In 1989, with two Army and two Marine Corps co-authors, I wrote an article entitled, “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation.” It predicted a new way of war, fought by enemies who were not states, who moved freely within our own society, and could negate our whole military establishment. Although the article was published simultaneously in the Army’s Military Review and the Marine Corps Gazette, it elicited no reaction.
But it seems someone was doing a bit of reading. In February 2002, the Middle East Media Research Institute discovered an al-Qaeda internet magazine named Al-Ansar: For the Struggle Against the Crusader War. In it, a certain Abu ‘Ubeid Al-Qurashi wrote an article, “Fourth Generation War.” It said, “In 1989, some American military experts predicted a fundamental change in the future form of warfare. … They predicted that the wars of the 21st century would be dominated by a kind of warfare they called ‘the fourth generation of wars.’ … This forecast did not arise in a vacuumif only the cowards (among the Muslim clerics) knew that fourth-generation wars have already occurred and that the superiority of the theoretically weaker party has already been proven; in many instances, nation-states have been defeated by stateless nations. … The time has come for the Islamic movements facing a general crusader offensive to internalize the rules of fourth-generation warfare.”
The eternal nightmare of the military theorist is that only the enemy will pay attention to his work. So far, that seems to be the fate of myself and others, such as the Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld, who have pioneered the concept of Fourth Generation war. (Van Creveld’s 1991 book, The Transformation of War, is easily the most important book on war written in the last quarter century.) Israel has already been defeated by one Fourth Generation opponent, Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and is now battling others in the West Bank. But the Israeli military seldom talks to Martin van Creveld.
The intellectual framework of the Four Generations of modern war starts with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that ended the Thirty Years’ War. In that treaty, the state established a monopoly on war. Previously, many different entities had fought warsfamilies, tribes, religions, cities, business enterprisesusing many different means, not just formal armies and navies.
Today, most find it difficult, and the Pentagon finds it impossible, to think of war in any way except war between states. That is part of the reason we are going to war with Iraq, even though the real threat is from non-state actors such as al-Qaeda. We are like the drunk who is looking under the street light for his car keys; he knows he did not drop them there, but that is where he can see.
The First Generation runs roughly from 1648 to 1860. This was war of line and column tactics, where battles were formal and the battlefield was orderly. The battlefield of order created a military culture of order. Most of the things that distinguish “military” from “civilian”uniforms, saluting, careful gradations of rank, etc.were products of the First Generation and are intended to reinforce the culture of order.
But around the middle of the 19th century, the battlefield of order began to break down. Mass armies, soldiers who actually wanted to fight (an 18th century soldier’s main objective, in peacetime or in war, was to desert), rifled muskets and then breech loaders and machine guns, made the old line and column tactics obsolete.
The problem ever since has been a growing contradiction between the military culture of order and the increasing disorderliness of the battlefield. The culture that was once consistent with the environment in which it operated has become more and more at odds with it.
Two answers to the breakdown of line and column tactics emerged, both during World War I. Second Generation warfare, which was developed by the French Army, was based on the methodical, centrally controlled application of firepower to cause attrition. To the great relief of soldiers (or at least their officers), it preserved the culture of order. Second Generation warfare was, and remains, focused inward on rules, processes, and techniques; prizes obedience over initiative; and relies on imposed discipline rather than self-discipline.
The United States Army learned Second Generation war from the French during and after World War I, and it remains the American way of war to this day. Aviation has replaced artillery as the source of most firepower, but, as we saw most recently in Afghanistan, America still fights by “putting steel on target.” Fourth Generation opponents, such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda, respond by becoming untargetable, which we look upon as somehow not quite fair.
Third Generation warfare, also known as maneuver warfare, was developed by the German Army during World War I; Blitzkrieg was conceptually complete by 1918. Relying on speed rather than mass firepower, Third Generation warfare gets at the enemy’s mind as well as his body. Its purpose is to create unexpected and dangerous situations for the enemy faster than he can cope with them.
Third Generation warfare marks a sharp break with the military culture of order. It is focused outward, on the enemy, the situation, and the result the situation requires, rather than inward on process; it prizes initiative above obedience (German junior officers were frequently exercised in war games where, to attain their objective, they had to disobey orders); and it relies on self-discipline rather than imposed discipline.
These characteristics are likely to carry over to Fourth Generation forces. We have already seen what happens when a Third Generation army meets one caught in the Second Generation, in the German campaign against France in 1940. Against a Fourth Generation opponent, a Second Generation military such as ours is as irrelevant as a Macedonian phalanx.
Fourth Generation warfare has three essential characteristics: the state’s loss of its monopoly on war; a return to a world of cultures, not merely states, in conflict (and other cultures will not fight the way we do); and that both of these phenomena will occur not just “over there,” but on American soil (Fourth Generationists were saying this long before the attack of Sept. 11).
Fourth Generation warfare is not just “terrorism.” Terrorism is merely a technique, a common one in 20th century warfare in the form of terror bombing by aircraft. Fourth Generation warfare is much broader than any technique. To the degree the American national security establishment thinks of the problem as terrorism, it will misunderstand what is happening and prove ineffective in countering it.
At the core of Fourth Generation warfare is a universal crisis of legitimacy of the state. The state arose, beginning in the 15th century, to provide security, and part of the reason the state is now in crisis is that it no longer does that effectively. The United States is currently attempting to provide security in the Balkans and in Afghanistan, but cannot maintain it 1,000 yards from the U.S. Capitol after nightfall. In virtually every country, including the U.S., one of the biggest growth industries is the private security business. Nothing testifies more clearly to the failure of the state.
In most countries, again including the United States, the state has become the bureaucratic state, and the bureaucratic state has begotten the New Class. The New Class, the establishment elite that rules regardless of electoral outcomes, has three basic characteristics: it cannot make things work (America’s public schools), it uses its power and position to exempt itself from the consequences of things not working (the New Class’s children go to private schools), and it really cares about only one thingremaining the New Class. As the New Class becomes synonymous with the state, people cease to identify with the state; they come to see it as merely another racket.
The New Class transferred its loyalty away from the state years ago, following World War I. Instead, it identifies with the transnational superstate: the United Nations, the European Union, the World Economy, the “New World Order.” The elite ex-pected that the plebs would eventually do the same. And they are, in that ordinary people too are now transferring their loyalty away from the state. But instead of giving it to larger, more abstract, more bureaucratic entities, they are giving it to narrower, concrete ones: to ethnic groups and races, to religions and cults, to regions, gangs, ideologies, to animal rights, environmentalism, gun owners’ rights, and so on. And many people who would never fight for the state will fight for their new primary loyalty; the environmentalist who buries a saw blade in a tree, hoping to kill a logger, is committing an act of war, not just a crime. The Fourth Generation war that will deconstruct America will be home-grown, not imported like the one that commenced on Sept. 11.
As Martin van Creveld said to me one day in my Washington office, everyone gets it except the people in the capital cities. More than one U.S. Marine sergeant has said to me, “We all know this place is finished.” But in Washington, a.k.a. Versailles on the Potomac, all that counts is court politics. Al-Qaeda’s formal citation of that 1989 Marine Corps Gazette article has not brought me a single phone call from any of our intelligence agencies, nor from anyone in the military. (Some cops are interested.) Of what use is Fourth Generation warfare in justifying Pentagon programs and budgets?
How should we fight Fourth Generation opponents? As van Creveld says, nobody knows. A few states have not lost to Fourth Generation foes: Britain in Northern Ireland, Spain against the ETA. But no state has yet won. A small seminar, made up mostly of Marine captains, has been meeting at my house to work on the question, “How might a Third Generation military (if we had one, which we don’t) fight a Fourth Generation opponent overseas?” We have a few ideas; it would be nice, for instance, to have some real infantry, guys who can move faster and farther on their feet than the enemy, who can do penetrations and encirclements, not just call in fires. We are trying to get two questions out to men who fought in Afghanistan: what didn’t we do that might have worked, and why didn’t we do it? But the whole effort may prove a dry hole.
And so we send our Second Generation military off to do what it can and fight Iraq. Nothing could be more useless in countering Fourth Generation, non-state enemies like al-Qaeda.
A recent cartoon showed Osama bin Laden dressed as Uncle Sam, saying “I want you to attack Iraq.” Undoubtedly, he does. However the Iraq war turns out, non-state entities such as al-Qaeda are sure to benefit. The whole business looks more and more like our Syracuse Expedition, irrelevant if we win and catastrophic if we lose in terms of the real threat we face.
Optimists think that if the Iraq war goes badly, the result may be real reform, within and beyond the military. As a realist, I reply: look at Italy. It always loses, but it never reforms. Real change requires an earthquake so great that it brings down the establishment, the whole New Class. But does a shock like that leave anything standing?
William S. Lind is author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook and co-author, with Gary Hart, of America Can Win: The Case for Military Reform. He lectures worldwide on military strategy, tactics, and doctrine.