Gringo Lost

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The Utility of Force: War Amongst the People

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Rupert Smith contends in Utility of Force that great powers are less likely to resort to confrontation to resolve international disputes because of the nuclear deterrent.  Instead conflict in the current era of security will be dominated by asymmetrical threats from non-state actors.  Thus, the new paradigm of international conflict involves the actions used by great powers to counter threats from non-state actors.  These actions include peacekeeping, counterterrorism, and interventions to secure national or allied interests.

This new paradigm is described by Smith in part III, “War Amongst the People”.  In this section, Smith breaks down six basic trends that make up the new paradigm (list copied from the book):

  1. The ends for which we fight are changing from the hard objectives that decide a political outcome to those of establishing conditions in which the outcome may be decided.
  2. We fight amongst the people, not on the battlefield.
  3. Our conflicts tend to be timeless, even unending.
  4. We fight so as to preserve the force rather than risking all to gain the objective
  5. On each occasion new uses are found for old weapons and organizations which are the products of industrial war.
  6. The sides are mostly non-state, comprising some form of multi-national grouping against some non-state party or parties.

Based on point one, governments must employ force to establish “conceptual space” where statecraft (diplomacy, political pressure, economic incentives, etc) can be used to gain political objectives.

In regards to points two through four, the fact that governments are forced to fight “amongst the people” and endure “timeless” conflicts means that force must be employed in a way that does not break support of the Clausewitzian triangle of the population, government, and military.  The realities of lengthy operations mean that governments must fight to “preserve the force” by avoiding the “body bag” effect that casualties have on reducing public support.  Consequently, the media is a necessary tool for decision makers because theirs is the primary conduit where information can be tailored and dispensed.

For point five, Smith makes the observation that the most destructive weapons of today’s conflicts are being used in ways that they were not originally intended.  Smith’s examples include the use of machetes by Rwandan Hutus to systematically kill Tutsis, suicide bombers to conduct precision attacks, and the proliferation of small arms to rebel groups.  I would add one adaption of the American machinery was the placement of missile systems on different types of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Lastly, governments send their forces on operations to preserve and advance interests within non-state formulations of conflict.  To conduct these operations governments must form groupings of multi-national partners that often reduce the group’s objectives to the lowest common denominator.  This is a result of varying degrees of material, legal and political support from each member of the group.  Thus, point six is a reflection of the need to marry the objectives of coalition partners.  This point is particularly important for international missions conducted by organizations such as the UN and NATO.

Moving forward

Smith follows this explanation of the “war amongst the people” paradigm with a chapter titled Direction: Setting the Purpose for the Use of Force. In this chapter, he lays a cursory outline of what policy-makers could do to prepare for this next phase of conflict.  However, Smith doesn’t offer much insofar as suggestions other than saying there needs to be a “revolution in our thinking” that realizes both the military and political are more intertwined than ever. This revolution entails an overhaul of the institutions and thought-processes that guide conceptions of war.

In the least, an overhaul of the following is necessary:

  • The legal institutions that govern the international security arena.  The current regimes (such as the Geneva Conventions) were formed in the aftermath of WWII and were designed with industrial wars in mind. They need to be re-crafted to address non-state threats.
  • Planning for conflict has to change to reflect new realities of non-traditional conflict.
  • Institutional design must effectively focus the efforts of different agencies across the civil-military spectrum on shared objectives.
  • The media’s role must be included in the planning for conflict.

Now these above recommendations are from Smith, but what from this list is missing?

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2 Responses

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  1. The necessary role of state propaganda in conditioning the people who must support the idea of complex asymmetrical threats, as well the sacrifices they entail.

    “All propaganda has to be popular and has to accommodate itself to the comprehension of the least intelligent of those whom it seeks to reach.”
    Adolph Hitler

    Blackhawk187

    September 14, 2009 at 10:09 am

  2. […] recall Rupert Smith’s paradigmatic shift from traditional/industrial war to “war amongst the people” to General Stanley McChrystal’s just released initial assessment of the situation in […]


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