Is 4GW magnifique?
Summary: FM writer Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired) describes what our military refuses to see, that 4GW has become the dominate form of warfare in our age. That others are mastering it, while we spend vast sums preparing for wars that will not occur again during our lives. And, like all war, 4GW is Hell. See the links at the end for more information.
We therefore repeat our proposition, that War is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds; as one side dictates the law to the other, there arises a sort of reciprocal action, which logically must lead to an extreme. This is the first reciprocal action, and the first extreme with which we meet (first reciprocal action).
— A warning by Clausewitz. From On War, Book I – On the Nature of War, Chapter I – What is War? #3 Utmost Use of Force.
Clausewitz’s observation was made in the context of state-vs-state warfare, where, as he notes, the aim is to “disarm the enemy.” In the form of warfare common today (called fourth generation or non-trinitarian warfare) that conclusion may not be so straightforward. For example, in the original paper on the subject, which introduced the term “fourth generation warfare,” Bill Lind and his colleagues noted that:
First generation warfare focused tactically and operationally (when operational art was practiced) on the enemy’s front, his combat forces. Second generation warfare remained frontal tactically, but at least in Prussian practice it focused operationally on the enemy’s rear through the emphasis on encirclement. The third generation shifted the tactical as well as the operational focus to the enemy’s rear.
Fourth generation warfare, like terrorism, might well move the operational focus back even further:
Terrorism takes this a major step further. It attempts to bypass the enemy’s military entirely and strike directly at his homeland at civilian targets. Ideally, the enemy’s military is simply irrelevant to the terrorist.
In fact, the will of the enemy population might become the “operational focus,” as it was for the North Vietnamese.
So what does this suggest for the role of violence, and in particular, the tendency of the level of violence to escalate? Difficult to say. On the one hand, 4GW opponents, like the insurgents, terrorists, and narcotrafficking organizations from whence they sprang, see violence as a tool for influencing civilian (another term that needs to be reexamined in this type of conflict) populations. More may not necessarily be better, as one may awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve, to coin a phrase.
Looking at 4GW from the perspective of a state participant is also complex. Just killing more members of a non-state 4GW organization may not be an optimal strategy because for one thing, there is the well-known phenomenon of creating enemies faster than you can kill them, and for another, it is, as has been observed many times, difficult to carry out an attrition strategy against groups that espouse martyrdom. It is also possible — van Creveld would say inevitable, given enough time — that indiscriminate violence will alienate your own population, doing the enemy’s job for him, as it were.
Another point, as Martin van Creveld has noted, is the strange fact, as apparently fact it is, that in these types of conflicts, the side that is more willing to die for its cause wins:
Compared with the willingness (or lack of it) , in men (and women) to die for their cause, virtually all questions of policy, organization, doctrine, training and equipment pale into insignificance. (The Changing Face of War, 228)
(which, if it is true at all, does not bode well in the long run for our strategy of drone warfare.) By escalating the level of violence, you may simply be playing into their hands.
Balancing all this is the human tendency of wanting to hit back as hard as possible. Consider, for example, the 9/11 attack, which bin Laden considered, and sold to his organization, as retaliation for US actions in the Muslim Middle East: If he had had a nuclear device on that day, would he have used it?
And then there is the prognosis by van Creveld himself, on the probable course of future, non-trinitarian warfare:
- The true, the beautiful, and the sacred will be its first victims (The Transformation of War, 204)
- It will be protracted, bloody, and horrible (212)
So I would not bet on the future of conflict being less violent than it is today. In fact, what has kept World War III from breaking out was not the existence of less violent alternatives, like “cyberwar,” but the threat of immediate and assured destruction by the most violent weapons the world has ever known. It may be, as hinted at by Lind and his coauthors, that the world is groping for a way around this impasse analogous to how maneuver warfare/3GW provided a way out (Boyd’s term) from the terrible increase in destructiveness brought on by the industrial revolution in the 19th century.
Note: There is no agreement on the term “fourth generation warfare.” In addition to Lind, et al., and van Creveld, interested readers should consult T. X. Hammes’ The Sling and the Sword. There is also a lot of reference material on the archived Defense & the National Interest website, and scroll down the right-hand column.
A graphical view of the generations of war model
From Fast Transients
For more information
To see all posts about 4GW go to section 1 of the FM Reference Page Military and strategic theory and practice. Some of special interest:
- A solution to 4GW — the introduction
- Why We Lose at 4GW – About the two kinds of insurgencies
- Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — solutions to 4GW
- Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — 4GW analysts
- Visionaries point the way to success in the age of 4GW
- 4GW: A solution of the first kind - Robots!
- 4GW: A solution of the second kind
- 4GW: A solution of the third kind – Vandergriff is one of the few implementing real solutions.