What is it good for?
General Sir Rupert Smith's The Utility of Force and Martin Shaw's The New Western Way of War show how western leaders fail to grasp the nature of modern warfare, says Martin Woollacott
The Guardian, Saturday 12 November 2005
It seems tautologous to say that there is something wrong with war. Morally wrong, of course, but also wrong in the sense that the function of this dangerous, expensive and ethically dubious institution has become increasingly unclear in the past half century. Wars have, on the whole, ceased to deliver the clear resolutions of human conflicts which, for all their costs, they once did. Now we still have the costs, but not so often the resolutions. This is true of all societies, but western countries have a particularly tortuous recent record of largely unsuccessful warfare.
When western armies lose, doesn't that mean that others win, and therefore that war is still useful to them? Not necessarily, because a frequent outcome is that the conflict continues, even though the war ends. About the only thing that is clear in the muddled landscape of historical relics, irrelevantly advanced technology, nuclear pretence, old symbols and new threats is that war still kills people. That is why it is so important to try to understand what is going on.
These books - one by a soldier trying to wrest some continuing purpose for his profession and one by an academic who believes that the west's attempts to reshape the military instrument have failed - are both very worthwhile efforts to map difficult ground. Though they come to somewhat different conclusions, some arguments and categorisations are strikingly similar. Soldier and sociologist are looking at the same scene, as indeed many others have done, most notably the Israeli military thinker Martin van Creveld, whose On Future War opened up many of these themes more than a decade ago.
"War no longer exists," Rupert Smith proclaims in his very first sentence, by which he means that the industrialised clash of mass armies inaugurated by Napoleon, which culminated in the two world wars, will never happen again. What will also not happen, obviously, is the city-smashing fight we supposedly prepared for during the nuclear confrontation between the west and the Soviet Union, although "lesser" nuclear exchanges between new nuclear powers are unfortunately still a possibility. Smith makes these points so strongly because he believes that political and military leaders and their publics, in the west, are still wedded to the structures and expectations of industrialised war. They are wedded to the assumptions - but also increasingly unable to provide the men, the motivation and the industrial muscle that once went with them. In the range of conflicts the world has actually experienced over the past half century, and particularly since the end of the cold war, armies of this kind have often not done well and governments with these expectations have usually been disappointed.
In the confusion of both purposes and means, it is not surprising that soldiers have found it hard to land a telling military blow. Smith, for instance, was the only UN commander in Bosnia ever able to do so. He did so by quietly building up his forces, by discreetly circumventing the intentions of most of the governments whose troops and guns he commanded, by analysing the capacities and character of his opponent, the Serb general Ratko Mladic, and by successfully deceiving him. The artillery and air strikes he organised in 1995 on Serb forces around Sarajevo, followed up by ground forces, broke the siege of the Bosnian capital. They helped to push the Bosnian Serbs on to the defensive and led on to the Dayton settlement, although Smith is honest enough to say that concurrent Croatian and Bosnian advances were the primary cause of the shift.
Bosnia was a case where the intervening powers literally had no strategy, and in this limbo Smith had to craft the framework for action that his political masters so signally failed to provide. In other circumstances the political will is there and it is all too easy to land the telling military blow, as in Iraq in 2003, but the resulting military victory does not bring a political resolution. As Smith says, an inadequate overall strategy is as bad as or worse than no strategy at all and is most likely to produce the paradoxical combination of military success and political failure, as shown, at least so far, in places like Iraq and Chechnya.
Smith calls the new kind of conflicts "war among the people". They are fights, he says, which, even if successful from the western point of view, usually provide only a step towards the desired end, rather than delivering it at once by military means. They are fights taking place among the people, both in the combat arena and in the world at large. (This is one reason why the media are even more important than in previous conflicts.) They are fights that are often episodes of violence in a long process of confrontation rather than definitive struggles. They are fights where the conventional side, especially if it is western rather than, say, Russian, Indian or Chinese, tries hard to keep both its own casualties and its equipment losses to an absolute minimum. They are fights involving the constant adaptation and reshuffling of weapons and tactics designed for other purposes. And they are fights in which the sides are rarely single states, but rather multinational coalitions and sub-state parties and movements.
There are striking similarities between some of Smith's and Shaw's principles. Smith's "among the people" is close to Shaw's idea of "global surveillance war", in which a conflict is fought under the critical gaze not only of the people among whom it is being waged and the people in intervening nations but of the world as a whole. Above all, Smith's emphasis on force protection chimes with Shaw's central concept of "risk-transfer war". But where Smith sees this as simply a logical consequence of the value and scarcity of military assets in western societies, Shaw goes beyond that to identify what he regards as the key problem at the heart of the way recent conflicts have been conducted by western countries.
In the aftermath of Vietnam, Shaw believes, the west came up with a formula for making war that was felt to be both sustainable at home and likely to be effective. It used technical superiority and, in particular, air power, to destroy enemy combatants without incurring serious casualties. Indeed, it privileged its own military personnel to the point of a readiness to inflict "collateral" damage on civilians that could otherwise have been avoided. It used new ways of controlling the media, including embedding reporters, to dominate the "narrative" of wars, so as to build support at home and suppress the views of opponents. In this way, risks have been transferred from politicians to their soldiers, then on to enemy soldiers and finally to non-combatants. These were wars with varied purposes, but many liberals were attracted to the idea that the military could be used to stop conflicts and to discipline or even unseat oppressive regimes.
Kosovo was the acme of such wars, with not a single allied soldier lost. The Falklands, much earlier, was close. The two Gulf wars seemed to fit the template - but not if you saw them as one conflict and counted the civilian losses not only of the two periods of combat but of the sanction years and of the occupation, a still mounting total. Shaw's conclusion is that even when such wars "work", they are still degenerate. When they do not, the degeneracy is compounded, and when terrorists strike in western capitals it is clear they have understood the vulnerabilities the new way of war was intended to protect as well as their opponents have. Shaw concludes by calling for the strenuous avoidance of war, even if the use of force is sometimes unavoidable. Smith concludes by calling for force to be used only when it is fitted into more realistic and more responsible political strategies. In the end, there is not much in it. There are no magic, painless wars, and we are at a point, both agree, for reassessment and reflection.