War in Civilian Areas

General Sir Rupert Smith has argued, in his book The Utility of Force, that recent wars have been complicated by being conducted where civilians are living.  A Times review of the book, available at envirosecurity.org, summarised his thesis:

‘“Industrial war”, the all-out sort of struggle that disfigured the 20th century, is dead. Instead, we fight “among the people”.’

There are several such scenarios:

  • during insurgencies, as described in the previous sub-section (;
  • when non-state actors such as international terrorists are involved (7.3.3);
  • in a civil war (7.2.6);
  • and when a country has been invaded.

In these situations, a military capability designed for war between armies is ineffective:

  • Some weapons used by armies are designed to kill a lot of people on a battlefield, so ‘collateral damage’ to property and civilian casualties are inevitable, no matter how much care is taken to protect the population.
  • The resentment of people whose families have suffered losses has the effect of increasing support for the resistance and intensifying the conflict. For each terrorist or guerrilla killed, several others spring up as replacements when friends and family members seek to avenge the deaths.
  • Soldiers might not be trained to deal with keeping order in a civilian context, where the people confronting them are not ‘enemies’ but the population of the country they are meant to serve. As noted in the review of Rupert Smith’s book:

“Probably we need less armour and artillery and more infantry, more intelligence, more deployable police, even more linguists and anthropologists. If you fight among the people you had better understand them.”

To summarise: military force is of limited use in a war “among the people”.



This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3a book, © PatternsofPower.org, 2020.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/7413.htm