Chuck Spinney asks why we choose to lose at 4GW

Summary: 25 years ago 5 men published one of the seminal articles in modern military theory, introducing the concept of 4th generation war. They did so at the start of a new cycle of conflicts for America. America would be much stronger today had we listened. As we start new wars, it’s vital that we understand (better late than never) what is now the dominate form of war, why we failed to listen, how we (and other nations) fail fighting foreign 4GW foes, and how we can do better. We’ll be running articles on this theme during the next month. Kicking off this series is a note by Chuck Spinney, one of our most acute observers of the US military.

Source: Syed Zaid Zaman Hamid

Is the Nation State Obsolete?

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney

From his website, The Blaster
21 September 2104

Posted with his generous permission


Uri Avnery’s thoughtful essay Scotland on the Euphrates questions the future viability of the nation-state as a form of social organization.  His concerns are not new, although as Avnery noted, recent events certainly make them more believable — or less unbelievable to those who opine for the comforting stasis predicted by Fukyama’s silly postulation of the “end of history.”  The Israeli military historian, Martin van Creveld, has been making arguments along these lines for years (e.g., The Rise and Decline of the State, 1999).  And van Creveld was not the only one to address the emerging problems of sustaining the nation state in the emerging world.

Twenty-five years ago, in October 1989, four active duty military officers (2 marines and 2 army) and one civilian military historian wrote a prescient article in the Marine Corps Gazette, entitled “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation”.  At that time, the Gazette was edited by Colonel John Greenwood (USMC Ret.); and thanks to him, the Gazette was by far the most stimulating, vibrant, and spunky of the professional military journals.  The article initially attracted a lot of attention, but unfortunately 4GW became a buzzword in some overly enthusiastic circles.  To make matters worse, the buzz triggered sharp resistance in traditional circles.  In my view, the authors’ warning became diluted by the intersection of uncritical enthusiasm with hardening resistance, and was missed entirely.

But their warning was timeless and is particularly appropriate for today. For example, they predicted the general outlines of why the drone war — the apotheosis of what the traditionalists call the military-technical revolution —  is failing so miserably in the face of the kind of adversaries these authors identified.  Some might argue that their paper is written from the narrow confines of European military history and variations of what they call 4GW have always been around, particularly in the East.  But this is a red herring; a careful reading shows that they accounted for and agreed with both these points.

More importantly, their central recommendation was missed entirely by their critics and many of their enthusiasts alike.  These men were not being dogmatic about the future; the authors’ aim (and Greenwood’s) was to stimulate critical thinking and debate about future possibilities.  Unfortunately, they were arrogantly dismissed by those living comfortably off a continuation of the status quo, and the unbridled enthusiasm of some of their followers weakened their case.  In the end, they failed utterly in achieving their aim of stimulating a serious debate, but not for wont of trying.

The results of that failure to stimulate debate and reform can be seen generally in the perpetual war on terror and specifically in President Obama’s declaration of a hi-tech bombing war against ISIS.

The big green spending machine, the Military – Industrial – Congressional – Complex (MICC), rolled throughout the 1990s into the 21st Century, essentially unthinking and unchanged, driven by its own well established internal dynamics and constituent interests.  The authors feared the MICC’s  claim of a military-technical revolution quite explicitly in their discourse on what they called a technology-driven 4GW — which I urge readers to pay particular attention to.

Rise and Decline of the State

As they feared, the MICC opted for a technology driven answer to the war on terror by force-fitting the MICC’s tired old cold-war-inspired vision of techno war — i.e. the system of network centric systems embodying

  1. an all-seeing surveillance system, coupled to …
  2. an all-knowing computerized assessment, decision making and targeting system and …
  3. a command system that controls …
  4. precision weapons — into what Avnery clearly recognizes as an ideas-driven change to the face of war.

The results have been disastrous and are continuing to worsen, an outcome also foreseen by these five men. The United States is paying the price today: The arrogance of ignorance has created a perpetual war at ever increasing cost that is ruining America’s image in the world and bankrupting its government.  Where this will lead, no one can say.

It is with a sense of admiration* that I {recommend} their Gazette paper.  I urge you to read it carefully and hope you find it interesting.

*Caveat emptor: two of the authors, William Lind and Colonel Gary I. Wilson (USMC ret), were colleagues and remain valued friends of mine.

Chuck Spinney


(2)  About Chuck Spinney

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney retired from the Defense Department in 2003 after a military/civilian career spanning 33 years, 26 of them as a staff analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is author of many articles about US military and geopolitical affairs. Read his bio here.

He posts at his website, The Blaster. Some of his major publications:

  1. Defense Facts of Life: The Plans/Reality Mismatch (1985)
  2. The Defense Death Spiral, 8 November 2000
  3. Bill Moyers Interviews Chuck Spinney, 1 November 2002 –Won an Emmy as the best news magazine show of the year
  4. The Domestic Roots of Perpetual War“, chapter one in The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It, ed. Winslow Wheeler (2011)
  5. A contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (2012)

Many of his articles are published at CounterPunch:

  1. Incestuous Amplification and the Madness of King George“, 10 September 2008 — “Can Obama Put Down the Brie and Opt for Real Change?”
  2. The Enablers: The Central Role of Faux Republicans in the Anatomy of Decline“, 10-12 August 2012 — review of Mike Lofgren’s book The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted

Other posts by Chuck Spinney at the FM website:

  1. The Taliban Rope-a-Dome, 19 July 2009
  2. Can Obama, or anyone else, outmaneuver the war advocates?, 2 October 2010
  3. Chuck Spinney describes the next phases of the Afghan War: defeat, retreat, & demobilization, 9 April 2012
  4. Chuck Spinney explains our broken OODA loop, 25 September 2012
  5. The Ukraine crisis gives us a peak behind the curtain into the workings of our government, 27 March 2014

War, ancient & modern

(3)  This series about 4GW, reflecting on 25 years of 4GW defeats

  1. Chuck Spinney asks why we choose to lose at 4GW.
  2. William Lind: thoughts about 4GW, why we lose, and how we can win in the future.
  3. What is a fourth generation war, the wars of the 21st century? Who fights them, and why?
  4. Understanding 4GW, the first step to winning the Long War — #1 of GI’s series.
  5. DoD defends itself against dangerous new ideas about 4GW. — #2 of GI’s series.
  6. 4GW allows ISIS to fight and win against more powerful armies. Like ours. — #3 of GI’s series.
  7. Using 4GW might give the Islamic State a big future. — #4 of GI’s series.
  8. 4th Generation Warfare, Hybrid Warfare & Unconventional Warfare: Similar but not Interchangeable. By Gary Anderson (Colonel, USMS, retired).

(4)  For More Information

(a)  See this for links to Martin van Creveld’s work.

(b)  See here for articles about 4GW.

(c)  Here are the key posts about 4GW:

  1. A solution to 4GW — the introduction
  2. Why We Lose at 4GW – 2 kinds of insurgencies
  3. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — solutions to 4GW
  4. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — 4GW analysts
  5. Visionaries point to success in the age of 4GW
  6. 4GW: A solution of the first kind – Robots!
  7. 4GW: A solution of the second kind — New ideas about tactics & strategy
  8. 4GW: A solution of the third kind -– New ways to shape our institution
  9. About Fourth Generation Infections – Chet Richards explains the nature of outlaw organizations in the 21st century
  10. Update about one of the seldom-discussed trends shaping our world, 4GW, 25 May 2013
  11. How I learned to stop worrying and love Fourth Generation War. We can win at this game., 18 September 2013

(4)  The Evolution of Warfare

By Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired). Click to enlarge.

Evolution of conflict
Evolution of conflict, by Chet Richards

15 thoughts on “Chuck Spinney asks why we choose to lose at 4GW”

  1. “…cold-war-inspired vision of techno war — i.e. the system of network centric systems embodying all-seeing surveillance system, coupled to … all-knowing computerized assessment, decision making and targeting system and …
    3.a command system that controls …
    4.precision weapons — into what Avnery clearly recognizes as an ideas-driven change to the face of war.”

    I blame video games for the notion that winning a war requires nothing more than putting a sufficient amount of firepower on a well-defined target.
    In video games, you always know who, what, and where your enemies are because they appear as little red blips on your radar screen.
    In video games, the ‘fog of war’ is a literal fog that completely fades away as you approach.
    In video games, you have endless amounts of both ammunition and morale.
    In video games, if your tanks aren’t getting the job done, then the best course of action is to send in more tanks and/or spend gold coins to upgrade them to laser tanks.

    Sound familiar?

    Here’s a representative example:

    1. Command and Conquer is an interesting example. The primary foe in that series is a 4gw actor, yet their representation within the game proper is decidedly 3gw: they “build” units, have bases whose destruction spells defeat, the economy and logistics are the most important factors, etc. The “good guys” are essentially the bad guys’ reactionaries, and even they are old fashioned in their tactics. I don’t think the inability of America to forecast 4gw is the game designers’ fault, though it might reflect both a systemic inability as Americans to come to terms with the nature of the thing and a telling need for “fairness” even in the wargamers’ world.

  2. Where this will lead, no one can say. Bankruptcy, end of the US as a superpower, the end of the US dollar as world reserve currency; and the end of Wall Street and the Fed.

    “Teenage Lobotomy” by the Ramones with modified MICC lyrics.

    Lobotomy, lobotomy, lobotomy, lobotomy!
    MICC did a job on me
    Now I am a real sickie
    Guess I’ll have to break the news
    That I got no mind to lose
    All the world’s in love with me
    I’m a moral lobotomy

    BRICS and ISIS are after me
    MICC keeps me happy
    Now I guess I’ll have to tell ’em
    That I got no cerebellum
    Gonna get my Ph.D.
    I’m a moral lobotomy

  3. The answer to Chuck’s question “Why does America choose to lose at 4GW?” seems simple and obvious. Losing a 4GW war in some distant third-world hellhole has no significant impact on the average American, and provides a plausible reason to continue (and increase!) the flow of funds to America’s military/prison/police/surveillance/torture complex.

    Losing a 4GW war in, say, Afghanistan allows the U.S. military to demand increased funding. “With more money, we can win this war!”

    Losing a 4GW war in Afghanistan also gives the U.S. intelligence services reason to demand more money. “The terrorists are infiltrating use here because we’re fighting them over there! WIith more money we can stop those sinister infiltrations and identify the jihadists among us!”

    Losing a 4GW war in Afghanistan gives the police more reason to clamor for military-style weapons. “The military is getting state-of-the-art weapons! We need them too!”

    Losing a 4GW war in Afghanistan gives the U.S. prison system justification to clamor for more funding. “Dangerous radicals may try to convert the prison population to jihadists! We need more money to stop them!”

    Losing a 4GW war in Afghanistan gives U.S. defense contractors an excuse to demand more money for “non-lethal” (i.e., torture) weaponry like Raytheon’s millimeter-wave microwave pain ray. “The U.S. military needs to win hearts and minds, so we need non-lethal weapons like the pain ray! Pay us more money to develop them!”

    Conveniently, all these rationalizations blend into one another, and all these seemingly disparate parts of official America are actually intertwined incestuously, reinforcing one another in a feed-forward loop. Ex-military often become police officers, and so the tactics used against insurgents in Afhganistan wind up getting used against ordinary citizens in America — no-knock raids, flash-bang grenades, massive firepower, SWAT tanks, and so on. America’s prisons are claimed to provide breeding grounds for radicalism (Aryan Nation, Nation of Islam, Mexican Mafia, etc.) and so the American surveillance state needs more money to spy on current and former prisoners. Ex-military also become prison guards; and non-lethal technology deployed in theaters of war inevitably winds up getting used against the U.S. population. As the American population becomes increasingly resentful of being treated like the enemy in a theater of war, the justification for increased surveillance, increased militarization of the police, deployment of the military for formerly police tasks, and the use of non-lethal (i.e., torture) weaponry like LRAD sonic cannons that deafen bystanders at political protests and microwave pain rays that cripple demonstrators with endless unbearable pain continues to widen. At the same time, the definition of “terrorism” continues to widen, from mideastern-born jihadists carrying out attacks on U.S. soil to Occupy protesters to union organizers to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals demonstrators to ACLU members, and eventually to anyone who publicly dissents with the government’s positions. A DOD manual already classifies non-violent political protests as “low-level terrorism.” Joe Biden has described WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as a “hi-tech terrorist.” Mission creep in the War on Terror is inevitable, and will only end with everyone who expresses dissatisifcation at the status quo getting branded as a terrorist.

    Thus the endpoint of choosing to lose at foreign 4GW wars becomes an all-out counterinsurgency war against the American population. Someday soon, dissatisfied by the results of some future election, our leaders will dismiss the American population and try to replace it with another one. To paraphrase the Vietnam-era quip, it was necessary to destroy democracy in order to save it.

  4. US supports some of 4GW foes it ends up fighting. The problem is even believing these people can be managed. They are psychopaths. You cannot manage psychopaths.

    1. Winston,

      “US supports some of 4GW foes it ends up fighting.”

      That shows our greatness: we don’t hold grudges.

      “They are psychopaths. You cannot manage psychopaths.”

      It is fashionable in America to believe that anyone who doesn’t share “my” values is crazy, but I disagree. First, literally speaking, your diagnosis is bizarrely wrong. Our foes are quite functional, and show no more signs of mental illness than we do.

      Second, we have been destabilizing their nations for over 50 years, and bombing them for a generation. See our reaction to 9-12, and scale it up a thousand-fold. They’re doing far less.

      As for the jihadists actions against their neighbors, they’re kittens compared to Europe’s savagery from the 30 Wars thru 1945. Beginners and amateurs.

  5. FB. They appear to be psychopaths to me. Psychopaths have no conscience. They are doing things that clearly demonstrate psychopathic tendencies. You need to expand your idea of psychopaths. I would like to see result of brain scan tests before I would agree they are not psychopaths!

    Tamil Tigers used 4GW so did the Vietnamese;but, they were not psychopaths. These people are. Vietnamese and Tamil Tiger didn’t behave in this depraved way. I am coming to conclusion supporters of them are also a psychopaths;but not of the violent type (which is a small percentage of psychopathic population).

    A certain percentage of population is psychopathic;but in cultures where there is a lot of intermarriage i would assume percentage goes up!
    Saudi Intermarriages Have Genetic Costs
    Saudi Arabia Awakes to the Perils of Inbreeding

    Brain scans have demonstrates a difference:
    ” decisionmaking, and memory processing). A region of the brain’s frontal cortex, called the orbitofrontal cortex, seems problematic as well. This region, which communicates with the amygdala, is also involved with decision making.
    So, the cause of sociopathy is almost certainly organic. Someday it should be curable with genetic engineering, but for now, there is no cure at all. That means that you have zero chance of talking a sociopath into behaving well.”

    They Walk Among Us

    Even HBR discussed the subject of psychopaths.

    Is Your Boss a Psychopath?

    Connection with psychopaths also discussed her by commentators:

    Jihad’s fatal attraction
    The challenge for democracies is to provide an alternative means of satisfying the quest for glory that motivates those who join in Isis’s barbarism
    04 September 2014 6:47pm
    There will always be organisations that offer an outlet for people’s sociopathic tendencies and there isn’t much any of us can do about that.
    It could be the pirate nests of the 1710’s, the French Foreign Legion or any one of the many ‘civil’ wars that challenge humanity everywhere.
    It will take a long time before humanity finds a cure of sociopaths.
    jennyanydots ABitRightWing
    04 September 2014 7:34pm
    It will take a long time before humanity finds a cure of sociopaths.
    –Sociopaths?? Sure sociopaths demonstrate antisocial tendencies but they’re a far cry from chopping people’s heads off. Let’s call them what they really are–fanatical, ruthless psychopathic murderers.
    sadhu ABitRightWing

    About Syria, please also see:
    “The civil war in Syria started in March 2011. And see this.
    However, the U.S. has been funding the Syrian opposition since 2006 … and arming the opposition since 2007.

    Indeed, the the New York Times has reported that virtually all of the rebel fighters are Al Qaeda terrorists.”
    U.S. Backed Syrian Opposition YEARS BEFORE Uprising Started

    he also said it in his memeoir
    “Seven countries in five years”

  6. This is evidence of psychopathic behavior:
    How British jihadist ‘madams’ are running Isis brothels full of thousands of kidnapped Iraqi women
    Al-Khanssaa brigade is female-only militia set up by IS in Raqqa, Syria
    ‘Key figure’ is Aqsa Mahmood, 20, who fled Glasgow for Syria last year
    3,000 women and girls have been taken captive from the Yazidi tribe
    It’s believed they’re being forced into sex slavery in brothels for fighters

    Discussing nonviolent types

    The Startling Accuracy of Referring to Politicians as ‘Psychopaths’

  7. FB. Those horrors probably also had psychopaths involved. These are not only examples. Those drug cartels creating footballs out of skulls etc are also psycopaths. Keep in mind lots of interrmarriage among conservative Jews as well. This has probably also warped behavior in present day Israel.

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