Unrestricted Warfare – Qiao Liang & Wang Xiangsui – Review

Unrestricted Warfare CoverUnrestricted Warfare (超限战) caused quite a commotion on publication in 1999. Written by two Chinese Colonels Qiao Liang (乔良) and Wang Xiangsui (王湘穗); published by the People’s Liberation Army Arts and Publishing House; and supposedly praised by then President Jiang Zemin – it’s not unreasonable to conclude the contents were being given serious thought by Chinese strategists.

The book was translated into English by what is now the CIA’s OSC and eventually the translation made it into hard copy – complete with sensationalised front cover and the tagline “China’s Master Plan to Destroy America”.

Unrestricted Warfare’s principle argument is that the pressures of globalisation, advanced and ultra-destructive weapons, the rise of non-state powers and the emergence of new technologies are fundamentally changing the nature of conflict and the ways war is fought. War is no longer as Clausewitz describes: an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will, but rather it is:

to use all means whatsoever - means that involve the force of arms and means that do not involve the force of arms, means that involve military power and means that do not involve military power, means that entail casualties, means that do not entail casualties – to force the enemy to serve one’s own interests.1

So potentially anything – think 4th Generation War with Chinese characteristics.

On why wars will be fought – the theme continues – for potentially any reason. It is argued that wars will be increasingly fought to protect interests rather than to gain territory but the effects of globalisation mean that so many interests are at stake and so subject to change that “it is more and more difficult for people to say clearly just why they are fighting.”2 Thus a “common interest” must be identified amongst both sub-state groups and states themselves should a war be pursued jointly. Speaking about the Gulf War:

Even if we consider a given country’s domestic situation, each of the various domestic interest groups will also be pursuing its own agenda in a war. The complex interrelationships among self-interests make it impossible to pigeonhole the Gulf War as having been fought for oil, or as having been fought for the new world order, or as having been fought to drive out the invaders. Only a handful of soldiers are likely to grasp a principle that every statesman already knows: that the biggest difference between contemporary wars and the wars of the past is that, in contemporary wars, the overt goal and the covert goal are often two different matters.3

Similarly the battlefield is no longer restricted to the lands, the oceans and skies, but is omnipresent, encompassing unconventional “spaces” such as network space, electromagnetic spectrum space and cultural space. With the breakdown of the civil/military distinction and the dual purpose uses for the physical and virtual spaces.

Just think, if its even possible to start a war in a computer room or a stock exchange that will send an enemy country to its doom, then is there non-battlespace anywhere? … “Where is the battlefield?” The answer would be: “Everywhere.”4

Likewise when addressing the question of ‘who fights?’ – the vast scope of this new war means that the traditional conception of the soldier is no longer the only fighter this broadened battlefield. In addition to terrorists operating in the physical battlefield, we can expect the rise of computer hackers in the digital realm and financial warriors in the style of George Soros in the economic.5

A considerable part of the book is concerned with a discussion about the various means that might be used in future warfare. Various scenarios are discussed, some hypothetical and others grounded in actual events. Alongside ‘new’ terrorism, the authors discuss the notions of trade warfare, financial warfare, smuggling warfare, cultural warfare, drug warfare, media and fabrication warfare, technological warfare, resources warfare, psychological warfare, networks warfare, international law warfare, environmental warfare, economic aid warfare.6

The remainder of the first half of the book discusses some of these concepts in particular relation to the Gulf War and also their place within the American military institutional reforms the followed. There is some praise, but the key point is that although the US military implemented “joint campaigns” and “joint plans” between their component forces, this thinking did not go far enough:

its starting point and ending point have both fallen onto the level of armed force and have been unable to expand the field of vision of “joint” to all the realms in which humans can produce confrontational behaviour.7

This is a serious deficiency in modern war theorising since “military options will never again be the entire war”, The novelty of this point appears overstated by the authors who claim that such a notion has never emerged from the U.S military since the Gulf war. One article is conceded in Unrestricted War’s footnotes, but there certainly seems to be considerable overlap with the early 4th Generation War writings of William S. Lind that pre-date the Gulf War and the authors later mention the similarity between aspects of their theory and the US notion of “full-dimensional operations”.

The second half of Unrestricted Warfare is discusses new methods of operation, predominantly from the perspective of nation states.

The complexity of what is being proposed comes to a front with the notion of needing and “extended domain view”. This can only be realised when “the security interests of the entire nation, [including] political (national will, values, and cohesion) and military factors on the economy, culture, foreign relations, technology, environment, natural resources, nationalities and other parameters” are contrasted with the security situation of the same factors to produce a “large strategic situation map”.8 This is seemingly the logical consequence of the theory being expounded, but practical difficulties in carrying out such an analysis and produce strategy from it are enormous.

Once complete, this situation map describing the security landscape allows for actions to be planned – be they a “pure war action, a nonwar military action, or a nonmilitary war action” or a combination thereof. The authors make attempts to further differentiate these different types of actions – including combining them with other states, international organisations, non-state actors and the importance of applying the “unrestricted” concepts to actions at the strategic, operational and tactical levels. There is a good amount of interesting application of the authors’ theories to both hypothetical and historical situations – but I found the chapter suffered due to unclear, and overlapping theoretical terms.9

Less inspiring was the chapter “Seeking Rules for Victory” – most of which I remain fairly puzzled by. The importance of the Golden Ratio (0.618) in seemingly all aspects of life including strategic affairs is proclaimed and applied to air, land and sea battles, non-military realms, and even time itself. At best the concept seems over extended – but the text in this section is impenetrable so perhaps it is my own understanding at fault…

The books ends with a distillation of eight essential principles: omnidirectionality, synchrony, limited objectives, unlimited measures, Asymmetry, minimal consumption, multidimendional coordination, adjustment and control of the entire process. These are pithy restatements of earlier principles discussed in the book. In many cases they remain pretty abstract; and although some seem obvious; there are undoubtedly wisdom in each.

Unrestricted Warfare was an important book. I wasn’t following security matters when it was published, but its a title that I’ve seen referenced by a number of thoughtful analysts. It would certainly be interested to see translations of subsequent Chinese output that has inevitably come since.


  1. p43 []
  2. p27 []
  3. p28 []
  4. p32 []
  5. p36 []
  6. p36-43 []
  7. p84 []
  8. p97 []
  9. p153-171 []

Review: The Shadow World by Andrew Feinstein

Andrew Feinstein - The Shadow World - CoverI picked up The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade initially as an audio book after being tempted by one of those free Audible trials from Amazon. It is long and exhaustive - almost tediously so; but it was so comprehensive that I decided to get hold of a physical copy so I could check out the footnotes and referencing.

Feinstein served as an ANC MP in the South African Parliament until 2001 when he resigned following the ANC’s refusal to investigate substantiated allegations of corruption related to an arms deal. He is now a writer and campaigner on arms related issues.

The Shadow World is an expose of the global arms trade. Big weapon systems, small arms, legal trading, illegal trading, grey-area trading, corruption, bribery, interplay between criminals, arms dealers, governments, war lords, security services, Nazi party origins – the list goes on – and Feinstein’s comments are invariably unfavourable.

Several deals or incidents are covered in detail and many more mentioned in passing. Some will be familiar to many readers with a passing interest in security issues, such as the escapades of Victor Bout and the UK/Saudi Al Yamamah arms deal but Feinstein’s meticulous documentation allows for a much fuller appreciation of events that is typically gleamed from mainstream reporting.

Al Yamamah for instance is given thorough treatment, Feinstein lays out the background of the deal, the mechanics of the exchange, the layers of subterfuge and obfuscation but also details the ins-and-outs of the UK Serious Fraud Office investigation (which was forced to be abandoned) in a manner that will undoubtedly bring new insights too all but the most avid observers. One is certainly left in no doubt; that notwithstanding the plethora of national and international anti-corruption legislation – when the interests are significant enough, the rule of law takes an (albeit face-saving) back seat.

Feinstein, adopting Robert Higg’s expansion of the military-industrial-complex to military-industrial-congressional-complex (MICC), describes the current self organising system where different players work together for their own self interest, but which collectively produces gains for the arms industry.

In simple terms, the arms industry together with members of the armed forces envisage new products and in turn lobby the decision makers in the Pentagon and Executive. At this point, manufacturers will over-promise on what the proposed product will deliver through what is known as “front loading” – an attempt to increase the attractiveness of the offering. The the project given the go ahead, the actual manufacture and delivery of the product is spread between many congressional districts. This ensures that there is a strong network of congressional support for the continuation of the project – even though it may not be meeting specification or might otherwise represent poor value for money. Manufacturers have the profit motive, military men have career/service preservation motives, Pentagon/Executive decision makers have the motive of transformation (the validity of which Feinstein also questions) and sometimes more nefarious objectives, finally Members of Congress are motivated by the wish to improve their economies by retaining jobs in their districts. Feinstein gives countless examples of the MICC in action and is scathing at the poor value for money it represents for the American public,1

While poor efficiency and value for tax-payer money is not surprising, more alarming are allegations that arms companies are directly impacting a state’s foreign policy. Feinstein describes a situation where a major arms dealer had identified an enlarged NATO as the most promising prospect of increasing their sales. On a trip to Romania the CEO pledged

that if the country’s government bought a new radar system[...], the company would use its considerable clout in Washington to promote Bucharest’s NATO candidacy. In other words, a major defence manufacturer made clear that it was willing to reshape American international security and foreign policy to secure an arms order.2

The MICC’s influence, compounded by the effects of the long reported ‘revolving door’ between government, military and industry has, Feinstein claims, created a permanent state of war within the US government. This strong influence allows arms companies to preserve their Saudi market by lobbying to ensuring the USA/Saudi relationship is maintained; and since this relationship is politically contentious, in effect arms companies are having significant influence on the USA’s entire Middle East policy. ((p302))

The Shadow World is polemical. It is without doubt a serious book, but Feinstein sometimes lays the rhetoric on a little thick and uses such emotive language that any illusion of dispassionate analysis is obliterated. I enjoy a good polemic, but I’m left wanting an equally competently written counter-narrative from someone who can see at some benefit in an industry that has no currently credible prospect of elimination.

It would have been nice to have seen a more balanced consequentialist discussion about the merits of the arms business. Its quite easy to join in the condemnation of aspects of the trade and specific deals on the grounds they are immoral – but do these deals sometimes represent the lesser of two evils? (Especially it is accepted that the establishment of an ideal, human rights respecting, transparent, non-corrupt industry is not something that could be established by the individuals involved in a specific deal.)

A recurring theme within the book is that of blowback – “the unintended consequences of supplying arms, especially through covert means.”3 9/11 is upheld as the ultimate exemplar following the CIA’s Operation Cyclone which armed Islamist militants in their struggle against Russia. Feinstein’s arguments may hold true to the extent they are made, but there isn’t enough consideration given to the potential “blowbacks” that may have been endured had the arms industry behaved differently or certain deals not been made.

Returning to al Yamamah – what would have been the consequences of refusing to sell to the Saudis altogether; or what would have been the consequences of not acquiescing to Saudi demands for kickbacks?

Would Saudi Arabia still be as close a partner? Would the West have had access for military purposes to the kingdom in the manner it has done? How would any lack of access impacted on the Middle-East security operations in last 30 years? What would the UK have been paying for oil? To what extent would the UK economy have suffered? Would the UK have lost weapons manufacture capabilities? Who would have sold an equivalent product to Saudi Arabia instead and on what terms? And with what concessions? And what would have been the the knock on consequences of any and all of these changes in an alternate universe? What would this mean for the UK, for allied states or for human security more generally?

Clearly there are cases where had a deal not happened, the only ‘down-side’ would a loss of profit for the arms industry itself. But in other instances the judgement is more difficult; and to varying degrees, the arms industry is indeed carrying out a function which from some (not wholly immoral) perspectives holds utility.

The detail contained within the Shadow World is worthy of repeat mention. Dozens of deals are discussed, often comprehensively and sometimes with original source material reproduced. The inner title page credits two additional researchers that assisted Feinstein in putting together the material which runs to 100 pages of footnotes. I can only agree with another reviewer on Amazon who suggested that the book reads at times more like a legal brief than a mainstream book. Sometimes this is appreciated; and due to the incendiary allegations contained within, a surplus of detail and supporting evidence may well have been a precaution to dissuade legal action. That said, at times the text is a little hard going and one wonders if longs lists of weapons and non-vital description really needed a place in the main text.

A little tedium can easily be forgiven. The Shadow World is an impressive piece of work. As far as I’m aware, no other book deals with the same breadth of material in anywhere near equivalent terms. While one may not share all of Feinstein’s conclusions – it would appear to be ‘the’ book to gain an understanding of the arms industry’s practices.

Andrew Feinstein speaking about the arms trade:

  1. See the chapter ‘Legal Bribery’ and a fuller description of MICC machinations on p252 []
  2. p290 []
  3. p248 []

Review: A Year in Pyongyang by Andrew Holloway

Andrew Holloway - A Year In Pyongyang CoverBooks about North Korea have a tendency to fall into one of two camps. There is the reasoned analysis of which The Impossible State looks to be a promising example. Then there are the likes of The Aquariums of Pyongyang, Escape from Camp 14 and Nothing to Envy – all tales from escapees which pretty much set the gold standard for the genre of ‘harrowing non-fiction.’

Andrew Holloway’s ‘A Year in Pyongyang’ is a bit different, in that it is an account of a British man’s life living for a year as an employee of the North Korean government. Very few foreigners live in North Korea – subtract diplomats and those connected to the UN; other international bodies and permanent defectors; and the numbers get pretty slim.

Holloway’s Year in Pyongyang was 1987-1988: Kim Il Sung was still leader (in more than just spirit); the country still had support from communist allies like the USSR and East Germany; and the country wasn’t suffering with financial woes and foot shortages to the extent that is has subsequently. In this era, the country was less isolated and had more room for maneuver. Indeed there were a few more foreigners living there – but Holloway’s account paints a portrait of isolated North Korean life that couldn’t be much stranger.

He worked as a ‘language polisher’ who’s job was to tighten up rough translations of North Korean publications into decent English. He arrived in the country holding communist sympathies and was “initially so enamoured [with North Korean] society as to perceive it as representing a potential new dawn for mankind.”

While Holloway’s appreciation of the people remained steadfast, his attitude towards the regime soured significantly. It wasn’t long before he wished to return to England. I’ll resist the temptation of detailing the specifics but Holloway stuck his year in the face of isolation, ill health, conflict with bureaucracy, a mountain of surreality and a splattering of fear.

The book pens a wonderful portrait of the minutiae of North Korean life in a way that I’ve not come across elsewhere. Endless tales of interactions with North Koreans and fellow ex-patriots all one way or another getting by under the totalitarian system often lead to more pressing frustrations. Holloway sometimes communicates these with a certain black humour. For a flavour, here he is discussing one of the publications he was polishing and the frustrations of the task:

Many of the stories in this book and in The Peerless Great Man series have as their setting the President’s legendary tours for giving on-the-spot guidance. It is one of the appealing idiosyncrasies of Kim Il Sung, the man that is as opposed to the myth, that he has a most meticulous concern for the minutiae of his people’s daily lives.

Much of his presidential career has been occupied with touring the country, inspecting towns and villages, factories and farms, houses and schools, delivering instructions and advice. Wherever he goes plaques are erected to mark the occasion and the date. There is a plaque in the Pyongyang Department Store. There is one in the maternity hospital. On the first floor of the publishing house there is a plaque to commemorate a visit by Kim Jong Il, who is emulating the paternal model. Kim Il Sung was once asked when he found time to deal with affairs of state when he spent so much time on his on-the-spot guidance tours. He replied that these were affairs of state.

In the mythology the Korean people come across as a pretty witless bunch who would have struggled along under Japanese rule for ever had the great leader not come along to lead them out of captivity. He then had to teach these stupid ex-colonial slaves everything they know. The legends are full of instances of his having to point out the most banal errors to bewildered officials. It is fortunate for the Korean people that he is not the only man among them with a brain. His son has one too. So when their father leader finally shuffles off his mortal coil, his son will remain to do all their thinking for them. Already it is Kim Jong Il who has taken on most of the task of roaming the land putting things to rights while his father stays in his palace to receive the homage of envoys from abroad.

Here is an extract from the Anecdotes in which the dear leader is giving on-the-spot guidance to the officials in charge of the International Friendship Exhibition at Mount Myohyant.

The International Friendship Exhibition is a curious institution. It has been an established ritual for many years that official visitors to the DPRK are expected to present the great leader, and latterly the dear leader also, with a gift as a token of friendship and esteem. According to the Korean Review, the president has now received over 28,000 valuable gifts from “heads of state, parties, governments, revolutionary organisations and people from all walks of life in 146 countries”. Some years ago the Exhibition was specially built to put the gifts on public display as an enduring testimony to “the profound respect and reverence held by the revolutionary peoples of the world for the great leader President Kim Il Sung” (Korean Review, p213).

“Thereupon he told them in detail how to run the Exhibition in a well organised fashion.

“Dear Comrade Kim Jong Il looked round all the display rooms. He said that all the visitors should be made to wear overshoes in the future and went on:

“‘In the interior of the International Friendship Exhibition overshoes should be worn without fail. This will inspire in the visitor due feelings of solemnity and prevent the carpets from being soiled . . .

“‘In the Exhibition not only our people but foreigners except for heads of state should be made to wear overshoes.’

“At that moment we blushed, conscience-stricken. Although entrusted with the important duty of the permanent preservation of precious national treasures, we had failed to think deeply enough about how to manage them more carefully.”

Of course there are some bureaucrats who simply will not be told. At one point in the Anecdotes we hear the president commenting, “I told our officials, I rang them up, time and again, not to let the mineral waters flow away uselessly but supply them to the people. However, they didn’t do it. If they made a small investment, they could by bottling it sell it on the train and in the shops but they don’t.”

It is always a good idea to incorporate a few rascally officials into the mythology. Then when things are not right in people’s reality, they can know whom to blame and sigh, “If only the Tsar knew.”

For a week or two I found my insane little job quite diverting, a pleasant respite from the pressures of social work in the inner city. After that, my work too became part of my nightmare. Most of the other revisers liked their job but I found sitting at a desk day in, day out, simply too boring for words. I ached to be behind the wheel of a car again, to drive down mean streets and experience strange and wonderful people.

Like everything else for me those first few weeks in Pyongyang, the social side of life had its novelty value. It was clear from the start that there was not going to be a wide range of entertainment on offer.

No doubt at some stage there will be some fascinating accounts of the North Korean propaganda machine and assessment of its effectiveness. If one is so inclined to see first hand material of the type Holloway produced, a fair bit is available in PDF format. Anectodes of Kim Jong Il’s Life seems to be a recently republished ‘best of’ volume of The Great Man series quoted from above.

1988 was a long time ago, even in North Korean years – so it may well be that the current day insights that can be gleaned from A Year in Pyongyang are limited. Notwithstanding this, as a historical snap shot it remains a valuable, unique and entertaining read.

Sadly Holloway died soon after his return from North Korea. The book was published posthumously and is available to read freely online via Korea expert Aidan Foster-Carter (who wrote a Forward for it). Alternatively you can buy a hard copy.

Review: The Utility of Force by Rupert Smith

Rupert Smith - The Utility of Force - CoverGeneral Sir Rupert Smith is one of Britain’s most distinguished soldiers of recent times. Before retirement in 2002, he led the British Armoured Division in the 1992 Gulf War and in 1995 commanded the UN Peacekeeping force UNPROFOR in Bosnia as well as being the senior European officer in NATO during the 1999 Kosovo campaign.

The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World opens with the radical claim that ‘war no longer exists’. His central premise is that although conflict abounds, the notion of war as commonly understood by non-combatants and which he characterises as ‘industrial war’, was ‘blown out of existence’ by the atom bomb, to be replaced by the new paradigm of ‘war amongst the people’.  Correspondingly, the manner in which conflict should be fought differs markedly from industrial war and it is the failure to adapt to this new paradigm that is responsible for the lack of recent military success the world’s most powerful states have enjoyed.

The first half of The Utility of Force provides a historical analysis of interstate industrial war and the Cold War confrontations. In the second half, Smith presents his principle arguments;  starting with the identification of a series of trends in modern conflict, the suitability of employing force and then recommendations pertinent to modern operations.

The analysis of interstate industrial war spans from Napoleonic times through to the end of World War II. Smith’s treatment of the material is necessarily swift, covering the key developments and frequently employing Clausewitzian analysis to the events at hand. His admiration and continued belief in the relevance of Clausewitz’s thinking is evident throughout the book and indicates that Smith intends his ideas to compliment rather than replace. This is in contrast with some proponents of Forth Generational War (4GW) whom describe themselves as non-trinitarian yet who’s theories bear resemblance to some aspects of Smith’s thesis. His closing argument is that with the invention of nuclear weapons, industrial war became unfeasible.1  While Smith’s characterisation of the situation is persuasive, academics such as Colin Gray take an alternative view in regards to the feasibility of nuclear war as well as suggesting we must theorise ‘on the basis of history, without being unduly diverted by the singularity of events’.2 Additionally, Smith’s conclusion is drawn from the Western perspective and assumes that the Soviets mirrored the West’s adherence to the mutually assured destruction doctrine, as well as discounting the viability of limited war.3

The history of Cold War confrontations introduces Smith’s distinction between war and conflict. Most military incidents post-1945 are described as being of periods of confrontation which periodically erupted into conflict rather than ‘[industrial] war’. Interestingly, the institutionalised concept of “war” exhibits itself in Smith’s own writing, while repeatedly declaring that certain conflicts aren’t war, they are almost immediately referred to as ‘guerrilla wars’ ‘peoples wars’ and most importantly ‘war amongst the people’.

Smith provides a history of what he characterises as the antithesis of industrial war, namely revolutionary and guerrilla warfare. He traces this antithesis to the Spanish Peninsular War through to modern times, again making reference to Clausewitzian theory, and particularly in regards to the impact of guerrilla wars on the ‘people’ as a shared element of the Clausewitz trinity. Smith frequently references Sun Tzu whose writing he describes as ‘a manual for the guerrilla’s operational method’ and the propaganda of the deed’ pioneered by 1920’s anarchists.4

Smith asserts the war amongst the people paradigm emerged after World War II and became the dominant paradigm as the structures that had previously kept minor conflicts under control, melted away at the end of the Cold War. He suggests a failure to adapt from the Cold War means that states are culturally and physically ill-equipped to fight current ‘wars amongst the people’. He argues that by “applying [our] forces to our modern conflicts we can inadvertently contribute to the efforts of our opponents.”5 He identifies six major trends in this new paradigm and considers them in detail.

‘The ends for which we fight are changing from the hard objectives that decide a political outcome to those establishing conditions in which the outcome may be decided:’ His principle point is that force alone is rarely used to achieve a strategic outcome. Instead the use of force is sub-strategic, it establishes a ‘condition’ for another activity, for example an election or humanitarian activity to take place, which in turn can achieve or move towards the strategic objective. Decisive force would be politically unacceptable and often the enemy has no target susceptible to such attack. Smith states that in ‘war amongst the people, the strategic objective is to capture the will of the people and their leaders, and thereby win the trial of strength’, thus any force applied must be done in a manner consistent with securing this will. This somewhat echoes the views of Mary Kaldor and the problems identified by Larry Diamond in Operation Iraqi Freedom.6

‘We fight amongst the people, not on the battlefield:’ The people may be physically inside the area of conflict; or otherwise mistaken for enemy combatants. This places the enemy at an advantage as attempts to eliminate him have the potential to fall into the guerrilla trap of provocation and in the process lose the will of the people. Secondly, the people themselves can be the target of the fighting, from either side. Terrorising civilians may force compliance to a particular side’s will, but runs the risk of being counter-productive. The media magnifies and distorts all this activity bringing the ‘fight [to] every living room in the world as well as on the streets and fields of a conflict zone.’ Smith suggests the key to fighting amongst the people is identifying their desires, what they want ‘freedom to’ and ‘freedom from’. The people will side with the party they perceive can best satisfy these needs.7

‘Our conflicts tend to be timeless, even unending:’ Quick defeats, without inflicting collateral damage on the civilian population are difficult. This problem is further exasperated by the lack of clear political purpose that often accompanies the use of force. For example while force was used in Bosnia, there was no political outcome in mind which meant that the force lacked utility,8

‘We fight so as to preserve the force rather than risking all to gain the objective:’ Echoing pre-Napoleonic circumstance, it is simply too expensive both financially and politically to lose significant numbers of personnel.

‘On each new occasion new uses are found for old weapons and organizations: Smith argues our weapons are predominantly unsuitable. He states that ‘opponents have learned to drop below the threshold of the utility of our weapons systems’. This results in the guerrilla being fought on their own terms, or by provoking the ‘propaganda of the deed’.9

‘The sides are mostly non-state, comprising some form of multinational grouping against some non-state party or parties:’ Western forces, for reasons of legitimacy, cost and risk tend to act in alliances or coalitions but this brings disadvantages. For example the convoluted command structure in UN missions inhibits actions or the fact that NATO is only a military organisation and that this presents difficulties in co-ordinating non-military support within NATO missions. Smith questions whether we are moving towards a post nation state world. This echoes the views of some 4GW theorists and the likes of Philip Bobbitt who argues the nation state is being gradually superseded by the market state.10

The extent to which Smith’s ‘war amongst the people’ is novel can be questioned. Aspects of the paradigm bear resemblance to the theorists surrounding 4th Generation War and the counter insurgency canon. Similarly Smith’s central tenant that the use of force must be accompanied by political vision can be dated at least as far back as Clausewitz and Kaldor identifies similarities with European pre-state conflict.11 Notwithstanding the age of such a notion, it seems to be a point frequently forgotten by those directing force.

Smith identifies four ways in which force can be directed: to ameliorate, to contain, to deter/coerce and destroy. The ability to coerce/deter is the most effective way of shaping your opponents will, whereas the ability to destroy is more suited to the industrial war paradigm. While always being preferable – it is essential that the desired political outcome is known before implementing coerce/deter or destroy functions as ‘if they are carried out without the guiding logic of the strategy’ at best the result of amelioration or containment will arise.12 Smith goes on to draw parallels with Sun Tzu’s Art of War and the importance of intelligence. He argues that in war amongst the people, intelligence must provide information on the enemy’s intentions since their items are of lesser importance. He analogises modern enemies in the wars amongst the people with rhizome plants – they represent a hierarchical organisation above ground, but a resilient series of networked cells below. To this end Smith modifies Mao’s dictum to read “The people are to the organisation as the soil is to the rhizome.” (Rhizome plants that can propagate themselves via their roots, as well as their seeds and are thus very difficult to eradicate.)

In conclusion Smith argues that it is no longer sensible to take military action without accompanying it with a desired political outcome – ‘military force must be linked to the other levers of power.’ Once the chosen outcomes are clear, it can be decided which of the functions of force can be best employed.13

Smith provides an interesting treatment of law and conflict. “All of the legal measures regarding the waging of war developed since 1945 were in the main understood and created within the premise of industrial war between states.”14 There follows a presumption that the legality of a course of conflict also establishes its morality. If one’s aim is to establish the rule of law, but your strategic objectives require you to operate outside of said law, you provide evidence to your opponent that his provocation of the deed is working and build resentment amongst civilians and the media. This is a view strongly echoed by Bobbitt who advocates that law itself also needs extensive overhaul to match the new war paradigm.15 Smith suggests the rule of law can be enhanced by the people’s support – providing military measures are focused on the criminals. When innocents, even those who support the criminals are ‘attacked or arrested, killed or imprisoned, the law is diminished and the objective of the people’s will to support is made more difficult to achieve’.16 Similarly, the more that measures to impose order involve terrorising the population, the more the position of the opponent as their defender is enhanced.

Smith concludes with his observation of an emphasis shift from ‘organizing forces to defend territory to using them to secure our people and our way of life’. Again this echoes Bobbitt’s claim that “the new warfare attacks innocent civilians because it attacks rights and opportunities, not nationhood, wealth or territory.”17

On balance, and notwithstanding the perils of military prediction, Smith’s vision of current warfare remains compelling and there are several parallels with David Kilkullen’s ‘hybrid war’ described in his well received The Accidental Guerrilla.18 While one may quibble with specific aspects of Smith’s ‘war amongst the people’ in contrast to similar theories, Smith’s insights, experience and case studies make Utility of Force a worthwhile read and an exceptional introduction to the subject.

Note: This review was written in 2010.

  1. Smith, R (2006). The Utility of Force. London: Penguin. p147 []
  2. C. Gray ‘The 21st Century Security Environment and the Future of War’ Parameters Winter 2008/9 p18 []
  3. E. Cohen provides further criticism along similar lines see: ‘The End of War as We Know It’ []
  4. Smith, R (2006). The Utility of Force. London: Penguin. p159-p176 []
  5. Smith, R (2006). The Utility of Force. London: Penguin. p267-269 []
  6.  Smith, R (2006). The Utility of Force. London: Penguin. p270; Diamond, L. (2004). What Went Wrong in Iraq. Kaldor, M (2007); Human Security: Reflections on Globalization & Intervention. Cambridge: Polity Press. p174. []
  7. Smith, R (2006). The Utility of Force. London: Penguin. p278-280 []
  8. Smith, R (2006). The Utility of Force. London: Penguin. p291 []
  9. Smith, R (2006). The Utility of Force. London: Penguin. p299 []
  10. Bobbitt, P (2008) Terror and Consent. London: Allen Lane p44 []
  11. Clausewitz made the point “the political object, which was the original motive, must become an essential factor in the [war] equation”. See also W. Lind ‘The Changing Face of War – Into The Fourth Generation; Kaldor, M (2007). Human Security: Reflections on Globalization & Intervention. Cambridge: Polity Press. p4. []
  12. Smith, R (2006). The Utility of Force. London: Penguin. p320-322 []
  13. Smith, R (2006). The Utility of Force. London: Penguin. p376 []
  14. Smith, R (2006). The Utility of Force. London: Penguin. p378 []
  15. Bobbitt, P (2008) Terror and Consent London Allen Lane p152 []
  16. Smith, R (2006). The Utility of Force. London: Penguin. p380 []
  17. Smith, R (2006). The Utility of Force. London: Penguin. p399; Bobbitt, P (2008) Terror and Consent London Allen Lane p236 []
  18. Kilcullen indeed references Smith’s book: Kilcullen, D (2009). The Accidental Guerrilla. London: C. Hurst & Co. p292 []