the 19th and Marshal Oudinot put up a fierce rear-guard action in the streets of Leipzig.  The retreat went well until a corporal who inevitably did not get the word blew the only bridge over the Elster up while it was still crowded with French troops and the rear guard was still fighting in Leipzig itself. Blowing the bridge caused a panic a rout of the troops trapped east of the river.  Poniatowski, the only Foreign born Marshal drowned trying to cross the river.

The Battle of Leipizig was the bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic Wars both in terms of total losses and in losses as a percentage of troops engaged.

French Casualties
Not Counting the defection of the Saxon and Württemberg armies the French suffered roughly 80,000 casualties.  44,000 were killed and wounded and a further 36,000 were captured.  19.5% of Napoleons force was killed or wounded while total casualties approached 36% of the army he started the battle with.

Allied Casualties
Total Allied casualties were approximately 54,000 dead, wounded, or missing; 14% of their total force.

In the wake of his defeat Napoleon abandoned Germany altogether and retreated to France to prepare his defenses for the defense of la Patrie that he knew was coming in 1814.  The Allies did not pursue Napoleon after Leipzig as their armies were exhausted after 4 days of brutal fighting and the end of the campaign season was fast approaching.  After Leipzig the Confederation of the Rhine fell apart and French Armies would not occupy German soil again for any appreciable length of time until 1918 when occupation troops entered the Rhineland in the wake of World War I.

Book Review: House of War by James Carroll

House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power is one of those books that when you are done reading it you cannot quite decide if it was worth reading or not.

If you want to know what history looks like, particularly American history, from the perspective of someone who sees evil and nefarious dealings in just about every single action taken by the United States then this is the book for you. I never thought I would see the day when the Marshall Plan would be described as economic warfare but it is in this book and that is just one example. I found it difficult to suspend disbelief and finish this book but I managed to man up and do so. This is history of the Zinn School. That is, it is a history written by a person consumed with spite and self-loathing for the culture and nation that nurtured and created them.

There are several outrageous claims made throughout the book and they all essentially boil down to America was/is evil.  Here are some examples:

  1. The Point Blank campaign that destroyed communications infrastructure in occupied Europe prior to the Allied invasion on D-Day was purposely designed to kill as many civilians as possible and any industrial or strategic effects were secondary results at best.  Richard Overy does a very good job of destroying this particular fanstasy in his recently published book, The Bombers and the Bombed.
  2. The Marshall Plan was not designed to help rebuild Europe from the devastation of WWII, it was economic warfare against the Soviet Union and had nothing to do with helping anybody.
  3. The Soviet land blockade of Berlin that led to the Berlin Airlift was a response to economic attacks by the West.  Specifically, he claims it was a response to the West’s apparently malicious introduction of the Deutsche Mark into the Western occupied zones.
  4. The North Korean’s were probably goaded into attacking the the South in 1950 by a speech by Dean Acheson.  The subtext here is that the war would not have happened if it were not for the US.

He goes on and on ad nauseum about NSC-68 being evil and completely ignores the fact that the strategy of communist containment outlined in the document was ultimately the strategy that won the Cold War for the West.  Of course, he thinks the West should not have won.  If you take this book at face value you would come away believing that Communists the world over are/were a bunch of peaceful little boggles that were forced into being the brutish thugs who murdered their own people by the millions because of the evil machinations of the West.  In this long story of the perfidy of the West the brutal Soviet crackdowns on satellite states are ignored and Soviet intervention elsewhere are always presented as being reasonable responses to Western aggression.

I would call this book a waste of paper but that is not strong enough. It is worthwhile in one respect though. If you can see beyond the banality and fake moralism it gives a pretty clear picture of the intense dislike of the modern American left for the United States.  I found myself wondering, if the author finds America so evil why is he still here? The one thing that comes through clearly in the entire book is the author’s conviction that America and the wider West are the true Evil Empire and it is only if the West gives itself over to the modern left/progressive movement that we can hope to atone for the sin of our very existence.  That all this comes from a de-frocked Catholic Priest should be no surprise.

I cannot recommend this book except as an excellent example of what infinitely biased history and twisted facts look like.  Luckily I did not pay for it having borrowed it from my local library.