One of several dead hands the First Generation
of Modern War lays on contemporary state militaries' throats is linearity. Most
state militaries both seek and expect linearity on and off the battlefield.
Sometimes, this manifests itself in tactics that offer magnificent if unintentional
tableaux vivants. I recall a field exercise years ago with the Second
Marine Division at Camp Lejeune where, rounding a bend, we found a lieutenant
had built a perfect 19th-century fortress wall across the road, complete with
firing step. The division sergeant major, in whose jeep I was riding, said,
"My God, it's the siege of Vicksburg!"
More often, linearity manifests itself in a military service's culture, as
a subtle but omnipresent mindset. It is easy to understand why this is so. Both
on land and at sea, tactics became linear right at the beginning of the First
Generation in the mid-17th century. In armies, that was when lines of infantrymen
two or three deep replaced the square formations of the tercios.
In navies, beginning with the British Navy in the Dutch Wars, the line ahead
replaced the general melee. The two developments were causally related: the
line ahead was adopted when generals took command of the British fleet under
The First Generation lasted about two centuries, centuries in which the culture
of state militaries was formed. Linearity on the battlefield carried over directly
into that culture, where it remains today. In Second Generation militaries,
such as the American, the tactics too remained largely linear. As late as the
First Gulf War a battalion commander in the Second Marine Division was nearly
relieved for "breaking the line" when he pulled his unit back to avoid
an Iraqi fire sack.
The expectation of linearity lies behind much of the U.S. military's misreading
of the current situation in Iraq. If you look at its projections of success,
they follow a line. It foresees a linear "building process" where
its alliance with some Sunni militias in Anbar province and parts of Baghdad
leads to similar alliances elsewhere, with no regression in "pacified"
areas. Similarly, it expects the Sunnis to follow their acceptance of U.S. forces
with acceptance of the Shi'ite-dominated government in Baghdad and its army
and police. These lines, which lead to improved security, then mesh with other
lines such as economic and political developments that represent the reemergence
of a state in Iraq. It graphs nicely as a series of vectors on a chart, all
pointing up. Linearity has marched from Waterloo to PowerPoint.
Unfortunately, Fourth Generation wars (and many other types of war as well)
are not linear. Rather, they are chaotic, an unending melee of coming together
and splitting apart that leaves an occupier running in place. Seemingly linear
progress is matched or exceeded by non-linear regression. The state military
perceives the former much more readily than the latter because linearity is
what it expects. You find what you seek, whether or not it is there.
The reality in Iraq is that both Sunnis and Shi'ites are split along many different
axes. Factions come together in temporary alliances of convenience, including
with the foreign occupiers, only to split apart again and fight former allies.
Reality for all parties is local and short-term. To the Iraqis, one alliance,
such as with the Americans, does not imply any other alliance, such as with
the central government. Arrangements that appear contradictory to us are natural
to them. Linear progress toward a set of goals that represent a state is not
what they expect. Our linearity and their non-linearity are ships passing in
It will happen from time to time that the chaos shakes out into patterns in
which we can see linear progress. But the reality remains chaos, which means
the patterns will soon reform into other, quite different shapes. We cannot
anticipate what those shapes might be. If we can be quick enough, we may be
able to use some of those new shapes, as we have used the unexpected outbreak
of fighting between local Sunni militias and al-Qaeda. What we must not do,
if our orientation is to be accurate, is project these kaleidoscopic pattern
shifts in linear terms.
Regrettably, that is what the U.S. military in Iraq is doing now. Given its
First Generation heritage, it may not be able to do anything else.