Wednesday, January 1, 2014

a deeper understanding of war

Years ago, I studied under Sir Michael Howard, eminent British historian and military analyst.  When I read his stunning review of a new book by a young British army officer, Emile Simpson, I knew I should read it.

Howard said:
"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 . . . 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) --deserves to be seen as a coda to Clausewitz's On War. But it has the advantage of being considerably shorter."
Another British military historian, Max Hastings, had a similar appraisal:
"One of the most important assertions in this fascinating book is that the outcome of wars is now less subject to assessment by body counts than to the verdict of civilian outsiders, who make judgments with scant heed to pure military logic. ... This is the first book by an immensely intelligent and interesting young man, from whom much will be heard. He lays down principles of policy-making and war fighting for instance, the key in counter-insurgency is to match actions and words so as to influence target audiences to subscribe to a given narrative with a wisdom lacking in most contemporary foreign offices. ... Ministers would do well to read Simpson's fascinating and provocative study before they launch their next lunge into the unknown. They might then better understand how elusive in modern conflict are the concepts of winning and losing."
I'm still wrestling with the book. It's short but dense. Simpson has powerful insights that force the reader to pause and think -- and usually understand and agree. He builds on the deeper meanings of Clausewitz and offers a 21st century way of looking at war as organized violence used in a political context much more complex than two sides or two armies. He notes that modern warfare is usually asymmetric, like a trial where each side is its own judge. He drives home that point that contemporary conflicts have multiple audiences whose judgments affect the ultimate outcome, far beyond the clashing armed forces.

I may return with further comments, but wanted to urge wide readership of this powerful volume.

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