War from the Ground Up : Twenty-First-Century Combat as Politics

Emile Simpson, 2012, Hurst, London - Reviewed for International Affairs

Emile Simpson writes from experience as a frontline solider who completed three tours in Afghanistan and as a visiting fellow at Oxford University. He combines academic rigour with practical perspective to explore the understanding and conceptualisation of modern war. Simpson uses the seminal Clausewitzian theory of war as setting the conditions for a political solution to structure an argument that today’s conflicts see “the use of force for directly political outcomes” (p.42).

Armed politics means that “war thus provides an interpretive mechanism that gives force political utility” (p.30). Simpson compares it to a trial of sorts but where “each side has its own judge” and winning and losing is more about perception and strategic narrative. The November 2012 flare up between Hamas and Israel a good example of both sides declaring a victory of sorts at the time of ceasefire, as Clausewitz wrote defeat was a “perceived state” (p.58).

Simpson is equally at ease quoting Clausewitz as he is the script of Gladiator. His argument is not a dry, theoretical one but rather a passionate argument about how the information revolution should force a change in how liberal powers interpret and consider the role of the military and the use of armed force. Globalisation has significantly altered polarized conflicts into a dynamic and inter-connected environment with a plethora of strategic audiences. Simpson himself has witnessed the different audiences that a conflict communicates with, he has fought battles, questioned captured insurgents and read from Claueswitz to Kilcullen in order to forge his argument which I would argue is a must read for any policy-maker involved in the application of modern war.

At the core of this argument is an explanation of the transition from the view that liberal powers have traditionally held that sees military activity setting conditions for a political solution “but is itself apolitical” (p.101). Simpson recognises that while this argument is both legitimate and constitutional it ties the hands of the solders fighting the fight from the bottom up by removing their ability to explain whether the aims of policy makers are actually achievable. The case of Afghanistan is thoroughly examined in this regard, with Simpson writing that on one tour he didn’t meet a single solider “who actually thought our more idealistic aims were really achievable” (p.122). This leads to the bizarre scenario in which “the war actually being fought may not correspond to the war policy claims it’s conducting” (p.128).

Simpson urges the modern liberal war fighters to be given the powers of pragmatism that will help them distinguish means from ends. He warns not to understand Counter-Insurgency, the tactics that helped extract the US from Iraq, as distinct from a strategy in and of itself, and that to win modern war leaders must forge the correct political context. This context in turn must be aware that  in “contemporary  conflict physical destruction tends to matter less to a conflict’s outcome than how those actions are perceived…the outcome is defined against several audiences who are not the enemy” (p.187). Polarity of one state’s army lining up against another on a field of battle has been replaced by “politically kaleidoscopic conflict environments” (p.203) such as post-2003 Iraq and Afghanistan.

Simpson concludes that war has moved “towards becoming a direct extension of political activity” (P.232) but that the political infrastructure underpinning it has not transformed to adjust to this reality. This important book, following in the footsteps of Kilcullen’s instant classic “The Accidental Guerrilla”, is an essential read for those interested in understanding both the conflict in Afghanistan and the contested and often confused nature of modern war.



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