Small Wars Journal

War Amongst the People, Or Just Irregular?

Tue, 03/25/2014 - 4:02pm

War Amongst the People, Or Just Irregular?

Marcelo O.L. Serrano


This paper analyses the concept of War Amongst the People proposed by General Rupert Smith in his book “The Utility of Force: the Art of War in the Modern World”. War Amongst the People would be the new paradigm of war, which would have replaced the previous one, the Interstate Industrial War.  General Smith’s ideas are analysed in their historical and logical coherence. Firstly, the definition of War Amongst the People as a world characterized by confrontations and conflitcs, no longer by the dichotomy war and peace, is contradicted.  History demonstrates that confrontation and conflicts are not a specifity of this paradigm, but a perennial reality. Secondly, the Interstate Industrial War paradigm, the basic idea of the concept of War Amongst the People, is flawed in three aspects: it particularizes what is general, generalizes what is particular and do not suffice to explain all wars it was supposed to serve as model. Lastly, as the core of the work, the six tendencies of War Amongst the People are dissected. Many features, shown as specific of the new paradigm are, in fact, not new.  Some intellectual artifices are used as a way to support flawed ideas. The characteristics of War Amongst the People, in reality, do not differ from the very know concept of Irregular War. The paper concludes that war war cannot be understood only through the wars of the great powers and, due to its innumerous and variable contexts, cannot be contained in a paradigm.


The background of this paper is the notion that war would have assumed a new nature, distinct from that traditionally known. Its goal is to analyze the concept of War amongst the People, proposed by the General Rupert Smith in his book “the Utility of Force: the Art of War in the Modern World”. Although the General does not speak of new nature, but new paradigm, his thinking is clearly associated with the current of thought that advocates that idea.

“War no longer exists”. This is the opening phrase of General Smith’s book. The War amongst the People (WAP) would be the new paradigm, which would have replaced the previous one, the Interstate Industrial War (IIW). In this new paradigm, the conflicts would not develop itself linearly - peace, crisis, war, resolution, peace - being instead, dictated by the dynamics of permanent confrontation and conflict – no longer by the dichotomy of war and peace.

The idea of WAP is being accepted by increasing number of Brazilian army’s officers whitout due reflexion about its relevance. There should be caution before the trend of seeing in the current and future armed conflicts the emergence of a new nature of war, instead of simply recognizing them as a subjective manifestation of war’s nature, according to Clausewitz’s theorization. War, as a political, economic, military and social phenomenon, has been a constant throughout history. What is so markedly different in present time to the point of characterizing this change?

The answer to this question will be sought in history. If WAP represents a new paradigm, its characteristics must be, at least in its majority or essentiality, unprecedented, without historical similar. Beyond this historical perspective, the coherence of the ideas supporting the WAP concept will be also analyzed.

Initially, it will be verified the question of the dynamics of confrontation and conflict in opposition to the dichotomy war and peace. Following, the idea of IIW will be checked, according to General Smith’s connotation. Finally, constituting core of the work, the WAP concept will be dissected, through the analysis of the six tendencies that, according to General Smith, characterize it.

Confrontations and Conflicts

The WAP, defined as a world of confrontations and conflicts, would have emerged after the World War II. In it, the sequence peace-crisis-war-resolution-peace, prevailing in the previous paradigm, in which the decisive factor would be the application of the military force, would no longer be valid. This new paradigm would not have a predefined sequence, “but a continuous crisscrossing between confrontation and conflict”, nor would peace be either the starting or the end point. Although the conflicts could be resolved, the confrontations necessarily could not.[1]

In General Smith’s point of view, confrontations would envisage to influence the opponent, to change his intentions and to establish conditions for, above all, wining the clash of wills. Conflicts, on the other hand, would be fought to achieve a decisive result by means of direct application of military force.[2]

The argument that the dynamics of confrontation and conflict replaced the reality of war and peace existing before the World War II is not supported by history.

The world of confrontations is a perennial reality, resulting from the fact that international politics is marked by the struggle for power. Nations with conflicting interests permanently seek either to modify or to keep the status quo between them, in order to incline, or to keep inclined, the balance of power in its benefit.[3] Referring to what he calls epochal wars, like the Peloponnesian, the Hundred Years and the Thirty Years wars among others, Philip Bobbitt affirms that many wars are considered as only one historical event because “despite often lengthy periods in which there is no armed conflicts, the various engagements of the war never decisively settle the issues that manage to reassert themselves through conflict”, exactly what the General claims to be the dynamics of confrontations and conflicts.[4]

Confrontations and conflicts had never been absent in history. Rome and Carthage had confronted themselves for a long period, intermingled with three wars. Christians and Muslins had faced each other in several centuries of struggle for the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula. Spain and Portugal trigged the confrontation, inherited by Brazil and Argentina, for the control of the estuary of the River Plate. In these examples, the confrontations, underlying in peace times, have been marked by negotiations and diplomatic efforts to influence and to modify the intentions of the opponent. They have also been intermingled with some conflicts, in which a decisive result was sought by military force. Again, this situation is in full compliance with the dynamics the General considers specific to the WAP.

The belief that in WAP there would not be a predefined sequence, but a crisscrossing of confrontation and conflict, is not an exclusiveness of the paradigm. One can not state that the border confrontation between the Roman Empire and the Germanic tribes, with its innumerable conflicts, has developed itself linearly. The same can be said about the twenty four years long struggle for the expulsion of the Dutches from Brazil in the 17th century. Even decisive victory in a conflict does not guarantee the accommodation of conflicting interests.  Frequently, the bellicose and non-conformist spirit of both victorious and defeated seeks to keep alive the confrontation, rejecting an authentic peace. The phrase “Carthage must be destroyed”, with which Cato finished its speeches before the Roman Senate and the France’s revanchist spirit after its defeat in the 1870 war exemplify this reality.

The assumption that peace no longer succeeds war in the new paradigm and that the confrontations do not have necessarily solution is also unconvincing. The Vietnam’s fight for its independence and unification finished with the peace in the Geneva Agreements in 1954, that settled the war against France, and with the Agreements of Paris in 1973, that ended up the war against USA. The Arab-Israeli confrontation, even though it continues without definitive solution at sight, presented in some of its multiple faces the sequence peace-crisis-war-resolution. General Smith characterizes the Yom Kippur War as a WAP,[5] however, it lead to the Camp David Accords that settled the peace between Egypt and Israel in 1978.

The contemporary resolution of several other confrontations/conflicts weakens even more the General’s argument. The long Angola Civil War finished after the death of Jonas Savimbi, the rebel’s leader, in 2002. The guerillas in Nicaragua and El Salvador were pacified in 1990 and 1992, respectively. The Sri Lanka’s separatist movement was solved in 2009, after a twenty six years confrontation. The centenary struggle for the independence of North Ireland effectively ended up in 2005, when the Irish Republican Army resigned to violence.[6]

In two aspects, the facts appear to corroborate the idea of continuity of confrontations. The current wars are mostly irregular, by nature of long duration. On the other hand, Edward Luttwak pointed out that many of these wars become endemic conflicts because the transformative effects of both victory and mutual exhaustion are blocked by international interventions. Luttwak, in a harsh realistic stand point, stated the uncomfortable truth that war, a great evil in itself, possesses the virtue of solving political conflicts and reestablishing the peace. This happens when the belligerents come to mutual exhaustion or when one of them decisively wins. Imposed armistices, unless ratified by true peace accords, freeze artificially the conflicts, perpetuating the confrontation. Therefore, they protect the weaker side from the consequences of refusing to make concessions for peace. “Peace takes hold only when war is truly over”.[7]

However, the international blockade of war has a restrict effect. The UN Security Council and other international organisms act in accordance with the political interests of its country members. Many conflicts rest outside the umbrella of peace operations, like the current civil war in Syria.

As a matter of fact, the distinction between war/peace and confrontation/conflict is not evident. It looks rather like an artifice, created to provide a better support for a flawed idea. After all, conflict is nothing else than war, as long as it resorts to the use of violence with political ends, according to the Clausewitz’s classical definition. Confrontation is a situation marked by conflicting interests, which may persist in peace time, as the argentine demand of sovereignty over Malvinas (Falklands) Islands clearly demonstrates. In view of this, there is nothing that really distinguishes the dynamics of confrontation and conflict of the two Palestinians Intifadas, separated by ten years of informal peace, and the formal peace, haunted by the prospect of a new war, that followed the Treaty of Versailles, which in the words of J.C. Fuller was just an armistice between the two World Wars.[8]

Interstate Industrial Wars (IIW)

Before analyzing the WAP, it’s appropriate to examine its supporting concept. The IIW, as the previous paradigm, is the basic idea of General Smith’s thinking. IIW would be originated in the 19th century, being the Napoleonic Wars its starting point. The American Civil War, the German Unification Wars and the two World Wars would be those that would have molded the paradigm.[9]

General Smith describes this paradigm imprecisely and sometimes contradictorily. He discusses the IIW in three chapters, but does not define them clearly. His reasoning incurs in three main mistakes.

Firstly, he commits the fault of particularizing what is general. According to him, “in what I call ‘industrial war’, you sought to win a trial of strength and thereby break the will of your opponent, to finally dictate the result, the political outcome you wished to achieve”.[10]

The same idea is emphasized several times in his book. Regarding the American Civil War, considered the first true IIW, he states that it was fought to defend a political vision by force and was won imposing to the enemy a decisive and brutal defeat.[11] Rome has won the trial of strength against Carthage, broke up the Carthaginian will and imposed its political objectives in a decisive and brutal way. Hence, being correct the General’s reasoning, one must conclude that there was industrial war in Antiquity, namely, before industry. This idea is absurd, and the General himself rejects it, for, according to him, the IIW crucial elements are the state and the industry.[12] These characteristics, cited as specific of IIW, are in fact common to a large amount of wars in all times.

Secondly, General Smith elaborates an inductive reasoning that leads to an error inverse to the previous one: to generalize what is particular. He takes as examples some wars and assumes that its characteristics apply to all IIW. This means that all wars preceding the WAP paradigm shared those characteristics.

He considers the two World Wars as the culmination of IIW paradigm. Thus, he attributes to the IIW the total character specific of those wars. According to him, the IIW would depend on the constant access to all state’s resources.  Decisive victory would mean the complete destruction of enemy forces or its unconditional surrender.[13] But, what most neatly characterizes the IIW as totals is the statement that the entire society and the state were subdued to the cause. All state apparatus was focused in this endeavor, while the society and the economy interrupted completely its natural flux and productivity and were agglutinated to the cause.[14]

The Correlates of War Project[15] lists seventy one interstates wars between 1870 and 1945, approximately, the paradigm’s time span. Many of these wars, perhaps the majority of them, do not fit the total character.

Morgenthau holds that war becomes total according to four criteria: the fraction of the population completely identified in its emotions and convictions with the wars of its nation; the fraction of the population participating in war; the fraction of the population affected by war and the objective pursued by war. When these criteria attain a high intensity degree, all of nation’s productive forces were absorbed by the needs of the war.[16] Colin Gray adds the motivational effect exerted by rival ideologies and affirms that, in both sides, the total war is waged with the objective of mutual political and physical extermination.[17]

The Russian-Japanese War (1904/05), despite its large scale, was not total. With the exception of the population’s emotional identification with the war, mainly from the Japanese side,[18] neither other criteria making the war total shown up. Both sides had limited objectives, the control of Manchuria and Port Arthur. Although Russian forces were defeated in the theatre of operations, Russian Empire still disposed of large amount of material and human resources, which could be allocated to the war if the objective’s value justified new sacrifices. The following peace was a negotiated one, not the result of decisive victory or unconditional surrender. The Russian and Japanese populations were not directly affected by the war. Nor there was the ideological polarization and the need of physical and political survival that obliged Russia to resort to all its resources in 1812 and in the World War II.

The non-total character is even more accentuated in the Italian-Turkish War (1911/12), due to its small scale. To conquer the region of current Libya, the manpower deployed by Italy amounted to one hundred and ten thousand troops, a pale figure compared to the army strong of one million and half mobilized for the World War I. Because of the restrict number, the troops employed did not need the absorption of all Italian productive forces to be kept operating.

On the other hand, could the Chaco War, Paraguay versus Bolivia (1932/35), and the War of 1941, between Peru and Ecuador, be considered industrials, since the countries involved were non-industrialized? These wars do not fit the paradigm, for the industrial power is a necessary component of strategic success.[19] They were not totals too. Besides the criteria afore-mentioned, Morgenthau claims total wars presuppose total mechanization, and the war can be total only to the degree to which the opponent nations’ mechanization, or industrialization, is total.[20] Even non-totals, these wars would only be industrials if the “industrial” adjective referred to the industrialized process of weapons and equipment production, although of foreign origin. In this case, there would be necessity of also considering industrial the Bosnian War, the General’s model of WAP, as well as all wars fought nowadays, since the renowned AK 47 and even the cell phone used to detonate improvised explosive devices are industrial products.

Lastly, the paradigm is insufficient to explain all wars occurred during its validity. How can Mexican Revolution and Spanish or Chinese Civil wars be labeled as interstates? The Correlates of War Project lists two hundred and one irregular wars fought during the IIW’ span of time. [21] So, the paradigm of IIW must face the incoherence that three quarters of wars occurred during its validity were not interstates.

These examples demonstrate the error, or imprecision, of attributing the total, even industrial, character to the wars between states. General Smith proposed a paradigm not applicable to more than three quarters of wars it is supposed to represent. Therefore, the paradigm reveals itself as a no viable representative model for the wars of the time.

War Amongst the People (WAP)

The Chief of the British Army’s General Staff, General Richard Dannatt, affirmed in 2008: “I do not agree with Rupert Smith when he says: ‘a paradigm shift in war undoubtedly occurred…the old paradigm was of interstate industrial war. The new one is the paradigm of war amongst the people’. In accepting what Rupert said we run the risk of a binary response – and life is not so straightforward”.[22]

This point of view from the highest British Army’s authority is inductive of a discerning analysis about the idea of WAP, in order to not accept it thoughtlessly, as an infallible revelation about current and future war. It should also be taken into account that, except some quotations from Clausewitz and Sun Zi, General Smith makes no reference to others scholars or thinkers to reinforce his reasoning and to justify his conclusions. His book is eminently opinionative, and opinions are not necessarily true.

The WAP paradigm is already hindered by the fragility of the IIW concept, which provides its theoretical support. Its basic definition as a world of confrontations and conflicts is also imprecise, for not being a specificity of the paradigm, as seen. However, it is convenient to analyze the very idea of WAP, to verify its conceptual coherence and its historical relevance, to conclude about its validity or not as a new paradigm. For this goal, the six tendencies of War Amongst the People will be analyzed.

The Ends for Which We Fight are Changing

While in IIW there was very neat objectives, in WAP the ends for which the force is employed would be more complex and less strategic.

Forces no longer would be employed to achieve political ends through the conquest of a military strategic objective, but to establish a condition in which the political end could be achieved by other means and ways.[23] This idea, also emphasized several times, is not clear enough.  It is necessary to elucidate what “establish a condition” really means.

Is there any difference between the condition to be established and the previous paradigm’s strategic objective? If the condition allows the achievement of political objective, it has evidently strategic value, since strategy is the joint that articulates the political goal and the operations, fact the General obviously agrees with.[24]

The difference focuses the military character of strategic objective, since, according to the General, the decisive victory was the mark of IIW, whereas the typical enemy to be encountered in the WAP wasn’t and isn’t susceptible to strategic defeat through military means.[25] Consequently, military forces would be used sub-strategically, because the resulting effects of its performance would not contribute, directly or cumulatively, to the achievement of the strategic objective. [26]

In WAP, the political and military developments would go hand in hand.[27] This idea, associated to the insufficiency of military forces to achieve political objectives in insurgencies, is not new. At the beginning of 20th century, facing the insurrections in Morocco, General Hubert Lyautey already believed that the “country ought not be handled with force alone. The rational method, the only one, the proper one…is the constant interplay of force with politics”.[28] Lyautey and others experienced french colonial officers were well aware of the political element of the problem. They combined military with psychological action. “They counteracted the support, or even merely the sympathy, of the people toward the guerrillas through social, economic and political measures designed to elicit equal if not greater support”.[29] In the first half of 1960 decade, General André Beaufre realizing both the nuclear ambiance and the revolutionary wars of the time attributed to strategy a total character. His concept of total strategy advocates the concomitant use of all branches of national power – political, diplomatic, economic, military and social – in whichever combination in conflict resolutions. He believed that strategy becomes unintelligible if restrained to the military domain, because a great number of factors escape it. Even in most favorable circumstances, a purely military explication rests incomplete and, hence, misleading.[30]

If military force is employed to establish a condition in which the political objective could be achieved by other means, there is, in fact, nothing that differentiates this condition from a military strategic objective. If, in the scope of total strategy, this condition, or military strategic objective, is insufficient to reach political ends, it is fundamental to make possible the effective employment of other means. So, there is no sense in the idea that military force exerts a sub-strategic function in WAP, neither that it does not contribute, direct or cumulatively, to the political objective.

On the other hand, the achievement of political goals through military victory is by no means a specificity of IIW. Many revolutions and insurgencies were victorious mainly by military means. The Chinese Civil War and the Cuban Revolution may be highlighted in this respect.

When General Smith says the kind of enemy encountered in WAP is not susceptible of strategic defeat through military means, he is clearly associating this enemy to the guerrilla or irregular fighter. However, he avoids equating WAP to irregular or guerrilla warfare. With the idea that WAP’s objectives have become a condition to be established, he intended to give his concept a wider scope than simple irregular war. This kind of theoretical contorcionism hampers still more the coherence and pertinence of the concept. The Korea War, according to General Smith, was fought amongst the people,[31] because it was not solved by a military decisive victory, but by a condition that lead to the political solution that finnished the war. Thus, he encompassed in his concept all wars ended by negotiations, what denies the very idea of new paradigm, since diplomatic negotiation to put an end to war is a historic fact of all epochs.

General Smith claims that two Clausewitz’s concepts remain crucial to the understanding of war: the war as a triad of dominant tendencies and the idea that the outcome of war results from the product of a trial of strength and a clash of wills.[32]

WAP would be the antithesis of IIW, according to the understanding given to this second concept. In IIW, the objective would be to win the trial of strength, which would result in the lost of enemy’s will to resist. WAP, its antithesis, would permit the militarily weak to face the strong advantageously. In WAP, the use of military force in tactical actions would envisage, in strategic level, to win the clash of wills, to weaken the ability to govern and to mold people intentions.[33] By defining this antithesis, General Smith tacitly concedes that WAP and the application of guerrilla tactics, proper to irregular warfare, are the same thing. However, both WAP and IIW resort to violence to achieve political ends. If both seek the same thing through the same mean, how can it be considered that one would be another antithesis, and not simply different ways of employing violence with political ends?

This idea, expanded, is applied to counterisurgency. By emphasizing that couterinsurgency’s main objective is to influence the people’s intentions, namely, win the clash of wills, the General reaffirms the antithesis idea. He states that in IIW the objective was to win the trial of strength in order to break the enemy’s will; whereas in WAP, the strategic objective is to conquer the people’s will to win the trial of strength.[34] According to this understanding, trial of strength and clash of wills would be independent factors, that might be dealed with successively, leadind one another.

Clausewitz does not support this understanding. For him, trial of strength and clash of wills are inseparable,[35] for they are intimately intertwined, so its effects are never isolated, but mutually influence each other in several and variable ways.

Russia, in its afore-mentioned war against Japan, lost the clash of wills before losing definitively the trial of strength. In the War of the Triple Alliance, the trial of strength was truly won when Brazilian army entered the Paraguayan capital, but this did not suffice to break the will of Solano Lopez and Paraguayan people’s. In 1792, at the Battle of Valmy, after a mutual and indecisive cannonade, the Prussian army lost the clash of wills before effectively engaged in the trial of strength and retreated from the battlefield giving up the march to Paris, what was decisive to the success of the French Revolution. So, the conception of antithesis based in the idea that trial of strength and clash of wills are dissociated factors is wrong.

For General Smith, the conquest of people’s will is a clear and elementary concept, but misunderstood by political and military institutions.[36] Due to military force be employed to win the clash of wills, all trials of strength should be won so that each victory complements the measures taken to win the clash of wills.[37] However, he does not analyse the feasibility of winning the clash of wills, the conquest of hearts and minds, in an insurgency. Being clear and elementary, it is a concept very easy to enunciate, but very hard, and sometimes impossible, to achieve. History is in very short supply of cases of hearts and minds undoubtedly conquered in war. Moreover, the political objective may be incompatible with the acquisition of population’s sympathy. In the American Revolution, England could not conquer the will of American people whitout ceding political and economic rigths unacceptable by the Metropolis. France could not win the support of Algerian people keeping them in a semicolonial condition. On the other hand, England would not have counted on the good will of Malayan people and defeated the communist guerrilla whitout commiting itself to the independence of Malaysia.

It is convenient to verify whether the conquest of people’s will is sufficient to produce strategic outcomes. The Palestinian question offers good reasons for reflexion on this matter. The movements struggling for the independence of Palestine, despite its different tendencies, count on the unequivocal support of the population. Nevertheless, this support has been so far insufficient to the Palestinian cause and to deter Israel’s interests.

After studying the writings and deeds of T.E. Lawrence and Mao Tse Tung, Benjamin Borgeson concluded that irregular warfare does not much differ from the regular one. The destruction of enemy forces on the battlefield is also a crucial component of irregular warfare.[38]

He states that the conflict must continue until the guerrilla becomes a revolutionary army, capable of defeating the regular army in open battle and achieve a final decision. This is exactly Mao’s vision about guerrilla warfare: “guerrilla operations must not be considered as an independent form of warfare. They are but one step in the total war, one aspect of the revolutionary struggle…During the progress of hostilities, guerrillas gradually develop into orthodox forces that operate in conjunction with other units of the regular army. Thus the regularly organized troops, those guerrillas who have attained that status and those who have not reached that level of development combine to form the military power of a national revolutionary war”.[39]

Borgeson recognized that this hard military solution is not the only route guerrillas may take towards victory. The other, which monopolizes the General Smith’s attention, is the enemy’s political exhaustion.  But he advises that “this strategy is only viable if the enemy’s interests are of secondary or tertiary importance”. When primary interests are at stake, the state will not lose the grit and the strategy of exhaustion will not suit the guerrillas.[40]  Besides the Palestinian case, the defeat of several South American guerrillas from 1960 to 1980 demonstrates this resolve of the states.

After these considerations, it is noticeable that General Smith owns a biased and Eurocentric vision about war. He trends to see war from the vantage point of international forces that superimpose itselves on, or intervene in, a pre-existent war. He overlooks the fact that in this pre-existent war and in all others on which there is no international mandate to fulfill the objective the opponents fight for continues to be the strategic victory, as always.

We Fight Amongst the People

This tendency comes from the fact that operations would be being conducted increasingly amongst the people. The people in the cities, villages, streets and in home, everywhere, may find themselves in the battlefield, the General said.[41]

It should be noticed that this situation is a basic characteristic of guerrilla warfare, perceived since the first studies about this kind of war and perfectly known from Mao Tse Tung. Contradicting the opinion that a guerrilla force could not exist for long in the enemy’s rear, Mao uttered his famous affirmation that this point of view “reveals lack of comprehension of the relationship that should exist between the people and the troops. The former may be likened to water the latter to the fish that inhabit it”. [42]

John Nagl claims that the essential features of guerrilla warfare – the tactics of applying weakness against strength and the clever use of terrain to conceal guerrilla forces from the enemy’s main body – have barely changed since the days of the Romans and Persians.[43]

The global process of increasing urbanization must be taken into account. In this circumstance, it is natural for guerrilla forces to seek urban areas as the better terrain to conceal and at same time keep themselves amongst the people, which, as Mao assured, is their natural element.

Guerrilla warfare has always been conducted amongst the people. The fact that people are crowded in urban areas does not justify the conclusion that WAP is a new paradigm. This fact is nothing else than the mere adaptation of an old reality to a current context.

General Smith affirms that civilians become themselves a target in WAP. According to him, this trend would be originated in World War II, when cities in Europe and Japan were bombed in order to modify the people’s intentions through terror.[44]

This perception is mistaken. The practice of terrifying civilian populations as a way to disencourage enemy resistance was much used since ancient times, when entire populations were enslaved or slaughtered. Even in modern times, terrifying actions have occurred. “Some modern historians claim that Vendée was the first genocide among post-Enlightenment European peoples. During the second fase of the Franco-Prussian War, Moltke proposed the Exterminationkrieg, specifically targeting civilian population.”[45]

T.E. Lawrence stated that “the printing press is the greatest weapon in the armory of the modern commander”.[46] This statement, uttered some years after the World War I, highlights the influence of press in war. Therefore, when General Smith alleges that another way of combat to take place amongst the people is by means of the media, he is not pointing out an entirely new phenomenon. It is true that the modern media allows the events to be brought to homes and reach the persons in unprecedented rate, but this is a new fact only by its intensity not its nature.

We Fight to Preserve the Forces

This tendency would result from the casualty abhorrence in democratic societies, from the difficult replacement of personnel after the demise of conscription and from the high cost of modern armies’ sophisticated material. In spite of these facts are true, it is convenient to recognise their due gradation.

It seems undoubtful that in so far as the objective’s value rises, the resolve to fight for it also rises. USA, having only humanitarian objectives at stake, left Somalia after suffering some casualties in 1992.  In the Global War on Terror the Country has shown a very different grit.

Alluding to the effect of body bags on American military planners, politicians and population, General Smith anticipated in 2005: “one of the unspoken aspects of the USA war in Iraq is a latent arithmetic: if approximately 3,000 Americans were lost on 9/11, then up to 3,000 casualties will be acceptable in the War Against Terror, wherever it takes place”.[47]

The US Department of Defence indicated that, in september 2013, more than 6,700 Americans have already died in Iraq and Afghan wars and the number of wounded have risen to more than 51,000.[48] General Smith’s misunderstanding becomes evident. Due to the value attributed to the objective, the government, the armed services and the American people did not preserve their forces as predicted by him. Borgeson reinforces the same conclusion. Before the deteriorating security environment in Iraq in 2006, rather than withdrawing US forces, the government managed to mobilize support for an influx of troops and an expanded counterinsurgency campaign.[49]

The intensity of combats in current Syria civil war also demonstrates that forces are not preserved when the objective is important. It is also convenient to point out that most armies in the world, although regular, do not dispose of sophisticated and technological advanced armaments, on the contrary, many are poorly armed. Consequently, the high cost of replacement is not a generalized restriction. Similarly, the human life’s value is not a concern equally shared by all peoples and cultures, what also impedes the generalization of the tendency towards preservation of forces.

The Sides are Mostly Non-state

“We tend to conduct our confrontations and conflicts in some form of multinational grouping against some party or parties that are not states”.[50] This phrase shows, once again, the General Smith’s biased and Eurocentric vision about war. Multinational forces, under the aegis of any international organization, are far from representing all wars.

On the other hand, there is nothing new about the non-state character of most beligerants. As John Nagl asserts, low-intensity conflict has been more common throughout the thistory of warfare than has conflitct between nations represented by armies on a conventional field of battle.[51] As seen, the Correlates of War Project demonstrates that, during the IIW paradigm, the number of wars involving non-state combatants were three times higher than the number of war between states. From the end of World War II to 2004, the project lists eighty interstate and two hundred and eighty nine irregular wars. It is noticeable that the three per one proportion between irregular and regular wars remained practically unchanged.

The fact that beligerants are mostly non-state is not a WAP’s tendency, but a tendency of war itself in all times.

Our Conflicts Tend to be Timeless

This tendency has already been analysed in the confrontations and conflitcs discussion. Nevertheless, it shoud be stressed that the timeless feature comes more from the characteristic of irregular warfare, naturally long, and the international blockade of war than from a specific tendency of WAP.

On Each Ocasion New Uses are Found for Old Weapons

The weapons constructed specifically for use in a battlefield against soldiers and heavy armaments would now being adapted for current conflicts since the tools of industrial war would be often irrelevant to WAP.

General Smith advocates the reorganization of military forces in order to reflect the paradigm change. The armies’ industrial and highly sophisticated armements should be adapted to the circunstamces of WAP. According to him, the organization of armed services has basic flaws, amongst them the use of IIW’s weapons systems in ways they were neither conceived nor acquired for.[52]

It must be recognized that throughout history armies have been armed and trained to deal with the most serious risks, represented by the threat of other armies equally armed serving enemy nations. This trend is based in the sensible assumption that who is prepared for the worst threat has also condition to face the less bad one. The Roman legions were armed as heavy infantry and possessed heavy equipments. Nonetheless, they were often employed against irregular troops in the innumerous insurgencies that broke out during the long history of Rome. Against irregular combatants, catapults, battering rams and the complexes maneuvres the legions were able to perform have little utility.

The central point of this tendency is the belief in the demise of interstate wars, what would render the high technologic and heavy weapons useless in the current irregular wars. However, this assumption is not founded in any concrete evidence, it is just an opinion. According to Colin Gray, “more often than not, the unsound belief that major war is obsolete, or at least in obsolescence, rests on nothing more solid than superficial trend spotting”.[53]

No serious defence institution should allow mere opinions to inffluence the development of their capacity for national defence. It is convenient to know what General Dannatt said in this respect:

“The Army does not subscribe to the view that major combat operations are a thing of the past. I am quite clear that as an Army, we must play our role within national defence as well as provide secutity. The man who looks ten years out and says he knows what the strategic situation will look like is, frankly, the Court Jester…Defence is about an insurance policy as well as the ability to conduct current operations – and we do not throw away our home insurance policies just because crime statistics are down in our neighbourhood”.[54]


For Colin Gray, “there is nothing of fundamental importance that is genuinely new about war and strategy in the twenty-first century”.[55] General Dannatt agrees: “there is no new type of war, we are in a continuum – we have been in that continuum for several generations”.[56]

Careless readers do not realize the incoherences in the concept of war amongst the people and pseudo-modern ones give more importance to what appears new than to the rigour and pertinence of the ideas. Consequently, they do not take into account that war cannot be understood only through the wars of the great powers, neither perceived the fact that war, in the complexity of its innumerous and variable contexts, cannot be contained in a paradigm.

General Smith endeavoured to structure his ideas in a theory of current and future wars. But, the unconvincing result lacks historical and logical consistency. Besides the artifices created to broaden the range of his ideas, what he really did was, through a kind of conceptual ilusionism, to make the much known irregular warfare assume the appearance of a new kind of war. However, this alleged new kind, the war amongst the people, remains with the same essential characteristics of irregular or guerrilla warfare. General Smith, in fact, cooperates with “the concepts industry”,[57] that produces new-sounding ideas that, in fact, are not new.

This does not mean denying the changes in war. One cannot affirm that today irregular wars are exactly like the war conducted by the Spaniards against the French invader from 1808 on. It means recognizing the existence of an unchangeable core of essential characteristics, involved by a set of other ones that change according to the context in which the war is fought. Inspired by Clausewitz, Colin Gray points out that “by way of contrast to the eternal universal realities of war (its first nature), war's subjective (or second) nature is always changing, albeit at different rates at different times”.[58]

The last real battle in which armored formations maneuvered against each other supported by artillery and air forces, took place in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. General Smith highlights the fact that, since then, armor units have either supported the application of air power and artillery or have been commited peacemeal to provide infantry support. He concludes: “the use of tanks as a machine of war organized in formations, designed to do battle and attain a decisive result, has not occurred during three decades. Nor, for that matter, is it ever likely to occur again, for the wars in which armored formations could and should be used are no longer practicle”.[59]

That may be true. The large-scale use of tank massive formations was effective in a given context, unlikely of being replicated again. This use suited the manifestation of a specific war’s subjective nature that holds good for a while. On the other hand, shock power, fire power, fire support and maneuverability are needs rather related to the the war’s first and perennial nature and continue as important as before.

The risk of war will not disappear. Nations may always be motivaded by fear, interest and honor to resort to war. According to Colin Gray, Thucydides’ explanation for the motives that lead nations to make war continues as relevant in 21th century as 2400 years ago. “Particular styles in warfare wax and wane, and wax again, endlessly. An irregular style is dominant for now, but that says nothing of much predictive value regarding the twenty-first century beyond today”. [60]

There is no assurance in the assumption that there will not be interstate wars in the future. History, even the recent one, does not endorse it – ask the Iraquis or the Georgians! Besides reflecting just an opinion, the belief in the demise of interstate war is dangerous if it comes to influence the doutrinary development of Brazilian army.

There is no doubt on General Smith’s professional competence, neither on his concern about the defence issues of his Country. His opinions reflect his Eurocentric vision and perhaps could be adopted by England whitout much harm for the main interests of this Country. England, as member of NATO, counts on the Alliance’s military apparatus, particularly the USA’s, in the eventuality, even remote, of threat from another state. As a last resort, the Country can play the nuclear card in order to deter threats to its vital interests.

Brazil, on the contrary, does not count on the protection of a powerfull military aliance, let alone on the deterrence power of nuclear weapons. This peculiarity, added to Brazil’s expected increasing participation in the international scene, recommends the rejection of any unorthodox idea about the organization and training of Brazilian armed forces.

End Notes

[1] SMITH, Rupert. A Utilidade da Força: A Arte da Guerra no Mundo Moderno. Portugal: Edições 70, 2008, p. 22

[2] Ibid., p. 224

[3] MORGENTHAU, Hans. Politics Among Nations. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985,  p. 67/ 68

[4] BOBBITT, Philip. The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and Course of History. First Anchor Books Edition, p. 21

[5] Interview with General Sir Rupert Smith. International Review of the Red Cross, Dec 2006.

[6] Source: Upsala University Conflict Encyclopedia.

[7] LUTTWAK, Edward. Give War a Chance. Foreign Affairs Jul/Aug 1999

[8] FULLER, J.C. A Conduta da Guerra. Rio de Janeiro: Bibliex, 2002,  p. 209

[9] SMITH. A Utilidade da Força. p. 51

[10] Interview with General Sir Rupert Smith.

[11] SMITH. A Utilidade da Força, p.112

[12] Ibid., p. 51

[13] Ibid., p. 64, 139 e 317

[14] Ibid., p. 339

[15] Database about wars,

[16] MORGENTHAU, Politics Among Nations,  p.392 and 397

[17] GRAY, Another Bloody Century. London: Phoenix, 2005,  p.137

[18] LOEFLER. La Guerre Russo-Japonaise. Paris: Berger-Levrault Editeurs, 1907, p. 268

[19] SMITH, A Utilidade da Força,  p. 121

[20] MORGENTHAU. Politics Among Nations,  p. 408

[21] The Project classifies these wars in intra-state and extra-state (between a state and a non-statal entity

    outside this state).

[22] DANNATT, Richard. The Land Environment  -  Moving Towards 2018. Small Wars Journal, Jul 2008

[23] SMITH. A Utilidade da Força,  p. 316

[24] Ibid., p. 31

[25] Ibid., p. 317 e 319

[26] Ibid., p. 318. The distinction made between strategic and political objectives is not clear. The Iraq’s

   democratization is hold as a strategic objective in Iraq War, although it seems more like a political one.

[27] Ibid.,  p. 14

[28] Quoted in Robert Asprey. “War in the Shadows”. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1994,  p. 156

[29] Joseph Buttinger, quoted in Robert Aspreys’ War in the Shadows, p. 152

[30] BEAUFRE, André. “Introduction a la Stratégie”. Paris: Pluriel, 1998, p. 182

[31] SMITH. A Utilidade da Força,  p. 253

[32] SMITH, The Utility of Force: What if War is no Longer What it Used to be? Montrose Journal, Winter 2005                                                             

    - General Smith misunderstood the Clausewitz’s triad. When he states that the tendencies form the sides of an

    equilateral triangle, he attributes a fix and arbitrary relationship between them, what Clausewitz assertively denies.

[33] SMITH. A Utilidade da Força, p.215

[34] Ibid., p. 324

[35] CLAUSEWITZ, Carl. On War, Princeton University Press , Princeton, New Jersey, 1984 , p. 77 

[36] SMITH. A Utilidade da Força,  p. 324

[37] Ibid.,  p. 324

[38] BORGESON. The Principles of Destruction in Irregular Warfare: Theory and Practice. Small Wars Journal,

   Jan 2012

[39] TUNG, Mao Tse. On Guerrilla Warfare. Mao Tse Tung Reference Archive.

[40] BORGESON, The Principles of Destruction in Irregular Warfare.

[41] SMITH. A Utilidade da Força,  p. 325

[42] TUNG. On Guerrilla Warfare.

[43] NAGL, John . Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 16

[44] SMITH. A Utilidade da Força,  p. 325

[45] VACCA, Alexander and  DAVIDSON, Mark. The Regularity of Irregular Warfare. Parameters, 2011                                        

    - Vendée: region in France where a rebellion broke out against the French Revolution.

[46] Quoted in Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife,  p. 24

[47] SMITH. The Utility of Force: What if War is no Longer what it Used to be?                                                                 

[48] US Department of Defense.

[49] BORGESON. The Principles of Destruction in Irregular Warfare.

[50] SMITH. A Utilidade da Força,  p. 349

[51] NAGL. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife,  p. 15

[52] SMITH. A Utilidade da Força,  p. 345

[53] GRAY. Another Bloody Century , p. 33

[54] DANNATT. The Land Environment.

[55] GRAY. War: Continuity in Change, and Change in Continuity. Parameters, 2010

[56] DANNATT. The Land Environment.

[57] GRAY. Continuity in Change, and Change in Continuity.

[58] GRAY. Another Bloody Century, p. 32

[59] SMITH. A Utilidade da Força,  p 19

[60] GRAY. War Continuity in Change, and Change in Continuity.


About the Author(s)

Colonel Marcelo O.L. Serrano (Brazilian Army, retired) is an Instructor at Escola de Comando e Estado-Maior do Exército - ECEME (Brazilian Army Command and General Staff College).