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The Utility of Force
From a highly decorated general, a brilliant new way of understanding war and its role in the twenty-first century.
Drawing on his vast experience as a commander during the first Gulf War, and in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Northern Ireland, General Rupert Smith gives us a probing analysis of modern war. He demonstrates why today’s conflicts must be understood as intertwined political and military events, and makes clear why the current model of total war has failed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other recent campaigns. Smith offers a compelling contemporary vision for how to secure our world and the consequences of ignoring the new, shifting face of war.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
449 pages; ISBN 9780307267412
Foundation: From Napoleon to Clausewitz
Our understanding of military forces, military operations and wars stems from the nineteenth century, when the paradigm of interstate industrial war was forged. The Napoleonic Wars were its starting point, and it evolved throughout the century as its two crucial elements came into being and matured: states and industry. The American Civil War, the German wars of unification, and finally the two world wars of the twentieth century all contributed, amongst other events, to the military development of the paradigm, each in its way. I am not a professional historian, but I am a student of history, and have often used writings of and about the past not just to learn and understand how issues were handled in times past but also to test my own ideas about how to handle the matters I faced when in command and in the field. The study of history will tell you why you and your adversary are where you are now: it will establish in broad political terms the context in which both of you will take the decisions that lead you into the future. This study begins with establishing the chronology of events so as to understand the "march of time" and to recognize cause and effect. Once one understands these facts one can begin to comprehend the decisions taken by the various actors, not necessarily to judge them but to understand why they were taken, in those circumstances and at that time. This is how one can begin to understand the story, "His Story." that each of us individually and in our social groups carries in our head as the context for the decisions we take in the present.
Our subject here is the history of force, which must start with basic structures: the military structures that apply force. The point of departure is the last decade of the eighteenth century, as the French Revolution moved France from a violent mess towards the early if violent workings of a citizen state. From this movement was born what we recognize to this day as modern military forces, largely through the leadership of one man: Napoleon. On the whole our armies, navies and air forces—for in essence air forces as military entities were in one way or another spawned from the other two services—still carry much of the structure and organization Napoleon created when he remodelled the armies of France and set out to conquer Europe. His flair and boldness in the face of convention was remarkable. Indeed, in a period marked by rigidity of thought and operations, Napoleon's use of force was very innovative: he positively gloried in organizational mobility and operational flexibility--and in combining these two fluid concepts with the contrasting ones of mass and heavy weapons. However, it was in the way he formed and used his armies within a new strategic model that his great victories were won: his understanding of the utility of force was supreme.
To understand Napoleon's innovations, their durability and relevance to our use of force, it is best to start with the birth of the citizen army which provided both the sheer bulk necessary for his strategies and the new model of manpower: national soldiers. No longer were these serfs in uniform fighting for the king; these were French patriots fighting for the glory of France. Napoleon did not initiate this innovation, since the concept of conscription as universal military service in time of need may be traced back to ancient Egypt, whilst the idea that the citizen had a duty to the state to serve as a soldier was a product of the ideas of liberté, egalité and fraternité that underpinned the French Revolution. All and everyone joined together as French citizens, for each other and for the glory of France. In military terms this allowed the introduction of the levée en masse, which effectively means conscription, the new French citizen having a duty to defend the state. The first levée of 300,000 men—called to defend the homeland against the threat of foreign and emigre invasion—was in 1793, the year Napoleon was promoted to general. During the revolutionary wars the proportion of annual levées varied according to circumstances and military needs, but was largely a backup to the voluntary recruitment process of the period. This, however, soon showed its limits, especially as Napoleon commenced on his Italian wars. As a result the Directory voted the Jourdan-Delbrel law on 5 September 1798, which mandated all Frenchmen aged between twenty and twenty-five years to undertake a period of military service. The law was based on Article 9 of the 1795 Constitution of the citizen's duties, which stipulated that each and every citizen owed his services to the homeland and to the protection of liberty, equality and property. It was the official birth of the citizens' army.
It was Napoleon who realized the immense potential inherent in the levées as a steady source of manpower, and it was therefore he who regulated the system and made sure it became a fixture of national life. On 29 December 1804, as emperor of France, he passed a decree detailing the process of conscription throughout the French départements. From then on the annual number of conscripts was decided on a yearly basis by senate decree, and the civil and military authorities of the 130 départements were responsible for drawing up lists and recruiting fixed numbers of conscripts, for a fixed period of time. It was this system that ensured a steady volume of manpower to the army—and it was this system, with many changes and variations, that was the framework within which conscription remained a fixture of life in France more or less constantly until it was officially suspended by President Chirac in 2001, nearly two centuries later. The military planner of today would recognize it as the basis of any modern conscription system—yet for the time it was an absolute revolution: establishing and maintaining a standing army not through money, or duty to a lord, or penal servitude, or professional qualifications, but rather through universal service on the basis of citizenship and gender.
The annual levées provided the backbone of Napoleon's Grande Armee: between 1800 and 1814 an estimated 2 million men were recruited through them to serve under the French flag. This was a colossal number, a force unprecedented in human history—yet it still reflected the potential rather than the absolute power of conscription since the impressive total still represented only about 36 percent of eligible conscripts from the relevant age group and 7 percent of the total population; it was indeed but the testing ground of the new paradigm of war. A hundred years later during the First World War, in 1914-18, at the apex of the paradigm, France raised 8 million soldiers through conscription, representing 20 percent of the population. This comparison also reflects upon another issue, that of mass. Both figures reflect mass in the sense of bulk or very large numbers; however, this word is also used by the military to denote a concentration or density of forces relative to the opponent. For example, one would say of a commander: he massed his artillery, all twenty pieces, on the main axis of his attack, thereby achieving an overwhelming barrage in support of the initial attack. Napoleon himself used mass in both senses—being the first to create a mass army in modern times, yet throughout his battles he amassed his forces in various ways to achieve victory in battle. As industrial war evolved and became pervasive, the duality increased—since armies became a matter of mass that could then be amassed in density. Understanding the dual meaning of mass in industrial war is therefore an important measure for understanding the application and utility of force within it.
Though Napoleon focused on mass, it would be wrong to suggest he was interested only in the quantity of soldiers for his campaigns. He understood that this bulk of manpower also needed to be willing; that the popularity of the fight was crucial to its success—and he therefore took great care to nourish the idea and image of the fighting patriot, with rousing speeches and great gestures of sharing and solicitude. As he once put it: an emperor confides in national soldiers, not in mercenaries. Many commanders before him had cared deeply for their soldiers and shared their destiny, but Napoleon was probably the first to present his vision to them as a joint national venture in which they all had an equal part as citizens. Indeed, he had respect for his soldiers, both rank and file and officers, and shared with them his plans and visions before making demands upon them. For example, in 1805, on the eve of the battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon rode over fifty kilometres, much of the time along the ranks of his army, tiring out horses and staff to inform his troops of the next day's battle plan. This direct show of leadership, the setting of each man's goal as equal to his own, and the show of confidence ensured a high morale, and undoubtedly contributed to their success in the battle.
It would take many years for mass conscription to spread throughout Europe as a patriotic expression of duty and allegiance to a state—largely because it is a measure dependent on a citizen state, and these were only to develop across the continent in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. In the meantime, the levées allowed Napoleon to conscript large armies and to continue to do so for nearly twenty years, which meant he could risk losing an army, or at least substantial numbers of men, in a single decisive strategic action, without necessarily contemplating defeat. His opponents of the ancien régime were in no such position, with armies made up of men well described by the Duke of Wellington: "People talk of their enlisting from their fine military feeling—all stuff—no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having got bastard children—some for minor offences—many more for drink." Moreover, without conscription these men were not available in a steady stream, nor could they be rapidly replenished if lost. For Napoleon's enemies, therefore, to lose the army in a battle was to lose the war. In his manpower Napoleon had a major strategic advantage—which he complemented with a second: firepower. Napoleon, an artilleryman by training and early experience, understood the power of the guns--he is reputed to have said that God is on the side with the best artillery—and as far as his industrial and scientific base would permit, he developed an impressive artillery arm. The numerical, and to an extent technological, advantage of these pieces was, according to contemporary accounts, put to awe-inspiring and literally awful effect. He usually massed his guns into a "grand battery" on the axis of his attack, and used their power to batter a path into his enemey's defence for his assaulting infantry columns. Apart from the destructive effect of their fire, the psychological effects of being exposed to this lethal punishment without being able to respond tested his opponents' leadership, morale and discipline—on occasion to breaking point. It is a measure of the respect the British had for the French artillery that whenever possible Wellington deployed on a reverse slope, the one out of sight, or had his infantry lie down—as he did with the Guards at Waterloo.
Napoleon never explicitly defined in writing a precise strategic vision of war or military operations, though he did leave his Maxims, which include ideas that have now become basic, such as "The passage from the defensive to the offensive is one of the most delicate operations of war" or "March divided, fight united." His was a practical rather than a theoretical type of military genius, and it focused upon one basic precept: decisive destruction of an opposing force. With his mass manpower and early industrial firepower, Napoleon implemented this precept through his innovative use of force: attacking the enemy's main strength directly; closing with and destroying an opponent's main force in the field. As a general rule the strategic military aims of the wars of the previous century had not been of such a decisive nature, if for no other reason than that the forces were similarly matched and, as noted, no side wanted to risk losing theirs in totality since it would take years and vast sums to rebuild and replace them. These were known as "wars of manoeuvre," in which commanders sought to achieve positions of advantage with limited forces and logistic support, in order ultimately to serve negotiations. Napoleon utterly changed this approach to war. As he noted in his Maxims, his goal was to destroy enemy equilibrium through a "careful balancing of means and results, efforts and obstacles." He saw the central objective as the annihilation of field forces, and deemed this sufficient to break the enemy's will to resist; the rest was of a secondary nature.
The victories of Napoleon's army were the result of this conceptual shift, which was startlingly new and for many years enabled him to achieve rapid victories. Speed and flexibility were at the core of his campaigns; but most significantly, Napoleon planned his campaigns as a whole: planning, marching and fighting were connecting parts of the whole. To him the approach to the battle was integral to the battle itself, rather than it being a necessary but separate activity that preceded the engagement, as was the prevailing convention. "Approach" is to be understood here as both the planning process leading to the battle and the setting of the context for the battle, which would include such activities as an intelligence operations, diplomacy, and political and economic measures. This period of "approach" often lasted months, as all possibilities to reach the ideal battle situation were weighed against each other—followed by the actual physical movement towards the battle. In order to realize this overall approach in practical terms his forces had to be organized to move quickly and in a way that did not indicate their intentions. This is one of Napoleon's greatest achievements, one which I have called "organizational mobility," implemented through the introduction of another, significant innovation: the corps d'armée, an all-arms miniature army in itself, which could operate independently from other corps and would join with them only to fight the battle. Since the Grande Armee was sufficiently large to be able to fight simultaneous campaigns in different theatres of war, Napoleon would make the strategic allocation of forces to each theatre, and it was the army in each that was then subdivided into corps. Each of these then subdivided into divisions and brigades.
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