Theories about 4GW are not yet like the Laws of Thermodynamics

One of the baleful influences on the 4GW analysis is the science of Psychohistory developed by Hari Seldon, capable of accurately predicting history (as described in the Foundation novels of Isaac Asimov).  Social science “laws” in the real world are just heuristics, generalities not to be confused with the Laws of Thermodynamics.  This is especially true in military theory.  For example, Clausewitz’s On War opens with some general rules (e.g., the relationship between offense and defense), which he then elaborates with great detail but no certainty (having experience at war, he knew the limits of military theory).

This is important, as progress in understanding 4GW requires distilling out more of these general relationships from the mass of 20th century history.  For example, in January 2007 I postulated that insurgencies come in two flavors, depending on the role of foreigners.  Chet Richards refined this differentialtion of insurgency types into …

(1)  Classical insurgency: a revolution, in other words, in which a sizable fraction of the population opposes what they consider to be an illegitimate or oppressive government, as the American colonies did in 1776-1781. The goal of the insurgent groups may be either to take control of the central government or to achieve independence for a portion of the population.

(2)  War of national liberation: in which a sizable fraction of the people in a country throws out an occupying foreign power, as Vietnam did to us in 1965-1975.

— From the Introduction to If We Can Keep It  (IWCKI)

This has been criticised as dividing insurgencies into rigid categories — black and white, not accounting for the shades of grey found in all human experiences.  That is both true and a good thing.  All rules of thumb are arbitrary, in some sense, but useful for practitioners who know their limitations.  Even the exceptions to this “rule” about insurgencies, and I believe they are quite few, tell us something new.  For example, the Malayan Emergency shows the importance of having a legitimate local government to do the heavy lifting (even though the COIN literature tend to follow the Brits’ view, considering it “their” win — not that of the locals).

The value of these kinds of insights was well expressed by a post at Opposed Systems Design (4 March 2008):

A deeper understanding of these dynamics deserves an organized research program. The first concept — an artificially binary distinction between “foreign COIN” and “native COIN” – has served its purpose by highlighting the need for further work on the subject.

One reason for our difficulty grappling with 4GW is the lack of organized study.  We could learn much from a matrix of all insurgencies over along period (e.g., since 1900), described in a standardized fashion, analyzed for trends.  This has been done by several analysts on the equivalent of “scratch pads” (see IWCKI for details), but not with by a properly funded multi-disciplinary team (esp. to borrow or build computer models).

 We are spending trillions to fight a long war without marshaling or analyzing the available data.  Hundreds of billions for the F-22, but only pennies for historical research.  It is a very expensive way to wage war.

Update:  additional thoughts

Here are two additional thoughts on this matter, stimulated by the excellent posts listed in the next section.

The lack of good research is a feature, not a bug, of our current system.  The necessary research involves working against the needs of our DoD apparatus, and there is neither internal DOD nor outside institutional support for this kind of revolutionary work (revolutionary in an institutional sense).  This is unlike the “glory days” of RAND, where the USAF was certain to benefit from the funding of RAND’s work.

A second problem is that people wants to do analysis — not collect data.  What we have now are skilled individual craftsman doing fine work, but with scraps as raw material.  Large-scale research requires long-term institutional support.  Only then will have a strong basis for analysis.

In other words, I disagree with this post from Kent’s Imperative.  It is factually correct of course, but not research of the type or the scale we need. 

While not every shop which concerns itself with the problems of contemporary asymmetric conflict looks up from the current fight, there are a number of efforts which have attempted to answer the question of “what next” alongside the other work exploring the “what” and “so what” which tends to dominate current publications.

Articles about this topic

  1. Can Our National Security Bureaucracy Remain Relevant?”, posted by John Robb at Global Guerrillas, 7 March 2008
  2. Two Quite Reasonable Observations“, posted at Zenpundit, 8 March 2008
  3. A 21st-century Golden Age“, posted at Opposed System Design, 8 March 2008
  4. Vision and error“, posted at Kent’s Imperative,  8 March 2008


Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling). 

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the following:

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.

Posts on the FM website about solutions to 4GW:

  1. A solution to 4GW — the introduction
  2. How to get the study of 4GW in gear
  3. Why We Lose at 4GW – the two types of 4GW
  4. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — solutions to 4GW
  5. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — 4GW analysts
  6. Visionaries point the way to success in the age of 4GW
  7. 4GW: A solution of the first kind – Robots!
  8. 4GW: A solution of the second kind 
  9. 4GW: A solution of the third kind – Vandergriff is one of the few implementing real solutions.
  10. Theories about 4GW are not yet like the Laws of Thermodynamics

12 thoughts on “Theories about 4GW are not yet like the Laws of Thermodynamics”

  1. “We could learn much from a matrix of all insurgencies over along period (i.e., since 1900), described in a standardized fashion, analyzed for trends. This has been done … but not with by a properly funded multi-disciplinary team (esp. to borrow or build computer models). …We are spending trillions to fight a long war without marshalling or analysing the available data. ”

    Are you aware of grand-strategy games such as “Victoria:Revolutions” put out on the civilian market? Writing a computer game is a very manageable task. Using open-source standards and a moddable framework like “Victoria:Revolutions” you could get wargame grognards to donate a lot of free labor. Making the game accept any given model is not hard– you could code the engine such that models are swappable. The problem of writing a truly accurate model of conflict — well, that’s a tall order!
    Fabius Maximus replies: I was not looking for anything so ambitious. Building a model is just playtime until we have done data collection and analysis. Size and composition of population and insurgency, structure and strength of government, outside support for each size, urban/rural, etc. Next, look for relationships among the data (both people and computers have a role here. At this point the read work starts!

  2. John Robb has done some excellent work into how insurgencies, and warfare in general, is changing (by applying network theory, and looking at effects rather than policy). Somewhat related to his work is this piece in Foreign Policy about how the face of terrorism is changing: “The Next Generation of Terror” by Marc Sageman (March/April 2008).

    It is a fundamentally new kind of conflict, where insurgencies and terror campaigns are not waged by charismatic individuals leading followers but by entreprenurial individuals making self-actualizing decisions to carry out operations and acquire funding. So yes: history matters a great deal. But I think it does only because it highlights how new what we’re facing is.
    Fabius Maximus: Perhaps we have entered a new age where the past century of data about insurgencies tells us nothing. How we could say that except by comparison with a dataset of past insurgencies? Our several trillion dolllars of defense spending seems to have produced little research on the matter (“The elephant is great and powerful, but prefers to be blind”). That Islamic terror networks exist does not mean that they will replace insurgencies; perhaps they will be the 21st century version of the 19th C anarchists. This is something Chet Richards discusses in f We Can Keep It: are terror networks “War” or just “Crime”?
    From an analytical perspective, terror networks are a form of non-trinitarian conflict but perhaps not 4th generation war. If van Creveld is correct, we will be seeing a rise in non-trin conflicts (more powerful crime cartels, terror networks by animal rights-greens-Islamics, etc). Rather than the individual expert scratching out articles, well-funded research teams researching these things might be an important first step.

  3. Simply put, our current maths and stats capabilities cannot make models of this level (I speak as a practisioner). But 4 disciplines, history (particulary verbal hisory), epidemonology, political history and cognitive psychology can give us some insights. I seperate political history deliberately, because it is a neglected area in the West. Marx, of course, is the best known (you can add quite a few, actually many from the US). Never underestimate Marx as an analyst, as a theortician he was rubbish, but he could analyse trends. Keynes, was probably the finest model we have ever had. Long before he was tarred by the ‘economist’ brush his first work was on probability (ie uncertainy) and how people deal with that.

    That being said, there is a terrible dynamic here. Here’s how it works:
    (1) There is an injustice.
    (2) Some people respond. The ‘1st responders’ are nearly always from the best of society. Honest, caring, law abiding, non-violent, idiolistic (they actually believe in democracy).
    (3) They are at best ignored, or oppressed, or killed (like a women here in Oz trying to whistleblow police corruption).
    (4) The injustice continues (sometimes, usually often, worsens).
    (5) Darwin takes over. The 1st responders have given up or are in prison or dead. The next generation is much wiser and more ruthless.
    (6) The loop continues – goto (1) and repeat .. and worsen everything.

    Better way, when the best of society raise an issue, believe it and take action to stop the injustice. Otherwise you get their children and grandchildren, who have learned their lessons and are much more ruthless. Oh, and they are usually right about the issue. So you get invereted ‘litigimacy’ (very impostant 4GW wise), those who are oppressed have more than those who do the oppression.

    What I find very interesting is how those, who abject to injustice these days are being “terroristed” (I made that word up) always following the opinion of some great business/poltical group. I noticed a group here, (rightly and totally legimately) against destroying Port Philip Bay are now on the international terrorist lists.

    Sorry “green” people are not terrorists, nor are animal-rights people, nor civil right groups, or anti-torture groups, or anti-mine, or ….. you get the picture. Some, a very small minority (0.00001%), do some criminal actions. Ok, deal with them as individuals. A lot more criminals in Wall Street my friends

    They are the best of us, as our conscience , our hope, they are actually (nearly always) right. Remember those against Slaves and children workers got treated just the same at first.
    Fabius Maximus: To say we cannot make models of insurgencies is an overstatement. We cannot make robust lage models, like we can in the physical sciences. But some simple analytical sketches are possible, if we collected the data in a systematic manner. Their predictive value would probably be low, but these would be a step forward in understanding the phenomenon. Think of the early econometic or meterological models, and how far they have come in the decades since their first efforts.

    One characteristic of work about 4GW is pre-emptive surrender. Why bother gathering the data? Why both with large-scale efforts to understand it? (This is also characteristic of the Peak Oil debate,and might have deeper roots in our culture). To some extent this reflects the structure of 4GW writing, lone folks who are happy sketching out ideas. Moving to serious, organized work would change the nature of the game. of course, it might also make it possible for us to win.

    “Sorry “green” people are not terrorists, nor are animal-rights people, nor civil right groups, or anti-torture groups, or anti-mine, or ”

    Both greens and animal-rights groups harbor terrorists, whose actions are seldom condemned (even more rarely strongly condemned) by their comppatriots. That taints the group with a degree of complicity, as the violent folks look like a tolerated vanguard.

  4. Whether they are the best or the worst of us, pursuing justice or not, is irrelevant. People will use the four boxes (soap, ballot, jury, and finally ammo) in pursuit of whatever their beliefs. The War Nerd defines terrorism as violence by people who don’t have an air force. It may not be the best definition, but it certainly seems to be the one most often used to compile “terrorist” lists.

  5. Careful, “terroristed” is dangerous. Best example: Galileo. He was “terroristed”, tortured. He was wrong?

    Now imagine a world where every advance in human thought, science, behaviour and politics, was “terroristed”, locked up, tortured, killed. Well, we would all be living in caves now. (Remember it was ok to kick a black not long ago …. in the US, in Oz we had bounties on our blacks)

    Perusing justice is very, very important. Otherwise why isn’t the US still a colony of England? {Yes I’m, a Ward Nerd fan as well, great analysis with humour, hard to beat}. But, you can be to cynical or pessimistic.

    Those who challenge oppressive Authority are not always wrong, more often they are right.
    Fabius Maximus: Galileo was not a victim of “terror” in the usual sense of the term. Consider the difference between murder and war — the State punishes the former, sanctions the latter. Galileo was punished by the State (which included the Church at that time). BTW — I doubt house arrest can be considered torture. See the Wikipedia entry.

  6. Limiting oneself to the post=1900 era seams arbitrary.

    Regarding whether a form of conflict is “War” or just “Crime” has arisen before. In particular, in the 17th century, the buccaneers of the Spanish main were variously characterized as “privateers” and as “pirates.” The trial of Sir Henry Morgan illustrates but one instance where this was no simple matter to sort out.

    Former Navy Seal Benerson Little’s The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques, 16301730 (Paperback) describe the complex entrepreneurial yet ideological assault upon Catholic Spanish America by British, Dutch, and French Huguenot freebooters. A few reviews:

    Gareth Thomas, Director; Historical Maritime Combat Association:

    For those who love historical texts, but sometimes have a hard time weeding thru the period language, overly technical jargon and miles of microfiche, this book is a real blessing. The author not only deals with the methods of tracking, chasing and boarding prey, but goes happily in-depth about the people who follow the “sweet trade”. He covers the buccaneer lifestyle on land as well as at sea, the events leading up to their rise in influence in the Caribbean, and goes into clothing, food, religion, heirarchy, weapons, flags,choice of ships and cultural relationships.
    I picked up this book primarily to confirm or disprove my theories on individual weapons combat during boarding actions and while the techniques are not played up in any great detail,citing the use of powder and grenades over cutlass and knife, the reasonings behind what weapons were used and how unorthodox hand to hand combat could be in closed quarters are sound.
    Overall a very enjoyable and informative book!


    This is a great backgrounder on what really was behind the privateers, buccaneers / boucaniers, filibusters / flibustier, and pirates. Focusing on a hundred year period beginning in 1630, the former Navy SEAL draws on contemporary diaries and books to describe everything from the background, motivation, tactics, equipment, and even an appendix on drinks. The reality of the sea rover’s tactics are in stark contrast to the image of the Hollywood pirate. The reality were crews and officers operating under very democratic rules and performing complex operations seeking to maximize effort (return on investment).

    Appropriate to the modern era of small wars? Little generally leaves it to the reading to connect to the present (absent a rare couple of modern analogies in the book), except for one paragraph at the end:

    “Whatever their vices, weaknesses, and moral ambiguities, these buccaneers have in common with most sea rovers several tactical virtues, including innovation, loyalty, perseverance, adaptability, and courage. Collectively, they prove that a loose, uncentralized, and informal network can conduct significant, complex military operations. They show the effect that an irregular force can have on the resources of a powerful state, causing great economic damage and tying down significant forces. And, most importantly, they demonstrate that elements of broadly divergent and disparate cultures, races, nationalities, classes, professions, and personalities can act as one with a common goal.”

    My brief comments here don’t do the book justice. The amount of detail Little puts in this book is sometimes mind boggling, not to say amazing. This is not a book that only looks at the past but has surprising applicability to modernity.

    I have found it particularly useful in supporting various arguments about privatization of force as well as insurgent warfare.

    Fabius Maximus: Starting at 1900 is entirely arbitrary! I should have said e.g., 1900 — not i.e.; correction made. The start date would probably be determined by funding and availability of reliable data.
    Thank you for the great background information, and the interesting information about pirates!

  7. Who could provide the funds for the multi-disciplinary team? How would such a project get started?
    Fabius Maximus: Good questions!
    1. DoD could fund it. The cost would be trivial compared with that of new weapons systems — or the cost of actually fighting wars. The largest cost would be that of the people, and DoD is already paying them. They could take some from the Defense University or the many many staffs.
    2. All projects start with a perceived need. As the COIN manual (FM 3-24) shows, DoD is confident that it knows how to win 4GWs. Demonstration (another demonstration) might create the need.

  8. “well-funded research teams researching these things might be an important first step.” “Who could provide the funds for the multi-disciplinary team? How would such a project get started?”

    My guess is that it won’t be the military. It might be the peaceniks at the following link, who include in their number some veterans: “Scenarios for the insurgency in Iraq“, United States Institute of Peace (USIP) (17 October 2006). Alternate URL:$File/usip-irq-17oct.pdf
    Fabius Maximus replies: interesting point! Are there are any precedents for such a project by someone other than DoD?

  9. Regarding study, data collection and analysis, agree totally. One example from this is the (I forget the extact name) book on suicide bombers, which contradicted (from case studies) the commmonly held beliefs. That is the sort of stuff that is needed far more.

    Judasnose is probably correct, the best work will be done outside the military. Which is, when you think about it, is preferable anyway. Better to work out (say) better ways to deal politically with a pressing issue, than to develop yet another method of oppression.

    I repeat again, the people who object/’want to change’ some issue are nearly always the best and brightest of us. They have the intellegence to note something is wrong and the drive to do something about it and nearly always peacefully. History usually proves them correct in the longer term. Without them we would probably be living caves, thumping each other over the head with bones.

    Note, with great sadness, the end of peaceful protest at the Aldermaston nuclear weapons establishment after 50 years. Yep, the Govt finaly clamped down. Yet another freedom gone.

    From a 4GW point of view, yet another nail in the coffin of Western legitimacy. Bit hard to argue about freedom, when your own country has none. Now try to argue to Iranians that they should protest to their Govt about (alleged and seemingly imaginary) nuclear programs.

    See “We shall (not) overcome“, The Indepentent (8 March 2008) — “Nuclear protest survived six Tory governments. But not New Labour”

  10. #3 You summed it up nicely .But what can we DO ?
    As an example , if you are British , there has been the fuss recently about Baroness S employing illegal immigrant . The I.I. is married to a Brit , presumably for love not convenience. A similar case happened near us.Nigerian lady , 10 yrs resident , Brit husband , both pillars of society , deported. I ( and many others )wrote MP( who agreed unjust ) ,wrote papers , signed petitions and joined a demo . Result ? She was deported .
    I voted in a party that had always spoken for peace .They took us into Iraq.I wrote, posted ,had placards on my car and marched . So did hundreds of thousands of others . Result ? Death and destruction were unleashed in Iraq.
    What do we DO ?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Both the Iraq and Af-Pak wars had wide appeal in the US at their inceptions (stopping wars in mid-stream is very difficult). Discussion with our fellow citizens must be the first step. Organizing is the next step. Look how long it took to end slavery and achieve civil rights. Nobody said democracy is easy.

  11. #12: “I voted in a party that had always spoken for peace .They took us into Iraq.I wrote, posted, had placards on my car and marched . So did hundreds of thousands of others . Result ? Death and destruction were unleashed in Iraq.
    What do we DO ?

    Dear Anna

    Your experience over in the UK sounds very similar to mine here in the US. Your earnest & anguished questions sound similar to mine. I also consistently voted for a party which supposedly spoke for peace. I wrote letters to the editor, posted, marched, talked.

    It it difficult to consistently put yourself out there. Especially when it’s hard to see the effect. I personally hope that our struggles are in some sense like the ones that Fabius describes, where a very weak force subdues a very strong one. This guy thinks antiwar forces have already “won” *, another guy thinks that antiwar forces have had some effect **, and this guy thought that antiwar forces had no effect ***.

    I don’t know the answer to your question either. What I do is just keep going, never wrecking myself but never stopping either. It’s unromantic but I don’t see any other way. Besides which, it can actually be fun to go to protests, whether they succeed in their aim or not. Peace.

    * US Antiwar Activist on Afghanistan: “Doubt Will Turn into Dissent”, interview with Tom Hayden, Der Spiegel Online International, Sep. 7, 2009
    ** “Peace Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by David Swanson + Impeach Cheney 1st (MP3)”, Dandelion Salad Blog, Oct. 1 2007.
    *** “Kurt Vonnegut vs. the !&#*!@”, In These Times, Jan 27, 2003

  12. Anna, if you feel like you’re really despairing, or worried, then my suggestion is to join up with a political group of some kind, if you haven’t already. I don’t know that a group is always more effective, but at least when you are with a group you don’t feel so alone, so alienated. You have some people to bounce ideas off of, or simply to listen to you. It helps in ways that do not all have to do with effectiveness.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Agreed! Seldom is anything accomplished by a person acting alone.

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