Political, military and communications lessons – from the ground up

Most young authors would be ecstatic at a review by the distinguished historian and war hero, Michael Howard, which claimed your book was the best about war since John Keegan’s Face of Battle. As Professor Sir Michael Howard MC also reviewed Keegan’s book back in 1976 the commendation was based on a very considered opinion.

But Emile Simpson’s War From the Ground Up also received praise from various other historians and commentators including Max Hastings, Hew Strahan and the Australian counter-insurgency expert, David Kilcullen. Howard enthused about Simpson’s “muscular and aphoristic style” saying the book deserved to be seen as a coda to Clausewitz’s On War (“with the advantage of being considerably shorter”); Hastings urged Ministers to read it before embarking on military adventures into the unknown; Strahan described it “as the most intelligent book on war that I have read for a very long time”; and, Kilcullen said Simpson “engages with a key problem in our understanding of conflict – the binary fallacy that sees war as essentially two-sided and a precursor to political outcomes, rather than a multi-player political ecosystem with its own logic.”

What strikes the blog as important – as if the comments above were not important enough – is how much the book has to say which is significant for not only soldiers but also politicians, bureaucrats, political staff, media and communicators.

The book, from a communications viewpoint, has detailed discussions of issues such as the language of war, framing and strategic narratives about war, the role of different audiences either involved in the war or observing it, ways of strategic thinking and the impact of behaviours on perceptions.

The fundamental fallacy it exposes is the duality with which the military, politicians and media frame war as a matter of winning or losing military actions when the modern interpretive structure of war makes such concepts elusive. For instance the US thought they had won the military war against the Vietnamese. Ho Chi Minh knew they had not. Indeed The American War (the blog uses the Vietnamese name for the conflict rather than the US one) is the first example of a Simpson argument that “contemporary globalisation undermines the two pillars of war in the Clausewitzian paradigm: first, the assumption that strategic audiences are contained within the state; second, the principle of polarity. In an interconnected world there is a massive extension of the size of potential strategic audiences.” Comparing political marketing with framing of wars he contrasts the two – the simplified and polarised view of war compared with the complexity of target audiences, interest groups and motivations.

Simpson draws on case studies and examples from things as diverse as Afghanistan, Borneo, Vietnam, financial market failures, political campaigning, Siegfried Sassoon’s memoirs, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Aristotles theories of rhetoric and his categories of logos, pathos and ethos, All Quiet on the Western Front and the 16th century English religious reformation to demonstrate how audiences perceive messages and actions. A good example, relevant to anyone interested in behaviour change, is the Afghanistan military coalition’s use of ‘shows of force’ to discourage insurgents. These shows of force normally involve jet planes flying just above villages yet, as Simpson argues, the villagers rarely see the behaviour as a reason for being peaceful but rather a further reason for resisting. Many businesses suffer from similar reputational mismatches between what they perceive an action is communicating and what the public perceives.

There is also quite a lot on strategy from a military viewpoint using the basics of ends (objectives), ways (actions) and means (resources) and the need for strategies to be consistent with tactics. In particular he urges the need to consider strategy from the point of view of the nature of the problem in its own terms rather than through the lens of your own perceptions and biases. This is fundamentally important advice for budding communication strategists as much as it is for soldiers and politicians. The intellectual approach which makes this possible can be found by contrasting the way Simpson suggests we think, with what your probably erroneous assumptions about his biases might be if you simply looked at Simpson’s career – Oxford, platoon commander in the Royal Gurkha Rifles, three tours in Southern Afghanistan and service in Brunei, Nepal and the Falkland Islands.

This is a great book with too many insights, lessons and intellectual stimuli to describe in detail in a simple blog post. You should read it. And when you do the blog bets you will never again fall into lazy, simplistic, and inappropriate, usage of battle and military metaphors and analogies when describing politics, sport or business.