Michael O'Leary said:The Infantry School Reading List doesn‘t specify recommended editions, but the Canadian Army Reading List , published by Land Force Doctrine and Training Systems does:
Clausewitz, Carl von. On War.Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984. ISBN 0-691-05657-9
Sun Tzu. The Art of War Translated with an introduction by Samuel B. Griggith. Foreword by B.H. Liddell Hart. London: Oxford University press, 1963.
The Regimental Rogue
(Edited 14 Jan 06 to update links.)
Lunch with the FT: Emile Simpson
Hailed as a Clausewitz for our times, the former soldier talks to John Thornhill about military strategy, the Afghanistan conflict and ‘armed politics’
By John Thornhill
When the veteran military historian Professor Michael Howard raves about a book by a little-known, 30-year-old ex-Gurkha officer and declares it to be comparable to Clausewitz, it is surely worth snapping to attention. And after reading War From the Ground Up, I am all the more intrigued to meet its author, Emile Simpson. Drawing on his experience of fighting in Afghanistan, Simpson has written an engrossing account of the 12-year conflict that challenges the way we think about war and suggests how we might better fight the next one. “War From the Ground Up is a work of such importance that it should be compulsory reading at every level in the military,” Howard concluded in his Times Literary Supplement review.
Sitting in the Drapers Arms on a gloriously sunny day in north London, Simpson looks every inch the military man, from his regulation haircut to his civilian uniform of brown sports jacket and green tie. As he rises to
greet me, the tall, athletic Simpson exudes an air of orderliness. His voice, modulated by his schooling in Cambridge and the parade grounds of Sandhurst, is one notch too loud, as is often the way with army officers.
We decide to move to the garden of the Islington gastropub, which he says is one of his favourite watering holes. It is eerily deserted on a Friday lunchtime. As we settle at a shady table, I ask Simpson whether he is from a military family and what first drew him to the army. He explains that his parents are both Cambridge academics who were somewhat surprised by his choice of career. “My interest in things military was part through history and [part] a spirit of adventure,” he says, in the slightly elliptical manner he deploys when talking about himself.
On a gap year spent teaching in Nepal, he was drawn to the local culture and traditions of the Gurkha regiment. After studying history at Jesus College, Oxford, where he was tutored and inspired by Niall Ferguson, he went to Sandhurst, where he was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Gurkha Rifles. In his six and a half years in the army, Simpson served three tours in southern Afghanistan, first as a platoon commander in charge of 30 men in Kandahar in 2007, then as a military intelligence officer helping to fight the counterinsurgency in Helmand province in 2010, and, finally, working at headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) under the US commander General John R Allen in 2011. Like Carl von Clausewitz, whose service in the Prussian army during the Napoleonic wars shaped his classic book On War, Simpson’s writings are informed by deep personal experience as well as a fascination with military theory.
Before we can plunge too deeply into Afghanistan, the waitress arrives to take our order from the surprisingly ambitious menu. Simpson goes for steak tartare and Dorset crab. I opt for the smoked mackerel and am also tempted by the crab. We order two glasses of Picpoul.
Simpson says that what intrigued him as a frontline officer was how much his experience on the ground diverged from what he had been taught about war and the way politicians talked about the conflict. Clausewitz still largely defines how most people understand war: it is primarily seen as an interstate activity that is polarised, decisive and finite. One side wins, declares victory and imposes its terms – and narrative – upon the loser. The other side accepts defeat, licks its wounds and works out how to fight smarter next time.
But the Afghanistan conflict, which has lasted longer than the two world wars combined, does not neatly conform to this pattern. Who is the enemy? How do you know when you have won? What would victory even look like? At times, when Simpson was fighting in Helmand at the height of the counterinsurgency, the battle lines were fairly clear. “We were fighting the Taliban pretty much every day. There were a lot of casualties – both ways. The battle group as a whole [of 1,000] had about 110 wounded and 28 dead, both British and Afghans,” he says.
At other times, it became near-impossible to distinguish between enemies and friends. The conflict appeared kaleidoscopic, indecisive and seemingly infinite. In his book, which interweaves military theory with personal anecdote, Simpson cites the example of one local commander who was notionally on the side of the Afghan government in Kabul but “rented” out some of his forces to the local Taliban because they had agreed to pay for them. In such situations, trying to divide the population between “them” and “us” was not only dangerous but counter-productive. “There were not two sides. Everyone was on their own side,” he says.
What frustrated Simpson was that abstract doctrinal concepts kept obstructing sensible operational judgments. “The metrics of success were based on red and blue and geographical control of an area – blue being our own forces and red the enemy,” he says. By 2010 his unit had developed its own alternative metrics “identifying different constituencies in the area you were operating in, be they violently or politically hostile to you, sympathetic or undecided.
“From that understanding, you could use both military means and non-military means, working with our civilian counterparts, to deliver a narrative, or a political story, if you like – just like a politician might deliver a narrative during an election. You give each constituency what it wants while going on the offensive against the opposition’s narrative.”
Simpson is as passionate in talking about army doctrine as he is dispassionate in talking about his own personal experiences. But he uses a very different vocabulary from the normal terms of military discourse – “persuasion”, “opponents” and “strategic audiences” in place of “force”, “enemies” and “targets” – and draws inspiration from sources as varied as Aristotle’s teachings on rhetoric and medieval theologians. As he expounds his theory of “armed politics” with eloquence, I am struck by his more than fleeting resemblance to a young David Cameron.
Our starters arrive and Simpson laughs at my mackerel, an upturned tail of a fish pointing up to the cloudless sky. He tucks into his steak tartare and launches into an explanation of how the relationship between soldiers and politicians must change if we want to fight 21st-century conflicts more effectively.
Simpson says that the accepted model for civil-military relations remains Samuel P Huntington’s classic book The Soldier and The State, first published in 1957. That book’s main reference point was the showdown between President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean war when the over-mighty general threatened to unleash nuclear war on China. Huntington argued that generals should never again be allowed to have that level of strategic authority, and that policy guidelines should be set by the president. There was also the longstanding constitutional argument that soldiers should not interfere in setting policy because that was the preserve of elected politicians. While that policy may have made sense during the cold war, it does not convince Simpson today. “What I am saying now is that the constitutional argument still makes sense but the strategic argument doesn’t. What you have now is the politicisation of military action down to a tactical level.”
As Simpson puts it, strategy is always “the dialogue between desire and possibility”. Politicians may desire an outcome but their strategy has to be tempered by the operational realities on the ground. In conflicts such as Afghanistan, those frontline soldiers responsible for implementing armed politics on the ground must have more say in shaping and presenting that strategic narrative. “Huntington’s one-way flow simply does not make sense if you want a nuanced political approach down to the tactical level,” he says.
The crabs arrive accompanied by an array of crushing and gouging instruments that would not have disgraced a medieval dungeon. And, however splendid the crab looks and tastes, I quickly realise it was the daftest main course I could have ordered. Extracting meat from a crustacean’s extremities is not compatible with taking shorthand notes. While we’ve been talking, the pub garden has slowly filled up with fashionable young mothers and prams. The badlands of Afghanistan could not seem further away. I ask him what he thinks will happen when Nato forces pull out next year.
As he rips a claw off his crab, Simpson says he doesn’t foresee a dramatic collapse of the Kabul regime. The government’s endemic corruption poses a bigger threat to its survival than the Taliban does, he argues. When Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 they left behind a reasonably stable regime that was still able to defeat the Mujahideen when they massed for a conventional battle at Jalalabad later that year. It was the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 that doomed the Najibullah regime by cutting off its funding. The regime in Kabul today may not be very democratic or effective, he says, but it is unlikely to be overthrown by force.
“The Taliban can take dusty villages but for them to present an existential threat to the state means they have to knock out the Afghan army backed by US air power. They did not do it with the Russians. They will not do it today. If the state fails, it will be because it implodes as a result of corruption,” he says. As fragments of dismembered crab are cleared away from the table (and my notebook), Simpson orders a lemon tart and I plump for a poached pear. I am keen to prolong the conversation and explore one of the other big ideas of his book: the fact that social media has had a transformational effect on war.
Unsurprisingly, we return to Clausewitz, who is still taught in military academies today. Simpson rejects any suggestion that his work is comparable. “That would be incredibly immodest and inappropriate,” he says. “But my book is an interpretation of Clausewitz in the modern day ... [On War] is characterised by dialectics, between theory and experience, between history and the present day, between intuition and doctrine ... It is very much located in reality, but not consumed by it. I very much identified with that experience.”
As a young soldier in the Prussian army, Clausewitz fought at a time when the whole conception of conflict was being revolutionised. In the late 18th century, war was not unlimited: the great powers would try to defeat the enemy on the battlefield to gain an advantage but they rarely knocked out other states. Following the French Revolution, Napoleon was able to mobilise millions of soldiers and overthrow other regimes. “The whole state was at risk. It was a fundamentally different concept,” Simpson says.
He argues that a similarly decisive change in conflict is taking place today. Thanks to videos taken on smartphones and the universality of social media, the “strategic audiences” in any war are global. As we are seeing in Syria, images of conflict can be flashed around the world in a heartbeat. “Can we get back to a situation where there is a clear divide between military and political activity? I don’t think we can. Any war is going to be contaminated by contact with audiences around the world who have an interest in that conflict,” he says.
That has two big consequences. First, there needs to be a fusion of military and political activity at the operational level. But, second, conflicts have to be dealt with on their own terms and compartmentalised to prevent their proliferation, as the French have successfully done in Mali. “How you can box in a conflict will be the number one strategic question that will govern the next few decades,” he says.
In Simpson’s view, one of the biggest mistakes the US has made has been to talk about a “global war on terror”, a phrase he describes as silly because it raises expectations that can never be met. “If you elevate this to a global concept, to the level of grand strategy, that is profoundly dangerous,” he says. “If you want stability in the world you have to have clear strategic boundaries that seek to compartmentalise conflicts, and not aggregate them. The reason is that if you don’t box in your conflicts with clear strategic boundaries, chronological, conceptual, geographical, legal, then you experience a proliferation of violence.”
Simpson finished his last tour of Afghanistan just before Christmas 2011 and left the army shortly afterwards because it “was mainly incompatible with personal life, my girlfriend and my family”. He also had broader frustrations with the career structure in the army. “If you are a reformist and want to reform the army then you have to bide your time, as you do in any organisation. Just being in a bureaucracy in general was quite frustrating,” he says.
Simpson has switched careers and is now studying international law, a field in which he hopes he can combine both theory and practice. But he will not be wholly lost to the field of military doctrine as he is already working on another book about the concept of the enemy. His spirit of adventure is sated by trekking trips in Nepal and cycling tours in Oman.
Since his book’s publication in 2012, Simpson has been invited to speak to several military audiences in the US, where the debate still rages about how best to conduct counterinsurgency campaigns. It has received a cooler response from Britain’s top brass, despite Professor Howard’s endorsement, but Simpson says the army is slowly becoming more receptive to fresh thinking because of its recent setbacks in Basra and Helmand.
“Thirty years ago, if you could drink a bottle of whisky in the evening and run 10 miles in the morning and had a big moustache, then you were a good bloke and didn’t need to read anything. But today the army is much more open to reading. The army has got less afraid of intellectualism since things went wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says. “We do need to rethink our profession.”
John Thornhill is the FT’s deputy editor
Narratives of war
Some four decades ago, the TLS sent me a book to review by a young lecturer at Sandhurst entitled The Face of Battle. It impressed me so much that I described it as “one of the best half-dozen books on warfare to have appeared since the Second World War”. I wondered at the time if I had made a total fool of myself, but I need not have worried. The author, the late Sir John Keegan, proved to be one of the greatest military historians of his generation. It would be rash to put my money on such a dark horse again, but I shall. Emile Simpson’s War From the Ground Up is 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 who guide him.
Emile Simpson does not presume to show us how to conduct war, but he tells us how to think about it. He saw service in Afghanistan as a young officer in the Gurkhas, and his thinking is solidly rooted in that experience. Like Clausewitz 200 years earlier, Simpson found himself caught up in a campaign for whose conduct nothing in his training had prepared him; and like Clausewitz he realized that to understand why this was so he had to analyse the whole nature of war, from the top down as well as from the ground up. Afghanistan, he concluded, was only an extreme example of the transformation that war has undergone during his lifetime; and that itself is due to the transformation of the societies that fight it.
Clausewitz saw that the limited wars of the eighteenth century on which he had been brought up had been transformed into the total wars of the Napoleonic era – and all subsequent eras – not by any change in the nature of weaponry, but by the enlistment of “the people”; people whose emotions would distort the rational calculations of governments and the professional expertise of the military, but could never again be left out of account. Now there has been a further change. The paradigm (still largely accepted by Clausewitz) of “bipolar” wars fought between discrete states enjoying the support of their peoples has now been shattered by globalization. Popular support can no longer be taken for granted. “The people” are no longer homogeneous and the enemy is no longer a single entity. Further, “the enemy” is no longer the only actor to be taken into account. The information revolution means that every aspect, every incident of the conflict can be instantly broadcast throughout the world in width and in depth, and received by anyone with access to the internet; including the men in foxholes fighting it.
All this is common knowledge. It has been treated in dozens of studies based on the unhappy experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, and has been absorbed into the teaching of staff colleges on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere. But no one to the best of my knowledge has previously propounded a theory that explains so clearly the full implications of this transformation, and provides a guide to strategic thinking for the future. Simpson follows Clausewitz in seeing war as “a continuation of politics with an admixture of other means”, but he divides wars into two categories: not the “total” and “limited” wars of Clausewitzian analysis, but those fought “to establish military conditions for a political solution” and those that “directly seek political, as opposed to military, outcomes”. The first are the traditional bipolar conflicts in which all operations are directed to defeating the enemy armed forces and compelling his government to accept our political terms. The second – those in which the British armed forces have been largely engaged for the past half-century – are those where operations themselves are intended to create the necessary political conditions, usually through what are known as counterinsurgency techniques. In the former, strategy, though still directed to an ultimate political objective, is largely driven by the operational needs of “bi-polar” warfare which anyhow come naturally to those engaged in battle. (“For a protagonist to understand combat as anything other than an intensely polarised confrontation”, remarks Simpson with splendid understatement, “is very difficult.”) But in the latter, operations are themselves political tools, used to undermine the adversary, deprive him of political support and if possible to convert him. The people firing on you today may be vital associates tomorrow. But in both, the ultimate object of combat is to convey a message; and to ensure that the message is understood, one has to understand the audience for which it is intended.
In traditional “bipolar” war between nation states, the ultimate “audience” was the enemy population, which was assumed to be united behind their government and armed forces and therefore only likely to listen to reason once the latter had been defeated – or clearly would be defeated if they were brought to battle. In contemporary conflicts the audience is far more diverse. The adversary is no longer homogeneous, one’s own people may be puzzled and divided, and a significant element in the audience will be spread throughout the world.
Under such circumstances a military operation intended to convey a message to one audience may mean something quite different to another. Simpson shows how this was so in Afghanistan, where the audience was kaleidoscopic, but one can see its effect in all contemporary operations. The operations of the United States and her allies in the Middle East have been intended to convey to their own peoples and to the international community that they intend to liberate the indigenous populations from their oppressive regimes and bring to them the blessings of “freedom” as the West understands it. But to many on the receiving end (especially those who saw their homes destroyed and their families slaughtered), and to observers elsewhere in the world, it appeared as a neo-imperialist attempt to impose Western hegemony. More recently, the Israeli bombardment of Gaza was intended to show, both to Hamas and to the Israeli electorate, that the Israeli people would tolerate no further aggression against their own population; but to others in the Arab world it has been seen as further evidence that Israel is a cruel and implacable enemy with whom no peace is possible short of her total destruction.
None of this is new or surprising. No responsible government now uses armed force without calculating the global impact of doing so; deciding, that is, which is “the strategic audience”. But in addressing a strategic audience, Simpson explains, a “strategic narrative” is all-important. This is a public explanation of why one is at war at all, and how the military operations are devised to serve the strategy that will lead to the desired political outcome. Without such a narrative, no government can command the support of its people, nor, indeed, ensure effective planning by its armed forces – to say nothing of gaining the sympathy of “the strategic audience” beyond its own frontiers. The narrative must not only be persuasive in rational terms. It also needs drama to appeal to the emotions. Above all, it needs an ethical foundation. Not only one’s own people, but the wider “strategic audience” must believe that one is fighting a “good” war. The genius of Winston Churchill in 1940 was to devise a strategic narrative that not only inspired his own people, but enlisted the support of the United States: indeed, most of British military operations in the early years of the war were planned with an eye on that strategic audience. The great shortcoming of Hitler’s strategy was his failure to create a strategic narrative that appealed to anyone apart from his own people – and a rapidly decreasing number of them.
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) War From the Ground Up deserves to be seen as a coda to Clausewitz’s On War. But it has the advantage of being considerably shorter.
Michael Howard’s books include Strategic Deception in the Second World War, 1992, and A Short History of the First World War, 2002. He is the co-editor and translator of Clausewitz On War, 1976.
dapaterson said:Amazon.ca reports that War from the Ground Up will be available just after Thanksgiving.
Dillon Hillier, a corporal with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, returned home from a tour in Afghanistan and started up a normal life. But when ISIS insurgents began attacking local populations in Iraq and elsewhere, Hillier, a long-time soldier, felt he had to join in the action, so he sold his truck, lied to his parents about where he was going and became the first Canadian to volunteer to fight ISIS in Iraq
For three months, Dillon accompanied the Kurdish army as they fought a series of battles against the Islamic State throughout northern Iraq. During his mission, Dillon saw combat, experienced life in the trenches, partnered with a former US Marine, had a bounty placed on his head and learned an important truth: that in the chaos of war, the difference between life and death is measured in inches, and some things can never be forgotten.
One Soldier is about Hillier’s three months fighting with the Kurds in Iraq, on the front lines. The only reason Dillon’s tour wasn’t longer was because the government wanted him back home, safe and sound.
Here's what he (Mattis) wrote, on Nov. 20, 2003:
"… The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.
Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.
With TF 58, I had w/ me Slim’s book, books about the Russian and British experiences in AFG, and a couple others. Going into Iraq, “The Siege” (about the Brits’ defeat at Al Kut in WW I) was req’d reading for field grade officers. I also had Slim’s book; reviewed T.E. Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”; a good book about the life of Gertrude Bell (the Brit archaeologist who virtually founded the modern Iraq state in the aftermath of WW I and the fall of the Ottoman empire); and “From Beirut to Jerusalem”. I also went deeply into Liddell Hart’s book on Sherman, and Fuller’s book on Alexander the Great got a lot of my attention (although I never imagined that my HQ would end up only 500 meters from where he lay in state in Babylon).
Ultimately, a real understanding of history means that we face NOTHING new under the sun. For all the “4th Generation of War” intellectuals running around today saying that the nature of war has fundamentally changed, the tactics are wholly new, etc, I must respectfully say… “Not really”: Alex the Great would not be in the least bit perplexed by the enemy that we face right now in Iraq, and our leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying (studying, vice just reading) the men who have gone before us.
We have been fighting on this planet for 5000 years and we should take advantage of their experience. “Winging it” and filling body bags as we sort out what works reminds us of the moral dictates and the cost of incompetence in our profession. As commanders and staff officers, we are coaches and sentries for our units: how can we coach anything if we don’t know a hell of a lot more than just the TTPs? What happens when you’re on a dynamic battlefield and things are changing faster than higher HQ can stay abreast? Do you not adapt because you cannot conceptualize faster than the enemy’s adaptation? (Darwin has a pretty good theory about the outcome for those who cannot adapt to changing circumstance — in the information age things can change rather abruptly and at warp speed, especially the moral high ground which our regimented thinkers cede far too quickly in our recent fights.) And how can you be a sentinel and not have your unit caught flat-footed if you don’t know what the warning signs are — that your unit’s preps are not sufficient for the specifics of a tasking that you have not anticipated?
Perhaps if you are in support functions waiting on the warfighters to spell out the specifics of what you are to do, you can avoid the consequences of not reading. Those who must adapt to overcoming an independent enemy’s will are not allowed that luxury.
This is not new to the USMC approach to warfighting — Going into Kuwait 12 years ago, I read (and reread) Rommel’s Papers (remember “Kampstaffel”?), Montgomery’s book (“Eyes Officers”…), “Grant Takes Command” (need for commanders to get along, “commanders’ relationships” being more important than “command relationships”), and some others. As a result, the enemy has paid when I had the opportunity to go against them, and I believe that many of my young guys lived because I didn’t waste their lives because I didn’t have the vision in my mind of how to destroy the enemy at least cost to our guys and to the innocents on the battlefields.
Hope this answers your question…. I will cc my ADC in the event he can add to this. He is the only officer I know who has read more than I.
Semper Fi, Mattis"
E.R. Campbell said:Update: I'm on my second reading of "War From The Ground Up".
I've had to dig back into Clausewitz - not my strong suit at all! - by reading all the "Clausweitz for Dummies" articles as well as bits of the books, themselves. I also had to reread Samuel Huntington's "The Soldier and the State" because Simpson tears big holes in some of its arguments.
Journeyman said:If you like Simpson's book, check out the writings of Hew Strachan (especially The Direction of War ). Simpson was one of Strachan's students; you'll see many similar, well done approaches.