Wednesday, January 27, 2010

General Desportes' La Guerre Probable

Over the holidays, I finished reading General Desportes' La Guerre Probable (which I'd borrowed from Gulliver). I've had this post in draft for a while but just haven't had a minute to finish it until now.

Anyway, it was an interesting read, largely anchored in Rupert Smith's The Utility of Force. If you don't read French, Brookings has apparently published an English Translation, Tomorrow's War. Desportes currently commands the Joint War College in Paris. He also served as France's military attache at the Embassy here in Washington and graduated from the US Army War College.

His main point is that tomorrow's war entails convincing people and thus thinking differently. We should prepare the war we will prosecute,rather than the one we would prefer because we know how to make it. In his view, this means we need to profoundly alter our way of thinking. He argues that today, "prosecuting war is first managing perceptions, those of all actors, close and far, direct and indirect." It is therefore necessary to define the message we want to transmit and conceive the actions which will allow it to be transmitted from Kandahar to Paris.

He adds that this means that "war, far from being prosecuted for itself, must be considered as just another means of communications among many other vectors." More "violence may be necessary to impose strategic silence so that the other vectors can be heard." Plus, "it's locally, at the low levels, using the method of the "tache d'huile," (yes he actually says tache d'huile) that you create global effects."

He also spend a lot of time warning against thinking of the enemy in any of the following ways: as an inferior that doesn't warrant careful analysis, as another "us" who reasons in the same way that we do and makes similar decisions, or as one you should disdain because he lacks our power (particularly military power). Finally, he cautions against thinking you'll be operating in an environment dictated by globalisation and digital computer models (this last part I think was a clear dig at the last French Defense White Paper which had an entire chapter on boosting French technology for war).

Overall, I thought that it was obvious he had been influenced by his time here in Washington. I think he made some points that went beyond Smith and in that way it's a useful book. I think this is particularly true for professionals who don't read English and are interested in more current military thinking on how war is different. More, given the dearth of literature in French on these topics and the challenges that forces face in the field, I think his book is a useful contribution.


  1. He adds that this means that "war, far from being prosecuted for itself, must be considered as just another means of communications among many other vectors."

    The first part of that causes me to wonder who suggested otherwise. Is there anyone who thinks that we do, or will, prosecute war for itself? Fight a war without regard to the ends sought? I guess I'm not sure what he means.

    Regarding the second part, I am curious how he defines "communication" in that context; or what type of communication he has in mind. I know how I would interpret the word "communication" in an International Law sense. I'm curious if that is how he intended it. Or if he was using it in terms of strategic communication, or both, or neither, or something else.

  2. Schmedlap--good questions. I left the book and my notes at home but I'll go back and check and get back to you.

  3. Ok, so based on re-reading that passage I don't think he's implying otherwise with regard to people thinking war could be fought for itself. I think he's just setting things up.

    The next sentence is: "the violent use of weapons in fact usually turns out to be the most important. Indeed, on hand it is more audible and on the other, the initial fracas of weapons is frequently indispensable to impose "strategic silence" which will allow other vectors of communication to be heard." He goes on to argue that this implies that modern forces have to be conceived in such a way that they have the technical means of delivering the right/good (bons) messages.

    All this to say, I think he's talking strategic communication. This is a whole section on communication and the next section header is "communicate towards whom?" His answer is first the local population (this intervention is in your interest and it will make things better for you etc) and that the main target are "fence sitters" (he uses the English).

    He cautions against exporting our own models and imposing them on the local population, he cautions against not meeting expectations etc. He ends with you need to convince minds more than hearts. The section ends with a discussion on the need to communicate effectively with the rest of the world.

    Does that help?

    Like I said, this stuff isn't all that earth shattering for English speakers but I don't think as much has been written in French--and if it has, you can't pick it up at the bookstore for 18 Euros.


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