How to Get War Wrong in the 21st Century

Emile Simpson's much-lauded book on warfare fails to hit the target.

What’s next? Will U.S. troops head back to Iraq? Reinforce in Afghanistan? Join an international peacekeeping force in Libya? We'll see. Meanwhile, we can be sure of seeing at least one thing in the future: a flood of literary reminiscences and dramatizations that try to make sense of the last decade's series of military campaigns in far-off theaters.

One book—War from the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics (2012)—has already impacted military thinking on future fighting. Penned by Emile Simpson, a youngish former British infantry officer, the book draws heavily on his experiences in three combat tours in Southern Afghanistan and other overseas deployments. War from the Ground Up offers prescriptions for managing military force in messy places. Sadly, Simpson's solutions, though well-intended, are seriously misguided.


A Magnificent Obsession

War weariness is wearing thin. Polling shows Americans are growing more, not less concerned with threats to national security, particularly terrorism. That may in part explain why the last decade of fighting has not become another “forgotten” war. Already there are calls to build a national memorial for those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, remarkable for a nation that is just getting around to unveiling a memorial commemorating World War I.

This century’s fighting has secured a beachhead in modern memory. And, unlike the spate of anti-war books and movies popular after Vietnam, today’s most popular reminiscences are neither anti-war nor anti-military. Audiences haven’t shied away from grim films based on true stories, movies like Lone Survivor and American Sniper. Indeed, the latter was the top grossing film in the United States in 2014. Nor have they snubbed books about days on the battlefield. Titles such as “One Bullet Away” and “Not a Good Day to Die” became best-sellers.

More works are on the way as well. Mark Bowden's “The Three Battles of Wanat” is due out this year. The author of “Blackhawk Down” leads off his anthology of previously published long form essays with five stories on different faces of modern conflict. Another coming soon is “Pale Horse,” a detailed small-unit action narrative of fighting in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley by Jimmy Blackmon, a retired senior combat leader. And in country music, the most popular stuff heralds the service and sacrifice of the armed forces.

Remembering, honoring and understanding the trials of those who fought the last war is important—but no less vital than coming to grips with what the next soldier will face in combat. Unlike the recent spate of popular movies and books, “War from the Ground Up” is more war theory than war story. Simpsons aims to put his personal experiences at the pointy end of the spear to show how contemporary conflicts and the use of military force have evolved since 9/11. It’s the kind of book that people are willing to paying attention to right now. Americans are as interested in getting it right as they are in getting over a tough decade and half of ambivalent war.


Napoleon's Ghost

Simpson's touchstone is Carl von Clausewitz, the nineteenth-century Prussian military philosopher whose primary work, On War, was written after years of Napoleonic conflict. For most of the twentieth century, On War was the point of departure for discourses on war-fighting. Simpson, however, argues that conflicts like the dust-up in the Sunni Triangle and the fight for hearts and minds in the Helmand Province are distinctly different from the combat Clausewitz knew.

In On War, Clausewitz counseled that the purpose of armed conflict was to achieve military victories that supported the achievement of political ends. Militaries fight to set the conditions for a political solution. That was then. Simpson contends that, in contemporary conflicts, troops are sent into the field to “directly seek political, as opposed to military outcomes.”

War is different he argues when, “military activity is not clearly distinguishable from political activity.” As a memorable example, Simpson draws on his own trials in Afghanistan. Reversals in Helmand, he contends, resulted from the removal of the provincial governor who had kept the local Taliban in check rather than a lack of war-fighting prowess in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). ISAF got the politics wrong—a much bigger deal than whether units could successfully implement counterinsurgency doctrine.

War from the Ground Up has brought Simpson more than a few kudos. Veteran war reporter Tom Ricks wrote that he "was amazed this was written by a former lieutenant. . . ."

Revered military historian Sir Michael Howard’s extremely positive review in the Times Literary Supplement declared the book