The Utility of Force

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

General Rupert Smith’s The Utility of Force is a compelling analysis of war in the present era. Smith begins boldly; his first sentence declares, “War no longer exists.” By this he does not mean that international law and institutions have rendered state-sanctioned violence obsolete. Smith is much too hard-headed for that. Forty years of service in the British army, including stints commanding British troops in Operation Desert Storm and Northern Ireland, and U.N. forces in Bosnia, immunized him from any sort of illusions about humanity’s nature or institutions. What Smith means is that the type of military operations that most people associate with warmain-force engagements between formally constituted armies, leading to a victory and subsequent peace settlementno longer have utility in a world where conflict is characterized by ethnic cleansing and terrorism. War has changed, and Smith believes that most people, including political and military leaders, have failed to notice the new reality. The consequences, in Iraq and elsewhere, have been deadly.

Smith’s work is a theoretical treatise firmly grounded in experience. Though the book is not a memoir, Smith illustrates many of his points with examples drawn from his long career as a soldier. He also devotes much of his book to historical analysis, to provide context for his thesis that war as it was once known is dead. The Utility of Force in many ways echoes the writings of a man Smith quotes respectfully and often, Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist whose writings prefigured the rise of mass, industrial war in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Like Smith, Clausewitz was a professional soldier. He observed the dramatic changes that came over war in the Napoleonic era. No longer was war a limited struggle fought for limited aims by monarchs employing limited, and hence expensive, mercenary armies. War became instead a struggle of nations, with the rise and fall of dynasties at stake. As a result of what he saw, Clausewitz voiced the great insight that war is an extension of politics. War could no longer be waged in a strategic vacuum. A military operation had to be both an expression and fulfillment of a political aim. Thus, a military had to be attuned to and in constant communication with its government. Further, Clausewitz believed that this government, even the absolute monarchy that he himself served, had in an increasingly democratic age to be sensitive to the will of the people. The days were gone when people were disinterested bystanders to their monarchs’ wars. Kings now had to turn to their people for men and money. For Clausewitz, only the effective coordination of this trinity of military, government, and people could lead to victory.

Smith sees himself playing a role similar to that of Clausewitz. He is describing a revolution in warfare and reminding his readers of the connection between politics and warfare, but the nature of this politics is different. The balance between the military, government, and people has changed since the great wars of the twentieth century. His message is that people must accommodate themselves to an era in which battle no longer brings decision.

The modern era of war began with the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon. Smith calls this interstate industrial war. The armies of the French Revolution, inherited by Napoleon, were armies of the people, citizen soldiers, fighting for the new political ideal of the nation. What these armies at first lacked in training and discipline they more than made up for in numbers and ideological enthusiasm. Reorganizing this force, Napoleon created a redoubtable military machine that dominated Europe for a decade and a half. He made and unmade kings and brought a terrifying new decisiveness to warfare. Great battles like Austerlitz and Waterloo ended wars with stunning finality. Napoleon’s brand of war bred up a reaction among his enemies. In Spain, Germany, and Russia, nationalism spurred resistance. In Prussia, initial defeat inspired military reforms that led to the creation of a general staff, an elite corps of officers whose mission it was to plan intensively for war, developing a common doctrine that could be communicated to an entire army. This was the nursery of Clausewitz’s ideas on warfare. By the end of the Napoleonic period, war had become a massive enterprise, drawing on the resources of both state and people. The foundations had been laid for total war.

Technological changes accelerated both civilian and military life in the nineteenth century. The telegraph made communication almost instantaneous. The railroad revolutionized transportation, making it possible to shift great numbers of people rapidly over great distances. The American Civil War saw the first...

(The entire section is 1963 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, no. 11 (February 1, 2007): 10-11.

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