Tag Archives: william lind

William Lind looks at our generals, sees “rank incompetence”.

Summary: Concluding this series about our senior military leaders we have a typically brilliant and brutal analysis by William Lind. This would have been shocking news in 2000; a decade of failed wars show it to be the simple truth. We can do better, but the Pentagon will not reform without pressure from us.  Rightly so; it’s a professional military — but it’s our responsibility.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“Chabrias said that the best commanders were those who understood their enemies. … He also said that an army of stags led by a lion was more formidable than an army of lions led by a stag.”

— From “The Sayings of Kings and Great Commanders” by Plutarch (46-120). Chabrias was a great Athenian general (d 357 BC). It need not be either of these choices; we can have lions led by lions — and even a few generals who understand our foes.

Lions led by donkeys

Rank Incompetence

By William S. Lind
The American Conservative, January/February 2013
Posted with the generous permission of the author and the TAC.“

It was tragic that the career of General David Petraeus was brought down by a mere affair. It should have ended several years earlier as a consequence of his failure as our commander in Afghanistan. Petraeus, like every other theater commander in that war except Stanley McChrystal, could have been replaced by a concrete block and nothing would have changed. They all kept doing the same things while expecting a different result.

Thomas Ricks’s recent book The Generals has reintroduced into the defense debate a vital factor the press and politicians collude in ignoring: military incompetence. It was a major theme of the Military Reform Movement of the 1970s and ’80s. During those years, a friend of mine who was an aide to a Marine Corps commandant asked his boss how many Marine generals, of whom there were then 60-some, could competently fight a battle. The commandant came up with six. And the Marine Corps is the best of our services.

Military incompetence does not begin at the rank of brigadier general. An old French proverb says that the problem with the generals is that we select them from among the colonels. Nonetheless, military competence — the ability to see quickly what to do in a military situation and make it happen — is more rare at the general officer level. A curious aspect of our promotion system is that the higher the rank, the smaller the percentage of our competent officers.

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William Lind: thoughts about 4GW, why we lose, and how we can win in the future

Summary: Twenty-five years ago, in October 1989, the Marine Corps Gazette published  “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation”, by four active duty military officers and a civilian military historian. It explained that a new era of warfare had begun, sparked by the invention of nukes (rendering suicidal conventional war among major powers), brought to maturity by Mao (and improved by generations of success and failed insurgencies since then). We failed to learn how to fight these, as proven by our two failed wars after 9/11, the new bipartisan ones being launched now, and the future ones being prepared in Africa.

This series of posts will help you better understand our defeats and prepare you for what is to come. And, perhaps, help motivate you to join the effort to retake the reins of America. This is the second chapter, by guest author William Lind (the civilian co-author of Into the Fourth G). This is the first of two posts today.


Source: Syed Zaid Zaman Hamid

Thoughts on the 25th anniversary
of the publication of the original article on
the Four Generations of Modern War

By William Lind

Since the publication of the original article in the Marine Corps Gazette, three things have happened.

First, events have justified the article’s description of the Fourth Generation as war that escapes the state framework. The high-tech alternative, which became known subsequently by a number of buzzwords — the Revolution in Military Affairs, Transformation, Net-Centric Warfare, etc. — is not where war has gone. Most of the high-tech systems we continue to buy have proven irrelevant to fighting non-state forces. So far, at least, the F-22 has not shot down a single Taliban flying carpet.

Second, the theory of 4GW has been expanded and refined, a process that will continue. The most important addition to the theory has been Martin van Creveld’s book, The Transformation of War. Tom Hammes’s book, The Sling and the Stone, while sound on the first three generations, has brought confusion to much of the discussion of 4GW because it gets the Fourth Generation wrong. Insurgency is not a dialectically qualitative change in war. It is merely one way in which war has been fought for a long time. As van Creveld puts it, 4GW is not a change in how war is fought (though it brings such changes) but in who fights and what they fight for. That is a dialectically qualitative change, the biggest since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

The third thing that has happened is actually a negative, i.e., something that did not happen. Despite overwhelming evidence that 4GW is the wave of the future (including four defeats of the U.S. armed forces by 4GW opponents: Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan), the U.S. military has not moved to prepare for it. It remains, and apparently will remain until covered by the lid of history’s trashcan, a Second Generation military. That is to say, it reduces war to putting firepower on targets.

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How I learned to stop worrying and love Fourth Generation War. We can win at this game.

Summary: Looking through the archives of any website discussing modern war quickly reveals how little we have learned since 9-11, despite our futile but large expenditures of money and blood. The resistance to war with Syria (outcome still unknown) suggests that the time might have come to dust off these lessons. Perhaps America has grown weary of failure, and become willing to explore different paths.

This series expands on a post from July 2005. The other chapters:

  1. We are the attackers in the Clash of Civilizations. We’re winning.
  2. Handicapping the clash of civilizations: bet on America to win

4gw vs USAF bomber


  1. Introduction
  2. History of defense vs offence
  3. A new era of defensive strategy
  4. Making the change
  5. About fourth generation warfare
  6. About the win rate of foreign armies fighting insurgents


(1) Introduction

In 2009 I wrote that our military’s response to 9-11 was to adopt the WW1-era cult of the offense (natural, since our military doctrine was largely WWi-era 2GW). Two failed occupations later, we continue to seek foreign monsters to destroy. The American public’s opposition to intervention in Syria indicates that the bankruptcy of this doctrine has become obvious. But what can replace it?

In both his “On War” articles, in the Fourth Generation Warfare Field Manual, and particularly in his article “Strategic Defense Initiative”, William Lind points to a possible solution to America’s strategic problems:

{O}ne matter of prime importance seemed to be agreed by all parties: in the so-called War on Terror, America must remain on the offensive. … There is little doubt that “being on the offensive” sounded good to most voters. But if the objective is to design a strategy that brings victory in the War on Terror, a different approach may have much to recommend it.

Lind quotes from Carl von Clausewitz’s On War :

“{D}efense is simply the stronger form of war, the one that makes the enemy’s defeat more certain. We maintain unequivocally that the form of warfare that we call defense not only offers greater probability of victory than attack, but that its victories can attain the same proportions and results.”

Lind’s essay develops the strategic implications of a defensive strategy. Quite sensibly, since history shows us that a defensive posture is stronger than offense. Look at Europe: since the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648 few invaders have achieved profitable victories against roughly equal opponents; all of the large aggressors have lost. This post looks at other aspects of this solution.

(2) History of defense vs offence

Bill Bonner, an American expatriate living in France, once observed that after 300+ years of French military adventures — with their dead scattered over Europe – the French have considered what they gained from this sacrifice, and find it insufficient. Perhaps the French and their neighbors in Europe have learned the impotence of 2nd and 3rd generation militaries in a 4th generation world. Their conventional wars against each other produced no victors; their 4GWs waged as colonial powers after WW2 produced only defeats.

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What could go wrong if we attack Syria?

Summary: Lost amidst the details and blather about our proposed attack on Syria is the possibility that we might get hurt. More accurately, that our grand strategy makes a severe defeat highly likely. If not in this crises, then in one of the future crises our policies seek out — and even create as needed.

Keep Calm: Set World on Fire

“Early and provident fear is the mother of safety.”
— Edmund Burke to the House of Commons, 11 May 1792

“Fear cannot be without hope nor hope without fear.”
— Baruch Spinoza, Ethics (1677)


  1. What could go wrong?
  2. A note from the past?
  3. About our military
  4. For More Information

(1) What could go wrong?

“Fear is sharp-sighted, and can see things underground, and much more in the skies.”
— Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605-1615)

US foreign policy has been one of bellicose response to all challengers, trusting on the support of our allies, the weakness of our foes — and their inability to work together. We consider it a winning formula in the sense that the only serious blowback was 9-11. So far.

On the other hand, our contempt for diplomacy has quickly escalated many confrontations into military conflicts — most of which we lose (see section 3). We lose in the sense of achieving no national goals, paid for by dead and crippled soldiers and wasted resources. These loses are tolerable for a nation of our size and vigor, and domestic political dynamics keep this system running despite its 50+ years of failure.

This policy is the equivalent of Russian Roulette with a revolver of many chambers. The odds of disaster are small for any individual intervention. If continued long enough we will find a chamber with a loaded cartridge, starting a chain of events with large, unpredictable, and probably unpleasant results. We need not speculate at how events in a small nation can shake the world. The last century provides a clear example with the assassination on 28 June 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo by six Bosnian Serb assassins.

(2) A note from the past reminding us of what can happen

“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
— John F. Kennedy, inaugural address on 20 January 1961

In hindsight WWI was the inevitable result of growing tensions in Europe — tensions that the great nations not only failed to resolve, but repeatedly played upon. William Lind explains

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Update about one of the seldom-discussed trends shaping our world: 4GW

Summary: One of the great stories of 21st century looks to be the conflict between nations using conventional military methods (2GW and 3GW), and forces using 4GW. So far the latter are winning almost every time. America’s inability to adapt to this new world, part of our larger #FailureToLearn, is another strike against the Second Republic (that built on the Constitution). Here’s a brief status report on the war, concluding with a new article by William Lind, our Thucydides.


Source: Syed Zaid Zaman Hamid website

Image source:  Syed Zaid Zaman Hamid


One of the interesting aspects of recent history is the coincidence of

  1. the collapse of discussion about 4GW in US military and geopolitical circles,
  2. victories by insurgents using 4GW methods over foreign armies in Iraq and Afghanistan, &
  3. most important, the perhaps history-making victory by Bin Laden’s al Qaeda.

The second point is important to us, but the usual outcome since WW2 (after which 4GW became the dominate form of military conflict; see section C below).  The third point is the big one. Based on the available information, one of Bin Laden’s goals was to destabilize the US political regime. Massive increase in military spending (using borrowed funds). The bill of rights being shredded (note yesterday’s House vote to tear another strip from the 4th amendment). Our Courts holding show trials of terrorists — recruited, financed, supported by our security services. Torture and concentration camps.

Image from Encyclopedia Mythica

Bin Laden’s other goal, more clearly stated, was to incite a war between the USA and Islam — perhaps as Bismarck used wars to unify small States to create Germany. We took the bait: invading Iraq and Afghanistan, attacking Pakistan, Yemen. And now spreading our war into Africa. We see the domestic fruits of this in the hysterical reaction of the US people to the Boston Bombing.

9-11 might join the roster of history’s great battles, perhaps as the most effective single military operation in history.  It cost bin Laden his life and destroyed his organization. He probably considered the result well worth the cost. And like the head of the hydra, new offshoots of al Qaeda have appeared to replace the old.

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Gift ideas – Books to get or give

I like books that challenge my views, as in the saying attributed to Mark Twain

“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

So here are two recommendations of books that challenge our views, esp about the things we know for sure.

The Culture of Defeat – On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery, Wolfgang Schivelbusch (2001) — Esp Chapter One, about the successful counter-revolution by the post-bellum American South.  The regained dominance over their black neighbors, at a high cost — slow modernization, economic inferiority vs. the North and West.

The Culture of War, Martin van Creveld (2008) — About the truth that American cannot face:  we love war.

The following are useful books, timely lessons and insights for America.

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Let’s blow the fog away and see what General McChrystal really said

Summary:  the McChrystal’s Assesment consists of layers of absurdity, piled high.  Future generations will study it as a prime example of early 21st century madness, when such a thing was taken seriously.

Essentials of the McChrystal’s Initial Commander’s Assessment of the Af-Pak War, released 30 August 2009.

  1. Amnesia is the essential requirement
  2. The key strategic element is that we have no strategy.
  3. Hope is the plan, cost is no object.
  4. Nation-building in Afghanistan today.  Mexico next?
  5. For more information from the FM site, and the Afterword

(1)  Amnesia is the essential requirement

Amnesia is the essential requirement to be an American geopolitical guru — or Amerian journalist covering geopolitics.  As described in How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan? (15 September 2009), we are closely following the military’s playbook for escalating a small war — perfected in Vietnam.  This remains invisible to many experts, as in this excerpt from Stratfor’s “McChrystal and the Search for a Strategy in Afghanistan“, 22 September 2009:

This is a statement by an officer of the modern U.S. Army, an institution with a broad disdain for the legacy of Gen. William Westmoreland. As first commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam (1964-1968) and then Army chief of staff (1968-72), Westmoreland’s legacy has come to be seen as that of having asked for more and more American troops without a winning strategy. In other words, he continued to commit more American soldiers to a conflict without a strategy that had any real chance for success. While one can debate the history, many in the U.S. Army’s officer corps today consider Westmoreland an officer who did the ultimate disservice to his country — and perhaps more importantly, to his men — by allowing a failed political and military strategy to continue to consume American lives. … With this report, McChrystal has clearly differentiated himself from this path.

Absurd.   For example, the report’s language on page 2-20 could come from DoD report about Vietnam written up to the very end:

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