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Western myths and the utility of force

April 1, 2011

One of the trends in commentary on international affairs and military issues has been a persistent belief in the decline of the utility of force and the ascension of insurgency warfare. This belief operates in concert to the opposing view that technology has made Western military forces unstoppable and that the leveraging of technological superiority can achieve maximum political leverage with minimal risk and commitments.

The advent of insurgency warfare, and in particular its use against Western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, seemed to present the victory of the first trend over the latter. Andrew Bacevich, among others, began speaking of a sort of “end of military history.” In a way, the interaction of insurgency and precision, networked warfare are mutually reinforcing trends. Supposedly, the upward spiral in the cost of wars and warfare exhausts the ability of countries to compete in conventional warfare, while delivering military dominance to the technologically dominant group. However, the inefficiencies of applying these technologically-dominant forces to wars of insurgency and unconventional action thus nullify the usefulness of Western military force.

Those thinkers who recognize the interrelation, rather than the inherent opposition of these trends, often fall into two categories. There are those who think this in conventional superiority invalidates the need to fight unconventional wars at all, and merits abstention from nation-building and wars of choice, and those who think that the conventional superiority is now irrelevant, and that strategists and soldiers must adapt their forces to participate in nation-building, and adopt a paradigm which recognizes wars that involve it as the new necessary and standard wars.

Libya, however, should prove a strong rebuke to these sorts of teleological views, no matter how sophisticated or dialectical some adherents have refined them to be. Though Libya will likely devolve into an insurgency at some point, what is occurring now is not simply an insurgency or counterinsurgency. Though the coalition may be limiting its participation to aerial strikes, it is quite obvious that the war is not won simply because the coalition destroyed its Libyan equivalents. The strategic center of gravity is obviously not the Libyan air force or air defense system, nor necessarily its concentrated armor units.

Indeed, as I and many others argued earlier, it was relatively easy for Libyan forces to adapt their tactics to make the use of airpower against them relatively less effective. Ultimately, while Gaddafi’s forces are hardly shining examples of warfighting, they are much more organizationally adept than their opponents, and their capabilities, rather than their arms, are allowing them to carry the day on the battlefield.

As Adam Elkus pointed out, referencing this excellent article on warfare-by-Toyota (a practice which defeated Libya’s military in the final phase of its war with Chad), conventional warfare is not dead, and just because the third world does it with second world surplus and less money does not make it less conventional. It should be quite obvious that conventional, low-technology forces are far from “useless” when employed outside the context of insurgency, nor are advanced aerial combat systems so predominant that they can supersede the utility of well-organized ground forces in armed conflict.

War and politics exist on a spectrum of competitive political activity. So far, the political objectives, however, have been seriously disconnected from the means the Western coalition is willing to apply in warfare. The idea that political machinations and battlefield operations are independent is nothing new, and any student of conventional wars such as World Wars I and II would recognize the difficulty of managing international coalitions in effective coordination with battlefield needs. That the Western coalition must also deal with the complex politics of working alongside a mostly unknown and diffuse rebellion is an additional layer of complication, but hardly a fundamental invalidation of the utility of force.

Ultimately, notions of the declining utility of force, which we saw emerge after Iraq and Afghanistan, are highly overstated. If one armed group is able to use tactics, operations, and strategies to frustrate or defeat another armed group’s political aims, that does not prove the futility of force, it proves the utility of it. Gaddafi, who seems to be, to most politicians, an embattled lunatic on the “wrong side of history,” has managed to hold onto power precisely because he recognizes the utility of force in defeating the rebels and the political complications of further coalition interventions in the war. Both Western military defeatism and triumphalism are locked into distorted notions of what force, war and political objectives necessarily are. They confuse the changing historical and geopolitical context of conflicts with fundamental changes in the nature of strategy itself.

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