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Two Intifadas and a Flawed Theory

For at least a decade, Colonel Tom Hammes has been one of the Marine Corps’ leading intellectuals. His book The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century should be read by anyone who has an interest in Fourth Generation warfare (4GW).

In some ways, this is two books in one. One book describes Fourth Generation war and the reforms our military needs in order to fight it, and here Colonel Hammes is at his best. His distinction between the first and second intifadas is especially valuable. He writes that the Palestinians won the first intifada because they were careful to present themselves as victims of a vastly more powerful Israeli military. Avoiding the use of weapons other than the stone, and taking full advantage of the television camera, the Palestinians “transformed (Israel) from the tiny, brave nation surrounded by hostile Arab nations to the oppressive state that condoned killing children in the street.” This is the power of weakness which is central to Fourth Generation war.

In contrast, in the second (al-Aqsa) intifada, the Palestinians resorted to violence, including suicide bombers, and gave up the power of weakness. Hammes writes, “It is almost impossible to overstate how perfectly Arafat and the radical elements in Palestinian resistance have supported the Israeli effort. Their suicide bombing campaign has given Israel complete freedom of action.” As is so often the case in the Fourth Generation, what seems weak is strong and what seems strong is weak.

Hammes’s descriptions of the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan are equally good. So is his analysis of the Pentagon’s faith that future wars will be decided by high technology. Correctly, he argues that developments such as the Internet favor our Fourth Generation adversaries, because they have “flat,” cooperative organizations while we are stuck with industrial-age, bureaucratic hierarchies. In effect, they are the free market while we represent the centrally-planned Soviet economy. Finally, Hammes’s proposed reforms, while largely derivative, are also mostly sound.

The second book is a book on military theory, and here Hammes is on less solid ground. He makes a major error early, in that he equates Fourth Generation war with insurgency. In doing so, he equates the Fourth Generation with how war is fought. It is usually fought guerrilla-style, but that misses the point: what changes in the Fourth Generation is who fights and what they fight for. This error leads to others, such as believing that Fourth Generation war focuses on the mental level. Hammes writes, “The fourth generation has arrived. It uses all available networks—political, economic, social and military—to convince the enemy’s political decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit.” In fact, Fourth Generation war focuses on the moral level, where it works to convince all parties, neutrals as well as belligerents, that the cause for which a Fourth Generation entity is fighting is morally superior. It turns its state enemies inward against themselves on the moral level, making the political calculations of the mental level irrelevant.

Hammes still makes some useful contributions to Fourth Generation theory. For example, his short discussion of a difficult theoretical problem, the role of the OODA loop in Fourth Generation war, notes that, “the focus is no longer on the speed of the decision but on a correct understanding of the situation. Observation and orientation become the critical elements of the observation-orientation-decision-action [OODA] loop.” I think the OODA loop’s originator, Colonel John Boyd, might agree with that.

But in the end, Colonel Hammes remains trapped in the framework of the state. He writes that 4GW in itself cannot win a decisive victory: “The techniques [of 4GW] can only weaken the enemy’s will and reduce his resources to the point that a conventional military campaign can defeat him entirely.” In fact, Fourth Generation war can unravel a state opponent so completely that he ceases to exist. We saw that with the Soviet Union, we are seeing it now with Israel, and if the United States fails to isolate itself from the Fourth Generation, we may see it here as well.

William S. Lind is author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook and director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation. This column originally appeared here.

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