Narratives of war
Some four decades ago, the TLS sent me a book to review by a young lecturer at Sandhurst entitled The Face of Battle. It impressed me so much that I described it as “one of the best half-dozen books on warfare to have appeared since the Second World War”. I wondered at the time if I had made a total fool of myself, but I need not have worried. The author, the late Sir John Keegan, proved to be one of the greatest military historians of his generation. It would be rash to put my money on such a dark horse again, but I shall. Emile Simpson’s War From the Ground Up is a work of such importance that it should be compulsory reading at every level in the military; from the most recently enlisted cadet to the Chief of the Defence Staff and, even more important, the members of the National Security Council who guide him.
Emile Simpson does not presume to show us how to conduct war, but he tells us how to think about it. He saw service in Afghanistan as a young officer in the Gurkhas, and his thinking is solidly rooted in that experience. Like Clausewitz 200 years earlier, Simpson found himself caught up in a campaign for whose conduct nothing in his training had prepared him; and like Clausewitz he realized that to understand why this was so he had to analyse the whole nature of war, from the top down as well as from the ground up. Afghanistan, he concluded, was only an extreme example of the transformation that war has undergone during his lifetime; and that itself is due to the transformation of the societies that fight it.
Emile Simpson does not presume to show us how to conduct war, but he tells us how to think about it
Clausewitz saw that the limited wars of the eighteenth century on which he had been brought up had been transformed into the total wars of the Napoleonic era – and all subsequent eras – not by any change in the nature of weaponry, but by the enlistment of “the people”; people whose emotions would distort the rational calculations of governments and the professional expertise of the military, but could never again be left out of account. Now there has been a further change. The paradigm (still largely accepted by Clausewitz) of “bipolar” wars fought between discrete states enjoying the support of their peoples has now been shattered by globalization. Popular support can no longer be taken for granted. “The people” are no longer homogeneous and the enemy is no longer a single entity. Further, “the enemy” is no longer the only actor to be taken into account. The information revolution means that every aspect, every incident of the conflict can be instantly broadcast throughout the world in width and in depth, and received by anyone with access to the internet; including the men in foxholes fighting it.
All this is common knowledge. It has been treated in dozens of studies based on the unhappy experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, and has been absorbed into the teaching of staff colleges on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere. But no one to the best of my knowledge has previously propounded a theory that explains so clearly the full implications of this transformation, and provides a guide to strategic thinking for the future. Simpson follows Clausewitz in seeing war as “a continuation of politics with an admixture of other means”, but he divides wars into two categories: not the “total” and “limited” wars of Clausewitzian analysis, but those fought “to establish military conditions for a political solution” and those that “directly seek political, as opposed to military, outcomes”. The first are the traditional bipolar conflicts in which all operations are directed to defeating the enemy armed forces and compelling his government to accept our political terms. The second – those in which the British armed forces have been largely engaged for the past half-century – are those where operations themselves are intended to create the necessary political conditions, usually through what are known as counterinsurgency techniques. In the former, strategy, though still directed to an ultimate political objective, is largely driven by the operational needs of “bi-polar” warfare which anyhow come naturally to those engaged in battle. (“For a protagonist to understand combat as anything other than an intensely polarised confrontation”, remarks Simpson with splendid understatement, “is very difficult.”) But in the latter, operations are themselves political tools, used to undermine the adversary, deprive him of political support and if possible to convert him. The people firing on you today may be vital associates tomorrow. But in both, the ultimate object of combat is to convey a message; and to ensure that the message is understood, one has to understand the audience for which it is intended.
The ultimate object of combat is to convey a message; and to ensure that the message is understood, one has to understand the audience for which it is intended
In traditional “bipolar” war between nation states, the ultimate “audience” was the enemy population, which was assumed to be united behind their government and armed forces and therefore only likely to listen to reason once the latter had been defeated – or clearly would be defeated if they were brought to battle. In contemporary conflicts the audience is far more diverse. The adversary is no longer homogeneous, one’s own people may be puzzled and divided, and a significant element in the audience will be spread throughout the world.
Under such circumstances a military operation intended to convey a message to one audience may mean something quite different to another. Simpson shows how this was so in Afghanistan, where the audience was kaleidoscopic, but one can see its effect in all contemporary operations. The operations of the United States and her allies in the Middle East have been intended to convey to their own peoples and to the international community that they intend to liberate the indigenous populations from their oppressive regimes and bring to them the blessings of “freedom” as the West understands it. But to many on the receiving end (especially those who saw their homes destroyed and their families slaughtered), and to observers elsewhere in the world, it appeared as a neo-imperialist attempt to impose Western hegemony. More recently, the Israeli bombardment of Gaza was intended to show, both to Hamas and to the Israeli electorate, that the Israeli people would tolerate no further aggression against their own population; but to others in the Arab world it has been seen as further evidence that Israel is a cruel and implacable enemy with whom no peace is possible short of her total destruction.
None of this is new or surprising. No responsible government now uses armed force without calculating the global impact of doing so; deciding, that is, which is “the strategic audience”. But in addressing a strategic audience, Simpson explains, a “strategic narrative” is all-important. This is a public explanation of why one is at war at all, and how the military operations are devised to serve the strategy that will lead to the desired political outcome. Without such a narrative, no government can command the support of its people, nor, indeed, ensure effective planning by its armed forces – to say nothing of gaining the sympathy of “the strategic audience” beyond its own frontiers. The narrative must not only be persuasive in rational terms. It also needs drama to appeal to the emotions. Above all, it needs an ethical foundation. Not only one’s own people, but the wider “strategic audience” must believe that one is fighting a “good” war. The genius of Winston Churchill in 1940 was to devise a strategic narrative that not only inspired his own people, but enlisted the support of the United States: indeed, most of British military operations in the early years of the war were planned with an eye on that strategic audience. The great shortcoming of Hitler’s strategy was his failure to create a strategic narrative that appealed to anyone apart from his own people – and a rapidly decreasing number of them.
It is impossible to summarize Emile Simpson’s ideas without distorting them. His own style is so muscular and aphoristic that he can concentrate complex arguments into memorable sentences that will have a life of their own. His familiarity with the work of Aristotle and the history of the English Reformation enables him to explain the requirements of a strategic narrative as effectively as his experiences in Afghanistan illuminate his understanding of the relationship between operational requirements and political objectives. In short (and here I shall really go overboard) War From the Ground Up deserves to be seen as a coda to Clausewitz’s On War. But it has the advantage of being considerably shorter.
Michael Howard’s books include Strategic Deception in the Second World War, 1992, and A Short History of the First World War, 2002. He is the co-editor and translator of Clausewitz On War, 1976.