The South Asia Channel

War From the Ground Up

Emile Simpson, War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First-Century Combat as Politics.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.  285 pp.

Emile Simpson has written an ambitious book, one that seeks to significantly append the standing version(s) of strategic theory.  Based on his academic training at Oxford, on top of multiple infantry combat tours as a junior officer with the Gurkha Rifles, Simpson seeks to discuss "war in its contemporary context, specifically in terms of the conflict in Afghanistan" (1).  This last is an understatement.  Simpson's work is decisively influenced on almost every page by Afghanistan-and more particularly, Helmand.  Helmand is the sparsely inhabited, opium-rich province in Afghanistan's South-West that has been the crucible for both the British Army and (more recently) the United States Marine Corps.  It is not too strong to say that the Helmand experience haunts this entire work.

In this text, Simpson essentially makes two closely related points.  The first is that strategy must be in dialogue with the reality on the battlefield.  While the political authority must be supreme, it is incumbent on the military commander on the ground to report back to his political masters when the goal of their strategy is no longer achievable (or-more precisely-no longer likely to be achieved) given the resources available to the military command.  The political authority is then obligated, at least morally, to change either the strategic objective or the resourcing.  Simpson is here clearly lamenting the absence of such a dialogue between the British government, which "thought of the deployment of British troops into Helmand in 2006 primarily as a reconstruction mission," (122) and the British military commanders who quickly found themselves involved in "aggressive combat operations" (123).

Second, Simpson also posits that there are multiple "dialogues" occurring in warfare.  In the Clausewitzian paradigm, Simpson maintains that there is only dialogue occurring between two interlocutors-that of each of the nation-state combatants, which occurs primarily via violence.  However, in 21st century warfare, while the two states continue to be in dialogue via combat, there are also sub-state actors, third party nations, non-state actors, and trans-state actors engaged in dialogue of a different sort, in which force is not the sole language.  Or in other words, there are actors within, outside, and above the two combatants, most of whom are not subject to the use of force but who nonetheless impact the situation.  Simpson believes that 21st century warfare requires a strategic narrative to serve as a "vital membrane" that connects to the military operation in a manner best "digested" by each of these audiences.

The points are both immensely valid and helpful.  However, it is not entirely clear how novel they are.  That strategy must be in dialogue with the reality of the field commander (absent a war of national survival) has been true ever since the political and military authorities were separated post-Napoleon.  Admittedly, the record of the success of such a dialogue is not encouraging, but this would not be news to Lincoln, FDR, or LBJ.   Further, a robust dialogue between the political authority and the field commander does not necessarily clarify the situation.  To take another aspect of the Afghanistan case that drives Simpson, the continuing confusion in the American mission despite robust channels of communication between President Obama and Generals McChrystal and Petraeus is well documented, particularly in Secretary Gates' recently released memoir.  And speaking more generally, it is not always the case that the political authority wants strategic clarity-it may be to their advantage to simply "muddle along" if that imposes lower political cost than either reinforcement or disengagement.

Similarly, that there are multiple publics being engaged is not news.  To give perhaps the earliest and most powerful example, had the Turks in 1915 realized that their actions with respect to their Armenian minority would still be an international issue almost a century later, they might have chosen a different course of action.  The conflict between the Turks and Armenians was decisively settled by force of arms and in that sense, the "dialogue" between those two parties is over.  And yet the Turks are constantly reminded of this event, at a cost, by a host of other actors (other nations, NGOs, transnational bodies), in arenas where force of arms helps not at all.  That said, the construction of narratives remains an underdeveloped aspect of military theory.  Simpson does good, occasionally great, work in surfacing the importance of both communications -or information operations, in the vernacular-and the inherent message of the underlying military operations themselves as a "vital membrane" in contemporary warfare.

But in the end what the book is, most powerfully, is a cry of frustration about the war in Afghanistan and particularly about actions in Helmand.  Simpson is up front about the genesis of his ideas, but seeks to construct from them a theory of action for 21st century warfare.  The obvious unanswered question is: to what extent is Afghanistan, and particularly Helmand, a good guide for the future of warfare?  The external validity of the work-or how far these observations can be generalized-seems to rise or fall on this question.

This question in turn leads into a host of hotly contested debates.  Was Afghanistan a vital national interest of the United States and/or Great Britain after the fall of the Taliban?  Was Afghanistan a casualty of U.S. focus on the War in Iraq?  Did the British find the proper operational approach in Helmand?  Was the 2009 Afghanistan "Surge" prudent, particularly given the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the U.S. President?  Did the Afghanistan "Surge" find the proper balance between counter-terrorism and stability operations?  And was Helmand, devoid of any major cities or key roads, the right place to send a disproportionate number of "Surge" troops?  Or in other words, is this the type of operation from which we should draw lessons and is it likely to occur in the future, or a strategic error that should be honored only in the breach?

Most importantly, does Simpson really discuss the issue that most frustrated him in Helmand?  I believe that he does not.  What Simpson-and all of us who have fought "among the people"-discovers is that while force can be very convincing in a negative role (force can stop all kind of things-including, most obviously, life itself), it is very difficult for force to accomplish the positive.  War can destroy, but only under the most favorable of circumstances can it build.

Simpson frequently discusses the peasant opium farmers of Helmand province and the complex issues that were brought up in drug eradication programs.  But nowhere does he fully carry through the issue with the use of force in such a program.  While the military has a negative power that can factor into future decisions, it cannot translate that into a true belief system.  An infantry platoon in Helmand can destroy a farmer's crop, denying that money to the Taliban (and the peasant).  Further, they can promise/threaten to return and destroy future crops, impacting the rational calculus of the peasant when he considers whether planting a new crop is a good idea.  But what that platoon cannot do is convince the peasant that he ought not to plant a crop, simply because one ought not to grow opium poppies.  Similarly, while they can make the peasant wish that he obeyed the commands of the Kabul-based Afghan government through punishment, they cannot make him acknowledge the legitimacy of those commands, let alone that of the government itself.  In short, military force only has efficacy when physically present, or when its return is plausibly threatened.  But the kind of social change sought must endure after the departure of the threat of force to be of any use-and there's the rub of so many modern wars.

Perhaps this is why Simpson's discussion of war and politics often seems muddled. War has always been about politics.  That war and politics are inseparable is, in fact, the fundamental Clausewitzian insight.  But earlier politics were authoritarian and therefore intimately intertwined with the use of force, real or potential.  What is different in the modern world is consensual, democratic politics.  And in generating government by consent (which produces that much sought, almost mystical state of "legitimacy"), force is-by definition-of very limited utility.  Force can quite decisively change conditions on the ground-the "is."  But the "ought?"  That is something else entirely.

So force cannot impose the conditions that modern policy seeks to have emerge on the ground.  And yet-as numerous works have documented-governmental tools that work by means other than force are both in short supply and-to be blunt-usually less than competently executed.  It is not clear that any amount of dialogue between capital and field commander, or any sensitivity to the multiple dialogues occurring, can alter this mismatch between the ends desired and the means available.

This is not to say that an external power cannot work to encourage emerging trends, if there are such.  If one observes the spontaneous emergence of even limited movements towards democracy, liberalism, human rights, pluralism, an end to conflict or other desired ends, then an intervening power may-may-be able to incubate or tend these nascent trends.  But again, the use of force can only be used in a negative manner-against the opponents of the desired outcome.  Force may be able to help the desired trend from being crushed by its enemies.  But the trend must grow on its own, indigenously; even if metaphorically nurtured, watered, and protected by an outside power.

In the end, Simpson provides us with a confused narrative-albeit with moments of brilliance.  By only partially identifying what is truly novel in contemporary warfare, Simpson occasionally takes wrong turns in his diagnosis.  The work is read most powerfully as an indictment of the British campaign in Helmand.  But the reader should be very careful when seeking to expand these particular lacunas into a general theory of conflict.

Douglas A. Ollivant is a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, as well as a Managing Partner of Mantid International LLC.  A retired infantry officer, he served two tours in Iraq, was the senior counterinsurgency advisor to the Regional Command-East commander in Afghanistan, and was a Director for Iraq on the National Security Council of both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.  He holds a doctorate in political science from Indiana University.  Follow him on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant