4th Generation Warfare and its discontents

These days, it's a $1.2 BILLION bomber

I finished reading The 4th Generation Warfare Handbook by William S. Lind and Lt. Col. Gregory A. Thiele (USMC) a few days ago. It was a rather interesting distillation of wisdom and ideas from two of the finest military historians and thinkers anywhere on the planet. Yet reading through that manual on warfare and counterinsurgency tactics actually left me with almost as many questions as answers.

And in the process of reading that book, along with some of the more trenchant criticisms of the concept of "manoeuvre warfare" (yes, that is the correct way to spell it- remember, I still speak English, not American), I find myself wondering whether the concepts of 4th Generation Warfare are actually as intellectually sound as they seem.


The basic theory of 4th Generation Warfare comes from what Mr. Lind calls "the 4GW canon". According to him, if you read these books in order from first to last, you will be taken through the history of his four generations of warfare. By the time you get to the end of it, if you still don't get it, there is something so fundamentally wrong with you that even the US Marine Corps' own drill sergeants couldn't get you to comprehend it:
  1. The Enlightened Soldier by C. E. White
  2. The Seeds of Disaster by Robert Doughty
  3. Stormtroop Tactics by Bruce Gudmundsson
  4. Command or Control? by Martin Samuels
  5. The Breaking Point by Robert Doughty
  6. Fighting Power by Martin Van Creveld
  7. The Transformation of War by Martin Van Creveld
To these books, I would add Mr. Lind's own highly influential works: On War: The Collected Columns of William S. Lind, his novel Victoria, his columns at AntiWar.com and traditionalright.com, the transcript of his speech, "The Four Generations of Modern War", and of course his latest book on the subject. All of them are easy to read, well-written, and exceptionally persuasive in making the case for both manoeuvre warfare and 4GW concepts.

Interestingly, though, you don't have to read the books in his canon in order to understand what he's talking about. I have read two of those seven and plan to read the rest over the coming months. If you just read the 7th book, and a few of Mr. Lind's books and articles, you'll immediately get what he's on about- and you'll instantly understand precisely why 4GW theory makes so much sense.

The entire theory of 4GW comes down to a few simple, easily understood, but profound ideas.

The Clausewitzian Trinity

First, the old Clausewitzian trinity of people, army, and state is breaking down, and with that breakdown we are seeing a return to older, privatised, decentralised forms of warfare that the Western world in particular has not really seen in some 350 years.

This requires some slight explanation for those who are unfamiliar with the term, trinitarian warfare. Basically, prior to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, many different private and public entities fought wars. It was common for powerful families, corporations, and religious orders to hire mercenaries or arm themselves and ride forth to fight their enemies. Warfare was decentralised, spread out from the control of governments.

But after the treaty, the power to make war was almost completely concentrated into the hands of governments everywhere. The very idea of private citizens or organisations waging war was outlawed; there is a reason why armed gangs are enemies of modern society, and why corporations who hire private mercenaries to carry out their "dirty deeds done dirt cheap", as it were, are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. This is also why private military organisations like Blackwater are viewed with extreme suspicion and hostility by the general public and by the government.

In Vom Kriege, which Mr. Van Creveld closely analyses in his book The Transformation of War, the Prussian general and military historian Carl von Clausewitz tied together the politics of war with the morality of war and began to require military leaders to think beyond the mere tactical and logistical frames of warfare. Fundamental to von Clausewitz's theory was the notion that war was only "moral" and easily winnable when all three legs of his "trinity" supported it.

Fight a war without the support of the people, and you will lose, as your supplies and pool of soldiers willing to fight dwindles down to nothing.

Fight a war without the support of the military, and you will find yourself fighting your own people even as you try to fight those of your enemy.

Fight a war without the support of the state, and you will find yourself crushed by the far greater weight of your opponent's forces.

Each leg of this trinity depends on the others. One cannot have a successful state without appearing "legitimate" in the eyes of the people and the army. One cannot have a strong army without support from the state and a pool of volunteers (or conscripts) from the people. One cannot have a successful and vital people without the protection of the state and the use of the army to defend the principles and values of that state.

But in modern times, as the people lose trust in governments and the legitimacy of the state declines at an ever-accelerating rate, that trinity is increasingly breaking down. And with that breakdown comes the re-emergence of far more ancient forms of warfare that the world has not seen in centuries, and which modern armies have an extraordinarily difficult time handling.

David Versus Goliath

Second, the moral level of war is once again becoming far and away the most important one.

Col. John Boyd- perhaps the greatest fighter pilot that the US Air Force ever produced, and without question one of the most influential military thinkers the world has ever seen- categorised warfare into three "levels": the physical, the mental, and the moral. An entity that fails on a lower level, but succeeds on a higher level, will in this framework almost always win over an enemy that succeeds on a lower level but fails on a higher one.

The application to modern warfare is immediate and obvious. State-led militaries, such as the US Army and Marine Corps, truly excel at the physical level of war- the "killing people and breaking things" level, the one in which the US military's high-speed, high-tech, steel-on-target way of fighting makes everyone and everything else look slow and stupid by comparison.

But state-led militaries appear to absolutely stink at winning on the moral level of war- the "hearts and minds" level.

Nowhere has this been made more clear than in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Repeatedly, American forces which were qualitatively vastly superior to their enemies would win tactical and operational engagements by killing their enemies and destroying their havens- but would rapidly lose the support of the local populations in doing so. And ultimately, each of those wars ended in either stalemate or defeat.

Indeed, there is a persuasive and powerful case to be made that the United States of America has not actually truly achieved victory- crushing, outright, total victory- in a single war that it has fought since WWII.

America, and the West in general, keeps losing because ultimately, state-led warfare always comes down to the giant with spear and shield against the teenager with a sling. And in such situations, it is human nature to want the teenager to win.

Outward Versus Inward

Third, modern state-led militaries have become more inwardly focused than ever.

The job of any military, Western or otherwise, is to defend the nation and its people- at least, that is the case under the old, "Trinitarian" way of war. A military machine that is relentlessly focused on this task will not have the time or patience to indulge in counterfactual stupidities such as: allowing and even encouraging women to serve in front-line combat roles; allowing homosexuals to serve openly among heterosexual line troops; concentrating on having the "greenest" bases and facilities instead of the most efficient or combat-ready; and investing billions and even trillions of dollars in over-hyped, overly-expensive, and actually ineffective "stealth" technology.

A military that focuses on pomp and circumstance over skill and substance, obsesses over hierarchy, succumbs to the latest political fads, or invests in technology just for the sake of technology, is a military designed for the specific purpose of losing wars.

The concept of an outwardly focused military builds directly into the theory of "manoeuvre warfare", an idea that is as central to the theories of fighting and winning 4th Generation wars as anything else I have outlined above.

Manoeuvre warfare essentially comes down to a set of tactics, operations, and strategies that focus on bypassing enemy strong points and attacking weak points, allowing for maximum individual initiative, and rewarding outcomes, not slavish devotion to hierarchy and order. The best-known example of this sort of thing is, of course, the German blitzkrieg of 1939-41, which brought so much of Europe under the Third Reich's dominion.

However, it is not the only example of well-planned and well-executed manoeuvre warfare. More recent examples arguably include General MacArthur's now-legendary landing behind enemy lines at Inchon, General Ariel Sharon's campaign in the Sinai in the Battle of Abu-Ageila during the Six Day War of 1967, and the "encirclement" tactic that destroyed much of the Iraqi Army and Republican Guard during Operation Desert Storm.

Fitting Theory to Fact

Obviously, there is far, far more to 4GW theory than what I have outlined above. It would take a lifetime of reading and understanding to come to a true and full knowledge of what 4GW is, why it is so effective as a form of warfare against centralised and hierarchical entities, and why Western civilisation in particular is having such a tremendously difficult time in fighting it.

Indeed, 4GW theory has been applied in practice many times over by non-military organisations and individuals- including yours truly- over the past few years, to great effect. As I had pointed out last year, #Gamergate was nothing if not a demonstration of 4GW tactics at their finest. 

However, the more I read into it, the more I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that the theory is not as rigourous as it should be.

On the surface, 4GW theory is an elegant exposition of key realities of modern warfare that simply makes sense. The basic concepts are simple and straightforward; any background reading done into each of the key assumptions and ideas behind the theory reveals that 4GW provides effective, though often counter-intuitive, answers to some of the most challenging and pressing questions facing modern militaries engaged in low-intensity conflicts around the world.

However, there is one part of 4GW theory that I believe requires far more scrutiny than it has received thus far. And that is the concept of manoeuvre warfare.

Within the canon of 4GW, it is assumed that fourth-generation actors can be pretty much anyone- not beholden to any particular state, nation, or ideology. This is precisely what we have seen in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where stateless bodies and individuals have moved to directly challenge the American military- often losing, badly, when it comes to the actual tactical military engagements, but still winning the war on the battlefields of opinion, morality, and credibility.

In order to fight such a decentralised enemy, the argument is made by 4GW proponents that the only possible response of trinitarian militaries is to move from centralised, top-down, inwardly-focused 2nd-Generation (i.e. French-style "command and conquer") militaries, to highly nimble, decentralised, outwardly-focused, results oriented 3rd-Generation militaries. And it is repeatedly stressed that building such a military is extraordinarily difficult- and keeping one such is even more so.

To support this argument, 4GW theorists always return to the examples of first the Prussian and then the German military, starting in 1806 with the catastrophic defeat suffered by the Prussians at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, and proceeding through into the early stages of WWII and the successful implementation of German blitzkrieg.

Yet these examples suffer from serious problems.

Decision Cycles

LTC Tom Kratman has done a considerably detailed analysis of Mr. Lind's Manoeuvre Warfare Handbook, specifically with relation to the eight examples of battles or campaigns that met with the Boydian theory of manoeuvre warfare in which force commanders rapidly analysed and adjusted their tactics in response to new information through decentralised observation, orientation, decision, and action. In other words, LTC Kratman checked up on these 8 examples to see whether the OODA loop- central to the entire theory of 4GW warfare- was actually used the way that some of the strongest proponents of 4GW said they were.

His conclusion? Most of those examples had little, if anything, to do with OODA Loop-based manoeuvre warfare.

To be clear, there was a very great deal of manoeuvre going on- but most of it was pre-planned, very little of it was adjusted to meet the facts of the battle.

A critically important concept within the world of 4GW theory is the idea of "getting inside your opponent's decision-making cycle". This is how 4GW encounters are won or lost. The player that cycles through the available information the fastest and chooses the correct course of action the quickest is the one that wins- while the player that is "out-cycled" always finds himself playing catch-up, unable to get any read on what his opponent is trying to do, and unable to form any kind of coherent counter-strategy. No matter what he does, he is outfoxed and outmatched in every aspect of battle.

Or so the theory says, anyway. Does it actually work in real life?

I am not nearly military historian enough to figure that one out and come up with a definitive verdict. Fortunately, there are a number of truly great military historians out there who are equipped to judge the theory of manoeuvre warfare against the facts. And their verdict is... well, inconclusive at present, as far as I can tell.

Furthermore, the distinction that 4GW theorists love to make between Weberian or Westphalian states and non-state actors is, as far as I can tell, a deeply artificial one.

Consider: ISIS is an organisation that explicitly aims to be a state. Hell, it IS a state with actual territories held and an actual government organisation of some sort within those territories. It also sponsors terrorism through various decentralised affiliates, sponsors, and independent actors that have brainwashed themselves into thinking that an Islamic caliphate is a Good Thing.

Is ISIS therefore not engaged in 4th-Generation Warfare? Or is it? Where does one draw the line?

Furthermore, consider the United States government. We know for a fact that the US government fights wars of usurpation and interference in the Middle East through various militia and quasi-state proxies that it covertly funds. We know that the USA does this on top of its already active bombing campaigns in the third world. And there is good reason to think that this is happening both within and outside of the traditional command structures of the US military.

Is the US government therefore a 4GW entity? (Yes, I know, it's very hard to keep a straight face at that one.) Or is it one of those lumbering, clumsy, 2nd-Generation Trinitarian entities that doesn't stand a hope in hell of fighting an actual enemy that practices 4GW?

The evidence we have at hand tells us that both are true. Yet how can that be the case if both are mutually exclusive?

The only possible answer is that 4GW theory is therefore not quite as good a fit to the facts of the world before us as we would like to believe it to be. As with any theory, its merits must be examined carefully and weighed against the available evidence.

Never Fall in Love with a Good Theory

If nothing else, the lesson of 4GW theory is this: one must always question all assumptions that go into any grand strategic theory. Manoeuvre warfare is all well and good as a theory of warfighting. I do not question the US Marine Corps' adoption or use of it; everything I have seen tells me that there is tremendous merit to a doctrine that preaches speed, adaptation, individual initiative, and a results-oriented culture of achievement and merit. However, that does not mean that manoeuvre warfare is somehow the perfect cure for all that ails the US military today.

Moreover, as Robert A. Fry points out quite trenchantly in the article that I linked earlier, the doctrine of manoeuvre warfare really comes down to German tactics and operational doctrines that were brilliantly innovative and quite devastating when put into action- and yet Germany STILL was crushed in WWII.

All the manoeuvering in the world could not save the German panzer divisions from being encircled in the steel cauldron of Stalingrad; all the brilliant German operational doctrines could not prevent far more massive and powerful American and British forces from breaking through into the heart of Germany after bloody and grinding campaigns that mixed both attrition warfare and rapid deft changes of pace and speed.

4GW theory has tremendous explanatory power, make no mistake. It is a radical, brilliant, and highly intuitive theory that makes a great deal of sense when applied to modern warfare. But that does not mean that 4GW theory is always right or correct. It is critically important for us to remember both the strengths and the weaknesses of the theory when analysing any conflict, whether military or otherwise, to which 4GW theory might be reasonably applied.

I leave the last word to LTC Kratman, and the advice that he used to give his junior officers:
“Boys, when the enemy is tossing at you more decisions, in the form of probing fingers, than you’re comfortable with, take your reserve and smash one of those fingers to bloody pulp. It will provide useful marksmanship training to your men, inject some highly desirable caution on the enemy, and make you, personally, feel much, much better.”


  1. Go reread the essay; there's more wrong with decision cycle theory than merely that the battles and campaigns cited to support it just don't.

    Also, you're instincts are correct; one should always be _deeply_ suspicious of elegant sounding theories and never more so than when they involve the very inelegant matter of war.

    My major problem with the notion of 4GW is that it isn't 4GW; it's that it's 0GW V. 2.0. It's simply a descent into / reversion to barbarism, with no redeeming virtues that I can see. For example, how does one make peace in a world of 4GW? The simple answer is you don't, indeed, you don't even know who to make peace _with_, and even if you do he's unlikely to be able to control his movement to the point that there will not be splitters to continue the war.

    1. I did, sir. Twice. As you say, there was rather more to your essay than just the question of whether decision cycle theory is borne out by the facts.

      Would you have any readings, other than the reading list you posted in one of your earlier articles over at EveryJoe.com, that you consider essential to understanding both the theory and practice of warfare in a modern setting?

  2. Yeah, swing by my house and I'll point you at the bookcases.

    Thing is, war is the art that subsumes all other arts and sciences. Everything has a place in it and everything is worthy of study, from plastic arts to propaganda and from psychology to Schrechlichkeit. I try to cover as much of it as possible in my books, but even with a couple of millions words of those by now, I can still only scratch the surface.

    Short of that, the most I can say is look at the article on the principles I put into RTRH I, and use those as a study guide.


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