Victory comes with consent

Interesting book by General Sir Rupert Smith called “The Utility of Force”.

The Times review says this military expert’s book criticizes US leadership to initiating a war in Iraq without a realistic mission definition. It is a critique that begins with semantics and ends with tactical suggestions.

You cannot blame the leaders, of course, if all they have read is Clausewitz. It will be no surprise therefore that General Smith is wholly dismissive of the US-led “War on Terror . . . intended to deliver a decisive victory over terror according to the leadership who declared it”. This is a notion “without useful meaning, at least in terms of describing the conduct of this confrontation,” says General Smith. “The terrorist is demonstrating a better understanding of the utility of force in serving his political purpose than those who are opposed to him — both political leaders and military establishments.”

The conclusion seems to be that warfare is now failing due to antiquated concepts applied to a changing world.

To take a historical example: machineguns, barbed wire and artillery made horsed cavalry obsolescent by 1915, but before the technological possibility of fast-moving, long-endurance tanks (not much before 1925) there was no alternative to keeping horsed cavalry since without a mobile arm there was no means of exploiting battlefield success. Ironically, General Smith now despairs of the huge numbers of tanks that Western forces possess since they are of limited utility when war is fought principally “amongst the people”. He does not say that swords should be beaten into billhooks, or for that matter into high-tech military instruments: he argues for an understanding that the longer and more complex battle is for the people’s will rather than for the destruction of an opponent’s forces.

Makes perfect sense to me. It reminds me of the development of the Apache gunship to outfight the Soviet helicopters in Afghanistan. The US technology was faster, more maneuverable and had more firepower. When the Soviets no longer were any kind of threat the Apache gunship became an expensive and lonely technology. It was thus re-purposed into new threats that were far more able to defeat it…ironically, the same threats that the Soviet helicopters really faced — Afghan guerrillas with US shoulder-fired rockets.

The bottom line is that in today’s political climate people will not agree to be subdued under impressive military might; they realize more than ever that they have the means and probably even justification to form their own power structures.

It comes down to a polite thank you for assistance removing one form of threat but a no thank you for further interference that is perceived as yet another threat.

Conservative thinkers such as Rumsfeld and Cheney apparently operated under an illusion that big armies win, end of story. Yet victory from violence at a shock and awe level alone does not warrant welcome parades. Sadly historians could have set them straight on this very quickly; it is actually a big army presence that is most likely to be rejected by local populations. A more tangible connection or concept has to accompany the utility of troops.

Battles just don’t work any more. War is now waged not in the field but the street, so victory is possible only with the people’s consent.

The event of being overrun by a top-down organization that is too large and foreign to be representative or responsive does not translate directly to the feeling of liberation.

My Masters Thesis on the liberation of Ethiopia by the British in 1940 to 1943 explored this issue. It was a delicate operation to repatriate a sovereign leader, which has had lasting effect on the security and stability in the Horn of Africa. The UK War Office tried to involve Haile Selassie with their troops as a means to bolster support for the British military offensive and acceptance after occupation. Instead they found Ethiopia still quickly moved to relationships with other nations that had no liberating role and they called for direct control or withdrawal of British forces. The inability of the occupation to generate social and economic successes precipitated political fracture. Groups worked together to pull apart the old regime. A vacuum of power allowed a new harsh unity to be formed by extremists, which further disintegrated notions of unity and the region fell into decades of separatist and guerrilla combat.

History is littered with examples of this liberation-to-loss concept, as the Times explains:

What is so appalling about Iraq is that it was predictable — and indeed it was predicted — from even a nodding acquaintance with history. General Smith cites Bonaparte’s invasion of Spain: the Spanish army collapsed, Madrid fell, but guerrilla warfare put the victory to nought, fatally bleeding the occupation forces. In the Anglo-Boer War, after the initial reverses the British quickly defeated the Boer field forces and occupied their two capitals, but a change of Boer tactics to something not unlike the Spanish guerrilleros’ prolonged the conflict by another two years, and at considerable cost to Britain’s military credibility and international moral standing.

Jamaican resistance to the Spanish is another good study. The US experience with the Philippines after liberation during the Spanish-American War also is worth a look.

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