What is a fourth generation war, the wars of the 21st century? Who fights them, and why?

Summary:  We resume our analysis of modern war with a brief description of 4th generation war. Who fights it, and why. This is the 4th chapter in a series of posts following the 25th anniversary of the Marine Corps Gazette article “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation”. A series of writers explain our past defeats at the hands of 4GW foes, and prepare you for those to come. Since these defeats are unnecessary, this might motivate you to join the effort to retake the reins of America.

Source: Syed Zaid Zaman Hamid


  1. What is the 4th generation of war?
  2. War is a conflict; not all conflicts are war
  3. Posts in this series about 4GW
  4. For More Information
  5. The Evolution of Warfare graph

(1)  What is the 4th generation of war?

Many trends since WW2 forced ended the supremacy of 3GW (aka maneuver war, blitzkrieg), and powered the rise to dominance of 4GW. Two of the most important are…

  1. The slow spread of nuclear weapons since WW2 has forced the end of conventional warfare between developed states.
  2. Loyalty to the State has peaked around the world. As its influence declines in people’s hearts and minds, other loyalties emerge.

These increase the power of non-state entities, reversing the growth of State power since the Treaties of Westphalia legitimized the the State as the only entity able to use force within its bounds. Unlike the first 3 generations of war (from Napoleon to Hitler), 4GWs are fought by a wider range of players (as they were before).

  1. Multi-national corporations (imagine a 21st C East India Company)
  2. Non-governmental non-profit organizations, for example those providing regulatory services (e.g., engineering standards) and charitable efforts
  3. Ideological groups, such as radical environmentalists (example), animal rights and anti-abortion activists
  4. Mercenary armies (the Bush administration reversed centuries of work to minimize them)
  5. Transnational ethnic groups (e.g., the Kurds, the Pashtun people)
  6. Religious groups, benign or inimical depending on the observer
  7. Organized crime networks

Groups can combine along more than one of these affinities (e.g., ethnic criminal networks such as the Mafia). These can organize within a state, or use modern communication and transportation technology to easily build global networks, greatly increasing their power and reach.

Any of these can employ force, either domestically and globally — within the State, between States, between States and global non-state entities, and between non-state entities. In the 21st C any of these non-state entities can again become great powers, as they have in the past. Martin van Creveld calls these non-Trinitarian conflicts, as they break Clausewitz’s “trinity” of the government, the army, and the people.

A real revolution in military affairs
A real revolution in military affairs. UPI/Edward Reagan/US Army

Under the right circumstances non-State entities can defeat governments, partially or completely, to carve out either …

(1)  Geographic zones of control, in which a successful insurgency creates or takes over a government.

(2)  Social zones of control – For example, criminals can establish a “social space” in which they can routinely operate, such as networks for prostitution, drug trafficking, smuggling, or money laundering.  If their victory is officially sanctioned by the State, these become semi-autonomous societies.  Europe might be seeing the early stages of this, as institutions develop to support and enforce Sharia for/on their Muslim citizens.

When non-T conflicts become struggles for political control of large geographic areas (or spaces) AND involve substantial use of force, we call them fourth generation wars. Such wars can be within national borders (“civil war”) or across them (fighting the Islamic State, aka ISIS). The tactics of non-T wars overlap those of conventional war (often with different emphasis), but also include some uncommon since the modern era began (arbitrarily, the 16th C).

In the words of Martin van Creveld (private communication) 4GW is a tactic (or body of tactics) used in non-T conflicts (distinct from state to state conflicts). For example, conflicts between powerful criminal organizations, or between them and the government, can become 4GWs (Mexico is on this path).  Description of those tactics will come in a later post.

(2)  War is a form of conflict; not all violent conflicts are war

Americans love to label conflicts and challenges as “war”, perhaps resulting from our romanticizing of war during the past few decades (after the memory faded of the Vietnam-era body bags and injuries soldiers). This is especially so with 4GW; it’s become commonplace to label “4GW” any conflict where its tactics are employed (as they can be in a wide range of endeavors, as with most military tactics).  Often powerful elites have governments declare “war” on their rivals or foes (it’s an easy way to mobilize support for private goals).

Misuse of the label “war” and “4GW” is a category error and can can have bad consequences.  This is one of the key insights of Richards in If We Can Keep It.

For example, we distinguish crime from war for good reason. Criminals act for a wide range of reasons. Some seek money and power.  Some act for religious or ideological goals (e.g., bombing animal research labs or abortion clinics).  These are all bad things, but need not be met with the special and horrible response we call war. By describing so many things as war we lose this bright red line (with its important legal implications).

Worse, we begin to take crossing that line lightly — as we have since 9-11, involving ourselves in so many civil wars (often in defense of corrupt and brutal governments).  We are like the soldiers marching off to a short but glorious war in August 1914, or the cheering young men running to enlist in the opening scene of Gone with the Wind.  Perhaps they — and us — would have been more thoughtful if had thought about the costs and consequences.

True wars involve foes who fight back (unlike cancer or poverty), and the stakes can quickly escalate from minimal to everything we have & everything we are.  Like all wars, 4GWs easily grow so that the costs become grossly disproportionate to the stakes, like our expedition to Iraq.

Using 4GW, little fish can defeat big fish
Little fish can defeat big fish in 4gw.

(3)  Posts in 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)  How often do insurgents win using 4GW against foreign armies? Almost always. Seeing this simple fact could change the course of American foreign policy.

  1. How often do insurgents win?  How much time does successful COIN require?, 29 May 2008.
  2. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010 — Boot discusses 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies.
  3. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, 28 June 2010 — The doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson (Political Science, Harvard) examines the past & present of counter-insurgency.
  4. A look at the history of victories over insurgents, 30 June 2010.
  5. COINistas point to Kenya as a COIN success. In fact it was an expensive bloody failure., 7 August 2012.

(b)  Solutions to 4GW:

  1. A solution to 4GW — the introduction.
  2. How to get the study of 4GW in gear.
  3. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — solutions to 4GW.
  4. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — 4GW analysts.
  5. Visionaries point the way to success in the age of 4GW.
  6. 4GW: A solution of the first kind – Robots!.
  7. 4GW: A solution of the second kind.
  8. 4GW: A solution of the third kind.

(c)  A 4GW reading list:

  1. If We Can Keep It by Chet Richards.
  2. Brave New War by John Robb.
  3. The Changing Face of War by Martin van Creveld.

These works build on the foundation of other books and articles since the study of 4GW began (using an arbitrarily point) with publication of “Into the Fourth Generation” by William Lind et al (1989), and Martin van Creveld’s Transformation of War (1991) and The Rise and Decline of the State (1999).

(6)  The Evolution of Warfare Graph

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

Evolution of conflict
Evolution of conflict, by Chet Richards

4 thoughts on “What is a fourth generation war, the wars of the 21st century? Who fights them, and why?”

  1. Pingback: Are the New Levels of Australia’s National Terrorism Threat Advisory System Seriously Flawed? | uthinki

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