America’s military hits a defining moment: how they react to defeat

Summary: Slowly voices inside the US military speak out about its inability to respond to its manifest failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the large price paid in blood and money for the lessons given. The military has proven unable to take the first step of admitting that they lost. Here Gregory A. Thiele (LtCol , USMC) puts our defeat in a historical context, explains what we did wrong, and gives recommendations. Let’s hope the Marines listen.
— See responses to this in the comments from several experts.

Source: Syed Zaid Zaman Hamid.

Our Jena-Auerstädt?
“Coming to grips with fourth-generation warfare.”

By  LtCol Gregory A. Thiele, USMC.
Marine Corps Gazette, November 2016.
Reposted with their generous permission.

Echoes of history.

In 1806, the Kingdom of Prussia went to war against France and Napoleon Bonaparte. Prussia suffered a crushing and humiliating defeat. In a pair of battles, Jena and Auerstädt, both fought on 14 October 1806, the Prussian Army was defeated, and the existence of the Prussian state was placed in jeopardy. Prussia survived and reformed its army — an army that later played a pivotal role in Napoleon’s final defeat.

The U.S. military in general — and the U.S. Marine Corps in particular — is at a similar crossroads today. Marines are faced with twin defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan. These failures are clear indications that the character of war has changed. The Marine Corps must adapt to meet the challenge of this new face of war. A closer look at Jena-Auerstädt may suggest some ways to do so.

In 1806, Napoleon was at the height of his power. Napoleon, and France, posed a threat to the long-established monarchies and order of Europe. In July 1806, Prussia allied with Russia against Napoleon.

In early October 1806, Prussian troops marched against Napoleon’s forces. They marched slowly in order to allow their Russian allies an opportunity to come to their support. Napoleon, wishing to defeat the Prussians before Russian troops could join them, moved rapidly. On 14 October, Napoleon’s army engaged the Prussians in two battles fought a dozen miles apart. At Jena, Napoleon routed a portion of the Prussian army while one of his marshals defeated a much larger Prussian force at Auerstädt.

The defeats were decisive, and the Prussian army disintegrated in the pursuit that followed. By the spring of 1807, the only unconquered territory left to Prussia was around the city of Memel on the Baltic coast. The Prussian King, Frederick William III, sought terms from Napoleon.

Battle of Jena
“Le Trophee” by Edouard Detaille (1848-1912).

The settlement dictated by the Treaty of Tilsit was humiliating to Prussia. Napoleon and Tsar Alexander of Russia met on a raft in the middle of the Niemen River to settle peace terms. Frederick William III was not invited and could only sit on the riverbank and wait to see if he still had a kingdom when the discussion concluded. In the end, Prussia was shorn of half its territory and was forced to become a French satellite.

As Prussia “was not a state with an army, but an army with a state” {attributed to Vicomte de Mirabeau and Georg Heinrich Berenhort, an adjutant to Frederick the Great}, military failure shook Prussia to its very foundation. War had changed, and the Prussian Army had failed to adapt to these changes. Many Prussian officers had called for needed reforms in the years before 1806, but they did not possess sufficient influence. The army of Frederick the Great — which prided itself on its martial prowess — was revealed as old, infirm, ineffective, and poorly equipped for the challenges of modern war.

The result of this crushing defeat was the total reform for the Prussian Army. The failure of the Army’s high command was evident to all. Equally clear was the fact that these same leaders, stained by defeat, were inadequate to the task of reform. The leader of the Prussian military reform movement, David Johann Gerhard von Scharnhorst, had been an advocate of reform for many years before 1806. He had been largely unable to make any progress. The only reason that von Scharnhorst was given the opportunity to enact many of his changes was that defeat forced change upon the Prussian court.

4gw vs USAF bomber

Today’s challenges.

The case of Prussia 200 years ago is instructive for the U.S. military today. The U.S. military’s leaders have failed their Nation in a similar fashion. In the last decade, the U.S. military has fought two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only has victory eluded the U.S. military in both conflicts, but the United States is also immeasurably less secure today than it was on 12 September 2001. Complacency and smug self-satisfaction formed a lethal witch’s brew that led to twin failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trillions of dollars have been wasted, and thousands of lives have been lost or irreparably altered with little to show for the sacrifice. Iraq is unstable and crumbling (an outcome that maintaining troops there would only have put off, not prevented). The dissolution of Iraq is likely a foreshadowing of what is still to come in Afghanistan.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. forces did well those things that comported with their preconceived notions about war and the role of military force. But those notions proved wrong. U.S. warfighting doctrine is centered around using troops as “sensors” to find the enemy in order to apply overwhelming firepower to destroy him. For wars in which the enemy hides among the civilian population, firepower-focused war — even when somewhat restrained due to attempts to limit civilian casualties — is bound to create disaffection and enemies among the civilian population it was meant to protect.

Perhaps most disturbing is the failure of senior military leadership that has been demonstrated in the last 15 years. The generals who have advised both President George W. Bush and President Barack H. Obama have demonstrated either shocking hubris, gross incompetence, or both. What made them believe that the U.S. military could build a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan? While attempting to accomplish this task, why embark upon a war to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq? Once Saddam was in custody, what made these leaders think that Iraq could also be remade in the West’s image? In 2008, when it was clear that Afghanistan was not proceeding according to expectations, why “double down” by sending more troops to Afghanistan?

In each case, U.S. military leadership has been either compliant or utterly wrong, yet no one has been held accountable.

U.S. forces are trained, organized, and equipped primarily to destroy other forces that look and act very much as U.S. forces do. They are, ideally, suited for a war of attrition. Unfortunately, these skills were not much in demand after the initial actions in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In the case of Iraq, at least, the decision to smash a functioning state (no matter how disagreeable Saddam Hussein may have been) led to infinitely greater problems. U.S. troops destroyed a state and, unable to replace it with a functioning state (a task beyond the capability of any army), gave Iraq chaos instead. U.S. troops unleashed fourth-generation warfare forces in Iraq.

The Art of War
Available at Amazon.

A new era of warfare, the 4th generation.

War has changed and to deny this when confronted with inconvenient facts is to court disaster. To compound this difficulty, while the state is losing its monopoly on war, the U.S. military remains focused on state versus state conflicts. As military theorist William S. Lind has warned, state-on-state conflicts are likely to lead to the destruction of the losing state and possibly to the fatal weakening of the winning side. The result is likely to be anarchy that can act as a petri dish and sanctuary for fourth-generation warfare actors. Future decisions for war or peace should be guided less by the political system a given state possesses and more by the potential for chaos should the state fall. The future may well see an alliance of all states versus fourth-generation warfare actors in what will come down to a choice between order and disorder.

One may ask how a fourth-generation warfare actor can be a greater threat than a powerful nation state. Most nation states are responsible actors or their actions are rational (even if only by their own lights). Even if a state has nuclear weapons, it cannot use them without potentially causing retribution from other nuclear-capable states. The state’s land and people can be made accountable for the actions of the government. Essentially, a nation-state’s options are effectively bounded by a requirement to prevent unacceptable damage to the state’s people and infrastructure.

Fourth-generation warfare actors have few restraints on their activities. A fourth-generation warfare group’s leadership is very difficult to target (they have no capital or government buildings), and their supporters may be spread across a great area or even a great many states that may or may not support the goals of the fourth-generation warfare group. In many ways, fourth-generation warfare is a retrogression to the ways in which wars were fought before the rise of the state and the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Just as the state’s dominance has never been absolute, so too is the state unlikely to disappear entirely as its power wanes; the state will likely become one actor among many in an increasingly chaotic world.

US Marine Corps

Reform to win at 4GWs.

Just as the Prussians were forced to come to grips with their failures and enact reforms in order to defeat Napoleon, the Marine Corps must come to grips with fourth-generation warfare to have any opportunity to succeed in the future. There are four steps the Marine Corps can take that will begin the process of adjusting to the changed character of war.

First, the Marine Corps should adopt the four generations of modern war as an intellectual framework. Marines must understand fourth-generation warfare before they can hope to effectively combat it. The fourth-generation warfare framework must be taught in Marine Corps schools, so that every Marine leader down to the lowest level can understand it. Fortunately, a reading list already exists. The Marine Corps should make the “Canon” (see June 2013 Marine Corps Gazette) required reading for all officers and SNCOs. This list of books, when read in order, takes the reader from first-generation warfare into the fourth-generation.

With the intellectual framework in place, the second step is to reform the current personnel system. The Marine Corps must do a better job of identifying, developing, and retaining talented Marines. The current system of “up or out” does not work. Marines are forced to seek billets that will help them get their “ticket punched” to get promoted, rather than doing things that they are good at or where they can best serve the Marine Corps. The current system has unintentionally created a highly bureaucratic organization in which a great deal of time and effort is expended on institutional politics rather than on improving warfighting proficiency.

4th Generation Warfare Handbook
Available at Amazon.

Third, the Marine Corps should build a Marine Corps Training Center where units can conduct free-play force-on-force exercises. The Marine Corps must develop not just individual leaders, but entire units that are prepared for the challenge of fourth-generation war. Training in techniques alone is insufficient. In order for Marines to learn tactics and to develop proficiency as battlefield decision makers, they must be placed in situations approximating combat conditions. We must attempt to replicate war as closely as possible in training. The key characteristic of combat is an opposing will. As MCDP 1 stresses, force-on-force exercises are the best means of preparing for war.1 The force-on-force exercises can start simple and progress in complexity to challenge units.

The fourth step is for the Marine Corps to build true light infantry units. The Marine Corps is not true light infantry; it is lightly-equipped line infantry. There is a significant difference between true light infantry and line infantry. True light infantry is self-reliant and is capable of a variety of techniques. Line infantry relies heavily on supporting arms and is not proficient in an array of techniques. Historically, light and line infantry have acted in complementary roles on the battlefield and, presumably, can still do so. The Marine Corps should create one company of true light infantry in every battalion and one battalion per regiment. This will allow the Marine Corps to become more flexible and capable against current and future fourth-generation warfare threats.

The sacrifice of blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan does not have to be in vain. The Marine Corps can learn the lessons these conflicts have to teach, but this requires humility and a willingness to examine past mistakes in an open and honest fashion. Prussia reformed her army, played a key role in vanquishing Napoleon, and went on to greater triumphs during the wars of German unification. There is one significant difference between Jena-Auerstädt and Iraq-Afghanistan: failure in Iraq and Afghanistan has not put the existence of the United States in question. The U.S. military in general, and the Marine Corps in particular, must come to grips with fourth-generation warfare before this occurs.

© Copyright by the Marine Corps Association. All rights reserved.

About the author.

Gregory A. Thiele (LtCol , USMC) is the Operations Officer, School of Infantry, West, Camp Pendleton. He has published several articles in the Marine Corps Gazette, and is coauthor with William S. Lind of 4th Generation Warfare Handbook (2016).

Marine Corps Gazette

About the Marine Corps Gazette.

The Gazette is the professional journal of U.S. Marines, providing “a forum for the exchange of ideas that will advance knowledge, interest and esprit in the Marine Corps.” Since 1916 it has invited “debate from our readers on the important issues facing the Marine Corps today.”  Click here to join the Marine Corps Association and receive the Gazette.

For More Information.

Other posts about military reform: We don’t need a new army to fight modern wars, we need a smart one by Gary Anderson (Colonel, USMC, retired), and When will our military learn modern warfare, & overcome the attritionist tendency? by Daniel R. Grazier (Captain, USMC). Also, I highly recommend reading The Attritionist Letters (published in the Marine Corps Gazette).

If you found this post of use, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all articles about our military, about the US Marine Corps, and especially these…

Recommended books to learn about 4th generation warfare.

More On War
Available at Amazon.
Unrestricted Warfare
Available at Amazon.

11 thoughts on “America’s military hits a defining moment: how they react to defeat”

  1. LtCol Thiele has revisited the question of using the military against non-state opponents, some 15+ years after we so confidently did just that in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s important to note, though, that our success in those conflicts came against state opponents, as weak as they may have been. We only ran into problems when invasion morphed into occupation and then withdrawal, creating geopolitical petri dishes for the virulent infections to follow.

    Can military forces do occupation right? Sure — the Europeans and then the United States successfully invaded and occupied North America. However, the chances of our repeating this experience in any Middle Eastern or South Asian country seem somewhat remote, regardless of which generation of warfare we choose. So eventually, occupation will lead to withdrawal and the possibility that the resulting power vacuums will be filled by organizations that we don’t particularly like.

    Can the military, and particularly the USMC, deal with these “fourth generation opponents”? I don’t have a clue. But on the assumption that we cannot continue on our current path, I turn you over to Colonel Thiele, who certainly has a new orientation on the problem.


    Editor’s note: See Chet’s bio on our authors’ page. See his articles here. See his books at Amazon.

  2. Thiele undertakes a splendid effort of detailing how much of the military has an intrinsic bias seated in concrete lacking an ability to see things from a different orientation (also perspective) other than acquisition-attrition driven way of war. Thiele, like Boyd, understands that orientation is paramount in war. For example, clinical psychologist have an orientation that is a patient-centered approach while a social worker has a perspective that has a family-systems approach. While clinical psychologists and clinical social workers both deal with dysfunction, they have different perspectives, orientations, and approaches. Perspective and orientation provide the vital insights needed to understand and win.

    As author Grant Hammond poignantly quotes Boyd in The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security: “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Boyd says we must see events as through a prism to discerning the changing aspects of war. Military bureaucrats and academicians often fail to even try to do this.

    Thiele, like Dr. Frans Osinga (Colonel, Royal Netherlands Air Force), recognizes the worth of 4th generation warfare orientation. Osinga provides a balanced thoughtful analysis of 4GW applications in “On Boyd, Bin Laden, and Fourth Generation Warfare as String Theory” from On New Wars edited by John Olsen (2007):

    “Whatever one may think of 4GW, considering the wide audience, one cannot ignore the importance of it as an idea in strategic theory, and as an appealing, – resonating – description of problems confronting western military and political elites today. 4GW does not cover all aspects of the evolving strategic landscape, and perhaps 4GW is not the entirely academically correct analysis, but as an exercise in strategic thinking, creating a coherent synthesis out of a myriad of disparate trends and developments, it certainly has merits by making people aware of potential contours and dynamics of the future strategic landscape. Boyd would agree with the effort indeed.”

    One last thought about Thiele’s four “frameworks” of war. Our rivals and enemies — Russia, China, NK, and Iran — are capable and willing to use any or all of them.


    Editor’s note: See GI’s bio on our authors’ page. See his articles here.

  3. Thiele’s article is well-written and argued, but it mirrors the same arguments that have repeated since at least the end of the Cold War.  In my mind, this theme is troubling as there is nothing new contributed.  It is just a repackaged rant.

    Sadly, if the Marine Corps followed Thiele’s advice, then they would be preparing for the last war.  Contrastingly, the world has moved on, and new challenges and dangers lie ahead.  Thiele and other military leaders would probably be better served by trying to define the new landscape rather than providing prescriptive solutions.

    I see the same trends in business as Industry leaders are still struggling to fully automate and adopt the industrial internet.  In many cases, I listen patiently as they describe the way things “should be” instead of accepting the way things are and adapting.  I’d encourage Thiele to spend some time studying and understanding the impacts of coming technology advancements in order to better see and understand tomorrow’s world.  McKinsey’s “Harnessing automation for a future that works” is a good start.


    Editor’s note: Mike Few (Major, US Army, Retired) served multiple tours in various command and staff positions in Iraq, and was a former Editor of the Small Wars Journal. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and studied small wars at the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA.

    1. Tom,

      You go to the heart of the matter. After WWII America built a new global order built on principles and law — not might makes right in a war of all against all. It was far from perfect, and we did not perfectly follow it — but it was a wonderful and bold first step. Now we have destroyed our own creation, making the world far less safe.

  4. “….is bound to create disaffection and enemies among the civilian population it was meant to protect.”

    Meant to protect, huh? You’re sure?
    Really this reads as the wandering of a mind that is confused and trying to understand the reality it is faced with. Well, good for him. Lotsa luck.
    Really very few will read this and for good reason. We can try as we might but rationalizing is really the best we usually do.
    The history of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan ……could one start there? Just since WW II? That’s a modest task.

    The US miltary has simply become a force of chaos.
    ….new global order of principles and law? A very long time ago. Long gone. Rationalize that.

    1. Breton,

      I suggest taking a deep breath and re-read the article. You don’t appear to have grasped what he is saying.

      “Really this reads as the wandering of a mind that is confused and trying to understand the reality it is faced with”

      When you casually dismiss the work of a widely respected expert, assume that you have misread it.

  5. I don’t see what this article has to do with future wars. Better training centers and fewer vehicles don’t address the strategic errors that lead to the Iraq and Afghan debacles. Reading lists are fine but don’t deal with the basic problems 1) people don’t like being occupied and if they have arms they will fight back. 2) even medium scale US military operations will be extremely expensive 3) once the casualties start the US voter has only so much patience.

    1. setrg,

      Reform is a process, which can be seen as a succession of stages.

      The first is often the most difficult: admitting that we have a problem. Armies, like alcoholics, find this difficult to do until they hit bottom. A few, such as Thiele, have taken this step before the US military has done so. Let’s hope others follow.

      The second step is understanding the problem. There is as yet little agreement about this. Thiele, like myself, sees that we have entered a new era of war — to which the US military has not adapted. There are many precedents. Europe’s armies were crushed until they learned Napoleon’s 1GW methods. Europe’s armies were crushed until they (and the US) learned Germany’s 3GW methods. So it goes.

      The third step is as yet inchoate: if the answer is “learn 4GW”, what does that mean. Here Thiele’s advice is tentative, appropriately so since this discussion has just begun.

      Everything takes time.

  6. Editor,

    I’m not sure how the US military “has hit bottom”. It gets far more cash than any other military and Trump has announced his desire to give DOD another $ 55 billion.The “thank you for your service” displays at pro sports games etc. go on. The most notable general to be sacked was done so not for failure to win but for allowing his staff to make fun of the VP.

    I think the lesson of the post 9/11 wars is whatever we’re doing works. The cash, gongs, post service jobs and defense spending keep rolling in. Since neither Iraq or the Taliban were a significant threat to the US the failure to win is irrelevant when compared to the cornucopia the US tax payer lavishes on the defense establishment.

    1. setrg,

      “I’m not sure how the US military “has hit bottom”.”

      As I said, it has not yet hit bottom. Let’s replay the tape (bold emphasis added)…

      “Armies, like alcoholics, find this difficult to do until they hit bottom. A few, such as Thiele, have taken this step before the US military has done so. Let’s hope others follow.”

      The historical note Thiele opens with discusses how the Prussian military hit bottom — by catastrophic defeat on the battlefield. There are other ways to do so. Let’s hope others follow Thiele’s lead, and avoid that outcome.

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