The Utility of Force, by Rupert Smith

Theatre of blood

The Bosnia experience is crucial to understanding Smith's world view. In early 1995, he was sent to besieged Sarajevo as the commander of the disparate and dispirited UN forces charged with carrying out a variety of mainly humanitarian tasks in the midst of a vicious war. His masters on the UN Security Council had no plan for stopping atrocities or ending the war. Nor did Nato.

This drift and indirection offended Smith's distressingly logical mind. As the dreadful events of that year unfolded, he was one of a few who quietly worked on deploying force in such a way as to protect the remaining "safe areas". On 29 August he turned the UN key for Nato to use force against the Bosnian Serb Army.

The Kosovo War in 1999 was similar and also different. This time, Rupert Smith was Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in Nato, having to try to make strategic bricks from the incredibly thin straw of the Western governments' preposterous belief that a few days of bombing would rapidly lead Serbia to abandon its domination of Kosovo.

From these experiences, Smith has drawn the conclusion this book encapsulates: modern war is "war among the people". This does not mean that outside force cannot be used, but that its use has to be discriminate, and based on a clear understanding of the nature of a conflict, and a well-conceived strategy for achieving a goal. He is incontestably right in this conclusion.

The larger theme of this ambitious book is that there has been a fundamental change in the nature of war. He grew up in what he now sees as the last era of "industrial war": contests of will between great industrial states, based on head-to-head contests of their armed forces. In 1945, he says, the atomic bomb ended the utility of industrial war. The subsequent era of East-West deterrence can be seen as the last appearance of that old act, while new and more important acts were coming out of the woodwork everywhere: in Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, the Balkans and now Iraq.

Among the key features of the new war is that it is a kind of theatre. As he says, a theatre commander these days is operating in a theatre, and his key job is to write and act the most compelling script. This leads him to some important observations about the use of force in the 21st century.

Admirable as its conclusions are, this book overstates the transformation of warfare. First, it plays down the extent to which war has always been "war among the people". Second, it exaggerates the role of technology in bringing about the transformation from industrial war. Third, he understates the extent to which industrial war has continued in different forms. For example, there is relatively little here on the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, which saw mutual slaughter eerily reminiscent of the First World War; and he makes little of the US doctrine and practice of precision bombing, which has been at the heart of major US military campaigns in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan. It is possible to quibble over many details. The account of the Tonkin Gulf episode in Vietnam is simplified. The role of conventional forces in the communist victory in Vietnam is underplayed.

It is suggested that key Security Council resolutions on Bosnia were based on Chapter VI of the UN Charter (the chapter on peaceful measures) when they were not.

Yet such quibbles miss the essential point of the book: that involvement in today's crises, in the attempt to stop atrocities and bring wars to an end, requires a capacity for clear thought, a sensitivity to situation, and a talent for acting, that armed forces and their officers have not always possessed - and now badly need.

Sir Adam Roberts is professor of international relations at Oxford University