"The examination of war from an exclusively military perspective, isolated from its social and political context, leads to false conclusions and poor strategy."
That is the conclusion of Emile Simpson, a former infantry officer in the Royal Gurkha Rifles, who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, in his book, War From the Ground Up.
The book has won extraordinary praise from the veteran British military historian Michael Howard, who wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, calling it "a work of such importance that it should be compulsory reading at every level in the military."
Howard compares Simpson's book to the classic On War, by the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz. Both experienced a war that was utterly different from what they had been trained for and tried to explain it "from the top down as well as from the ground up."
Clausewitz experienced the total war wrought by Napoleon's massive citizen armies and the large armies raised by Prussia, Austria and Russia in response. "War," he famously concluded, "is merely the continuation of policy by other means."
In such large wars, the outcome is rarely ambiguous. Each side pursues the "absolute victory" promised by Franklin Roosevelt in his Pearl Harbor speech. Virtually everyone recognizes that result when it happens.
When the result is ambiguous, the result can be disastrous, as when Germany surrendered in November 1918 rather than be overrun by the Western powers. In the ensuing years, Hitler and others argued that Germany had been stabbed in the back by enemies within and sought revenge.
Emile Simpson argues that in most of the conflicts that liberal democracies have engaged in since 1945, things are not so clear. These are little wars, against enemies difficult to define, in which "tactical actions often need to be considered primarily in terms of their local political effect."
Inevitably, "a decision to attack one group or support another ... will attract some realignment in the local political situation." And "strategy has to operate within a complex political environment that nobody can ever fully understand."
This was particularly true in Afghanistan, where kinship ties and local loyalties meant that the same individuals might, at one time, support the Taliban and, at another, the central government.
In such conflicts, Simpson argues -- as Samuel Huntington does in his 1957 book, The Soldier and the State -- that there is no clear separation between the political setting of goals by the civilian commander-in-chief and the decisions carried out by military tacticians.
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