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.