I started these military Web pages in part because I felt that no one was saying things that needed to be said about the military. Now that I have read General Rupert Smith’s Utility of Force, I must admit that at least one other person is saying them: General Smith.
He is a retired British army general. If I were president of the U.S., I would be inclined to offer him the job of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffthe top military officer in the U.S.
I am not sure that’s legal, but I am damned fed up with U.S. officers losing war after war and acting like all they have to do is look the part and talk a good game to continue to be entitled to hundreds of billions of dollars a year and thousands of lives.
Smith’s title would be stated more colloquially as “the appropriate uses of military power.” The phrase “utility of force” is professorial, apparently an affectation chosen to elevate the status of General Smith’s book.
One of his main points is the same as mine. Military force per se is a far more limited tool than our leaders seem to think it is. That is, they use it in far too many situations where it will not work or is insufficient by itself. The military is being asked to do more than its training, personnel quality, equipment, and restrictions permit.
Hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives are being wasted in the process. America’s leaders are doing more damage to America by overreactive blunders than al Qaeda did with their 9/11 hijackers. That is no knock on the Bush Administration or Republicans. I do not regard them as significantly different from the Democrats. Rather, I fault the career military people. If they know better, and they should, they should protest more loudly
General Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff when Bush invaded Iraq said it would take about 300,000 troops to pacify Iraq. He was fired apparently for saying that. Good for General Shinseki. His successor should have said the same thing. He did not. Bingo! Want to get mad at someone? Get mad at him and the others who remained more silent than Shinseki. They sinned by silence when they should have protested.
I am not sure Shinseki was a great moral hero. He may have simply been naive and regretted his answer. I am less thrilled with his silence since he “retired.” Seems to me that he had a moral obligation to speak up. Career officers typically think they have the opposite obligation, that is, to keep their mouths shut to avoid embarrassing the commander in chief. The national defense and welfare of the troops is a higher duty than helping the commander in chief save his job.
Smith says that what he calls “industrial war,” the sort of wars that were fought from around 1800 to around 1945, were invented by Napoleon. He further says they ceased to exist when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
I agree. I also feel that the U.S. Army has continued to train and equip its units to fight World War II in Europe to this day, in spite of the obsolescence of that type of war. And that is why we lost in Vietnam, Somalia, Lebanon, and seem to be losing in Iraq.
Civil War reenactors frequently appear on TV nowadays. They are fat, strange men who like to dress up in civil war uniforms and reenact Civil War battles that were originally fought by much skinnier, younger guys. I find them odd, but harmless. However, our military appear to be a bunch of World-War-II-in-Europe reenactors. That is also odd and most definitely not harmless.
Smith says post-1945 wars have generally been, “wars amongst the people.” He calls it a new paradigm, a word which I hate because it has been overused by psychobabbling consultants and new age thinkers. I am not thrilled with Smith’s phrase “war amongst the people.” I would call them wars in which the enemy pose as civilians and mingle with civilians except for brief periods when they are actively engaging in hit-and-run attacks.
For his part, Smith admits discomfort with the word “paradigm” and dislikes the phrase “asymmetric warfare.” Actually, that phrase makes more sense to me than “war amongst the people.”
For reasons of U.S. public-relations sensitivity and some international laws against harming civilians, posing as civilians and mingling with them is an extremely effective tactic against conventional forces like the U.S.’s. It gives the enemy a sort of immunity from execution.
Smith offers some striking lasts that should give pause to those who make decisions about military funding and equipment.
The last tank battle in history was in 1973 between Israel and Egypt. Yet we still build extremely expensive tanks that Iraqis and Afghanis occasionally destroy with $200 RPGs.
The last significant ship-to-ship naval battle was in 1944 in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The last major carrier-aircraft-against-carrier-aircraft battle was Midway in 1942. Yet we still build warships that cost billions. (See my review of Sea of Thunder and my comments on the obsolescence of navy surface ships in modern war.)
As I have said, Smith argues that war is constantly changing, not just from war to war but from day to day. The enemy is not an idiot. He does not let you use the same tactic successfully day after day. He does not use the same failed tactic day after day. He is constantly trying new ways to kill you and you’d better be doing the same. Consequently, the notion of detailed, broad military expertise is bogus in my opinion, if not Smith’s. (See my article on whether military expertise exists.)
If I understand him correctly, Smith also seems to say that there will be no VI Day in Iraq in the sense that we had VE (Victory in Europe) Day and VJ (Victory over Japan) Day in World War II. Rather, the war in Iraq will be endless simply because the enemy need only muster a few fighters and weapons to keep it going. It is impossible to kill every potential fighter and to confiscate every weapon.
Smith says the current “battlefield” is not a geographic piece of land as in pre-1946 wars. Rather, it is in the minds of the people among whom the war is being fought. The “hearts and minds” again.
All military forces like ours can do is to deliver bayonets, bullets, and explosives to the enemy. When the war takes place in minds, bayonets, bullets, and explosives are arguably irrelevant or mostly irrelevant.
Smith loses me on occasion. For example, at the top of page 99, he says,
But to be successful and to concentrate the efforts of an army, all the decision making must, as already noted, be working with the same doctrine and towards the same objective.
I agree with “same objective,” but not “same doctrine.” Smith seems to miss the lessons of other, persuasive statements he himself makes in the book about how war is constantly changing even from battle to battle and that military decisions must be made on an ad hoc, common-sense basis, not based on “doctrine” which is more often called “going by the book” or “thinking inside the box.” U.S. Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl makes the same mistake of exalting doctrine in his book Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife which I reviewed at this Web site.
Both Smith and Nagl spent their entire adult lives in the bellies of bureaucracies. Doctrine is a bureaucratic bad habit.
Smith’s book is, to a large extent, a history lesson about warfare for the last 200 years. It is a necessary one and a much better one than in General Petraeus’ new counterinsurgency manual. And as a guy with 40 years experiencethat’s 40he was on the inside of much of the recent history of warfare.
Smith makes much of an enemy strategy he calls provocation or “the propaganda of the deed.” That is, the enemy tries to provoke us into overreacting so they can use our overreaction to win the public to their side. I think it’s becoming pretty clear that the U.S. managed to overreact to 9/11 in spite of the fact that 9/11 killed more people than Pearl Harbor.
Furthermore, it is clear to me that eliciting that overreaction, not killing 3,000 people and knocking down several buildings, was al Qaeda’s real goal all along. We fell right into their trap.
The actual 19 perpetrators of 9/11 killed themselves by flying the planes into buildings or the ground. True, they had some backersmaybe 100 of them. We killed or captured many of them and we’re still working on getting the rest. We have also taken some non-military steps regarding bank accounts and such that were appropriate responses.
But the rest of our actions have played into the al Qaeda propaganda that the U.S. hates all Muslims and is out to convert or kill them like the Church tried to do during the Crusades.
One notion that caused our overreaction was the idea that we could relatively easily establish Western-style democracies in the Middle East and that they would cause the Islamic world to relax and behave. “We will be welcomed as liberators.”
The notion that democracy would accomplish that may still be valid, but the notion that it would be relatively easy or at least within the patience of the American people appears to be incorrect.
George “Bring it on” Bush was a bit too macho to respond in a properly measured way to 9/11. I saw a British TV show called Fry & Laurie that made fun of the U.S. approach by having a country-western singer going on and on about “kicking ass.” Laurie is a British actor who is famous in the U.S. as the star of the TV series House, M.D. The comedy skit is quite funny and a valid criticism of the U.S.’s overly macho reaction to 9/11.
Smith makes much of what he calls the trinity of politics, government, and military needing to work together. But when he described his various experiences trying to do just that, he only convinced me of what I already knew. Government, politics, and the military are the Three Stooges of institutions. They don’t know what they want other than personal power and personal career advancement. The American people do not know what they want with regard to foreign policy.
Smith says there needs to be a coherent, sound overall plan involving all three of the trinity. I’ll agree to that. But he also is pretty convincing regarding a conclusion he refused to draw: that coherent, sound overall plans come out of that trinity about once a millennium. The last one may have been World War II, and even that was pretty screwed up if you examine it closely. For one thing, the total-humiliation-to-the-enemy goal of “unconditional surrender” had the virtue of being simple and easy to understand. But it had the defect of making the war last longer than it should have, resulting in unnecessary deaths, and we ended up taking less than unconditional surrender from the Japanese after all. (We agreed to the condition that they get to keep their emperor.)
Another great phrase in Utility of Force is Smith’s quoting Field Marshal Lord Vincent as describing any meeting of NATO about use of military force as “a hotbed of cold feet.”
So much for the need to have a coherent plan executed by a multi-national military coalition.
On page 215, Smith decries the “something must be done” mentality that sometimes governs the use of the militaryand seems to have been the actual motivation behind the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. This is akin to the “one-crisis-allocation-of-military-resources” mentality I commented on in my article about U.S. servicepeople dying unnecessarily in V.I.P. demonstrations. The problem with the something-must-be-done mentality is that it glosses over the wisdom and advisability of the something. As has often been shown in one of President Bush’s guiding lightscowboy moviessometimes true leadership involves holding back the lynch mob, not getting re-elected its president by encouraging it.
What role does the military play in situations like Iraq and Afghanistan? The military is trained and equipped to deliver bayonets, bullets, and bombs or other explosives on human or inanimate-object targets. Is that function needed in Iraq and Afghanistan? Absolutely, but only occasionally do the good guys have such targets for the military to destroy.
The problem is that we are trying to make the military play a far broader rolea role for which they are neither qualified by IQ and aptitude nor trained nor equipped. Consequently, we are sending them on a fool’s errand, asking the impossible of them. We have sent our military on a Charge of the Light Brigade where our deficiency is not men or weapons but worldliness. The original Light Brigade was outnumbered and outgunned. We are being out-sophisticated with regard to their culture and language by the Iraqis and Afghanis.
Smith says, and I agree, that the key element in industrial wars like the world wars is men and materiel. The side with the most soldiers, planes, ships, etc. wins. But that has not been the deal since 1945, yet we keep behaving as if it were. In “wars amongst the people,” as Smith calls the recent conflicts, the key element is information.
I wrote a book called Checklists for Buying Rental Houses and Apartment Buildings. Some of those check lists are lists of questions to ask people who are knowledgeable about the property you are consideringlike tenants, former owners, neighbors, and the building manager.
In that context, I have often noted that those people can tell you in minutes stuff that you would not find out from months of going over the same building and neighborhood with a magnifying glass and a platoon of engineersstuff like the fact that the street is clogged with traffic from people using it as a shortcut during rush hour, or that the driveway floods when it rains heavily, and so on.
The same is true in Iraq and Afghanistan. The natives there can instantly spot guys from out of town by their accent or way of dress or behavior. They know who the bad guys are because they live there and see them sneaking around. Heck, they remember the guys in question were scum bags back in elementary school.
It would take us Americans years of training and study of databases and so forth to figure out what every Iraqi or Afghani over the age of 12 already knows about his language, culture, neighbors, and neighborhood.
The main information needed in such “wars” is who are the bad guys. The locals know. But it is extremely difficult for us to figure it out. Our weapons and training for killing the bad guys are useless if we cannot figure out which ones to kill.
Unlike buying a building, you cannot just ask for the information and rely on it in the Middle East. But the point is that it is extremely foolish of us to try to use ordinary 18-year-old guys from Gary, Indiana and Flagstaff, Arizona and such to become competent policemen in those countries. Most of the problem there is a police, not a military matter, and it must be done by local policemen.
The fact that we have and are still trying to get competent honest local police working without success does not change the fact that that’s the only way to do it. The role of the military in Iraq and Afghanistan is akin to that of a SWAT team in U.S. police work. Making the GIs Iraqi policemen is simply not an option. It is so hard it borders on impossible. It certainly would take far more time and resources than the U.S. public is willing to give.
But one bottom line is that we need to stop spending mind-boggling amounts of money on weapons that are useless until we can identify the bad guys and start spending far more of that money on ways to identify the bad guys, things like
• Arabic speakers especially native Arabic speakers whom I think we should draft
• technology for identifying people by facial features, retinas, fingerprints, voice prints
• more monitoring equipment like unmanned aerial vehicles, hidden cameras, robots
• ways to identify trace evidence of misbehavior like paraffin test for gunshot residue, bomb sniffing dogs, luminal evidence of blood, and other forensic-testing technology
• more metal detectors, x-ray machines, explosive sniffers
The nature of our current enemies is that they misbehave furtively then switch to the “nobody here but us innocent civilians” mode. We stop the bad guys as they walk or drive by but do not know they are bad guys. We even stopped Zarqawi and let him go once before we later killed him.
How’s about we equip our troops with the above ID equipment and do retina, face, fingerprint scans quickly when we stop them on the street. The data would instantly go into central computers that would match it with other stops of the same guy, wanted-poster databases, etc. We should also be subjecting stopped suspects to tests for gun or bomb trace evidence.
In short, we have too much equipment for killing bad guys and not enough to tell which ones are the bad guys. The bad guys have to move around. They have to touch guns and explosives. They have to communicate. We need to redeploy our resources to ID them as a result of those activities that differentiate them from innocent civilians.
The organization of the U.S. military is also still World War II in Europe. Too many people assigned to shoot and too few assigned to do reconnaissance, surveillance, and intelligence. In wars amongst the people, the resources need to be reallocated more toward identifying the bad guys.
Smith has a number of good phrases. The above subhead is one of them. Although as with his book title, I think his choice of words is a bit too professorial.
What he’s trying to say is that you don’t use a sledge hammer to kill a gnat. Since Western militaries are generally equipped with lots of sledgehammers, our enemies organize themselves as gnats, thereby making our weapons unusable or unusable unless we are willing to get bad PR for excessive use of force.
To cite an extreme case, we could easily win the Iraq war with zero casualties by nuking the areas where we know bad guys are, like Ramadi. But the enemy knows we won’t do that because we do not want to cause deaths of innocent young children or innocent or quasi innocent older non-combatants. It also would violate international law which we do not want to violate. So what good are the nukes? They are worthless for deterring or defeating islamo-fascists.
To a lesser extent, the same is true of B-52s, tanks, and so forth.
In Vietnam, the enemy used to tell their soldiers to “grab the Americans by the belt.” By that they meant when you fight the Americans, get so close that they cannot call in artillery and air strikes because it would be too close to their own positions. That was another way of steering clear of the threshold of our weapons.
One solution is to lower the threshold of our weapons or, more broadly, the various devices we use to defeat the enemy. If we could quickly and efficiently scan Iraqis for whether they had recently had contact with weapons or bombs, that would be a lowering of the threshold of equipment we could use against them. Then they would have to take a bath after every contact with weapons. That would not stop them completely, but it would slow them down greatly. (Then we could start detaining them for smelling too squeaky clean.) Similarly, being able to quickly scan retinas, fingerprints, and facial features would force bad guys whose prints or other identifying info we had previously captured to never go out where we might stop them.
Another strategy would be to fortify the threshold. That is, organize and equip ourselves such that we cannot get them until they cross the threshold of the utility of our weapons, but that we get them every time when they do.
During World War I, soldiers learned never to poke their head above the top of the trencheven for a second. If they did, they would get shot dead.
A general from the rear heard about this, thought it was preposterous, and came to the front lines to prove it to the troops. He did so by beginning a pep talk about the ridiculousness of such a belief, then exposed his own head above the trench top to prove his point, at which time he was promptly shot dead in mid-sentence.
In some Iraqi towns, our snipers were so effective that the politicians pressured us to withdraw them. They also claimed that our snipers were war criminals for some reason. Note: When the enemy complains about a particular tactic, it’s because it’s working.
It would be expensive, as World War I notoriously was. But in some places, we could deal with the enemy by having our relatively high threshold weapons so ubiquitous that every time the enemy switched into their bad-guy mode, that is, moved in the open with a weapon or bomb, we quickly see them and immediately shoot them.
More armed drones aircraft would be one way to do that. More snipers would be another.
Another modest proposal would be to use our conventional industrial war strength to deny enemy strongholds such infrastructure as utilities, motor vehicles, and bridges.
In Iraq, we have been striving to provide power, transportation, fuel, etc. The enemy has been destroying our projects. How about we go to the other extreme? We say, folks, get your act together and start governing yourselves like a peaceful democracy. Until you do, we are placing a 24-hour curfew on vehicle movement and we are turning off the electricity, gas, broadcasting, and telephone service.
Then we can guard those installations and the enemy has to come to us to do anything about it. In other words, to do anything about this, they have to rise up and reveal themselves across the threshold of our weapons.
They have been trying, successfully, to get us to fight on their terms. This would force them to fight on our terms. And they would need to explain to the people why walking everywhere in the cold and dark was a better idea than becoming a peaceful democracy.
I doubt we would have the guts to do that. We could catch PR hell for it. It might backfire. But it also might work. The main thing is it is non-violent. Just flipping switches.
It is fashionable among U.S. conservatives to blame the media for the losses of our recent wars. I used to be in the U.S. military. Now I am in the U.S. media. The media has no such power.
The media is not as screwed up as the military or as biased. But they are not perfect either. Also, the media is not the culprit for their deficiencies. The American people are lazy. Increasingly, they get all their news from TV. They no longer read papers or magazines. Furthermore, what they want to see on TV is explosions and other spectacular stuff. The media are trying to keep their ratings up, so they give the public what they want. “Bang bang” is what the media guys call it.
Smith says the media isn’t going away and they are important to the success of the war so the military must try to handle the media like a competent corporate executive would. That is, try to get your side of the story out honestly. I agree. But I also think it goes without saying. West Point should be teaching media relations if they are not already. Trying to exclude the media like Schwarzkopf did in Desert Storm was a bozo move. The media have far better communications than the military. They cannot be silenced or controlled.
In 1984, then U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger listed six conditions that must be true before the U.S. uses its military:
I agree with these six conditions. Smith says these apply to “industrial war,” not “wars amongst the people.” The problem is no one ever seems to have paid any attention to them. All six were violated in the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions. And the results have proven Weinberger was correct.
Smith also notes the General Colin Powell Doctrine. He was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Desert Storm. According to Smith, that doctrine is that the U.S. should only use military force when the action will be short, cause few casualties, and we use decisive and overwhelming force.
Those conditions describe Desert Storm, the war during which Powell was the top military officer, AND HE STILL OPPOSED THAT WAR! He wanted to use trade sanctions to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait!
What a hyperwimp!
If Colin Powell had been the Commander of our Revolutionary War soldiers we would still be a British Colony. He would have also refused to fight the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and Korea. And we made this guy the top general in the U.S. military!? Is there still any doubt that generals are chosen for their political skills, not their military leadership ability and performance?
When Madeleine Albright was the U.S. ambassador to the UN, she challenged Powell on these principles.
What’s the point of having this superb military that you’ve always been talking about if we can't use it?
You go, girl.
Smith says there are four ways military force should be used:
The second and third were probably the main use of our military since World War II. And they did it pretty well and won the Cold War. Destruction is what we did in World War II and Kuwait. Amelioration is what we did in Bosnia, but I doubt anyone would enlist or go to West Point to become a career ameliorater. Amelioration strikes me more as a police type of job. The current “wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be ameliorative and that’s why they are so unsuccessful and unsatisfying to the public.
So while I agree with Smith, I must note that amelioration is a poor mission for a military force.
Smith makes an interesting point on page 383. That is, that to deter the enemy, you must target things that he values and wants to keep more than he wants to hurt you. Furthermore, your threat must be credible in terms of both your capability and your willingness to carry it out.
In football offense, the basic principle is strength against weaknessa similar concept.
The problem, Smith notes, in Iraq and Afghanistan, is that the enemy has very little that they care about to target other than mosques and religious shrines. In Somalia, where we were bloodied and embarrassed in the Blackhawk Down incident, the people respect virtually nothing but the mosques. The mosques are the only buildings that look nice there.
Should those be sacred and off limits?
Flattening every mosque in Somalia would be something that couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of warlords. All’s fair in love and war. The warring parties in World War II in Europe certainly blew up each other churches quite freely, most notably Monte Cassino. C’est la guerre.
There would be no military value to blowing up mosques other than deterrent value, and that value would end the day we did it. Plus, the enemy in the Middle East is diffuse. Even if such a threat would deter one group or even most groups, there would probably always still be some who would want to get the U.S. into carrying out that threat in order to trigger the religious war they have always wanted.
Some would no doubt warn that targeting mosques would anger Muslims. Heck, drawing cartoons about their religion angers Muslims. They are hypersensitive and beside themselves with anger about every religious slight and imagined slight since the Middle Ages. Essentially the threats of their becoming angry toward us no longer have any meaning because they have used them so often they have become meaningless, or should have become meaningless. In that regard they are like the boy who cried “Wolf.”
Also, it has been well-documented that the Muslims are equally big on claiming their mosques are sacred in one breath and and ordering the use of them as ammo dumps and fighting positions in the next. We should follow their own example with regard to whether mosques are military targets.
There was an incident in Najaf early in the Iraq war where a U.S. military unit was supposed to meet with Sistani, the most respected religious guy in the country. But his house was near the most sacred mosque of the Shiites. An angry mob gathered to “protect” the mosque from the American soldiers.
They refused to listen to the fact that Sistani had summoned us. They refused to be swayed by the fact that the U.S. troops were infantry who did not have weapons to destroy the mosque. And it never apparently occurred to them that the Mosque would be dust within 15 minutes of the U.S. military deciding to turn it to dust and no U.S. soldier would ever have to get within 1,000 miles of the place to do it. Or maybe that did occur to them but they were not going to let it interfere with their delusion that they were bravely “protecting” the mosque.
Probably the current policy of targeting of mosques only while they are being used for military purposes is the best.
What else is important to the fighters? Not much. Their families, maybe but those are separate human beings who do not deserve to be killed as pawns in a war just because it might deter their jihadist relatives.
Essentially, the enemy has few valued assets for us to target. That means we have to emphasize the forensic skills and equipment that would greatly increase our ability to identify the bad guys so we can kill or capture them.
On page 392, Smith has his own Weinbergeresque list of questions about the use of force. It’s a pretty good one, like Weinberger’s, that our military and civilian leaders would do well to use.
The conclusion I draw from Smith’s book is that these “wars amongst the people” are primarily police and intelligence actions. They require local police who can speak the language as natives, know the people as natives, and who are trained and backed up by military forces to handle the occasional military target. They also require local intelligence-gathering agencies like our FBI. Furthermore, this is an open-ended commitment. The need for police has never ended in New York City. It will never end in Baghdad either. That’s another reason why the police must be local, not a GI from Indiana or a Marine from New Mexico.
Generally, however, our enemies will henceforth hide among the civilians or in the jungle and only reveal themselves during the briefest hit-and-run attacks. Since the military can only deliver its bayonets, bullets, and bombs to known military targets, the enemy will rarely offer such targets, thereby rendering the military mostly irrelevant to such wars.
Our military leaders, especially my fellow West Point graduates, need to be far more vocal and militant about keeping the military out of situations where police and intelligence agencies are the more appropriate forcefor the sake of the troops and the nation.
I highly recommend this book. It appears to be a better version of the famed new Army/Marines Counterinsurgency Manual. I say “appears” because it is taking me forever to read the manual. Why? It’s not very readable.
Either Rupert Smith is an excellent writer or he has an excellent ghost writer. The guys who wrote the manual are not very readable. I always thought unreadable writing was a contradiction in terms. If it’s not readable, what was the point of writing it? There is a time and a place for the military’s can-do, entirely self-sufficient attitude, like when they are pitching tents in the woods. The writing of a manual, however, is a situation where they should get the best writers they canincluding going outside the military to get themso as to insure the widest possible readership and comprehension. Smith’s publisher did that.
John T. Reed
Link to information about John T. Reed’s Succeeding book which, in part, relates lessons learned about succeeding in life from being in the military