Werther Report - 4GW & Riddles of Culture

December 30, 2004 

Comment #535

One of the oldest ideas in military strategy is that a military operation ought to threaten alternative objectives. The idea is to place one's adversary on the horns of dilemma, where choosing how to respond to one line of attack makes him vulnerable to another line of attack. The quandary increases his uncertainty and magnifies the internal friction in his OODA loop. This mental state can devolve into paralysis and even collapse if he feels he is under a menacing strain that forces him to act before he can sort out his options.

The United States went to war in Iraq ostensibly because —

  • Mr. Bush asserted repeatedly that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction posed a clear and present danger to the United States,

  • the Bush Administration insinuated repeatedly, without explicitly asserting, that Saddam was somehow involved with the 9-11 attack,

  • the Bush Administration asserted Saddam might give his weapons of mass destruction to terrorist allies who could then attack the United States with even more destructive effects than on 9-11,

  • Mr. Bush said he had a vision that United States could make Iraq into a beacon of democracy that would transform the politics of the Middle East, thereby insinuating it would put in place conditions that would enable a resolution to Israel's Palestinian Question.

The first three goals are now forgotten and, of course, any ambition to control Iraq's oil was never mentioned. The Bush Administration has now pinned its grand-strategic goal for the entire war in Iraq on his vision of a friendly democratic Iraq transforming the confrontational dynamics of the entire Middle East and, by implication, setting the conditions for resolving the Palestinian Question, and thereby enabling an outbreak of peace and a graceful military exit for the United States.

But this overarching vision has insensibly mutated into a military strategy aimed at a single unambiguous objective: EXIT via the Iraqization of the American War.

It is the same objective we failed to achieve in Viet Nam — namely Vietnamization — which evolved once the political elite understood victory as originally conceived was a elusive dream.

That Iraqi exit strategy rests on two clear contingent assumptions: The first is the idea of building up Iraqi defense forces powerful enough to do what the US military forces manifestly can not do — bring security to the Iraqi people. Once this is achieved, the second assumption is that the Iraqis will, under the benign tutelage of the United States (the very country the Iraqi people hold responsible for their current state of insecurity and impoverishment), build a strong, pro-western, democratic government with institutions that are honest enough — and capable enough — to bring stability and a realistic promise of prosperity to the Iraqi people.

In theory, this enabling sequence will generate within the Iraqi people a vested interested in maintaining a friendly, western-oriented democracy which will create a kind of political force field that will somehow transform the corrupt authoritarian governments of Middle East, thereby bringing peace to the region, including Palestine.

In short, the theory of Iraqization is based on a top-down theory of transformation made possible by what some public school boards might now call intelligent design ... except in this case, the United States is playing the role of a God with the arching wisdom needed to create a new intelligently-designed "whole" out of the disparate cultures of ancient parts. An implicit assumption is that these disparate "parts" will submit to an ahistorical rearrangement because their culture is so weak, that they lack sufficient independent will to evolve their culture along their own pathway.

Iraqization — like its failed antecedent, Vietnamization — is also a contingent strategy. Like the design of its failed predecessor, success in the first goal — building up security forces — is a necessary pre-condition for success in the second goal.

This kind of clear linear thinking may look great in a PowerPoint briefing in the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac; it may sound great in the sound-byte-addicted echo chamber of the mass media (you know, the one that bought into the now forgotten "shock and awe" theory that technology would make this war a cakewalk); or it may get an "A" in yet another vapid business school case study. But in a real war, one's adversary has a free will that reacts unpredictably, albeit in a way that is shaped in part by his history and his culture.

Even worse, the culture-free, design-like linear clarity of the Iraqization strategy makes it the opposite of an ambiguous strategy. This makes it easier for a determined adversary to create an ambiguous menace to the not-so-intelligent designer's OODA loop. That is because our strategy's contingent nature presents our adversary with clearly marked multiple entry points, and this makes it easier for him to gain and retain the initiative by threatening multiple objectives with hit and run attacks:

  • For example, our adversaries can attack the more distant contingent goal by increasing general insecurity. They can attack the Iraqi people directly, concentrating attacks on American sympathizers, who will be portrayed as Quislings and dupes. Innocent Iraqis will be killed in such attacks, but these casualties will be seen by many Iraqis as the "collateral damage" required to expel the occupier. Or our adversaries can attack US forces, in the hopes of triggering a heavy-handed "search and destroy" reaction by the US forces, thereby punishing innocent Iraqis. But, because the attacker is an outsider, this is likely to be seen a collective punishment by some, if not many, ordinary Iraqis, notwithstanding our protestations about the inevitability of collateral damage. Either ambition magnifies the people's insecurity — the leveling of Falluja to "break the back" of the insurrection being a case in point.

  • The enemy can also attack the nearer pre-condition by hitting the Iraq security forces directly — as we have seen in the numerous individual assassinations or by larger hit-and-run attacks on police stations in cities like Mosul and Baghdad, while the United States is focused elsewhere — again Falluja being a case in point.

  • And the enemy can attack the Iraqi security forces indirectly by infiltrating moles into the Iraqi security forces and the support contractors employing Iraqis — which is now relatively easy, in part, because the United States has destroyed pre-existing security institutions like the Iraqi Army and, thanks to Mr. Cheney "reforms" made while he was Secretary of Defense, our forces have become more dependent on vulnerable contractor services in its logistics tail. Such indirect attacks will enable our adversaries to use Iraqi forces and Iraqis who are employed by contractors as a vehicles for gathering intelligence about and/or attacking US forces. Not only does this latter kind of attack increase the cost of "staying the course" for the United States, it also weakens our OODA loops by building up mistrust between American forces and our supposed allies in the Iraqi population.

From our adversary's point of view, all of these attack objectives are likely to increase the pressure to delay Iraqization of the American war. But continued Americanization of the war pushes the first goal (the pre-condition of strengthening Iraqi forces) further into the future, makes Iraqization more problematic, while generating recruits for the insurgency. This makes any movement toward the second goal (establishing democracy), like the January elections, look more and more artificial to the Iraqi people — witness Mr. Colin Powell's recent suggestion that it might be appropriate to set up quotas for Sunni representation in the new government even if they do not vote in large enough numbers to justify that representation.

In short, the contingent strategy of Iraqizing the War gives the adversary TIME to attract sympathizers and ratchet up his cycle of escalating hit-and-run offensive operations. And mounting destruction and chaos makes TIME more costly to America by further alienating other nations, particularly the important democracies of Western Europe, and because mounting American casualties will insensibly increase popular discontent and widen those divisions on the home front which were created in the first place by the misrepresentations used by the Administration to justify the war (the first three reasons).

If these speculations are correct, the 4GW insurgency in Iraq could continue to metastasize until we are forced into some other kind of exit strategy by the war's mounting social, political, and economic costs. While not all insurgencies are successful, post-WWII history suggests that most 4GW insurgencies just seem to continue, waxing and waning, over very long time horizons, like the fighting in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and the West Bank, with no definitive victory for the nation trying to quell the insurgency.

With these depressing thoughts in mind, I asked my good friend Werther if he had any insights into the nature of our conundrum. He has responded with another of his memorable reports. I urge you to read it carefully.

4GW and the Riddles of Culture

by Werther*

December 30, 2004

* Werther is the pen name of a defense analyst based in Northern Virginia .

D-N-I.net's recently posted briefing on Iraq as a case study of Fourth Generation Warfare, or 4GW [1] should be mandatory reading for the men who rule the United States. It is long past time: the twenty-one months that have elapsed between the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and the present quagmire nearly equal the period between the landing on Tarawa and the surrender at Tokyo Bay — or Gettysburg and Appomattox.

Those comparisons raise a significant issue: how is it that in the past, an American nation much weaker in absolute terms, fighting more evenly matched opponents, could prevail against its enemies more quickly than a state with an $11-trillion GDP and a defense budget approaching $500 billion (bear in mind, the Bush Administration is preparing a budget supplemental of about $80 billion for the current fiscal year) against 10-20,000 insurgents in a state with a pre-war GDP less than the turnover of a large corporation?

4GW theory gives us a partial answer. Insurgency warriors try to avoid, rather than seek, decisive battles. The more prolonged the war, the more the occupiers become confused and exhausted, and the more they employ counterproductive tactics. There is no Pickett's Charge to decide the issue one way or another. These precepts, however, should be present in popular insurgencies dating from the remote abysm of time.  Instead, they raise questions:

  • Why are they common only after the Second World War — Algeria, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Chiapas, Colombia, and now, most spectacularly, in those sections of the Arab heartland occupied by Israel and the United States?

  • Why does 4GW fit the tenor of the times, while the conventional conflicts the U.S. military trains for and the U.S. taxpayer pays for increasingly emit a whiff of the antique?

Popular insurgencies and guerrilla campaigns containing aspects of 4GW are of course a feature of all recorded history: from the Roman campaign in Spain though Francis Marion in the American War of Independence to the Moro insurgency during the Theodore Roosevelt administration. It is our purpose here to examine why an episodic and secondary phenomenon of warfare has become the dominant means of armed conflict only in the present age.

But be forewarned: there are more questions than answers.

T.E. Lawrence: Precursor to 4GW or Desert Sideshow?

Military writers cite the World War I exploits of Colonel T.E. Lawrence as a model for current 4GW operations, but this example requires qualification. His Bedouin allies’ tactics against the Turks were militarily effective and offer a case book for later insurgencies, particularly in the Arab Middle East. But they were hardly the largest headache the Ottoman Turks faced: at most, the Revolt in the Desert was an adjunct to the British Empire's conventional military campaigns staged along three axes: the Dardanelles, the Sinai, and Mesopotamia. At the same time, the Turks were fighting a large-scale conventional campaign against Russia in the Caucasus.

In other theaters of that conflict, insurgency against occupation was barely detectable: Belgium, Northern France, Poland and Russia, even the Balkans (where Serbian national resistance consisted of successfully withdrawing its army, the king included, to Corfu). One might make a partial exception of Ireland, but the fact remains that the Easter Rebellion was quickly crushed and remained crushed for the duration of the war, and far more Irish served loyally (and suicidally) in British colors than for the Republican cause.

Amid four years of unprecedented violence, perhaps the most successful act of national resistance of World War I was the studied refusal of the various minorities of the Habsburg Empire to be obedient and self-sacrificial soldiers. This weakening of the Central Powers’ military resources presented Germany with a strategic dilemma — it could not be sufficiently strong on both fronts simultaneously so as to achieve decisive victory — that was fatal. The Good Soldier Schweik syndrome, however, was a radically different dynamic than what the United States faces in Iraq, the Israelis in Palestine, or the Russians in Chechnya.

The Good War and the Myth of the Resistance

At first sight, World War II offers a more hopeful case study for 4GW-style armed resistance against military occupation. "Now set Europe ablaze!" was Winston Churchill's 1940 directive to the Special Operations Executive, his newly minted organization designed to catalyze, supply, and direct popular armed resistance to German occupation of the European continent. Likewise, the exploits of its American counterpart, the Office of Strategic Services, and the rapid postwar preferment of such alumni as William Casey and William Colby suggest the importance of World War II as a seed bed for violent insurgency against unpopular military occupiers.

There is some truth in this edifying tale, perhaps; but not much. An interesting refutation of the myth of the resistance is found in John Keegan's book The Second World War (1989). Mr. Keegan has subsequently written some flawed analyses of both the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the U.S. invasion of Iraq (seeing in both cases the false dawn of a new era of warfare dominated by air power and/or highly technological forces patterned on current U.S. doctrine); his opinions on temporally more distant events, whereby the ruminative process winnows out political fads, is sounder.

His emphatic conclusion is that the resistance was never more than the barest pinprick inconveniencing the German occupation; even in Yugoslavia, where conditions were most favorable to local insurgents, the Axis was never in danger of losing what it valued: its lines of communication to the Aegean and flank protection for the Ploesti oil fields and its operations in Southern Russia. Germany lost its grip on Yugoslavia only after conventional military disasters elsewhere impelled withdrawal from Greece, thereby rendering occupation of Yugoslavia pointless. And it was finally the Red Army, not Tito's partisans, which impelled the Wehrmacht's departure.

It may have been postwar political necessity which required Tito to exaggerate the role of the internal resistance. A similar dynamic took place, Keegan says, in the postwar Soviet Union, where the resistance was played up to strengthen internal political solidarity (what Keegan doesn't say is that this may have been done to camouflage the considerable incidence of collaboration with the German occupiers by Ukrainians, White Russians, and other groups). But partisan activity was only militarily significant after mid-to-late 1943, when the tide had long since turned against the Germans and many partisan groups ceased to be territorially isolated from the main body of the Red Army.

Nowhere was the contrast between myth and reality so stark as in France. General de Gaulle's political need to efface the shame of defeat, occupation, and collaboration met the romanticizing tendencies of Anglo-American war correspondents, and a legend was born. But Keegan's assertion is stark: for most of the war, the 30-50 German occupation divisions took no part in anti-resistance activities whatsoever; stationed near the coast, to repel invasion, they where not so situated in any case. He then drops this astounding tidbit: the number of actual anti-resistance security forces in France (the Feldsicherheitsdienst) probably did not exceed 6500 at any stage of the war. That in a country of over 40 million!

And so on, throughout Europe. The ferocious German reprisals against the Greek population were such that SOE liaison officers, who had initially been parachuted in to incite resistance, eventually restrained their Greek charges from attacking German targets. Over the more than one million square miles of occupied Europe, Keegan estimates fewer than seven percent of German ground forces were diverted to internal security duties; and those were generally poorer quality units in any case. Contrast this with the present, when half the U.S. military's ground combat force is tied up by an insurgency in a much more confined area among a smaller population.

Summing up, Keegan suggests that the intellectuals, celebrities, and publicity-mad eccentrics drawn to the SOE and OSS made it natural that their feats of derring-do, and those of the resistance in general, would receive a somewhat florid and puffed-up treatment in postwar historiography.

The 4GW Conundrum

The mystery of World War II resistance, and its inability to demonstrate the true characteristics of 4GW, deepens upon examination of the cold war. Rather than four years’ occupation by a Quisling government, the peoples of Eastern Europe endured forty. But in those few cases where discontent broke into armed resistance (East Berlin in 1953, Hungary in 1956, or unarmed resistance in the case of Czechoslovakia in 1968), the Red Army swiftly put it down, and it was unable to re-start itself. Why was this so?

Why was the one successful case of 4GW against the Soviet Union precisely in Afghanistan? Was it solely on account of the forbidding mountain terrain or massive outside assistance? If that is the case, why are the insurgents in the flat, urbanized terrain of Iraq so successful against the occupying coalition?

The difficulty is that while many persons have described what 4GW is, they have as yet been unable convincingly to say why it takes root in some situations and not others — even when, as in the case of the OSS and the CIA egging on anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet populations, there is copious outside assistance added to immense local discontent. The anecdotal evidence discussed thus far suggests 4GW may be more likely when Third World populations resist Western occupation forces; perhaps settled European populations are immune to the phenomenon.

But how does this explain Northern Ireland? Or the numerous Third World insurgencies against their own indigenous governments, as in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Colombia? We have perhaps entered a realm where military strategy and tactics tell us less than comparative anthropology.

4GW: Welcome to the Post-Modern World

To return to Keegan, one of his premier examples of the failure of national insurgency to defeat conventional occupation forces was the Warsaw rising of August 1944. He says that "for all the bravery and suffering of the Polish Home Army . . . [it did] not seriously undermine Hitler's ability to maintain order within Poland at large while continuing to maintain an effective defense against the Red Army."

Shift to Fallujah. It bears some features similar to the Warsaw rising, albeit on a smaller scale. The strategic results are different. Bill Lind has persuasively argued that in retaking Fallujah, the U.S. military not only suffered a strategic moral defeat in the age of al Jazeera and weblogs, but operationally ceded greater initiative to the insurgents elsewhere in Iraq (notably in Mosul, a much larger city).

This disparity in strategic and operational results may at first blush stem from the conventional wisdom that U.S. occupation authorities are much more chivalrous and forbearing in their approach to war than other occupiers. Accordingly, as the lap-top Clausewitzes on Fox News would have it, the insurgents take unfair military advantage of our gullible good nature. One can readily stipulate that the extensive rubble of Fallujah is not the total ruin of Warsaw, but one should not make too much of this argument.

It is not just the "isolated incidents" at Abu Ghraib that weaken America's moral case in these matters. Most of the 300,000 inhabitants of Fallujah now dwell in tent cities in the desert. The press reports that in order to return, they will have to undergo retina scans and DNA sampling. Once resettled in Fallujah, they may only leave their houses (assuming they haven't been destroyed) if they wear large visible identification showing their street addresses. [2]

But Warsaw and Fallujah as contrasting examples of the evolution of war have a deeper cultural meaning than merely as a comparison of the ferocity of the fighting or the resulting destruction. Towards the end of the battle for Warsaw, with his position hopeless, the commander of the Polish Home Army, General Bor-Komorowski, proposed a negotiated surrender to the German commander, the infamous Waffen SS General von dem Bach-Zelewski, through the agency of the Polish Red Cross. Since the Western allies had recognized the Home Army as a legitimate combatant, Bach-Zelewski conceded that the surrender could be accepted — with military honors. Photographs exist of the ceremony.

Why did this brutal SS officer even entertain the charade of "honorable surrender" as at Appomattox, and why did Bor-Komorowski entertain the hope? Why, after the Germans had made a charnel house of Poland and done all their horrible deeds? Didn't the Poles know what awaited them? We can only surmise it was a habit of mind based on deep cultural patterns in Western civilization regnant at the time: the idea of war essentially as a tournament, a jousting match between nation-states, with rules, a game with a beginning and an end no matter how brutally and atrociously it may have been fought.

Does anyone now believe the Iraqi insurgents will come to the conclusion that the game is up and propose a surrender with military honors? Does anyone imagine the United States Army would even go through the motions of accepting it? Could the Red Cross ever serve as an intermediary between combatants in Iraq? We pose these questions not to cast aspersions, but to show how the modern age that dawned in the Renaissance is no longer alive — World War II was the last gasp of modernity, industrialism, and linearity. It was the last gasp of the conceit that the profession of arms was a calling with its own rigid code, something socially distinct from society.

The post-modern age we live in functions by different rules. In the realm of warfare, the rules are closer to tribal war, or the Wars of Religion, or drug smuggling than they are to Yorktown or Austerlitz or Anzio. There is no front, there is no safe haven or separation between combatants and non-combatants. [3] There is no high-tech device that will render us invulnerable. There is no mutually agreed ceremony concluding events, only a unilateral photo-op which fools no one except a gullible domestic audience.

Every era carries a residue of the past and the seed of the future. World War II was a false start for the doctrine of popular resistance. Many of the technologies and techniques often associated with 4GW were pioneered or refined then: plastic explosive, covert assassination, sophisticated infiltration and exfiltration, black propaganda, sabotage. Yet the Zeitgeist was not quite ready. Like the ancient Greek toy steam engine, da Vinci's flying machine, and the Babbage computer, it was an idea before its time.

4GW is a "riddle of culture," to paraphrase the anthropologist Marvin Harris. It is perhaps bound up with identity politics, absolutist religious claims, and the aspirations and resentments of the wretched of the earth. Why it should have arisen just when man conquered the moon, the atom, and achieved other triumphs of rationalism is one of those paradoxes by which history is always surprising us.

That said, I applaud the efforts to sort out these dilemmas by Colonels Wilson, Wilcox, and Richards and hope that readers will take a chance to carefully study their briefing.


[1] Fourth Generation Warfare and OODA loop Implications of the Iraq Insurgency, by G.I. Wilson, Greg Wilcox, and Chet Richards. (http://d-n-i.net/fcs/ppt/4gw_ooda_iraq.ppt)

[2] 4GW may transform American society as much as the war’s architects had hoped to transform Iraqi society. The new phenomenon of U.S.-soldier-as-policeman will have many kinds of unforeseeable effects. And we must also ask: Will the Orwellian prototype of security debuting at Fallujah see a counterpart in Anytown, USA, within ten years? Given the profitability of "homeland security" technology, one would hesitate to bet heavily against it.

[3] Ironically, the United States government has accelerated this process towards 4GW norms by de facto jettisoning the Geneva Convention.

Chuck Spinney

"A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." - James Madison, from a letter to W.T. Barry, August 4, 1822

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

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