The Human Face of War

Tags: book

Jim Storr

By Scott Shipman, Google review

Dr. Storr's The Human Face of War will be, I predict, a book studied by military professionals (and smart policy makers) for years to come. Using straightforward prose, Storr seeks to provide a philosophical approach to war - as he says, "In practice we are concerned not so much with war as with waging it." Storr goes on to differentiate between war and warfare; where war is an "issue" with history and warfare dedicated to methods/methodology. Storr rejects the notion that war is art or science, and prefers instead to embrace pragmatism and limited empiricism. He points out correctly: "Pragmatism has obvious application to warfare. A significant aspect of warfare is `a process of trial and error; seeing what wins and exploiting it." Storr continues that "empiricism is not just trial and error: it is a logical process based on structuring observed facts." What "works" will suggest a way ahead.

Storr uses broad themes of what has worked and what has not worked in military history by explaining the nature of combat and tools and models available to the practitioner. He uses Clausewitz's "dialectic of aims and means" in conjunction with Systems Theory to describe the holistic nature of military units; where effective/efficient output is dependent on input - where a good outcome is "winning" (as Storr repeatedly observes throughout the book, armies aren't paid to come in second). Hence, organization of military units is fundamental; efficient/effective organizations are more likely to succeed. He observes: "Cohesion and collective performance indicate the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. There is a systemic effect, and we should see armed forces as systems."

Storr is a proponent of forcing decision-making to the folks on the ground using brief and succinct communications. His chapter on Commanding the Battle is excellent. Storr advocates lean command staffs and dispersed decision making. "We should employ the best brains in small groups, rather than try to assemble a collective brain." He points out that "when staff numbers are reduced, the effectiveness of HQ improves." "Reducing staff numbers would increase speed with which they could get things done." (Amazingly, Storr quotes a work from 1998 that reports a typical Western division commander has 600 people supporting! - and that number has, I'm sure, increased in 10 years.) He concludes this excellent chapter making a distinction between technology and the human factor: "...the future is not digital: it's human. What is needed is things that bind talents together as a team, not more bandwidth...given time, resources, open minds and not much money we could revolutionize land tactical command. The key problems are human, cultural and institutional."

Storr asserts that successful modern commanders are most likely intuitive thinkers and possess the ability to learn from experience. He suggests further the "tendency to learn is more critical. It implies a tendency to reflect on experience and to learn from it, to maximize the benefit of the experience." This tendency is key to the development of "skills". He encourages a "permissive man-management regime that allows those who can learn rapidly from their experience to do so." At the opposite end, Storr makes clear the unsuitability of many leaders who use bullying tactics and fear to motivate.

Storr concludes by observing that "institutional conservatism" inhibits armed forces from improving significantly during times of peace; that "the current size and shape of Western armies reflect issues that are not primarily related to warfighting effectiveness." He insists that doctrine should be explicit, relevant, (descriptive and where appropriate, prescriptive), coherent, and practical. The short tours common in western armies harm team integrity - which is "huge". Innovation is vital, and in many cases military members aren't with a unit long enough to have the experience necessary to truly innovate. Storr advocates "experience is the best way to achieve practical coordination and overcome the fog of war, as long as the experience gained is positive." He discourages the common use of lieutenant-colonels in jobs where a captain or major could function/thrive/learn; as these junior officers will have less experience when they are promoted and will have probably developed the habit of "referring decisions upwards, and hence develop little initiative."

According to Storr, the "human" aspect of war should take prevalence over technology. He acknowledges the utility of technology, but asks the reader to "...pause and look for a moment at the Vietnam War, which suggests that superior technology is not always the deciding factor." (9-11 is illustrative of this point on the "terror" side; determination and box cutters wreaked havoc.)

My review does not do justice to the wealth of information, insight, and counsel in Storr's book and I quote him frequently because his style is better than a summary. This book was aimed at a narrow audience, hence the high price. When I began, I was concerned about Storr's opinions concerning John Boyd's OODA loop; but last year I rejected Boyd's deterministic underpinnings of OODA - Storr's pragmatic and partial empiricism makes more sense. OODA remains a valuable and versatile methodology in both the military/law enforcement and business arenas.

This book is highly recommended; particularly for junior officers and NCO's - the price is high, but what you will gain will be worth the cost.

This review of The Human Face of War was originally produced for the hardcover version. The book is now also available in paperback.