Questions and answers about wars in our world

Summary: Chet Richards is one of the brightest guys I know. His questions contain more insights than a bale of newspapers. Here he poses three questions, followed by a closing note. See my answers; post yours in the comments. This is another in my series of posts trying to provide new perspectives on our world, so that we can better understand and adapt to it.

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By Sergey Nivens. AdobeStock – 297027174.

“What role do foreign military forces play in anything resembling 4GW? Other than make the situation worse?”

Foreign military forces have played a big role in most 4GWs since WWII. They play an essential role for any war: the losers.

I define 4GW more narrowly than do 4GW fashionistas today. I expect soon to see my war with cavities described as 4GW by a 4GW expert.

Personally, I think (aka guess) that 4GW will play a smaller role in America’s future than in past 60 years (i.e., we will do fewer foreign expeditions). I suspect that internal disruptions will dominate our politics. We are becoming a low-trust and fractured society. A large fraction of our young men are alienated – ready to join a movement giving them pride, community, and purpose. Our doomsters endlessly predict that crises from America’s past will repeat – but bigger. I believe that the 21st century will bring new threats. Remember, past performance does not guarantee future victories.

“William Lind once wrote that ‘money is the new fire support.’”

An important insight! Perhaps he was quoting William Pitt the Younger, who deployed Britain’s superior finances as a potent weapon against Napoleon – funding not only Britain’s war machine, but also that of Napoleon’s other enemies. Money has always been one of the most powerful forms of fire support in wars.

“They have an abundance of gold and silver, and these make war, like other things, go smoothly.”
— Attributed to Hermocrates (general for Syracuse, fought Athens, d 407 BC).

“War is not so much a matter of weapons, as of money.”
— Paraphrase of Thucydides (d. 400 BC) in his History of the Peloponnesian War.

“Are you following the efforts of organized crime in Europe to exploit the Coronavirus crisis?”

No, I haven’t. Will anyone remember any of that two days after this is over? My guess: no.

Chet’s afterword

The term 4th generation warfare was coined in “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation” by William S. Lind et al., published in the Marine Corps Gazette, October 1989 (open copy here). To be worth a new name, 4GW has to be something other than garden-variety insurgency via guerrilla warfare tactics. In the original paper, Lind, et al. added 4GW to a series of ways states confront each other (1GW, 2GW, 3GW), without specifically saying what it would be. They offered a few alternatives. It’s worth noting that TX Hammes also considers 4GW to be a form of warfare that could be state-vs-state, although he characterizes it as “evolved insurgency” – for more info, see page 208 of his The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century.

In a recent post, Lind proposed re-aligning the USMC away from its traditional role of land combat from the sea (glossing over, for a moment, the USMC’s conventional campaigns in Vietnam and Korea) towards 4GW.

So, I’d like to ask: “What role do foreign military forces play in anything resembling 4GW as contrasted with traditional counterinsurgency by outside military forces?” As you, van Creveld, and other have pointed out, this is a mission not extravagantly blessed with success since the end of the Second World War.

As for those considering organized crimes as a form of 4GW, I find it difficult to imagine a role for the USMC in counter-‘Ndrangheta operations {they are one of the largest organized crime syndicates in the world, with origins in southern Italy}.


About Chet Richards

Ph.D. Mathematics.  Colonel, USAF, retired.  Long-time editor of the Defense and the National Interest website (archived here), certified yoga instructor (RYT 500, now retired), Fellow of the Lean Systems Society, a colleague of John Boyd, and blogs at Slightly East of New. Chet was an Adjunct Professor of Strategy and Quantitative Methods at Kennesaw St. University in Atlanta, and author of these important books.

For More Information

Ideas! For some holiday shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon. Also, see a powerful and disturbing story about “Birth of a Man of Steel …for the Soviet Union.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about ways to reform our militaryabout our long war, about military strategy, about military theory and practice, and especially these…

  1. Why does the US field the best soldiers but lose so often?
  2. A look at our military threats – and at our greatest foe.
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  4. Why America Loses Every War It Starts.
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  6. The Houthi of Yeman just changed the nature of war.

Essential reading to understand modern war

There are two the best books I have read about modern war.

The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz by Martin van Creveld.

The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World by General Rupert Smith.

Transformation of War
Available at Amazon.
The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World
Available at Amazon.

13 thoughts on “Questions and answers about wars in our world”

  1. Hi Larry and Chet,

    Always, always interesting to hear what Chet Richards has to think and say. Thank you both.

    Q: What role do foreign military forces play in anything resembling 4GW? Other than make the situation worse?

    An angle I’d love to see explored a little further is how Boyd’s dimensions of conflict that ranks moral, mental, and physical in that order plays into this. Thinking here of Syria, where Russia, Hizbullah(!), Iran, etc., are providing foreign military forces in what’s if you squint at it something that’s “anything resembling 4GW” for the war with Daesh/ISIL/ISIS/al-Qaeda/al-Nusra/whatever. Assad may be a “bad hombre” or whatever they’re calling bad people these days, but if say you were a Copt or Druze, would you rather be sipping tea in Damascus or watching your head be separated from your body in Idlib? 4GW is not a silver bullet, because it can’t be separated from the moral/mental/physical dimensions of conflict. If you are going to fight 4GW opponents you must be on the right (or at least less wrong) side of things. And if you’re going to uncork 4GW on people, you need to be on the right(er) side of things as well. Mao needs to be on the bookshelf next to Boyd and Sun Tzu.

    With all due respect to Chet, the book “Certain to Lose” could be written about people and systems who/that don’t grok the moral/mental/physical dimensions of conflict.

    CR: …we will do fewer foreign expeditions.

    I hope Chet’s right. However, the way to minimize this is not to ratchet up tensions with nuclear powers like Russia and China and bully nations like Syria and Iran in powder keg regions. And, oh, yeah, North Korea. All the drumbeats to “do something” about China from the left and the right sounds like paving the road to a Thucydides’s Trap with clickbait intentions. Or stumble into catastrophe. N.b. Iraq.

    Q: William Lind once wrote that ‘money is the new fire support’.

    I’d rephrase it, “fire support still hasn’t replaced the ducat/crown/doubloon/pound/dollar/etc. as the foreign policy tool of choice”. Bullets and bombs can pretty much only cause misery. Money makes mischief. Coupled with a solid moral argument, better than any bullet. But, this is what we get from our fearless leaders: A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.

    Q: Are you following the efforts of organized crime in Europe to exploit the Coronavirus crisis?

    Tangentially. Interesting to see “gangs” in Brazil and Mexico (and I’m sure other places) enforcing curfews and social distancing. Seldom do people ask “why gangs?” (Mafia/Hizbullah/etc.), but it’s almost always a dysfunction in the broader top-down society that gives these organizations (and they are organizations however decentralized) room to compete. The Amish have Rumspringa, but you take my point. I am not pro-gang, but when you have a collapse of lawful, civil society, you’re going to get gangs.

    Best regards,


  2. Don’t know how to reply. Pretty much agree with everything Bill wrote.

    I had a wonderful libertarian friend many years ago. She once asked me what life would be like if we didn’t have any government — imagining, I guess, a bucolic paradise where nobody walked on anybody else’s lawn without permission. I told her she didn’t need to imagine it, just check out Somalia. It may be a cliche that power abhors a vacuum, but it’s a cliche for a reason.

    As for your first point, I tend to side with TX –that the idea behind 4 GW is to persuade the other side not to fight, even though they would likely win if they did. Very high moral content — the “righter” side of things. So we could easily have won in Vietnam by using our nukes. But we chose not to. If you take this line (as contrasted with Bill Lind’s concept of 4GW as the decline of the state), you would wage 4GW in Syria by persuading al-Assad’s support structure to dump him. But for whom? And why? How do we get on the righter side there? So far, alternatives like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the remnants of ISIS, and even what’s left of the Free Syrian Army don’t seem to be that attractive.

    Similarly, your point about powder keg regions is well taken. It won’t be too long before historians will be able to pinpoint the spark that set one of them off.

    1. Chet,

      A great analysis, as always!

      “your point about powder keg regions is well taken. It won’t be too long before historians will be able to pinpoint the spark that set one of them off.”

      We assume that underdeveloped or less developed nations are the powder kegs. But might be a developed nation to suffer severe internal disruption. Perhaps America?

      1. Yes — Could be. Civil war in a country with nuclear weapons could get interesting in a hurry.

  3. Great post and comments. COL Richards, I reread your “If We Can Keep It” often. It’s on my home page for easy access.

    Best to all.

  4. John F Pittman

    “They have an abundance of gold and silver, and these make war, like other things, go smoothly. … War is not so much a matter of weapons, as of money.” – Cicero.

    Money makes mischief. – Bill Occam

    In environmental science, you are taught not to follow moral claims, but follow the money. It is interesting that the environmental activists use the 4GW technique of “the idea behind 4 GW is to persuade the other side not to fight”. They have been successful even in areas of poverty in the Southern United States. So, I have to ask “Why do we fight?”

    Looking at the money side, it appears to be the denial of money. Rather than have functioning states like North Korea, or Vietnam, the implemented recent war policies guarantee non functioning states, tribal confederacies. Assuming negative money is the motive, our wars are scorched earth policies to control, as in Dune by F Herbert where the ability to destroy is the ability to control.

    IMO, one of the tells, is that despite being warned about what happens to those indigents who support us if we leave, we go in and then use the excuse we cannot let our new indigenous friends be abandoned. This sequence of killing collaborators is a historical norm. Our losing is the norm. Leaving dysfunctional remains is the norm. Leaving regimes less capable of influencing the world is the norm. It appears we are engaged in monetary and influence genocide.


    1. You could be right. One of the things I find most interesting is that we seem to be the only “empire” in recent memory that’s paying for the privilege. The others were in it for the cash, and when it was no longer profitable, they left.

      1. John F Pittman

        Nobody is driven in to war by ignorance, and no one who thinks he will gain anything from it is deterred by fear. Also attributed to Hermocrates.

        In war, numbers alone confer no advantage. Do not advance relying on sheer military power.- Sun Tzu

        Chet, there are many more quotes from ancient times that say we should question the current state of affairs. I ask myself, what is envisioned that will be gained. When asked, it seems many seem to excuse our losses as a result of not using more force. But the results indicate that unless, we are to engage in human genocide, how much more damage can we do before it would be declared a crime against humanity. Force and its use have been extensive.

        Perhaps, it is unnecessary to assign motive. Rather look at the results, and state that is done is what was desired, reasons matter not.

        Considering the history of the Crusades and the region in general, I can think of few worse places to claim we are creating a better state, than the reality of our actions. One can only imagine the widespread hate and disrespect our actions are generating.

    2. John,

      Thank you for those great quotes! The first line is attributed to Hermocrates (general for Syracuse, fought Athens, d 407 BC).

      The second is a paraphrase of Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War.

      I’ve added them to the post!

  5. “What role do foreign military forces play in anything resembling 4GW? Other than make situations worse?”

    Foreign military forces may provide specific zones of security, or secure certain economic assets. This can return positive results within the limits of those specific objectives. However, modern deployment of foreign military forces rarely occurs with such narrow military or political goals. Where the foreign military forces support the strong local party (whether government or insurgent), the foreign military may be decisive in ending the conflict sooner and/or with better results for the local party. Where foreign military forces provide an independent stable zone, they may prove of value in cooling or mediating the conflict. Typically, this all comes at significant cost to the foreign military’s home country.

    Another role a foreign military may play to is to offset the presence of another foreign military. Where this couples with the foreign military support for the strong local party, as stated previously, it may achieve a quicker and/or more satisfactory resolution to the conflict.

    “William Lind once wrote that ‘money is the new fire support.”

    -Perhaps he is quoting the Ancient General who told his king “but for want of gold, they have not enjoyed victory against us.”; this is timeless. Two cautionary supplementary statements follow…. ”Be wary if Money is your center of gravity lest it replace your spirit” and “Your river of Money will blind you and be your undoing”.

    “Are you following the efforts of organized crime in Europe to exploit the Coronavirus crisis?”

    -Somewhat, but only because the Coronavirus is a catalyst exposing pre-existing weakness that is exploited by organized and disorganized crime.

    Additional -On a somewhat related note, I mostly agree with Lind’s assessment regarding the USMC’s suicidal shift in positioning for the future. I’ve told friends that this is the year the USMC lost the Pentagon wars by giving up the focus on their greatest contribution to DoD Operations; the MAGTF. The MAGTF is the one thing the ‘Corps does that no one else does. It is the perfect seed for Joint Ops. There are substantive issues around compositing MAGTFs for the modern operational environment, yet those are refinements for improvement, not reasons to drop it. Reading the NDS and the response of the Marine Corps…I get the impression the USMC stepped away from the Defense poker table for a moment and the others took advantage. This is a great set of questions.

    1. T,

      “Foreign military forces may provide specific zones of security, or secure certain economic assets.”

      Lots of technical stuff can be said about this. But the bottom line is that when they move from a small supporting war fighting a local insurgency (eg, training, air support) to a major role – they lose. That fact dwarfs all the technical details.

      1. Larry,

        I absolutely agree…in fact I edited out a disclaimer. Here is that disclaimer: “This answer is provided as a dry response limited in scope; it’s very hard to discuss this without falling into the abyss that ends with Larry’s answer – ‘foreign military’s provide the important role of the loser’. I say that as I understand the issues underlying National Policy and Strategy coupled with coherent interaction between military and civilian / diplomatic agencies of the home country.”.

        As far as ‘lots of technical stuff can be said about this”…I was being specific, not trying to vomit word salad. I was referring to the limited goals that could make sense for a foreign military to achieve without necessarily making a situation worse (even as a major player or de-fault authority in a given area (port or airfield)). Specifically, Non Combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) are probably the best historical example of the one mission a foreign military power might undertake successfully in 4GW. Notably, most foreign military intervention in 4GW scenarios ends with a NEO(being optimistic) of some type. I’d suggest it’s better to put it up front.

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