Alternative Definitions of “4GW”

A new generation?

When Bill Lind, Keith Nightengale, John Schmitt, Joseph Sutton, and GI Wilson published the paper that introduced the term “fourth generation warfare,” they were speculating:

Is it not about time for a fourth generation to appear? If so, what might it look like?

They posed two broad alternatives, a technology-driven fourth generation (as was the second) or an ideas-driven (as was the third). While ostensibly neutral between the two, it is clear from the word count that they favored the second option and that something like “terrorism” would play a large role (although they admit that up until then - 1989 - it had been “largely ineffective.”)

An hypothesis

They concluded the paper by hypothesizing a fourth generation employing a combination of:

  • terrorism
  • high technology
  • a non-national or transnational base
  • a “direct attack on the enemy’s culture”
  • “highly sophisticated psychological warfare”

A theoretical framework

Buried deep in the heart of the original paper, however, and often overlooked is this important passage:

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. 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.

It seems to me that this is a much better place to begin a discussion of a possible new generation of war than the bullet points above, which represent merely one alternative. It also leaves open the possibility of tactics other than terrorism for “bypassing the enemy’s military entirely.”

Attempts to end a war by striking directly at the enemy homeland and civilian targets are nothing new, of course — Hiroshima and Nagasaki immediately come to mind — nor are terrorism, technology, or psychological warfare. So the two factors that might most strongly characterize 4GW would be the transnational element and the “direct attack on culture,” which the paper illustrates with the narcotics invasion.

With that in mind, let’s look at four alternative definitions of “4GW” that fit into the paper’s framework.

Alternative definitions

1. Any form of conflict as described by the set of bullets above

2. Lind’s more recent formulations, which are also consistent with the framework: the decline of the state and the rise of cultural warfare — who fights and what they’re fighting for, as he’s termed it. Instead of narcotics, he now focuses more on non-European cultures, specifically those from areas where Islam is the primary religion. Somehow, “cultural Marxism” also factors in [note: mentioned only for completeness’ sake — no comments please on CM per se]. The big question here is: Is it war? Or does Lind’s most recent concept represent the evolution of crime?

3. TX Hammes’ “evolved insurgency.” As TX notes, other than the transnational basis, these techniques are all available to states. So he is defining 4GW largely by the methods, technological or ideological, employed, which is consistent with how the first three generations are defined. In that sense, it is a better fit with the “generational” structure than is Lind’s, and it is more clearly war.

4. My own characterization, which emphasizes transnational organizations whose goals are something other than overthrowing state governments (thereby distinguishing 4GW from insurgency). Lind, et al., hinted at this when writing about narcotraffficking organizations:

They bypass the entire state apparatus despite our best efforts. Some ideological elements in South America see drugs as a weapon; they call them the “poor man’s intercontinental ballistic missile.” They prize the drug traffic not only for the money it brings in through which we finance the war against ourselves - but also for the damage it does to the hated North Americans.

Non-trinitarian conflict, as Fabius Maximus points out, but is it war:

From an analytical perspective, terror networks are a form of non-trinitarian conflict but perhaps not 4th generation war. If van Creveld is correct, we will be seeing a rise in non-trin conflicts (more powerful crime cartels, terror networks by animal rights-greens-Islamics, etc). [from FM’s response to the second comment - he made a similar observation in a comment to a recent post of mine]

Nobody is making us buy narcotics, for the most part. What is ironic about the narco example is where the vast majority of the world’s opium (and therefore heroin) originates.


If what is most important to you is that 4GW be war, then probably TX Hammes’ definition of “evolved insurgency” is best because it fits state-vs-state (TX mentions China in the book), insurgency (Mao, Giap/Ho Chi Minh, and the Sandinistas), and conflicts between states and transnational actors.

If you think that a large fraction of what is usually termed “4GW” is something other than war (so that, for example, the war metaphor will not be inappropriately applied leading to all sorts of counterproductive results), then my definition or perhaps the way Fabius Maximus is heading might be more along your line.

If you’re not worried about whether we call something war but you are concerned about the decline of the state system and an emerging era of cultures in conflict, then Lind will probably be of more use.

In any case, you might also want to brush off your old copy of The Transformation of War.

Are states worth it?

Just as an aside, Lind and van Creveld are not joined at the hip on this issue. Whereas Lind decries the decline of the state and seems to imply that any state is better than no state under practically any circumstances, van Creveld ends his 1996 essay “The Fate of the State” with this paragraph:

To sum up, the 300-year period that opened at Westphalia and during which the state was the most important organization in which people lived–first in Europe, then in other places–is coming to an end. Nobody knows the significance of the transition from a system of sovereign, territorial, legally equal states to one that takes greater cognizance of the new realities; it is likely to be eventful and, as is already the case in many places, quite possibly bloody. Still, it is worth recalling that the state’s most remarkable products to date have been Hiroshima and Auschwitz; the former could never have been built by any organization but a state (and the most powerful one, at that), whereas the latter was above all an exercise in bureaucratic management. Whatever the future may bring, it cannot be much worse than the past. For those who regret and fear the passing away of the world with which we are familiar, let that be their consolation.

3 Responses to “Alternative Definitions of “4GW”

  • 1
    March 10th, 2008 20:30

    “If you’re not worried about whether we call something war but you are concerned about the decline of the state system and an emerging era of cultures in conflict, then Lind will probably be of more use.”

    That’s pretty much why I bother to read all this. I’m concerned about the societies currently protected by states, and whether they can weather the decline of the nation-state.

    In my opinion, Lind is lucky to have you folks thinking about these problems, but the majority of thinkers (in this cozy corner of the web) seem to be firmly set in military ways of thinking. I don’t know this for a fact, but Hammes, Fabius, and Richards all seem to be military vets.

    I think the USA needs a guy like Lind cooperating with multiple all-star teams. Lind already has an all-star team of military thinkers — that angle is covered. Now there needs to be an all-star team of civilian law enforcers who are not military. Possibly a few civil servants, like IRS accountants, could contribute to this.

    Finally, there needs to be an all-star team of sociocultural experts who are non-military and non-law-enforcement. Juan Cole might be a nucleus for this kind of group.

    You can compare this tripartite division to Clausewitz’s army/government/people or to the medieval knight/peasant/priest trinity.

  • 2
    Fabius Maximus
    March 11th, 2008 00:49

    The best part of using the broad definitions of 4th Gen War is that nobody outside of the club will understand what you are saying — talking about things that are far outside of any usual definition of war, but calling it war.

    Why not go all the way and call it “4th gen ramsbottle”. Still nobody will understand, but at least this will save listeners from the confusion of trying understanding why these things (i.e., crime) are “war.”

    The conceptual basis of 4GW has been ripped from van Creveld’s writings, without regard for the distinction he draws between the broad class of non-Trin conflicts and war (the latter being a subset of the former). The need for clarifying these definitions has grown clearer with the muliplication of war’s generations (5th gen, xth gen) and criticism (quite valid) of 4GW as a hall of mirrors.

    This was made even clearer in Chet Richards’ recent book “If We Can Keep It”, explaining how many forms of non-Trin conflict (although he does not use van C’s term) are not war, either conceptually or operationally (i.e., treating them like war does not work well).

    I will post more on this tomorrow at .

  • 3
    March 14th, 2008 16:44

    Some aspects of the piece are suffering from semantic confusion. Narcotics? The most prevalent narcotic in the West is alcohol. In the US between twenty and forty million people suffer from this disease.

    Do people know that if an alcohol addict goes cold turkey, they suffer from a real chance of death by withdrawal?

    I’m not writing to to recomend that anyone swear off the booze. I’ll be happy to prove this over a beer at my favorite bar.

    I’ve worked helping those who are addicted to drugs, and it’s my own opinion that society always has individuals who seek escape and relief from stress by using drugs (and obviously I include alcohol as a drug). That this number will remain constant, no matter which drug is the one chosen by the abuser.

    Ironically, the vast majority of those in prison are there for using marijuanna, which is not even physically addicitive.

    For those who think the past was an ideal time, let them ponder that all drugs were legal up until the 20th century.

    Going to war with human nature is not exactly a 4GW affair, or if it is, it’s one of choice. Treating a disease as a crimial act, and even worse a conspiricy, is not rational. One must keep in mind that there would be no drug dealers if there were no drug addicts.


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