War Amongst the People

By Richard Norman


General Rupert Smith, a distinguished retired British officer, recently spoke at the Carnegie Council (a transcript is available hereand an audio file here or at Itunes). His new book, The Utility of Force, cuts through the insular and out-dated debate that has surrounded recent wars in Kosovo, Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and shows up many of the false analogies made by both critics and defenders of these conflicts.

Smith’s essential argument (learned the hard way through missions in Northern Ireland, Iraq, and Bosnia) is that much of the prevailing military strategy–for example, the much cited "Powell Doctrine of Overwhelming Force" or President Bush’s latest troop "surge"–is obsolete. The wars the West has been fighting since the end of the WWII, have not been on battlefields between conventional forces belonging to states on war-footing.

The observation that war has fundamentally changed in the last twenty years is not especially new, but General Smith’s observations on the subject are interesting and original. The central point is well-summarized in this Sunday Times review:

Napoleon changed regimes by overthrowing kings and replacing them with relatives. Today this does not work. If you want democracy then the people are in charge. War among the People is one result of a democratic age. Smith makes much use of the Clausewitzian trinity: army, state and people. The balance between the three has changed. Once armies dominated ? as they still do in the country of warlords; later, states were able to command the complete obedience of their people. Now it is the people who are in charge and the strategic objective is their hearts and minds. Wars are now fought for the people, among the people, and it is the people who are the prize and the strategic goal. And whereas aggressors once aimed merely to eliminate a state, now they may want to eliminate a people.

War in today’s world, Smith says, no longer hinges on the primacy of military force, but instead on the ability to non-militarily degrade the will of the opponent and win the population amongst whom you must fight. And because war is increasingly used as a means to create stable and perhaps one day healthy polities, its prosecution is spectacularly complex and prone to much malpractice (not unlike a doctor operating with a bazooka).

This anecdote from General Smith’s Carnegie lecture is very instructive:

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.

Time is the important thing to emphasize. Today’s wars are not in and out affairs. They do not even last four or five years. Whether the war on Islamist terrorism itself will be a generational conflict remains to be seen, but the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, the midwifery of Kosovo, and the doubtless many other future conflicts will not be celebrated with VE Days. (Indeed President Bush’s "Mission Accomplished" banner may be the last such public display of victory.) Western interests and humanitarian concern will demand long, patient commitments, and the recognition that the world of war has changed fundamentally.