On War #147
Critics of the Fourth Generation: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
By William S. Lind
Not surprisingly, the spread of the intellectual framework I call the Four Generations of Modern War has brought forth a host of reinterpreters and critics. Some have added valuable insights, while others have just muddied the waters. In the next On War columns, I will take a look at the work of three commentators who represent three different categories: the good, the bad and the ugly.
The good are represented by Colonel Tom Hammes, USMC retired, author of The Sling and the Stone. I have known Tom Hammes for many years, and he was a major contributor to the Marine Corps’ intellectual renaissance of the 1980s and early ‘90s. The Sling and the Stone offers some excellent descriptions of Fourth Generation war, and it also contributes a very important insight to Fourth Generation theory, namely that speed in the OODA Loop may be less important than accuracy of observation and orientation. Exactly how the OODA Loop works in Fourth Generation conflicts remains an open question; it is possible that Fourth Generation forces can out-cycle state armed forces not by being faster, but by moving so slowly that they are unobservable.
However, there are also some key points where The Sling and the Stone misunderstands Fourth Generation war. One is found in the book’s assertion that 4GW is just insurgency. This is much too narrow a definition, and it risks misleading us if we take it to mean that we need only re-discover old counter-insurgency techniques in order to prevail against Fourth Generation opponents. At the core of 4GW is a crisis of legitimacy of the state, and counter-insurgency cannot address that crisis; indeed, when the counter-insurgency is led by foreign troops, it only makes the local state’s crisis of legitimacy worse.
As Martin van Creveld has said, what changes in Fourth Generation war is not merely how war is fought, but who fights and what they fight for. The Sling and the Stone does not seem to grasp that these are larger changes than the shift from conventional war to insurgency.
Another error in The Sling and the Stone is its assertion that Fourth Generation war is aimed at breaking the will of an opposing state’s decision-makers. In fact, what 4GW forces actually do is something much more powerful: they pull opposing states apart at the moral level.
The issue of “will” derives from a common myth concerning how states make decisions about war or peace. The myth supposes that at some point, a state’s decision-makers in effect sit down around a big table and “go over the numbers,” as if they were deciding on a hydro-electric project. If the numbers don’t add up, they decide it is time to make peace.
Historians long ago recognized that official decisions, including for war or peace, are vastly more complex events in which non-rational factors play decisive roles. In fact, modern decision theory recognizes not only that decisions made by governments do not follow a “rational” business model, neither do most business decisions. Non-rational, often irrational, considerations dominate both.
What Fourth Generation opponents actually do to a state is not play mind-games with the state’s leaders, but use the power of weakness to bring the opposing state’s whole population to regard the war as an abomination. Paradoxically, the more the state is successful in winning on the battlefield by turning its immense, hi-tech firepower on guys in bathrobes who are armed only with rusty World War II rifles, the more it becomes disgusted with itself. The weaker the Fourth Generation enemy is physically, the stronger he is morally. And the moral level is decisive.
Despite these not insignificant misunderstandings, The Sling and the Stone still represents a good contribution to our developing understanding of Fourth Generation war. There is still a great deal about 4GW that no one yet comprehends, and I am sure Tom Hammes will continue to play a positive role in figuring the whole business out.
As we will see in my next two columns, there are others whose work would lead us down a blind alley.
William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.
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