General Sir Rupert Smith’s new book The Utility of Force draws upon his command and combat experiences and broad understanding of military history. Smith spent 40 years in the British army, serving as a commander during the 1991 Gulf War and in Bosnia and Kosovo. While posted in Northern Ireland, he was once “blown up.” He later served three years as NATO deputy supreme allied commander Europe.
In his analysis of modern warfare, Smith concludes that while confrontations and conflicts “exist all around the world, and states still have armed forces, which they use as symbols of power…war as cognitively known to most noncombatants, war as battle in a field between men and machinery, war as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs, industrial war— such war no longer exists. We now are engaged, constantly and in many permutations, in war amongst the people. We must adapt our approach and organize our institutions to this overwhelming reality.”
You call for a radical change in the traditional use of force. Is that possible?
I’m not that pessimistic. Our armies adapt at enormous speed because battle requires it. I think our capacity to change is evident in our societies— though not so much in our administrative and governmental structures, I’d admit. With a big enough fright, we will change. I’ve got great faith that the United States is, of all the democracies, the one most capable of such change because you have less historical baggage, and you don’t examine it very much.
Was 9/11 our big fright?
No, I think what’s going on today, the war in Iraq, is the big fright.
Will nations continue to fight traditional “industrial wars”?
No, I don’t think it’s conceivable as I’ve described industrial wars, because we now have weapons that can destroy the industrial capacity to make war in that way. I am not saying that we’re not going to have any more big fights. What I am saying is that we will be having them for different purposes than in the past. One of those purposes will be to establish a condition, a fact on the ground that improves your position in the overall confrontation.
How would that work?
A historical example is Egypt’s conduct in initiating the 1973 Yom Kippur War with an attack across the Suez Canal. Israeli intelligence could see all these preparations, but they decided they were not going to be attacked, because they could not see why this was happening and how Egypt was going to recapture the Sinai. They assumed that Sadat wanted to fight to recapture territory. But Sadat was not doing that. He was seeking to alter the conditions of the relationship so that in any postwar negotiation he gets the Sinai. And that’s what happened.
Why in recent industrial wars is a “win” so elusive?
I have described how the generic tactical acts of the guerrilla are married to a three-stranded strategy of provocation, propagandistic deeds and the erosion of the will. The objective of that strategy is to dislocate your military act from its political purpose. It is the action of the weak against the strong. It is the action of the judo fighter, as opposed to the boxer, to use your opponent’s strength against them. In what I call “wars amongst the people,” our opponents won’t let us use force strategically. They’re deliberately operating below the utility of the forces we have as we would wish to use them. Because we are still thinking in the industrial-war paradigm, we don’t understand that. What you have to have in war amongst the people is a very strong and logical link between your anticipated political outcome and the military acts that you’re carrying out. If you don’t have that, you will do all sorts of things in battle that have no advantage. You have the phenomenon where you win every fight and lose the war because there isn’t a logical, coherent linkage between the actual conflict and the larger confrontation.
Why do Western political and military leaders continue to use the rhetoric of industrial war?
Partly because they think it’s “hearts and minds.” That saying originated with the British army in either the Borneo or Malayan campaign, as capturing the minds of the people. But it was a supporting activity, not the objective. I try not to use those old phrases because with them comes all the baggage of our previous experiences. The media is bedeviled by this as well. In their three minutes or three column inches, journalists have to draw on the word pictures of the society they’re talking to. So they are constantly recalling events from the Second World War or Vietnam to illustrate what’s happening. And yet these are utterly false pictures.
Have any modern armed conflicts been successfully resolved by political, as opposed to military, means?
I think that in Northern Ireland we have not made the mistake of trying to solve that affair militarily. Very early in the campaign we made it clear that we would operate within the law, and therefore almost all military activity was reactive. In no way am I saying that you can just copy that, and nobody should. We’re at a point where we’ve gotten it back to a manageable political confrontation. It’s also taken 30 years.
How can we win the war on terror?
You can’t. That’s because terror is a method. That’s like saying “I’m going to win the war on yoga.” I think “war on terror” is a confusing misnomer, and it has made something global of something that is essentially local. So a whole mess of things have been blocked up together and become a bigger problem than if we had kept them in fragments and dealt with them in each case. When Hezbollah attacked Israel last July and August, quite early in the piece the president of the United States was declaring Hezbollah as terrorists and “we are against terror,” etc. Suddenly, what was essentially a different confrontation became wrapped up in the war on terror. This gives legitimacy to our opponents, because they start to make common cause.
The phrase “war on terror” obscures our understanding of the problems?
Yes, you are not understanding the confrontation as a result of your rhetoric. Your language is obscuring your thinking.
What is a meaningful way to rephrase the question?
Ask who we are fighting. Don’t make it bigger than it need be.
In the conflicts we now face, what do our nonstate opponents want? How do we determine that?
With difficulty. Part of your operation should be to learn what they are fighting for, because often it isn’t well understood in their minds either. If you look at al-Qaeda, their rhetoric is all about things that aren’t measurable: to rid the Islamic homelands of the Great Satan, America. What do they mean by that? Do they mean get rid of soldiers in camouflage uniforms? Or get rid of Coca-Cola, FOX News and Western-style advertising? There’s a whole range of things there that you actually don’t have to have a fight about. The essential thing is to narrow down the confrontation. And you can shape the confrontation. Here is an example from Northern Ireland: If you put soldiers on the ground with blackened faces and helmets, they raise the atmosphere of tension, because people think this looks dangerous— and so it is dangerous, and they behave as though there’s a knife around the corner.
Is there any particular military thinker who has influenced your thinking on the new uses of force more than any another?
I would commend Sun Tzu as well as [Karl von] Clausewitz. Clausewitz is often misquoted as saying that “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” It always seems to be understood as serial activity, that you’ve gone from politics to war. If you read the whole of that bit, he’s saying these things are happening in parallel. There’s always a political and military objective running side by side.
Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.