The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World

January 24, 2007


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you all for joining us this morning.

I know many of you are familiar with the Carnegie Council's areas of concentration, but for those of you who are not, I would just like to mention that today's program falls under our Ethics, War and Peace Initiative. This presentation with General Sir Rupert Smith will be available as a podcast, and an interview with General Smith conducted by our Senior Fellow of Military Affairs, Jeff McCausland, will also be available for you to download.

For more programs and information about this and our theme areas, I refer you to the website of the Carnegie Council to find out more about this and other programs.

For some time now, military theorists have been wrestling with the idea that war just isn't what it used to be. In reflecting upon the new realities of today's world of unconventional threats, these realists have come to see that our military forces are no longer equipped to respond to the myriad changes taking place around the globe. The challenge is how to change the old mindset so that we can be successful as we adjust to the new landscape of warfare.

In The Utility of Force, our guest this morning addresses this issue, as he describes the futility of war as it is fought today. He writes that: "The first and second World Wars were essentially contests of will between great industrial states, involving head-to-head contests of their armed forces, and were aimed at the destruction of the opponent's army. But this type of conflict no longer exists. The paradigm has changed." "Instead, what has emerged," says General Smith, "is war amongst the people, where the strategic objective is to win the hearts and minds, and the battle is for the people's will, rather than the destruction of an opponent's forces."

Today, where the use of force is less a direct means to an end and more of a catalyst, and where conflicts are just as much political as military, General Smith argues that force should be used, but only used when there is a clear understanding of the nature of the conflict and a well-conceived strategy for achieving a goal.

General Smith has long been seen as one of Britain's foremost-thinking soldiers. In fact, he is often referred to as the best chief of staff the British Army has ever had. After a long and distinguished career which lasted just under four decades, in January 2002 General Smith retired from the British Army. His last appointment, as Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, Europe during the time of the NATO air campaign in Kosovo, and an earlier tour as commander of the UN forces in Bosnia at the time of the Dayton Peace Accords, serve as the catalyst to the writing of this book—as does Ilana [his partner Ilana Bet-El]. It was often during these campaigns that he had to act on behalf of governments who had wish lists but no serious strategy. It is these critical experiences which constitute the framework for his thinking about war.

In addition to his assignments in the Balkans, he also served in Northern Ireland as the general officer in command from 1996-1998. This was the period that spanned the ceasefire, oversaw the peace negotiations, and led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. He also commanded the First British Armor Division that was deployed to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. All of these tours have provided him with the opportunity to observe what was happening on the ground and to gather thought-provoking insights about the use of force in the 21st century.

At a time when Western confidence in the idea that military force alone cannot solve our problems, General Smith's book is of particular interest, not only because of his exemplary career, but also because he is asking the right questions about when, how, and under what circumstances force can and should be used.

I have heard it said that our speaker is the consummate soldier's soldier. Keeping this in mind, I now ask that you join me in giving a very warm welcome to a commander of men, a man who himself knows just where and when to use force, our very distinguished speaker, General Sir Rupert Smith.


RUPERT SMITH: Thank you very much indeed.

I would just like to add to a point of the introduction and make it quite clear to one and all that this book would never have been written—and I really mean would never have been written—if it hadn't been for Ilana. She, a historian and a journalist in her own right, contributed a very great deal to the production of this book, The Utility of Force.

The contention that is argued in the book is that the nature of our operations today, and in the future, are fundamentally of a different nature to those of the past, for which our institutions have grown up and developed to conduct successfully. I call this new form, or model, of war "war amongst the people," in contrast to that past model, industrial war. The essential difference is that military force is no longer used to decide the matter, but it is being used to create a condition in which the strategic result is achieved by other means, the strategic object being to alter the opponent's intentions rather than to destroy him.

As a result, we do not move in the linear process of peace/crisis/war/resolution/peace that our institutions have evolved to manage to advantage. Now we are in a world of continual confrontations and conflicts, in which the military acts in the conflict support the achievement of the desired outcome in the confrontation by other means—means such as diplomacy, economic development, and political and legal measures.

Now, when I talk of institutions, I am referring to the institutions of governance, whether they be those of Washington or Whitehall or any other capital, whether they be parliamentary or administrative, and whether they are national or intergovernmental. I refer to the executive institutions—the armed services, the intelligence services, the diplomatic services, and so forth—and I refer to the multinational organizations that we form from elements of those services to conduct our business abroad. And lastly, I refer to the institutional relationships—the processes, the procedures—that glue those institutions together and make them function.

I am not, except in the most general terms, referring to particular equipments or capabilities. It is the way we think about war and conflict and how the institutions work together that has to change. When that is changed and we have worked out how to use our tools in a different way, we may wish to order our priorities for organization and the acquisition of equipments differently. But until we change the way we think, we won't know what to do.

If you want a metaphor of the magnitude of this change of thinking I think we have to carry out, I ask you to consider the world of art. The Impressionists used the same paintbrushes, the same canvas, the same palettes, and they looked at the same views as the Realists, but they had a completely different outcome in mind and they came to use those same tools in a completely different way. And we, the viewers, had to change our minds to understand what we were looking at. And they altered our intentions, our perceptions. We have to work that trick, from Realism to Impressionism, in our institutions if we are to have utility in the use of military force today and in the future.

Now, I said that we were now in a world of confrontations and conflicts, and I will try to explain very briefly what I mean by those words.

The first point I want to make is that I am not using them as synonyms, as many journalists and authors do.

A confrontation occurs when two or more bodies in broadly the same circumstances are pursuing different outcomes. Now, political affairs of all stripes, national and international, are about resolving confrontations. But when one or both sides cannot get their way in a confrontation and will not accept an alternative outcome, they sometimes seek to use military force to gain their outcome. They turn to conflict. When this occurred in industrial war, we sought to resolve the confrontation directly by force of arms, by conflict. War was decisive strategically.

However, today, and actually—read the book—since the dropping of the second atomic bomb, in adopting conflict as the course of action, the side that is weak, if it is wise, does not play to the opponent's strengths, but rather follows the path of avoiding set battle, except on his own terms, and the operationally or strategically decisive engagement, so as not to present the opponent with the opportunities to strike the mortal blows.

He follows a generic strategy composed of three strands: the propaganda of the deed; the strategy of provocation; and the erosion of the will. Now, there isn't time in these opening remarks to explain those in great detail, but those of you who were Trotskyites in your youth will recognize where all of that came from. Also, anyone who has brought up small children will know what those mean. In broad terms, these three strategic strands, woven into a rope suitable for those circumstances, guide our opponents today.

The object in following that generic strategy is to dislocate the military activity from its political purpose. We have watched that going on serially in Afghanistan and in Iraq for the last three or four years.

Alternatively, the weak seek to replicate the strength of the strong, and they gain a nuclear weapon, like North Korea. But in doing so, they follow that same generic strategy.

Now, if you are very strong and have nuclear weapons, you have too much to lose in using them. But, whether you have them or not, you have to find a way to exert your power, to use your strength, which should not be measured as the size of one's military forces. Or, as Michel Foucault said, power is a relationship, not a possession.

Now, finding the way to establish that relationship to advantage is the strategic question of our time. How, and to what end, do we apply military force sub-strategically in the conflict so as to gain our strategic and political position in the overall confrontation? Or, how do you gain the outcome you desire in war amongst the people?

Now, war amongst the people has six characteristics, or trends. I call them trends because they vary in their magnitude and importance according to the circumstances. And, though they will come at you in a list, you should understand them as being written in a circle, with each playing on the other five in their influence. Now, very quickly, the six trends are these:

  • The first is that the strategic objective for which we engage in conflict has changed from that hard, simple objective of the industrial war—take, hold, destroy, unconditional surrender; words simple and hard like that—and now we are conducting these conflicts for soft, malleable objectives which describe a condition, like a "safe and secure environment in Anbar Province," or whatever. If that doesn't tell you we're doing something different, I don't know what does. But there is an example of these soft and malleable objectives. Those are what we are fighting for. Deterrence and coercion are also malleable objectives, and they are to do with the intentions of your opponent—not his territory, not how big his army is, not even necessarily the defeat of all his forces. The objective is to change his intentions. I am talking of the strategic and theater-level objectives.

    For those of you who have got a memory of the events on the Lebanese-Israeli border between mid-July and mid-August of this last year, think back to the rhetoric of the day. It starts with "destroy Hezbollah," "defeat the rocket attack." Within about three days, because the Israelis are fast learners, they are straight down into "reestablish the deterrent effect of the IDF [Israel Defense Forces," and we are back into conditions very, very quickly.

  • The second characteristic, or trend, is that we do not conduct these operations or conflicts as states. Not even the mighty United States is able to conduct these operations on its own. We don't conduct them against states either. These are non-state activities. Generally, on the one hand, we are in a collective of states of some description; and, on the other hand, these are non-states completely, who don't even want to be states, wish to deny any responsibilities that might go with being a state. And yet, all our institutions, right down to that of international law, treaty law, and so forth, are state-based.

  • The third characteristic is that these operations take place amongst the people, literally amongst the people. But also, because of my first point about the changing objectives, we are fighting for the minds of the people, because if you want to find the man who you are really fighting amongst the people you need to be able to separate him from the people. You may kill him, but you have to do it in such a way that you are capturing the minds of the people amongst which he fights. Otherwise you just drive them together.

    And we fight amongst the people in another sense, in the sense of the media. Now, this is in no way an attack upon the media. I consider the media is just like the weather, another medium within which you operate, and about as controllable.

    Command of a theater is like being a producer in a Roman circus, in am amphitheater, and you, with your band of gladiators, are down there in the pit, where there is at least one other producer and another band of gladiators, and everyone is in there amongst the people, milling around, getting to their seats. The idiot who can't find a car park space, the ticket touts, the ice cream sellers, and all the rest of it, are all milling around down there in the stands. And around the outside in the stands is a highly factional audience who pay attention to where it is noisiest in the pit by peering through the straw of their Coca-Cola tin. And you, that producer, in confrontation with the other producers or producer, have to write and act the most compelling script so that you dictate the narrative. Then you win; you win the minds of the people.

  • The fourth characteristic is that these affairs are timeless. In industrial war, we fought to win quickly because, in essence, the whole idea was that the nation handed a blank check to the generals and said, "The nation is yours. But do it quick. We want to get back to peace."

    We are not winning strategically by force of arms. We are not going to do that directly. So now we create a condition in which the strategic result might be found by other means and you have to hold that condition while that happens. The more you view this as a serial activity, the longer you have to hold the condition. This is why UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon] on the Lebanese border has been there since 1978. And how many of you knew that the first "I" stood for "interim?"
  • We fight not to lose the force. There is the "body bag effect" and all the rest of it in the theater that I described, in that circus. But we fight not to lose the force for other reasons. There are no production lines to have a new army, like there was in industrial war. Where are the depots, the conscripts? Where is the political will to stop society and call up the working population? Where are the production lines for all those tanks and airplanes of industrial war? Could those airplanes and so forth be made in the volumes that we required them for industrial war? And, if these operations are timeless, how do you sustain them if you don't preserve your forces?
  • Then, lastly, there is a constant demonstration of new uses for old weapons and organizations. Who would have thought that the humble Katyusha rocket could be a surrogate air force for over four weeks on the Lebanese border last summer? If you went back and looked at the justification for the acquisition of the British Army's Apache helicopters, I can promise you, because I was part of this, there was absolutely no mention that they were going to be used in penny packets, at very high altitude, very far east of Suez, in direct support of infantry close-quarter battle. If we had tried to justify the Apache helicopter on that basis, we wouldn't have them today.

Now, these trends taken together will give you the reasons behind—and I'll just give you a very quick list of the sort of problems which you can see us wrestling with today—the difficulty of analysis and explanation. These situations are complex. Our visual images are all of industrial war, our rhetoric is all of industrial war, and we confuse ourselves with our own analysis and understanding.

  • The difficulty in deciding on the military objectives that affect the intentions of our opponents.
  • The difficulty when taking military action of avoiding driving the people amongst whom we fight into the arms of the opponent.
  • The difficulty of understanding that it is our people who are as much affected by these wars amongst the people as those that are in the absolute locality of the fighting. Next time you go through the airport, just think on that.
  • The problems of foreseeing the effects of a particular action in the conflict on the confrontations that you are trying to achieve, your desired outcome.
  • The difficulty in defining what is success.
  • The difficulty that these multinational groupings have in arriving at a strategy and adhering to it.
  • The application of the law, whether it is treaty law or humanitarian law, or even criminal law.
  • And the difficulty in sustaining these operations through time.

So, to conclude, what is to be done? As I said at the beginning, the single most important thing to change is the way we think about the use of military force, to recognize the change in paradigm; and that our institutional mindsets, developed and honed during years of industrial war, need to change; and, in doing this, to recognize that the ultimate objective in warfare amongst the people is to capture the minds of the people, their territory—not even necessarily to destroy their forces, but to capture their intentions.

Force has utility. If it doesn't, why are we so concerned about terrorist groups, the spread of nuclear weapons, warlords, ethnic cleansing—(or is it genocide?)—in Darfur and elsewhere? Why is it that our opponents appear to understand the utility of force rather better than we do? How do we bring our military forces to bear to advantage?

I have not said that the future is one of urban terrorism or that there will not be big fights. Indeed, I think we could argue that the affairs of last July and August in the north of Israel and Lebanon was a big enough fight for the time being.

I do say that these fights will be not for territorial aggrandizement—those old, hard objectives—but it will be dare to change people's intentions. We need to find a way to bring these other means that cement your successes on the battlefield into achieving the result you want in the confrontation, to bring them to bear so that there is a firm, strong connection between your military acts and the political and diplomatic outcome that you desire, that it is able to be sustained and avoid being defeated by your opponent's generic strategy, which is setting out to dislocate our military acts from our political outcomes that we desire.

Institutionally, we do not have the capacity to link our military activities firmly and strongly enough, with a clear logic that can be carried on in the theater, to our political outcomes that we desire. Until we can do that, we will not triumph on the battlefields of today and tomorrow.

I am wide open to questions

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: General, many thanks for a superb companion volume to Clausewitz.

Picking up on your very last point, about how we relate political outcomes to the military processes we use, with regard to increasing moral imperatives to intervene in situations such as Darfur, where ethnic cleansing is rife, how would you square the circle of waging war in an era of war amongst the people with the need to act to prevent genocide, and what do you believe is the role of military force is in that context?

RUPERT SMITH: This answer is in danger of becoming a lecture, so I'll try to keep it brief. I'll try to answer it in such a way as to perhaps answer one or two other questions that might be bubbling there.

I'll try a metaphor on you as to this linkage of the use of military force and the outcome. If you could all imagine a seesaw, the plank on the oil barrel when you were children, and you could envisage industrial war as being a seesaw on which each side on the end tried to increase its weight so it went down and the other one went up—you manufactured more so your weight got heavier at one end, you shot away his factories so that the proportion was to your advantage, and you maneuvered on the battlefield so that the plank got longer on your side so you got leverage, and so on and so forth. So there is a little model of industrial war.

Now, in war amongst the people, you've still got the military there, but instead of the conflict being on the plank, it is the confrontation that is on the plank. The role of the military force and the military in that force is not to get the biggest possible weight on the end of the plank so that you go down and the other bloke goes up. The role of the military in war amongst the people is to move the fulcrum, to move the barrel, so that in the confrontation your people have the leverage.

So the first part of my answer is that the thing we've got to do is to start to understand in the military the political outcome in such a way that we move the fulcrum that helps the man doing the confrontation. And, equally, the man doing the confrontation has got to say, "I need it now." So that linkage has got to be a great deal stronger.

Secondly, this linkage has to take place not in the capitals, because this is going on in the theater. So we have to come to the ability, not to discuss this in Brussels or New York or Washington, but we've got to understand this in the theater. The theater commander—director, producer, whatever we think of him as—has got to be able to manage that linkage, or you will always be too late because the other producer is able to operate like that. He is not a state.

The third thing is we've got to start to understand that military force is not necessarily the act of last resort. In industrial war, it was the act of last resort because you were about to hand the blank checks over. You were supposed, in a serial way, to go through every possible other measure.

But think of it—and this is covered in the book. Does the other guy agree with you that the act of force is an act of last resort? No, he does not. Is this a logical thing to the actors so that we all agree this is how we're playing this game? No, they don't. So we've got to start to consider the use of military force at a completely different stage in these confrontations.

And we perhaps need to remember that the words "deploy force" and "employ force" are not synonyms—although, again, in journalism they frequently are used as such. Deploying a force can be sending the messages just as strongly as employing it. It depends at what stage you do it and what messages you are sending at the same time. Remember, it's information that changes intentions.

The last thing about the use of force, leaving it to the last moment, is: What do you do if it fails? Is defeat an exit strategy? A question today. So why not start using it a bit quicker, when you've got more options? Now, that's not saying you are deploying complete carrier task forces and so forth, but we've got to start thinking of this in an entirely different way.

And if we have signed up, as we did September two years ago now, to the duty to protect the individual and his human rights, then when do you start doing that? You shouldn't be doing it at the last possible moment, in which case you are right back to Auschwitz.

Is that enough?

QUESTION: That was magisterial. A two-part question. I like particularly your concluding point about the importance of winning the minds of people. But I never heard you use the expression, much in favor these days, "soft power." Do you feel that this notion of soft power, the power to attract others to support your objectives because of the kind of society you are, the kind of values you represent, has a complementary role—not as a substitute for force, but as something that makes the use of force more successful?

And, in a sense linked to that, the second part of the question. You spoke of institutions. You didn't say much about international institutions, which I know you have some experience with within the United Nations. But the word there that I was looking for was "legitimacy." To what degree is legitimacy in the use of force a relevant consideration for the effectiveness of force? And, of course, to what degree in the kinds of conflicts you are talking about does that legitimacy come from effective, respected international institutions, where those who use force can demonstrate they are playing by the rules of the road that everyone has agreed to?

RUPERT SMITH: Let's just deal with the soft power. The idea of soft power and hard power is old thinking, which is why I don't use it. That's serial, linear thinking. You have to understand this as a whole. And military power is so simple. It kills people and destroys things. I spent, just short of a few months, forty years where that's what I did. I was bloody good at it. But it's meaningless unless it is to some purpose.

The idea that you can have these things in separate packets is utterly our problem. To the man on the street in Basrah or wherever, it is a meaningless distinction to him when his belly is empty and he is frightened. What he wants is some order on the streets, and he will back the person who is going to provide it. That's his scale of needs at the time. You can start to do "Oh, wouldn't it be nice to immigrate to New York?" a bit later on in the process.

That's why I don't use the words "soft power." You'll find I don't use almost any of our usual rhetorical shorthands, because they are part of our problem, and we should get back to plain English and we might understand what we are doing.

Legitimacy: I think this is absolutely essential. I am not saying when I say that that we don't have to reinterpret our understandings of some of, if you like, the legal positions of international humanitarian law, our treaties, and so forth. Just as the law is interpreted on the streets and in the courts on an everyday basis, I am absolutely clear that we need to reassess what is lawful and how we express it in certain circumstances. We know how to do that. Nevertheless, legitimacy in the eye of the beholder is very important. You will then carry the people.

Now, there is a black side to this. Let me give you an example, and it is an example from 1995. Shortly after the awful occurrences in Srebrenica in July of that year, very shortly after, the Croatian army attacked a large number of Croatian citizens where they lived and drove them out of their country; some 200,000 people were driven from Croatia. And the world hardly noticed, and the reason they didn't notice was because these Croatians who were being driven out of Croatia were labeled as Serbs. And because the Serbs had done what they had done in Srebrenica, the world at large thought, "Bloody good show. Time they got a good kicking too." And the Croats were considered to be acting, at least implicitly, legitimately.

So this legitimization does not have to be legal in an absolute sense. I believe we worked the same trick, only going in the other direction, when NATO attacked into Kosovo. We were considered to be legitimate. We had not gotten a Security Council Resolution and all sorts of things at that stage. That came later.

So that is why I am saying this is something that has to be managed. I think it is absolutely essential that you operate within the law. Again—and this is covered in the book—I am not suggesting to the absolute letter of the law, and you have to make a judgment on a scale between achieving order or justice, and you will probably start well over towards "let's get some order on the streets here first and move towards justice as events unfold." But you nevertheless have got to understand what you are doing.

The reason I say this is if you don't establish the rule of law as a matter of course and very quickly, you will never take your soldiers away again. A definition of our objectives, if you start to analyze what is required, whatever the rhetoric, is "get the rule of law back there in some order, in some form." That's what we keep actually saying. If that is what we are trying to do, don't attack your own strategic objective at the outset by operating outside the law yourself.

As an aside, I think that the single most dangerous mistake made by the United States is Guantánamo Bay and the whole of that business, where you cannot demonstrate that you are operating within the law. That has probably done more damage in the long term than any other single thing over the last three or four years, in my view.

QUESTION: General, can I have another go at legitimacy with you? Obviously, you talk about the model of industrial warfare and the new model being necessary. But, of course, there is a model, as you know better than I, that was co-equal in Western armies with industrial warfare, and that was colonial warfare. In some ways, the question here might be put quite differently from the way you put it, which is you say, and you said at a number of points in your presentation, "Let's call things what they are. Let's use the language appropriate to what is actually going on."

But one argument about what is going on is that there is a re-imposition of a certain colonial order in the world by Western powers arrogating that right to themselves, either outside international law or through weak international institutions, to put it somewhat more politely than I usually do.

I'm not sure, then, that the issue of legitimacy can be described quite as simply as I think, frankly, you describe it, because if to some extent these expeditions are viewed by the people on whom they act as illegitimate fundamentally—I mean if we take the simplest point, the wars you are describing are not wars of proximity, wars between France and Germany; they are wars in which American or British or German or whatever soldiers go to places like Afghanistan and operate their will on the locals. There may be justifications for it, but it does seem to me a bigger problem than you are describing, if I have understood you correctly.

RUPERT SMITH: I really don't want you—and I think you are—falling into this trap. Examples of wars amongst the people are Iraq and Afghanistan. But Afghanistan and Iraq are not the only wars amongst the people. The story of the State of Israel from 1948 to today is one long confrontation, with conflicts appearing in it of various intensities and lengths.

I argue that the very first of the wars of the new paradigm is the Korean War, the first time where we changed our intentions because we didn't want to go nuclear. We changed our objective to settle on a line of confrontation, which was more or less where the war started, and we have remained in a confrontation, which is now nuclear, ever since. We have had to sustain that confrontation with something on the order of—I think it's now down to 25,000 U.S. military, but it was certainly a great deal more than that earlier in the decade.

The Yom Kippur War is another example. Sadat's whole motivation (and not only from the point of view of the State of Israel), and one of the reasons why the Israeli intelligence failed to see what was happening in front of their eyes—his objective was not to recapture the Sinai. His objective was to alter his position in the confrontation over the Sinai. Kissinger brings it out, for me, the best in his account of that time.

So don't just take urban terrorism. I'm not saying that is the only form of this paradigm.

Secondly, colonial wars do not bear, once you close in on them a little, a comparison with the circumstances today. You do not have the same political groupings, and so on and so forth. You don't have the global media coverage, and so on and so forth. There are all sorts of other factors that are involved there. And, by and large—again, this is covered in the book—to use the old couplet, "We have the Maxim gun, and they have not." [Whatever happens, we have got/The Maxim gun, and they have not. Hilaire Belloc.]

And we did impose our will by force. We frequently imposed it on their leaders—I'm speaking perhaps rather more for the British army or for Britain than anyone else—and then we co-opted, or corrupted, the leadership, if you like, and they then sorted out their own people.

I think if I went to America and suggested they were being colonial, I would be, quite correctly, booed out of the place. I'd be prepared to sustain an argument that there has been—whether it's so now I'm less certain—a desire for a United States of America imperium. But that's not the same thing as being a colonial power. So I don't think the colonial warfare model carries on into this time in the same way.

I think it is perfectly proper to go and examine some of the low-level military tactics—the relationships between assistant commissioners, district commissioners, and the company commander and so forth—because there you've got power being held at, I think, appropriate levels. There I think we could learn some lessons.

I think I've probably gone around that enough.

QUESTION: Your characterization of a war amongst the people sounds a little bit like a state of nature to me. So I really want to ask you: Who do you regard as the adversaries in these new wars, or this new type of war? On the one hand, you say that we should be applying the rule of law and we should fight within the rule of law, which to me implies very far from a state of nature, but, rather, a system of states which imposes law. I mean that's the place where we develop law and where we are able to operate by it.

So I'm wondering who you see on the other side. What are the units against which we who uphold a rule of law and who fight for whatever it is we fight for—who are we fighting against?

Let me just try to tease that out a little bit more. Do you think it is an error to characterize a very diverse set of opponents or adversaries as all terrorists—"what we're really dealing with is terrorism?" Would it make more sense to identify adversaries by making distinctions among them and splitting them apart?

RUPERT SMITH: If I could answer that in reverse order, yes, another of our mistakes is that we are, by our actions and rhetoric and approach, helping our opponents to coalesce instead of fragmenting them.

One of the most difficult things is to identify your opponent in warfare amongst the people. He is deliberately concealing himself amongst the people. He does it for security; he does it to gain legitimacy; to force you, through the strategies of provocation and propaganda of the deed, to treat the people in such a way that they start to support him rather than you—in other words, to dislocate your military act from your political purpose. He relies on the people for his sustainment morally, physically. He gains information and so forth from the people.

I paused a moment because a memory came. I'm about to tell an "I was there" story, which I hope will perhaps entertain but also make the point.

As a fairly young officer, I was in Belfast, responsible for a patch of West Belfast. A bus route came to my area, at the end of its route from Belfast city center. There was a roundabout, and the bus would sit there for twenty minutes and then turn round and go back down into Belfast.

Most Friday nights, somewhere around 9 o'clock in the evening, this bloody bus would get burned. There would be a riot, and people would throw stones at the fire brigade when it came, and then we'd all turn out and fire batten rounds and things at the hooligans throwing the stones, and then someone would shoot as us and we'd shoot back. A good time was had by all. The BBC and everyone were all in there. A burning bus can really get everyone going.

This was going on rather more than I was prepared to put up with. But I couldn't stop it. I just wasn't able to defeat this. Until we came up with a cunning wheeze, which involved me persuading two soldiers that it was in their interest to hide in a hidden box on the top of this bus, and when the hooligans appeared with the buckets of petrol and the box of matches, they would leap out before they lit the petrol and capture the hooligans with the petrol, and we would all rush in and help them.

These two soldiers agreed that this was a wizard wheeze and hid in the box. We drove the Trojan Horse in. And, sure enough, we got them.

A quiet conversation took place between the regimental sergeant major and these two little hooligans. It turned out that this thing that we had been treating as IRA terrorism, disrupting the streets, a come-on operation so that we would be pulled in so that then we could be sniped at—that was our complete logic and understanding of it—was wholly and totally wrong. This had nothing to do with terrorism at all. It was the black taxis, and they were paying these hooligans to burn the buses so they got more trade. We hadn't been fighting anybody.

But as one clawed away at it, I learned a lot. Yes, the IRA were benefiting from this. They were able to show us as being part of the problem, because we went onto the housing estate, invaded their space, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. They were now defending and were given legitimacy because they were the defender. They were taking 10 percent off the taxi drivers, because they knew what was going on, so they got money as well.

So we then started to develop an operation, which went on for a long time—this is timeless, remember. About eight years later, I am back there, at a rather more senior level, and we knock off the whole of the financial structure of that part of the IRA. It starts with that event. As you went through the file, the opening entry was the black taxi man who was handing over the 10 percent. We found out who he was, and you've got the beginning of a piece of string. But it took eight years.

The other bit of information was that in the wallets of one of these little hooligans was a check for £10 from the BBC. And down we went to the BBC and said, "What the bloody hell are you doing?" It turned out that this little hooligan would ring up. Having been paid by taxi drivers 50 quid to burn a bus, he then rang up the BBC and said, "There's going to be an incident at such and such." So the cameras were already there.

War amongst the people, the theater. Nobody is in control in the sense that we think there is a master plan. So your operation must be a learning operation.

The currency of war amongst the people is not fire power. That's the currency of industrial war. The currency of war amongst the people is information—not just intelligence, information—what you put out, what you get in. That's what is going on on that confrontational seesaw.

Is that enough of an answer? We could go on and on.

QUESTIONER: I'm still not sure who you identify as the adversary against whom you are fighting. Certainly. there is action against hooligans and bribery and things like that.

RUPERT SMITH: You keep teasing it out. You've got to keep on and you will find the man there. But there's very, very few of them.

We understand organizations in industrial war and in most of our lives as hierarchical—you know, "divide it up by three and pass it on" type of wiring diagrams. Those of you who keep gardens and want to have a nice lawn will know perhaps that there is a form of plant called rhizomes. Most of the grasses are rhizomes. They propagate through their root systems as much as they do by having seed heads and flowers and birds and bees and so on. The problem with eradicating rhizomes is that mowing the law, for example, only improves the root systems underneath.

Terrorist organizations and successful organizations in war amongst the people tend to be rhizomic. If you go around cutting the heads off, you may get an impression—and watch this, America, with your love of measurement, of progress—"I've got 500 daisy heads today, chaps. We're winning." No, you're not. All those little roots are growing out there underneath and the nodules are getting stronger and stronger, and the moment you look the other way, up come the weeds. That's what you are trying to find all the time.

JOANNE MYERS: Unfortunately, our time is up. I just wanted to thank you. You may be good—and I know you are good—as a commander, but you are also bloody good as a presenter. Thank you.

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