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Modern Armed Forces and the “War Among People” Essay

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Updated: Aug 1st, 2019


“The number of British soldiers killed on duty in Iraq is now 139” (BBC News 2009 para. 1), the headline of BBC Online News screamed on Thursday, 30th April 2009. This is after four British soldiers were killed by insurgent forces in Basra. Such headlines have become the norm in the United Kingdom today.

People, especially the civilians and those not well versed on warfare, can not understand how a formidable, albeit under-funded army, like that of the United Kingdom, can suffer so many casualties under the onslaught of ill equipped guerrillas.

This is especially so when the cause of death for the score of soldiers is made clear. Roadside detonations of IED’s (Improvised Explosive Device) are the major cause of death. Battesti (2010) holds the view that over 40 percent of fatalities among allied forces, especially in Iraq, are directly attributable to these devices.

Rupert Smith, in his book The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (2007) perhaps gives the best explanation for this development. He is of the view that the wars in which armies engage in currently are a sharp contrast of wars fought in the past. In the past, most of the wars involved a conflict between armed forces of nations in battle fields over territories. This is for example most of the wars before and immediately after the two world wars. This was war between nations.

However, things have changed in the recent past. Armies are now fighting what Smith (2007) refers to as “war among the people”. This is war fought away from the battle field, and as the name implies, among the civilians.

This is the kind of war that the British army in Afghanistan and Iraq found themselves engaged in. They were not fighting clearly defined enemies in battalions; but instead, insurgents who were fighting among the civilians. The aim now is not merely to protect territories; rather, it has extended to include fight over the goodwill of the locals.

The problem is that the British army, just like the American forces, is optimized for industrialized war (Evans 2009). This is the kind of war that involves use of brutal force in the battle field. They were ill equipped to engage the insurgents, and hence the rising fatalities.

This essay is an effort by the author to explore whether latter day’s armed forces, optimized for industrialized war, are obsolete in the new battle field of wars among the people (Betz 2007). It is the opinion of the author that any modern armed force worth its name should be able to adapt and operate within any environment within which they engage their enemies.

This is given the fact that, as Smith (2007) aptly puts it, the future of conflicts is characterized by a combination of wars among the people and industrialized war. The fate of Her Majesty’s army in Iraq and Afghanistan will be used as the case study for this essay.

From Wars between Nations to Wars among the People: The Great Transition

According to war and armed conflict scholars, there has been a major shift of paradigm in this field. The last half of the 20th century, after the two world wars, was characterized by wars between nations (Battesti 2010).

This involved industrialized war fare, whereby armies relied heavily on advancements in technology and numbers to outdo one another in the battle field. The Persian Gulf War, for example, exhibited that forces could win wars if they could take total control of the air space while using heavy artilleries on the enemy forces.

However, this has changed with the onset of the twenty first century. As earlier indicated, the enemy, perhaps sensing their disadvantaged position in terms of forces and other resources have shifted the frontiers from the conventional battlefields to fight among the people (Evans 2009).

Latter day’s enemy is not adorned with the army fatigues; they are dressed in civilian attire, and they mingle with the civilians in the streets. Instead of using drones to deliver bombs, they use suicide bombers. This is the enemy that the British army is up against on the streets of Iraq and the ragged mountains of Kabul’s outskirts.

In the year 2001, immediately after the infamous September eleventh attack on United States of American soil, Britain agreed to help the vengeful Americans settle a score with the Taliban (Betz 2007). To this end, the country has so far deployed more than 9,000 fighters (Evans 2009).

In 2003, her Majesty’s Army again went to the rescue of the American armed forces. This is as the latter was preparing to invade Iraq in efforts to ouster Saddam Hussein, the infamous dictator of the oil rich country. 46,000 soldiers were effectively deployed to Iraq (Evans 2009). In both instances (Afghan and Iraq invasions), the United Kingdom’s army was second only to the United States’ the chief aggressor.

In both the Iraqi and Afghan incursions, both the American and British armies went to the battle psyched for high intensity engagements with an equal or similar enemy (Battesti 2010). However, they found themselves face to face with unfamiliar threats. Road side bombs, car bombs, suicide bombers and other guerrilla war techniques were some of the threats that they faced.

Their technological and numerical advantage could not be utilized in such situations. The army could not bomb a whole village in Basra to kill insurgents dressed as civilians. Neither could they effectively conduct a door to door search for the insurgents, given that the latter enjoyed protection from the local citizens.

To survive in such circumstances, the army needs to adopt new strategies to engage the enemy. The soldiers have to be weaned out of reliance on industrialized war engagements, and trained on war among the people techniques. However, this does not mean that industrialized war tactics should be totally abandoned. To the contrary, the soldiers must learn how to combine the two.

Modern Armed Forces and the Changing War Terrain: The Need to Adapt

To some extent, the modern armed forces that are optimized to operate in industrialized war fare are obsolete (Smith 2007). This is given the fact that the techniques that they have been inducted with are not competitive within the war among the people. There is need for them to be able to adapt to the new environment within which they are engaging their enemy.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been described by Battesti (2010) as asymmetrical engagements. These are types of wars whereby the strengths of the enemies are not equal.

One party is disadvantaged in form of resources and expertise, while the other party has these attributes in abundance (Evans 2009). For example, the American and Her Majesty’s army in Afghanistan and Iraq far outnumbers the number of guerrillas in these countries. The same goes to their technology and expertise; the allied forces have armored cars and advanced artilleries.

Betz (2007) opines that when the enemy in an asymmetrical engagement senses their disadvantaged position, they change their tactics. For example, they may use the terrain, which they know better than their enemies, to their advantage (Battesti 2010). The Taliban fights from caves that the allied forces know nothing or little about. The weaker enemy may also try to influence the populace so that they gain their support. The Islamic extremists in Basra and other Iraqi cities use the guise of jihad to win the support of the Muslim populace.

The American and allied forces should realize that the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is not just over territories and the security of the allied nations. Rather, it is a war for the approval of the Iraqi and Afghan citizens (Betz 2007). This is all about the war among the people. The armies fight over the souls of the people. This fight can not be won by bombings civilian villages and cities. Instead, propaganda and dissemination of other forms of messages is necessary as one of the strategies to influence public opinion.

The necessity to win over the approval of the people is the major reason why armies have changed their engagement techniques with their enemies. The British army is aware of the fact that bombing of guerilla hideouts must be precise. The bombs must wreck maximum damage on the enemy infrastructure while at the same time minimizing civilian casualties (Evans 2009). New technology makes it possible for the British armies to bomb with metric accuracy (Smith 2007).

The need to adapt within diverse environments has necessitated the change of tact that is evidenced among the allied forces. It is a fact that technology such as drones and other forms of advanced weapons are needed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But intelligence, and especially human intelligence, has become the buzzword in these territories (Evans 2009). Armies should make sure that they infiltrate the enemy who is camouflaged by the cover of civility. Spies must be deployed within communities in Basra and Afghanistan to collect information regarding the operations of the enemy.


The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have provided the British armed forces with invaluable lessons regarding modern warfare. Her Majesty’s army, despite advantages in technology and manpower, recorded a lackluster performance in Iraqi tour. The withdrawal from Basra late 2009 was a subtle admission of defeat.

The poor performance was despite the fact that the enemy was using low quality assault rifles and other crude techniques such as roadside bombs. But these were the exact engagement tactics that British army was not prepared for. They were prepared to fight organized armies with organized tactics.

Smith (2007) holds that the American and British armies are still trained on techniques to fight past wars. The new wars, according to Smith (2007), will be fought among the people and away from the battle field. There is need for the armed forces to be trained on how to adapt to war among the people. This is the only way that they will avoid been relegated to oblivion.


Battesti, JY 2010, War Between Nations and War Among the People. Web.

BBC News 2009, . Web.

Betz, D 2007, Redesigning Land Forces for “Wars Amongst the People”. Contemporary Security Policy, 28(2), 221-243.

Evans, M 2009, The Army is Making the Same Old Mistakes in Afghanistan, Says Soldiers. Web.

Smith, R 2007, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World. 1st ed. New York: Knopf.

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