The misleading theory of Fourth Generation Warfare

Discussions about the nature of the 'war' the United States is presently fighting naturally requires a discussion on how we to fight the war. Understanding the right mixture of people, technology, military and police is critical. So is finding a balance between coercive pressures of economics, ideology (culture and religion), politics, and violence. It is like using the equalizer in iTunes. For some music, you push one slider up a bit and another down a bit and so on. For, say, gospel, the some or all of the sliders will move away, up or down, from where it would be for vocal or "spoken word" (audio books for example). Likewise, the sliders will move again when listening to Metallica. Each slider is independent of the other but yet they work best when operating in unison. This is what war is and has been like, and this is where Fourth Generation Warfare fails.

Debates over network centric warfare (NCW) and future combat systems (FCS) are about the tools of war, as are discussions around how to conduct public and cultural diplomacy (even the need for this is debatable by those, not me, who believe our values are self-evident). Understanding how to adjust the sliders requires understanding the enemy so we can understand how to engage them, whether they are singular or plural in politics, ideology, or geography.

By example, we can look at a theory such as the Long War which defines the enemy in two parts. The enemy that is here and now that is violently attempting to attack us and the enemy that is not yet our enemy, not yet willing to attack and perhaps not yet even born. These components are each flexible in its own right and flexible in their individual applications in distinct situations.

Evolution_of_conflict Fourth Generation Warfare, on the other hand, cannot and does not comprehend an enemy such as this. Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) is an attempt to describe how transnational groups "deal with the conventional military power of a state", according to Chet Richards' PowerPoint presentation (zoomable image of ppt at right, PPT here).

Richards considers the tools of the "evolved insurgency" are information operation (IO) and military attacks on economic, ideological, and political foundations of the state's power. The idea, Richards' says,

Is that through these methods, the outside power will be “morally defeated,” that is, give up the fight and go home. Although 4GW is often identified with terrorism and guerrilla warfare, history suggests that the best way to achieve the moral defeat of an outside state is to sell the idea that the failing state is corrupt, brutal, and undemocratic and that the 4GW group is composed of reformers who represent the legitimate, democratic will of the people.

Dr Echevarria suggested 4GW was also faulty, however he didn't go far enough when he referenced the World Wars. Dr Echevarria wrote the wars were the result of an ideological squaring off, the fascists and the democracies (plus the Communists). John Sayen countered this, suggesting it was still state on state warfare.

Sayen's reliance on the "state" as the keystone to his argument is pivotal. As William S. Lind points out, the perceived obsolescence of "state-on-state" war in the globalized modern era is central to 4GW. Which takes us back to Richards' slide above. After the "Creation" at the Peace of Westphalia, which allegedly transformed politics to be exclusively between States, successive generations were based on technology, even though 4GW claims to be beyond or outside of technology.

A brief note on how the generational shift should be defined by example of what should have been the 2nd Generation according to 4GW (but since the whole theory is a mess...). The short of it is the Napoleonic Wars marked a generational shift. This was due to a complex availability and interplay of a number of factors. These included technology (cannon, weapons for the non-professional soldier), a professional officer corps (leading to independent movement in and around the battlefield), logistics, and nationalism (levee en masse). It was not simply nationalism or simply anything else. Napoleon continued the charge of nationalism started by the United States and demonstrated by all he whooped that nationalist armies were the way to go. Ironically, if you follow 4GW generational shifts, except for the point of conception, they are based on tactical implementation of technology.

One of the great generals of the 19th Century noted the transition from the old phase of fighting wars, including staffing the war, into massive national armies (conscript or volunteer, institution or occupation) for the coming larger wars of the 20th Century. Field Marshal von Moltke, father of the World War I von Moltke, said in 1892 in a preface to his son's book on the Franco-Prussian War, gone are the days when

small armies of professional soldiers went to war to conquer a city…Wars of the present day call whole nations to arms…entire financial resources of the State are appropriated to the purpose.

In On War #147, the highly respected William S. Lind wrote a "clarification" for Thomas X. Hammes' The Sling and The Stone [emphasis added]:

However, there are also some key points where The Sling and the Stone misunderstands Fourth Generation war. One is found in the book's assertion that 4GW is just insurgency. This is much too narrow a definition, and it risks misleading us if we take it to mean that we need only re-discover old counter-insurgency techniques in order to prevail against Fourth Generation opponents. At the core of 4GW is a crisis of legitimacy of the state, and counter-insurgency cannot address that crisis; indeed, when the counter-insurgency is led by foreign troops, it only makes the local state's crisis of legitimacy worse.

As Martin van Creveld has said, what changes in Fourth Generation war is not merely how war is fought, but who fights and what they fight for. The Sling and the Stone does not seem to grasp that these are larger changes than the shift from conventional war to insurgency.

If anything, Hammes was letting "legitimacy" issue slide because it kills the theory. The state, as many (4GW groupies especially) think of it today, is only 150 years old, give or take a few decades depending on which state you're talking about.

Back to Sayen's counter to Dr Echevarria on the "state-factor" of World War II specifically. The level of propaganda, white / black / gray, in World War II (and The Great War for that matter) was significant on all sides. This was not a simple, as 4GW'ers are prone to paint history, conflict of massive weapons, but all-out war for the hearts and minds. The saying "if you can't win the hearts and minds, put two in the heart and one in the mind" was applicable then as some would have it today. War has always been about who fights and what they fight for.

Fourth Generation War theory relies on the readers to assume the state is the political actor. This stems from Martin van Creveld and Lind's erroneous assumption of Clausewitz.

Let's look for a moment at the "not merely how war is fought, but who fights and what they fight for" statement. Consider Martin van Creveld's "Through a Glass Darkly":

To sum up, the roughly three-hundred-year period in which war was associated primarily with the type of political organization known as the state -- first in Europe, and then, with its expansion, in other parts of the globe as well -- seems to be coming to an end. If the last fifty years or so provide any guide, future wars will be overwhelmingly of the type known, however inaccurately, as "low intensity". Both organizationally and in terms of the equipment at their disposal, the armed forces of the world will have to adjust themselves to this situation by changing their doctrine, doing away with much of their heavy equipment and becoming more like the police. In many places that process is already well under way.

That, as Hammes wrote and Lind reinforces, the "last fifty years have led to a fundamental erosion of the state's monopoly on the use of force" relies on the state actually possessing a monopoly on the use of force. First, it wasn't a three hundred period, but more like one hundred and fifty odd years that the present state has existed. The notion of a monopoly of force entered the vernacular of international relations only in the late 19th early 20th Centuries when Max Weber wrote it. In the 19th Century, states did act to "de-legitimized, de-democratized, and territorialized" non-state forces as Janice Thomson wrote in 1994, but this did not limit the use of force as an exclusive right of to the state. Politics "owned" the use of force and the state was just one incarnation of the political actor with license to use force. 4GW'ers fail to contextualize history in the appropriate moment, instead imposing modernity on all instances of the "State".

Van Creveld and Lind and 4GW claim, specifically in an attack on Dr Echevarria's Fourth-Generation War and Other Myths in On War #149, the "new" theory of war is based on a "legitimacy crisis of the state". Lind, in his short hand, does not distinguish which trinity van Creveld was dissing, but it is clear from van Creveld and 4GW theory that the assumption is Clausewitz was speaking of a state, a state as we know it today. The heavy weight 4GW places on the shoulders of van Creveld forces a further look at his foundational arguments on what, as John Sayan wrote, "in essence gave states the sole right to wage lawful war". Van Creveld, quoting Emmeric Vattel, suggests war was based on a growing legal structure:

War ought to be waged exclusively by the sovereign rulers on behalf of their respective states. For anyone else to intervene in it was itself an offense, and as such they deserved to be both condemned and punished.

War was not waged exclusively by sovereigns but was a largely outsourced affair that only began to be drawn inside with the rise of the nation-states, a result of forces beyond Westphalian designs, nearly a half-century after Vattel wrote The Law of Nations. The "2nd Generation" as I defined it above, attributed to the causes I described above, is a crucial element of the evolution here, its understanding and applicability to the future.

The state, as a type of political actor that has (had) a greater ability to amass and utilize wealth in the ecology of the international system, was able to take advantage, or be taken advantage of, a revolution in military affairs at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This was a revision to the early form of warfare as conducted by Napoleon and led to swift elimination of non-state forces on land as inefficient, troublesome, and interfering.

Before and after the creation of the Westphalian state system in 1648, rulers relied on hired soldiers for military requirements. Defensive and offensive needs were tied to commercial aspirations, whether it was the defense of a town or the attacking of another kingdom. Limits on state capital prevented maintaining the desired and necessary armies and navies to both grow the state and protect its resources. As states accumulated wealth and gained power, they grew more autonomous in the international system and more institutional. Reflecting their need for order and stability as they conducted business to increase their wealth, states sought order and accountability in the international system.

The shining light of an intelligent design of the State, with its mythical powers immediately apparent and equal through the centuries, did not happen. Fourth Generation War theorists are prone to say Clausewitzian war is over because the state is losing primacy. In reality, the state had primacy for maybe one hundred years. The United States wasn't a coherent state until after the Civil War (always referred to as "These United States" and frequently at war along and inside its border). The rise of the international system usurped power and autonomy from the states, which 4GW'er fail to acknowledge as part of evolution. Philip Bobbitt's description of the evolution of the state-nation, nation-state, market-state is useful here, but not much use to 4GW'ers.

Clausewitz did not write the "State" had sole power to conduct war. This thought, a basis for 4GW, lay in revisionist interpretations of the evolution and concept of war, the writings of Clausewitz, and, most importantly, the ever-present employment of political, economic, ideological, and military means to ends. The utilization of these four networks of power, each their own slider on the equalizer of interaction, reached a raised awareness as a result of globalization and interconnectedness, a feature not lost on Europeans who lived through the terrorism of the 1980’s, but were not "born" by the Sandinista take-over in 1979, resource scarcities, religious divisions, or anything else. These networks are the foundation of power and conflict. It is politics that “owned” the use of force and the state was just one incarnation of the political actor with license to use force. As Clausewitz wrote:

When whole communities go to war—whole peoples, and especially civilized peoples—the reason always lies in some political situation, and the occasion is always due to some political object. War, therefore, is an act of policy

International norms dictating the state's "ownership" of force is barely a century old. The state -- as state-nation, nation-state, or market-state -- is older but not even the issue. Political actors are the "who". How political actors fight, with what means and to what ends, has always changed. At one time, personal enmity was the name of the game. The serfs were mere property to be exploited or killed (as Cicero said, “it is not improper to despoil the man whom we have the right to kill”). Later, industrialization gave rise to the need to preserve the means of trade and production. Alternative forms of war were necessary. Legal structures were developed in the 19th Century as the nation-states developed and as inter-state trade developed.

There is no crisis of legitimacy in the state system. Roles of states are changing, as they always have. The power of Diasporas is increasing. The value of inter-related commerce and societal pressures increases. But none of these are properly addressed by 4GW, but in fact, improperly attributed. States are losing their autonomy (although Putin's Russia is fight that trend) willingly. As states evolve, voluntarily ceding autonomy, as in the European Union today, as in the states of the US federal project a century and a half ago (read about Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Jackson to see how tenuous our "State" was and how it doesn't fit in the 4GW theory). States did not magically appear in the present image and will continue to evolve.

The theory of Fourth Generation Warfare fails when applied to reality and as a theory itself. It fails to prescribe, predict, describe, or explain behavior. Its explanations of relationships and ideas do not connect when exposed to historical realities. Ultimately, the analysis of past and present conflicts with this theory is of little value. 

Fourth Generation Warfare is based on a false reading of history and a faulty understanding of the nature of conflict. The role of economic, ideological, and political ideas and efforts have always co-mingled with military might. The quantity of each would vary as required, resorting to military might as an extension of politics if necessary. At best, 4GW reminds us public diplomacy is more important than ever because of the need to interact at alternative levels. That is the best 4GW can contribute.

Generational warfare is based on technology and tactics. The Napoleonic shift a radical change in how and why wars were fought. With his destablizing impact on the nature of the state system at the time, how was what he did not 4GW? Generations of warfare are best described through technological and tactical changes. The Revolution in Military Affairs of Napoleon is remarkably similar to the RMA today, but with some aspects in reverse (professionalism -> amateurism -> professionalism). Fourth Generation War has 'happened' before and throughout time. It is how and why wars are fought. It simply does not offer anything new.

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