General Sir Rupert Smith Interviewed by Jeffrey McCausland

January 24, 2007

JEFFREY McCAUSLAND: We are pleased today to have with us General Sir Rupert Smith to discuss his new book, The Utility of Force. General Smith is a distinguished British officer with a long and very distinguished career, having commanded the British division during the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991, subsequently commanded British forces in Northern Ireland, was the UN Commander in Bosnia Herzegovina, and finished his service as Deputy Supreme Commander, Allied Forces Europe at NATO Headquarters.

General Smith, it's a great pleasure to have you here at Carnegie today to discuss this great book you've just come out with, The Utility of Force.

Let me begin there. You entitled this book The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern Age. So is force a useful tool of diplomacy in the twenty-first century; and, if so, how is force a useful tool but different now than in the past?

RUPERT SMITH: I'll answer it by pointing out that it must be a useful tool because it is disturbing us. Why are we so worried by terrorism or the spread of nuclear weapons if force has no utility today? It demonstrably does have utility. Our difficulty is how we apply our military force to our advantage, and we are not doing that successfully at the moment.

JEFFREY McCAUSLAND: Let me then move on. The opening line of your book is that (and I quote now): "War no longer exists. Confrontation, conflict, and combat certainly do."

Throughout the book you frequently make this distinction between confrontation and conflict, and that this is more the norm than the historical war, peace, war, and then resolution. What do you mean by this and why is this distinction between conflict, confrontation, and war important?

RUPERT SMITH: This is very complex. I'll take my answer in stages.

Firstly, let me try and define the words. They are not synonyms, to start with. Firstly, conflict is the actual fighting, whether this is a campaign or a battle or an engagement. That is the conflict. One of the things we must learn to understand is at what level conflict is actually taking place—in other words, how much force is being employed, as opposed to deployed.

To expand on that slightly and to perhaps illustrate the definition, we might have 135,000 U.S. armed forces in Iraq, but they're not being used in that mass as corps or divisions or even brigades. I doubt that there is a fight at a greater level than about company level at any time. So the conflicts are company conflicts, even though you have all those forces there.

It is in the confrontation that we find the context for those conflicts. Now, the confrontation occurs when you have two or more parties in broadly the same circumstances where they have different outcomes in mind. This does not need to be resolved by conflict. Conflict may play a part in the resolution. Conflict may seek to impose your outcome in the confrontation.

Now, in industrial war in the past, when we went to war as states, we sought to impose our outcome by force of arms in that confrontation that you were having with another state or group. In war amongst the people, in our current circumstances, we are using force—and, indeed, our opponents are—in the conflicts to alter the conditions in which we might get the result we want in the confrontation.

That's why the two are different and that is why we have changed from industrial war to war amongst people. The level of conflict is important to understand so that you can analyze where the confrontations lie.

JEFFREY McCAUSLAND: Shortly after the Gulf War in 1991, where both of us commanded—you commanded a division; I commanded a battalion—in the aftermath of the Gulf War, there was a lot of talk amongst military thinkers about the so-called "revolution in military affairs." Since then, that has been widely discussed. Former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld arrived in the Pentagon here several years ago with the whole idea of transforming the U.S. military to meet this new "revolution," and there was lots of talk about such things as network-centric warfare being the way to use technology in many cases to replace manpower, in particular, in the wars and the conflicts we were going to be engaged in.

Do you agree, with your definitions of war and conflict today, that that was an appropriate effort? Is it consistent with this new paradigm you're talking about, or perhaps misplaced?

RUPERT SMITH: You've just given me the beginnings of an example to enlarge on my answer to the previous question, so if you'll permit me, I will step back a question before answering the one about the revolution of military affairs.


RUPERT SMITH: The Iraq war of 1991 is an example of a confrontation with a conflict. If you follow the story, we start with Saddam Hussein taking Kuwait, and we then deploy forces into Saudi Arabia with the Saudis in Operation Desert Shield. That was not a conflict at all. That was a confrontation with a military deployment to support it, which was successful, on the assumption that Saddam Hussein did intend to go on coming further south.

We then built up into Desert Sword, which was still a confrontation, because there was a very large diplomatic effort going on to try and get Saddam Hussein, in the face of this deployment, these threats, to change his intentions and withdraw voluntarily from Kuwait. We failed to achieve our objective in that confrontation.

We then moved to conflict and fought a brief campaign to drive him out of Kuwait and to destroy the republican guard, et cetera. At that point, we failed completely to recognize that we had altered our position in the overall confrontation.

What happened was that General Schwarzkopf was left to negotiate a ceasefire from which we took no material advantage to alter our strategic position in the confrontation, and we fell back to a tactical-level confrontation of sanctions and no-fly zones which lasted for the better part of ten or more years.

We then ramped it up again to another theater-level confrontation with Operation Iraqi Freedom [2003], demands for inspection and so forth. Failed again.

Back to a brief theater-level campaign, from which we gain no strategic success at all. It's just completely dislocated from the strategic goal of getting the Iraqis to follow our intentions and have a democratically elected government which they support.

And so we have fallen back to daily tactical conflict that sits there within this greater confrontation.

Does that help to answer the previous question?

JEFFREY McCAUSLAND: Yes, it clarifies it. It's a very good example. But I want to press you on this again, because in the aftermath of that and during that period of time—Desert Fox [1998], and then of course Iraqi Freedom—the argument of Iraqi Freedom on the invasion side is we could make that invasion now in 2003, twelve years after you and I entered Iraq in 1991, with a substantially smaller force because of the arguments of the revolution in military affairs and the transformation of force, et cetera, et cetera.


JEFFREY McCAUSLAND: So were those wise investments? Was that thinking about the revolution, the transformation of force, appropriate; or really do we now find that we have created a force but it is confronting a paradigm that is wholly different?

In part, of course, that is what has happened. We have focused on networking ourselves, with the result, in my view, that we know more and more about ourselves and less in less in proportion about our opponent. Because our opponent is amongst the people and not sitting in an open desert available to be observed, we find it extremely difficult to find out who he is from amongst the people and to deal with him appropriately.

JEFFREY McCAUSLAND: Let me go one step farther. We military guys, like you and me, talk an awful lot about being organized for combat, the way we think about arraying our force for a particular operation. As I read your book, it struck me that in thinking about force in the aggregate, the force of the nation, perhaps the U.S. government and the government of the United Kingdom and Western democracies in general really are not organized for combat to confront this war amongst the people that you well describe in your book, the relationship between military and other government agencies.

Am I right in that assumption? Am I reading you correctly? And, if so, how would you describe the organization for combat that we need to achieve if we are going to be successful in this war amongst the people?

RUPERT SMITH: I would like to change the terminology. Let's go back. I don't think we have too much difficulty in organizing ourselves for conflict. Where we fail to be organized is to handle the confrontations. That's where the change is required.

In the industrial war model, because you sought to use force to impose your will by force of arms, to solve your confrontational problem directly by force of arms, you were able to run your business, if you like, of government in the stovepipes of the individual ministries or departments of defense, or whatever names you use.

Now that we are conducting these operations where the confrontation and the conflict interface at much lower levels, tactical or operational theater level, we need to rethink how those are put together. Now that we are operating in non-state groupings—either multinational groupings, on the one hand; or against non-states, on the other—again, we have to understand that this is going on in the theater, not in the capital. And so, again, one's organization, as to who has responsibilities and authorities to key these things together, has to lie in a different place.

JEFFREY McCAUSLAND: You frequently make reference in the book to, of course, Operation Iraqi Freedom and what has happened in the subsequent three—now almost four—years. You also describe how capability in conflict is the product of the means brought to bear; the ways or the strategies applied; and, lastly—and you stress this—the will of the people and the political will to exercise that.

So how would you evaluate the conflict in Iraq where we are today? Obviously, we might do things different, but we have to deal with what things are today.

And, frankly, how would you assess, then, the new strategy described by President Bush to deal with the conflict? It seems in a way what he has suggested—more troops among the people, more reconstruction efforts among the people—might be more consistent with the paradigm you have described.

There's really three questions there. I'll try to take them in turn.


RUPERT SMITH: To take the point of these capabilities, yes, your capability is a product of what you have, the way you use it, and the will to use that. That applies as much to a nation-state as it does to you, the gladiator in the ring.

The thing to remember, which you didn't say, was that your capability is always relative. It is a relationship. It is your capability in relation to your opponent.

To take us away from Iraq at the moment, and just as an aside, I don't want anyone to understand that this is a book about Iraq. Iraq is merely an illustration of what is in the book.

If we go back to the events in Somalia in Mogadishu in the early 1990s, there you see that relative equation being played out between U.S. forces and those of General Aidid, where quantitatively and qualitatively the United States forces are superior if we just look at the infantry. But after the events of one day, we arrive at a situation where the United States withdraws. Aidid and company, with their limited weapons, had created a situation where their capability was greater.

That is what we have to understand, and that is what you can see being played out on the streets of Baghdad or wherever. And opponents will not allow us, if they've got any sense, to operate in the way we want to operate. They will force us to come down below the utility of our weapon systems as we intended to use them. That's what is happening. We have to think as to how to apply it.

We go back also to your question about revolution in military affairs in terms of technology. The means are actually the least of those three factors. It is the way you use them and the will to use them which are the real multipliers in the equation.

So now to Iraq. We must ask ourselves the question: With the capability as represented by more means—another X thousand soldiers or whatever—have we a way to use them within our will to use them? That seems to me to be the question that we have to ask ourselves about the President's plan and all the rest of it.

So it isn't only the 20,000 surge; it's what are we doing with the 135,000 and others that are there that's different. In what way are we using these forces and resources that's new? And how does it link—where are the robust, logical linkages that key it to the confrontational issues that these conflicts are about?

Which brings me to that level of analysis. I think we can boil these confrontational issues down to two groups.

There are those that are internal to Iraq—essentially, who is going to govern Iraq and in what form? Those are the confrontations. The conflicts are about arranging one's position in that. So the question I have—and I don't know the answer—is: Who are we supporting, to do what, and what is military force's contribution to achieve that, to achieve this pan-Iraq governmental effort?

But on the outside, in the region, so fragile has become the Iraq situation inside, that the external players around Iraq itself have started, and have been for some time, to expect the worst-case option, which is the fragmentation of Iraq. So they have started to back their proxies in Iraq. Because they are backing their proxies, this is, as it were, increasing the probability of the worst-case solution on the inside of Iraq. So you have another set of confrontations with the region as a whole, which the deployment of forces has got to satisfy, to support whatever diplomacy is going on, to try and get the external players to stop backing the worst case and to start to contribute to achieving the best case, which is a stable government of Iraq.

I was particularly struck by your comments about the role of the media in your discussion of the utility of force. I want to read one comment that I found almost startling. You say in the book (and I quote): "The starting point for any commander should be that he has only himself to blame if facts are incorrectly reported and if they remain uncorrected."

I would dare say many senior serving officers that I know in the American army—and perhaps the British army as well—would be struck by this role that you have given them as military officers.

So how is the utility of force then affected by this internationalization really, if you will, of the media and this 24/7 news cycle, particularly for the profession of arms?

RUPERT SMITH: Well, as you've heard me talk, I see the theater commander, who need not be a soldier or a military man—in fact, on the whole, I consider that he shouldn't be—he has to understand that he is operating in a theater, and he's got to have the most compelling narrative that everybody is following.

Now, unless your narrative is based on observable fact that others can see, then people will stop believing what you are saying because they can see, in quite small details maybe, that that's nonsense. They've just seen that chap being killed, so saying that it hasn't happened, or whatever, is going to in the end erode your own ability to dominate the story.

That's why I say what I've said in the book, that actually your business is to make sure that the story is being told correctly, because people can see it all the time. That doesn't mean to say that you have to have the whole story told.

I sometimes try and describe the difference is that in industrial war we practiced deception, we would deliberately lie, because everything could not be seen. But in wars amongst the people everything can be seen. So now you have to do illusions. You're a conjurer. They know you're a conjurer. They know you've got a rabbit. You've still, though, got to produce it as a surprise and out of one trouser leg or the other.

You state several times in the book that war is fought, of course, for political purposes. Now, in the twentieth century we saw the creation of many international institutions to provide security—whether it was the coalition that faced down fascism, whether it was the United Nations, whether it was NATO, whether it was the European Union. In this new age, with the nature of conflict and confrontation being what you described, do these international institutions still have the same value, or are issues and terms such as "collective security" now becoming somewhat outdated?

RUPERT SMITH: No, most certainly not outdated. And it's not such a new age. The great coalition—or alliance, as it's properly called—of NATO is an example of the greatest confrontation of all in our lifetime. We called it the Cold War. It's absolute nonsense. It was never a war. It was one long confrontation.

We built NATO to do this. NATO is the product of a confrontation, not of a conflict. One of the reasons it struggles now is that its whole machinery was built up to manage a confrontation and to show collective intent and so forth, and not necessarily to conduct a conflict of the types we have now.

So, first of all, this isn't so new. What is new is that we are conducting these confrontations at much lower levels, below these massive strategic levels. We do have to do them internationally because the very nature of the things that we fear stretch across our boundaries, the result of the increasing global communications, basically.

I think the way to understand it is that we used to have an understanding in industrial war that a strong defense gave you security of your people. For America, on the 11th of September 2001, that understanding was breached forever and America discovered it was insecure. But being strong in defense, America goes and does something that uses its strength, which has not necessarily improved its security.

We have to start to understand that in war amongst the people these are security operations, not defensive operations, in their conceptual base. Therefore, you are bound to have to cooperate and collaborate with all of those in your security zone, which in today's world is very largely a global affair.

JEFFREY McCAUSLAND: One final question. The subtitle of your book is "The Art of War in the Modern World." Now, another famous general, Carl von Clausewitz, back in the nineteenth century wrote a very famous book that was simply entitled The Art of War. He perhaps is best known for his comment that "war is politics by other means." Do you think that this war among the people, as you well describe, has made Clausewitz and that first book invalid or perhaps even more relevant to our times today?

Firstly, I find it very flattering to be compared to Clausewitz, but in no way do I actually think I am anything of the sort of a comparator.

I find, particularly in his first book, that the concepts that he arrives at in those pages are of relevance today, and some of what is written in my book is to try and take those ideas and use them and show their relevance in analyzing our situation today. I don't think he has been written out of the pages of warfare at all.

JEFFREY McCAUSLAND: Thank you, General Smith. It has been a real pleasure to have you here today at the Carnegie Council discussing your new book, The Utility of Force.

I am Dr. Jeffrey McCausland, the Senior Fellow here at the Carnegie Council for our program on Ethics and War.

Thank you very much.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less