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From Sun Tzu to Fourth Generation War

In developing military strategy, the U.S. must learn old lessons and adapt to new realities.
Cavalry helicopters

“We’re winning.” “We can win.” “We will win.” “We must win.” This was the constant talk of American generals in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and now Syria. The failure of U.S. strategy is obvious to the whole world. America violates nearly all the precepts of history’s lessons, wreaking chaos and misery upon more nations, but not “winning.”

An excellent little book is a must-read for our generals and members of Congress. It is titled A History of Strategy: From Sun Tzu to William S. Lind. Sun Tzu was the Chinese author of the world’s most definitive study of military strategy. Lind is TAC’s own famous military historian and analyst. The author is Israeli historian Martin Van Creveld, one of today’s most prestigious and prolific military analysts.

Chapters include “Chinese Military Thought” and “From Antiquity to the Middle Ages.” Interestingly, Chinese warfare was based upon a theory called dao, meaning “a return to normal.” Thus it was oriented toward limited war. War was evil and “a temporary departure from ‘cosmic harmony.’” Chinese texts “are permeated by a humanitarian approach and have as their aim the restoration of dao.” “Money is the sinews of war” and “the larger the distance from home, the more ruinous the cost.” (Consider America’s costs of almost $1 million per year for each soldier stationed in Afghanistan.)

Van Creveld focuses on Sun Tzu’s most famous dictum that starting a war should be the last resort, and that the greatest generals win without actual warfare. Think instead of Washington where launching a war is the first option—in Iraq, Libya, and now Yemen.

The book starts with wars after AD 1500, focusing on Machiavelli, the first modern student and writer on strategy, and the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which marked the construction of the modern European state. Then proceeding through contemporary times Van Creveld quotes and explains the many generals and thinkers who developed modern strategies. Among the theorists are of course many Germans. On the other hand, surprisingly, “the British had never been among the great producers of military theory” though “always tending to be pragmatic.”

Then there was the training to develop “cohesion” whereby “comrade sustained comrade and mutual shame prevented each one from running away. That was the way “to ensure that men did not break in front of … contemporary weapons.”

Modern air war, writes Creveld, was expected to be “a more humane modus operandi than an endless struggle of attrition” which “might be over almost before it had begun.” Instead civilians “proved much more resilient than expected.” I myself studied in Germany after World War II. I was amazed that “only” a million civilians died where every city had been flattened (and half of those just from the two firestorms triggered in Hamburg and Dresden). In 1952, I walked through the bombed-out city blocks to my classes. I also took a U.S. Army bus tour through East Berlin and saw it still flattened as far as the eye could see.

Unfortunately the book does not offer much about the Byzantine Empire, which lasted a thousand years. Its strategy obviously was most successful. This incredibly long life came from a strategy of fighting for limited objectives, never making permanent enemies, and avoiding total war. Think of America’s contrary strategy of usually demanding unconditional surrender. The better approach is explained well in a book by Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.  

Similarly the British Empire used war as a last resort, trying instead to let its enemies fight each other. In the Third World it ruled by playing tribes off one another. Most tribes hate their neighbors more than foreign invaders—look at old Scotland or modern Afghans and Arabs. It’s long term strategy was well described by an Australian, Owen Harries. He explained in TAC in an article titled the “Perils of Hegemony,

During the time of their greatest power, the British followed a prudent policy of “Splendid Isolation,” keeping their distance from matters that did not affect them seriously…. They played the role of offshore balancer, aiming not at achieving hegemony but at preventing any other states from doing so.

If all the above seems contrary to America’s way of war, it is.  Especially Washington’s post-communist penchant to use war as a first rather than a last resort.

Van Creveld ends his book with the writings of TAC’s own William Lind on guerrilla and non-state wars, what Lind calls “Fourth Generation warfare.” He describes how, by 1990, “the Clausewitzian framework was beginning to show serious cracks; it proved incapable of incorporating warfare by, or against, non-state actors.” The outcome, he writes, “with the sole exception of the 1982 Falkland War and the 1991 Gulf War, Western armies have been going from one defeat to another.”

Lind’s analyses describe First Generation warfare as ending with Napoleon and the rise of mass infantry and the demise of cavalry. Second Generation warfare opened in 1816 lasting until the last year of World War I. New technology allowed for massive firepower and obliteration of targets. It takes many years before generals recognize changes while they still continue with old tactics (for example, frontal assaults on artillery and machine guns). These were already shown to be obsolete during the time of the American Civil War, but continued well into World War I.

Third Generation warfare was pioneered by the Germans, using mobility, range, and flexibility with spectacular success at the beginning of World War II. General Patton was a master of such warfare. Second Generation warfare, writes Lind, still remained in some nations’ strategies, particularly the U.S. because of our overwhelming wealth, productivity and logistic abilities. Fourth Generation warfare of “terrorism, guerrillas and insurgency of every kind” was developed by those unable to match the West in terms of firepower and technology.  It is a return to warfare before the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 when wars were waged by non-nations such as gangs, religions, tribes, businesses, city states, and young males for rape and pillage. He argues that America “winning” just creates failed states that then become more of a threat to us than the nation-states we destroyed.

Lind argues that America should change from offensive to defensive warfare and containment, as we did with communism. Offensive war is bankrupting us and only creating more enemies wanting vengeance and instigating terrorism. Instead we should try to contain, not inflame, Islamist fanaticism and let it burn itself out just as did the religious wars in Europe during the 17th century. Current American strategy, Lind argues, results in losing wars against enemies wearing bathrobes and flip flops. Lind argues that we should work with nations which are sources of order and stability. (Think China.)

From being a lonely voice of dissent from Washington’s losing strategy, Lind’s concepts are now becoming accepted (see Newsweek’s “Can America Win a War?”). If one thinks of America’s wars as a business, then they become more understandable as profit centers and career enhancement opportunities. I’ve delved into this subject with a study, “12 Reasons America Doesn’t Win its Wars.” Or, as one bitter joke put it, “Most nations waged wars to loot their enemies, America wages war to loot the American treasury.”

Van Creveld gives a last sober warning. Referring to cyber warfare, he writes, “each time advancing technology enabled mankind to move into a new environment—war quickly followed.”

Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.



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