Is 4GW magnifique?

Quick note to a comment by Jeff Sexton to my last post, who mentioned John Robb and his Global Guerrillas blog.

Clausewitz’s observation, of course, was made in the context of state-vs-state warfare, where, as he notes, the aim is to “disarm the enemy.” In the form of warfare Robb is addressing (if “warfare” it be, but that’s another question — you can read my take on the subject in If We Can Keep It, available from the Article page), and which also goes under such names as fourth generation warfare and non-trinitarian warfare, that conclusion may not be so straightforward.

For example, in the original paper on the subject, which introduced the term “fourth generation warfare,” Bill Lind and his colleagues noted that:

First generation warfare focused tactically and operationally (when operational art was practiced) on the enemy’s front, his combat forces. Second generation warfare remained frontal tactically, but at least in Prussian practice it focused operationally on the enemy’s rear through the emphasis on encirclement. The third generation shifted the tactical as well as the operational focus to the enemy’s rear.

Fourth generation warfare, like terrorism, might well move the operational focus back even further:

Terrorism takes this a major step further. It attempts to bypass the enemy’s military entirely and strike directly at his homeland at civilian targets. Ideally, the enemy’s military is simply irrelevant to the terrorist.

In fact, the will of the enemy population might become the “operational focus,” as it was for the North Vietnamese.

So what does this suggest for the role of violence, and in particular, the tendency of the level of violence to escalate? Difficult to say. On the one hand, 4GW opponents, like the insurgents, terrorists, and narcotrafficking organizations from whence they sprang, see violence as a tool for influencing civilian (another term that needs to be reexamined in this type of conflict) populations. More may not necessarily be better, as one may awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve, to coin a phrase.

Looking at 4GW from the perspective of a state participant is also complex. Just killing more members of a non-state 4GW organization may not be an optimal strategy because for one thing, there is the well-known phenomenon of creating enemies faster than you can kill them, and for another, it is, as has been observed many times, difficult to carry out an attrition strategy against groups that espouse martyrdom. It is also possible — van Creveld would say inevitable, given enough time — that indiscriminate violence will alienate your own population, doing the enemy’s job for him, as it were.

Another point, as van Creveld has noted, is the strange fact, as apparently fact it is, that in these types of conflicts, the side that is more willing to die for its cause wins:

Compared with the willingness (or lack of it) , in men (and women) to die for their cause, virtually all questions of policy, organization, doctrine, training and equipment pale into insignificance. (The Changing Face of War, 228)

(which, if it is true at all, does not bode well in the long run for our strategy of drone warfare.) By escalating the level of violence, you may simply be playing into their hands.

Balancing all this is the human tendency of wanting to hit back as hard as possible. Consider, for example, the 9/11 attack, which bin Laden considered, and sold to his organization, as retaliation for US actions in the Muslim Middle East: If he had had a nuclear device on that day, would he have used it?

And then there is the prognosis by van Creveld himself, on the probable course of future, non-trinitarian warfare:

  • The true, the beautiful, and the sacred will be its first victims (The Transformation of War, 204)
  • It will be protracted, bloody, and horrible (212)

So I would not bet on the future of conflict being less violent than it is today. In fact, what has kept World War III from breaking out was not the existence of less violent alternatives, like “cyberwar,” but the threat of immediate and assured destruction by the most violent weapons the world has ever known. It may be, as hinted at by Lind and his coauthors, that the world is groping for a way around this impasse analogous to how maneuver warfare/3GW provided a way out (Boyd’s term) from the terrible increase in destructiveness brought on by the industrial revolution in the 19th century.

[Sidenote: There is no agreement on the term “fourth generation warfare.” In addition to Lind, et al., and van Creveld, interested readers should consult T. X. Hammes’ The Sling and the Sword. There is also a lot of reference material on the archived DNI site, and scroll down the right-hand column.]

4 thoughts on “Is 4GW magnifique?

  1. A. “So I would not bet on the future of conflict being less violent than it is today.”

    But hasn’t violence decreased historically? E.g., an interesting discussion here:

    B. “but the threat of immediate and assured destruction by the most violent weapons the world has ever known.”

    But there it is: threat ≠ violence.

    The question to ask, in that case, is whether violence has become the operative factor (or method of conducting warfare), or threat has.

    4GW may attack “the will of the enemy population” in order to achieve desired results; and, strategic use of violence may one method of doing that; but forces who choose to use a 4GW method may be choosing it to specifically avoid even more violence: “to bypass the enemy’s military entirely.” In fact, the decision to fight in a 4GW method may be all about avoiding violence, to the degree that 4GW fighters choose their methods because they do not have armor divisions, an air force, and so forth.

    Interestingly, it may be the threat of violence they are primarily using. Yes, they have to kill some random people, or some particular people, in a random-seeming fashion. But that is only to hype up the sense of threat coming from out-of-the-blue, so to speak. ALSO, and importantly, there is the suggested threat that this can go on forever, draining treasure as well as morale and even possibly national cohesion.

    • Curtis,

      Thanks, interesting observations.

      My personal opinion is that we are far too close to events to make such a sweeping assertion. While the optimum strategy for 4GW entities might be to rationally control the level of violence, at some point, rationality goes out the window.

      Threat is fine, but it’s a bluff and sometimes — eventually always — bluffs get called.

      Also, and this may be what Clausewitz was driving at, human nature is to retaliate, to escalate. Within any organization, from the JCS to an al-Qa’ida cell, there will be individuals who, to demonstrate their cojones, will push to up the level of violence. Unless the organization achieves its objectives quickly, these people will succeed, and likely purge, the rationalists. In Clausewitz’s scheme, perhaps they redefine “rational.”

      Was bin Laden’s attack on 9/11 a rational act? If so, would it have been more rational if it had been more violent?

  2. Chet,

    9/11 seems a case in point. Fewer than 3,000 people died in the attacks, out of a population of just under 300 million Americans (for 2001.) That same year, about 16,000 murders occurred in America.

    What was the effect? Suddenly, every tall building, every bridge, every nuclear power plant, every subway terminal became a potential target. They always were, of course, but bin Laden’s actions turned our attention to these. We had color-coded threat levels; no longer were we buzzing along, as we had been prior to 9/11. No, an attack could come “out-of-the-blue” at any time and anywhere, to borrow a phrase I used above. (Threat.)

    Since “human nature is to retaliate, to escalate” —something I’m guessing that bin Laden knew— we naturally had to go into Afghanistan. Iraq. His exact rationale behind the attacks could have been merely to raise a flag for others to rally around; or also to draw America into the ME in order to facilitate his own recruitment—while simultaneously draining our treasure, our morale, our faith in our own form of warfare and our own structure of government; and, destabilizing the region.

    All effected by one day’s worth of killing.

    I wouldn’t argue that the potential for incredibly devastating violence, on a massive scale, doesn’t exist. But I would argue that most actors, even those within largely decentralized 4GW forces, have rational reasons for doing what they do. Their reasons may be inadequate, they may be poor fighters, but they have a rationale, because they have a goal. While “human nature” may be to “retaliate, to escalate,” human nature is also prone to cause-effect logic, or to deciding upon actions which will bring about a desired goal. So for instance, when Hammes argues, as he has, that biological warfare could be just around the horizon, I have to wonder why rational actors would unleash a weapon that could come back to bite them, and their own people, via the global transit infrastructure. This is not to say that no madman or idiot exists, however; the threat is there. The same question also arises when considering the potential for a war over resources between, say, China and the U.S.: What good would those resources be to a victor who has had all his infrastructure destroyed in the process of winning a monopoly over them?

    So there is more keeping violence at bay, or moderated, than mere threat of violence. Well, we could perhaps stretch a bit and say that the potential threat of shooting your own foot might limit your actions, per the example of biological warfare. The threat of massive retaliation, of intensified violence, could also moderate the levels of violence actually used. (Just ask bin Laden. Oh wait.) So we are at last brought to the question of whether the theoretical Armageddon would come from rational actors or irrational actors; if rational, then what would be the rationale of such extreme devastation? If irrational, how successful would/could they be?

    Worrying about the irrational actors is important—better safe than sorry. Create resilience; prepare for the worst. But it can also so easily become a matter of jumping at shadows—and a massive drain on resources spent fighting shadows.

    • Curtis,

      Yes, and we also had roughly 3,000 people killed in traffic accidents in September 2001, but we didn’t trash the Constitution, create another huge government bureaucracy, and start enforcing 25 mph speed limits throughout the country.

      So our response to 9/11 has certainly been a windfall for those who wish us ill. But could bin Laden have (rationally) expected it or it was just a lagniappe? I don’t know.

      The problem with the rationality argument is that it’s in the eyes of the beholder. Did bin Laden’s justifications make a rational case for the attacks, or were they the ravings of a lunatic? Depends on who’s doing the assessment. Where we don’t have explicit statements of the reasons for actions, then we have to impute rationality — that is, make up a story.

      And even if we like the story (find it rational), we have to balance against the historical record: Wars are highly unpredictable, and as often as not, the side that starts them loses. One thing for sure, though, they will inflict great damage, generally far beyond the “have the boys home by Christmas” mentality that help launched the war. So if war is an instrument of policy by other means, it is a really bad one, and the people who start them aren’t so much rational (no matter how good they are at creative writing) as evil.

      Thanks for the note — lots of good points. You’re certainly helping me illuminate the amorphous nature and complexity of the 4GW/”future of war” debate.

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