Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Utility of Force (Book #27)

Before I post about this book I have to confess that I skimmed a good bit--it's a LONG book, and dense with detail, some of which I didn't have quite enough historical context to track properly. (As an aside, I'm embarrassed at how ignorant I am about world history 1945 through sometime in the late 70's. It's like school history petered out after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and having been born in 1971 I'm not old enough to remember much pre-Reagan in any useful detail. It's not like I'm a total blank on recentish history--don't get me wrong. But I don't know the Vietnam War like I know WWII or the Civil War or the Napoleonic Wars, and in some ways I know more about the 1860's than the 1960's.)

So. Anyway. The Utility of Force: the Art of War in the Modern World (Rupert Smith, 2007). Not a book I would've picked up on my own, but I enjoyed the author's appearance on The Daily Show and thought I'd give it a try. And I'm glad I did. Smith, a retired British general, looks at the history of warfare from Napoleon to the present and suggests that the problems major military powers are having stem from still thinking in terms of large-scale industrial warfare, state against state, army against army, when that's just not the reality on the ground anymore--now we have ongoing confrontations that occasionally erupt into armed conflict rather than moving between a state of peace and a state of war, and most conflicts are "war amongst the people," with insurgencies, terrorism, guerrilla warfare, and the like. (He acknowledges that "war amongst the people" isn't a recent invention, and cites the Peninsular War as an early example, where the British/Portuguese forces were badly outnumbered by the French but won anyway because the Spanish insurgency kept the French from being able to concentrate their forces against Wellington.)

Naturally, I read his discussion of the Napoleonic Wars with fascination, since that's my era. I wasn't expecting this book to help me with my own research, but it did, especially with understanding on a big-picture level what was so innovative about Napoleon (brilliant strategic thinker, saw preparation for battle and battle itself as a piece) and why Wellington succeeded against the French where others had failed (brilliant tactical thinker, whenever possible refused battle unless it was on his terms, thereby neutralizing the French advantages and maximizing his own). And I think I understand better what's so enduringly fascinating about the Napoleonic Wars as opposed to earlier and later conflicts. On the one hand, there's a lot there that's modern, both on the battlefield and in the political and social context--it's not a hard era to relate to. But OTOH, it's the last war that moved at the speed of nature. With the train and the telegraph yet to be invented and ships still powered by sail rather than steam, your army moved at the pace of a marching man, your messages no faster than a galloping horse, and your ships at the mercy of the wind. And I think there's a special fascination in that, somehow. It's not that it made war less horrible--Badajoz, Waterloo, the Grande Armee's demise in the Russian winter, and so on are the stuff of nightmares--but there's a certain humanity, a smaller scale, that helps explain the era's appeal.

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