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January 15, 2004

Understanding Fourth Generation War


by William S. Lind

Rather than commenting on the specifics of the war with Iraq, I thought it might be a good time to lay out a framework for understanding that and other conflicts. The framework is the Four Generations of Modern War.

I developed the framework of the first three generations ("generation" is shorthand for dialectically qualitative shift) in the 1980s, when I was laboring to introduce maneuver warfare to the Marine Corps. Marines kept asking, "What will the Fourth Generation be like?", and I began to think about that. The result was the article I co-authored for the Marine Corps Gazette in 1989, "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation." Our troops found copies of it in the caves at Tora Bora, the al-Qaeda hideout in Afghanistan.

The Four Generations began with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the treaty that ended the Thirty Years' War. With the Treaty of Westphalia, the state established a monopoly on war. Previously, many different entities had fought wars – families, tribes, religions, cities, business enterprises – using many different means, not just armies and navies (two of those means, bribery and assassination, are again in vogue). Now, state militaries find it difficult to imagine war in any way other than fighting state armed forces similar to themselves.

The First Generation of Modern War runs roughly from 1648 to 1860. This was war of line and column tactics, where battles were formal and the battlefield was orderly. The relevance of the First Generation springs from the fact that the battlefield of order created a military culture of order. Most of the things that distinguish "military" from "civilian" - uniforms, saluting, careful gradations or rank – were products of the First Generation and are intended to reinforce the culture of order.

The problem is that, around the middle of the 19th century, the battlefield of order began to break down. Mass armies, soldiers who actually wanted to fight (an 18th century's soldier's main objective was to desert), rifled muskets, then breech loaders and machine guns, made the old line and column tactics first obsolete, then suicidal.

The problem ever since has been a growing contradiction between the military culture and the increasing disorderliness of the battlefield. The culture of order that was once consistent with the environment in which it operated has become more and more at odds with it.

Second Generation warfare was one answer to this contradiction. Developed by the French Army during and after World War I, it sought a solution in mass firepower, most of which was indirect artillery fire. The goal was attrition, and the doctrine was summed up by the French as, "The artillery conquers, the infantry occupies." Centrally-controlled firepower was carefully synchronized, using detailed, specific plans and orders, for the infantry, tanks, and artillery, in a "conducted battle" where the commander was in effect the conductor of an orchestra.

Second Generation warfare came as a great relief to soldiers (or at least their officers) because it preserved the culture of order. The focus was inward on rules, processes and procedures. Obedience was more important than initiative (in fact, initiative was not wanted, because it endangered synchronization), and discipline was top-down and imposed.

Second Generation warfare is relevant to us today because the United States Army and Marine Corps learned Second Generation warfare from the French during and after World War I. It remains the American way of war, as we are seeing in Afghanistan and Iraq: to Americans, war means "putting steel on target." Aviation has replaced artillery as the source of most firepower, but otherwise, (and despite the Marine's formal doctrine, which is Third Generation maneuver warfare) the American military today is as French as white wine and brie. At the Marine Corps' desert warfare training center at 29 Palms, California, the only thing missing is the tricolor and a picture of General Gamelin in the headquarters. The same is true at the Army's Armor School at Fort Knox, where one instructor recently began his class by saying, "I don't know why I have to teach you all this old French crap, but I do."

Third Generation warfare, like Second, was a product of World War I. It was developed by the German Army, and is commonly known as Blitzkrieg or maneuver warfare.

Third Generation warfare is based not on firepower and attrition but speed, surprise, and mental as well as physical dislocation. Tactically, in the attack a Third Generation military seeks to get into the enemy's rear and collapse him from the rear forward: instead of "close with and destroy," the motto is "bypass and collapse." In the defense, it attempts to draw the enemy in, then cut him off. War ceases to be a shoving contest, where forces attempt to hold or advance a "line;" Third Generation warfare is non-linear.

Not only do tactics change in the Third Generation, so does the military culture. A Third Generation military focuses outward, on the situation, the enemy, and the result the situation requires, not inward on process and method (in war games in the 19th Century, German junior officers were routinely given problems that could only be solved by disobeying orders). Orders themselves specify the result to be achieved, but never the method ("Auftragstaktik"). Initiative is more important than obedience (mistakes are tolerated, so long as they come from too much initiative rather than too little), and it all depends on self-discipline, not imposed discipline. The Kaiserheer and the Wehrmacht could put on great parades, but in reality they had broken with the culture of order.

Characteristics such as decentralization and initiative carry over from the Third to the Fourth Generation, but in other respects the Fourth Generation marks the most radical change since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In Fourth Generation war, the state loses its monopoly on war. All over the world, state militaries find themselves fighting non-state opponents such as al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the FARC. Almost everywhere, the state is losing.

Fourth Generation war is also marked by a return to a world of cultures, not merely states, in conflict. We now find ourselves facing the Christian West's oldest and most steadfast opponent, Islam. After about three centuries on the strategic defensive, following the failure of the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683, Islam has resumed the strategic offensive, expanding outward in every direction. In Third Generation war, invasion by immigration can be at least as dangerous as invasion by a state army.

Nor is Fourth Generation warfare merely something we import, as we did on 9/11. At its core lies a universal crisis of legitimacy of the state, and that crisis means many countries will evolve Fourth Generation war on their soil. America, with a closed political system (regardless of which party wins, the Establishment remains in power and nothing really changes) and a poisonous ideology of "multiculturalism," is a prime candidate for the home-grown variety of Fourth Generation war – which is by far the most dangerous kind.

Where does the war in Iraq fit in this framework?

I suggest that the war we have seen thus far is merely a powder train leading to the magazine. The magazine is Fourth Generation war by a wide variety of Islamic non-state actors, directed at America and Americans (and local governments friendly to America) everywhere. The longer America occupies Iraq, the greater the chance that the magazine will explode. If it does, God help us all.

For almost two years, a small seminar has been meeting at my house to work on the question of how to fight Fourth Generation war. It is made up mostly of Marines, lieutenant through lieutenant colonel, with one Army officer, one National Guard tanker captain and one foreign officer. We figured somebody ought to be working on the most difficult question facing the U.S. armed forces, and nobody else seems to be.

The seminar recently decided it was time to go public with a few of the ideas it has come up with, and use this column to that end. We have no magic solutions to offer, only some thoughts. We recognized from the outset that the whole task may be hopeless; state militaries may not be able to come to grips with Fourth Generation enemies no matter what they do.

But for what they are worth, here are our thoughts to date:

  • If America had some Third Generation ground forces, capable of maneuver warfare, we might be able to fight battles of encirclement. The inability to fight battles of encirclement is what led to the failure of Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, where al Qaeda stood, fought us, and got away with few casualties. To fight such battles we need some true light infantry, infantry that can move farther and faster on its feet than the enemy, has a full tactical repertoire (not just bumping into the enemy and calling for fire) and can fight with its own weapons instead of depending on supporting arms. We estimate that U.S. Marine infantry today has a sustained march rate of only 10-15 kilometers per day; German World War II line, not light, infantry could sustain 40 kilometers.

  • Fourth Generation opponents will not sign up to the Geneva Conventions, but might some be open to a chivalric code governing how our war with them would be fought? It's worth exploring.

  • How U.S. forces conduct themselves after the battle may be as important in 4GW as how they fight the battle.

  • What the Marine Corps calls "cultural intelligence" is of vital importance in 4GW, and it must go down to the lowest rank. In Iraq, the Marines seemed to grasp this much better than the U.S. Army.

  • What kind of people do we need in Special Operations Forces? The seminar thought minds were more important than muscles, but it is not clear all U.S. SOF understand this.

  • One key to success is integrating our troops as much as possible with the local people.

  • Unfortunately, the American doctrine of "force protection" works against integration and generally hurts us badly. Here's a quote from the minutes of the seminar:

"There are two ways to deal with the issue of force protection. One way is the way we are currently doing it, which is to separate ourselves from the population and to intimidate them with our firepower. A more viable alternative might be to take the opposite approach and integrate with the community. That way you find out more of what is going on and the population protects you. The British approach of getting the helmets off as soon as possible may actually be saving lives."

  • What "wins" at the tactical and physical levels may lose at the operational, strategic, mental and moral levels, where 4GW is decided. Martin van Creveld argues that one reason the British have not lost in Northern Ireland is that the British Army has taken more casualties than it has inflicted. This is something the Second Generation American military has great trouble grasping, because it defines success in terms of comparative attrition rates.

  • We must recognize that in 4GW situations, we are the weaker, not the stronger party, despite all our firepower and technology.

  • What can the U.S. military learn from cops? Our reserve and National Guard units include lots of cops; are we taking advantage of what they know?

One key to success in 4GW may be "losing to win." Part of the reason the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not succeeding is that our initial invasion destroyed the state, creating a happy hunting ground for Fourth Generation forces. In a world where the state is in decline, if you destroy a state, it is very difficult to recreate it. Here's another quote from the minutes of the seminar:

"The discussion concluded that while war against another state may be necessary one should seek to preserve that state even as one defeats it. Grant the opposing armies the 'honors of war,' tell them what a fine job they did, make their defeat 'civilized' so they can survive the war institutionally intact and then work for your side. This would be similar to 18th century notions of civilized war and contribute greatly to propping up a fragile state. Humiliating the defeated enemy troops, especially in front of their own population, is always a serious mistake but one that Americans are prone to make. This is because the 'football mentality' we have developed since World War II works against us."

In many ways, the 21st century will offer a war between the forces of 4GW and Brave New World. The 4GW forces understand this, while the international elites that seek BNW do not. Another quote from the minutes:

"Osama bin Ladin, though reportedly very wealthy, lives in a cave. Yes, it is for security but it is also leadership by example. It may make it harder to separate (physically or psychologically) the 4GW leaders from their troops. It also makes it harder to discredit those leaders with their followers… This contrasts dramatically with the BNW elites who are physically and psychologically separated (by a huge gap) from their followers (even the generals in most conventional armies are to a great extent separated from their men)… The BNW elites are in many respects occupying the moral low ground but don't know it."

  • In the Axis occupation of the Balkans during World War II, the Italians in many ways were more effective than the Germans. The key to their success is that they did not want to fight. On Cyprus, the U.N. commander rated the Argentine battalion as more effective than the British or the Austrians because the Argentines did not want to fight. What lessons can U.S. forces draw from this?

  • How would the Mafia do an occupation?

  • When we have a coalition, what if we let each country do what is does best, e.g., the Russians handle operational art, the U.S. firepower and logistics, maybe the Italians the occupation?

  • How could the Defense Department's concept of "Transformation" be redefined so as to come to grips with 4GW? If you read the current "Transformation Planning Guidance" put out by DOD, you find nothing in it on 4GW, indeed nothing that relates at all to either of the two wars we are now fighting. It is all oriented toward fighting other state armed forces that fight us symmetrically.

The seminar intends to continue working on this question of redefining "Transformation" (die Verwandlung?) so as to make it relevant to 4GW. However, for our December meeting, we have posed the following problem: It is Spring, 2004. The U.S. Marines are to relieve the Army in the occupation of Fallujah, perhaps Iraq's hottest hot spot (and one where the 82nd Airborne's tactics have been pouring gasoline on the fire). You are the commander of the Marine force taking over Fallujah. What do you do?

I'll let you know what we come up with.

Will Saddam’s capture mark a turning point in the war in Iraq? Don’t count on it. Few resistance fighters have been fighting for Saddam personally. Saddam’s capture may lead to a fractioning of the Baath Party, which would move us further toward a Fourth Generation situation where no one can recreate the state. It may also tell the Shiites that they no longer need America to protect them from Saddam, giving them more options in their struggle for free elections.

If the U.S. Army used the capture of Saddam to announce the end of tactics that enrage ordinary Iraqis and drive them toward active resistance, it might buy us a bit of de-escalation. But I don’t think we’ll that be smart. When it comes to Fourth Generation war, it seems nobody in the American military gets it.

Recently, a faculty member at the National Defense University wrote to Marine Corps General Mattis, commander of I MAR DIV, to ask his views on the importance of reading military history. Mattis responded with an eloquent defense of taking time to read history, one that should go up on the wall at all of our military schools. "Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation," Mattis said. "It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead."

Still, even such a capable and well-read commander as General Mattis seems to miss the point about Fourth Generation warfare. He said in his missive, "Ultimately, a real understanding of history means that we face NOTHING new under the sun. For all the ‘4th Generation of War’ intellectuals running around today saying that the nature of war has fundamentally changed, the tactics are wholly new, etc., I must respectfully say…’Not really…"

Well, that isn’t quite what we Fourth Generation intellectuals are saying. On the contrary, we have pointed out over and over that the 4th Generation is not novel but a return, specifically a return to the way war worked before the rise of the state. Now, as then, many different entities, not just governments of states, will wage war. They will wage war for many different reasons, not just "the extension of politics by other means." And they will use many different tools to fight war, not restricting themselves to what we recognize as military forces. When I am asked to recommend a good book describing what a Fourth Generation world will be like, I usually suggest Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century.

Nor are we saying that Fourth Generation tactics are new. On the contrary, many of the tactics Fourth Generation opponents use are standard guerilla tactics. Others, including much of what we call "terrorism," are classic Arab light cavalry warfare carried out with modern technology at the operational and strategic, not just tactical, levels.

As I have said before in this column, most of what we are facing in Iraq today is not yet Fourth Generation warfare, but a War of National Liberation, fought by people whose goal is to restore a Baathist state. But as that goal fades and those forces splinter, Fourth Generation war will come more and more to the fore. What will characterize it is not vast changes in how the enemy fights, but rather in who fights and what they fight for. The change in who fights makes it difficult for us to tell friend from foe. A good example is the advent of female suicide bombers; do U.S. troops now start frisking every Moslem woman they encounter? The change in what our enemies fight for makes impossible the political compromises that are necessary to ending any war. We find that when it comes to making peace, we have no one to talk to and nothing to talk about. And the end of a war like that in Iraq becomes inevitable: the local state we attacked vanishes, leaving behind either a stateless region (Somalia) or a façade of a state (Afghanistan) within which more non-state elements rise and fight.

General Mattis is correct that none of this is new. It is only new to state armed forces that were designed to fight other state armed forces. The fact that no state military has recently succeeded in defeating a non-state enemy reminds us that Clio has a sense of humor: history also teaches us that not all problems have solutions.


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  • William Lind is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. He is a former Congressional Aide and the author
    of many books and articles on military strategy and war.

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