October 15, 2001

The changing nature of war is now in your living room. The Sept. 11 attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon proves that there is no place to hide, if the attackers are true believers willing to conduct suicide missions in the name of their cause. By declaring war on the al Qaeda network of terror—a non-state globalization phenomenon-America and the nation-state system formally recognized they are in a new era.

Once the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 ended the wars of religion known as the 30 Years War, the state acquired a monopoly on the use of organized violence. Since then, three generations of war evolved out of the violent clashes of nations: classical nation-state war, culminating in the Napoleonic Wars; the industrial wars of attrition (the American Civil War through World War I); and maneuver warfare (based on infiltration tactics, Blitzkreig, and decision cycles) which emerged in some countries after World War I.

Now, Fourth Generation Warfare—or 4GW—has come of age. The term was coined by five authors of a 1989 article in the Marine Corps Gazette. 4GW has emerged from the global mists, and it has changed everything. It pits nations against non-national organizations and networks of organizations—including oppressed ethnic groups, mafias, narco-traffickers and extremist quasi-religious cults.

4GW is the chosen weapon of the weak, the down-trodden, the criminal, and the fanatic. Its evolutionary roots may lie in guerrilla warfare, the Leninist theory of insurrection, and old fashioned terrorism, but it is rendered more pervasive and effective by the technologies, mobilities, and miniaturized tools that computers and mass communication have spawned. It allows the politically weak to bypass the capacity of the state to protect itself through the use of conventional military means.

War and peace blurred

"Roughly speaking, fourth-generation warfare includes all forms of conflict where the other guy refuses to stand up and fight fair," wrote Chester Richards, a retired Air Force colonel, in an article on Defense and the National Interest, an Internet forum on modern defense issues.

"The distinction between war and peace [is] blurred to the vanishing point," Richards wrote. No longer are there "definable battlefields or fronts." Indeed, "The distinction between 'civilian' and 'military'" ceases to exist.

This has now happened on a massive scale, and consequently neither America nor any other nation-state will ever be the same. New and in some instances very unpleasant scenarios must be put in place to deal with a world in which there are no safe havens no matter how innocent the individual or how powerful the state.

The ubiquity of 4GW requires enormous changes in military capabilities (training, doctrine, and weapons) as well as the very way we think about national security. States already confronted with 4GW illustrate the implications of this challenge. No matter how many search-and-destroy missions are initiated against "terrorist" sites, no matter how many terrorist operatives are targeted for assassination, terrorist planners and their weapon of choice—suicide bombers—ceaselessly emerge from the anonymity of the crowd, invariably supported both overtly and surreptitiously by rogue regimes led by kindred political monsters, to reap their vengeance and havoc upon innocent civilians in coffee houses, shopping centers, bus stops.

Indeed, attacks can occur wherever innocent human beings congregate to engage in ordinary civilized activities. This is the grotesque face of 4GW.

Assets turned against us

The United States has been victimized by the honing of 4GW tactics into a grizzly art form that, in a certain sense, reverses the relationship between victim and victimized. The playing field has been leveled by the capacity of the self-styled oppressed to unleash sudden and remorseless violence against the core institutions of established society.

This emergent breed of warriors feeds off the assets of the designated target. The Trade Center/Pentagon conspirators spent months matriculating at American pilot-training facilities, driving American rental cars and eating American pizzas in preparation for their unspeakable deeds.

What is more, the process of infiltrating with subtlety and stealth earns the perpetrators prestige and admiration in the eyes of their "constituents." They demonstrate a chilling capacity to compel the oppressor to share the victims' victimhood. This plays in Gaza, on the West Bank and in Baghdad.

The challenge confronting America is how to deal with this fundamental alteration in the rules of war. What we do will test our mettle as never before in our history. For we will have to find a way to decisively subdue a remorseless foe who believes that unlimited violence unencumbered by pity or compassion as we understand it is justified in the name of religious rage.

And we must do it without losing our own moral balance in the process. This ugly reality requires the promulgation of harsh measures in the short run. As in any conflict, the military task is to disarm the enemy and neutralize his offensive capability—in this case, the mutually reinforcing effects of the suicide bomber and global communications.

Unmet needs fuel 4WG

Yet the strategic conundrum is that blind retaliatory force will create more suicide bombers. It will arm the enemy.

Nevertheless, the world's democracies must pool their resources to ferret out the cells of fanatics who supply the brains and the resources to conduct 4GW. Doing so obviously requires closer coordination of intelligence and counter-terrorism resources than ever before. It requires superbly trained warriors led by incorruptible officers carefully selected for their imagination, moral character, courage and dedication to our democratic ideals.

Because the nation-state no longer holds a monopoly on destructive force, a most important change in how we confront 4GW is to ordain that "national sovereignty" can no longer be sacrosanct. It can no longer be honored when employed as a facade for sheltering, endorsing and provisioning non-national 4GW assets and formations. But at the same time, we must protect the nation-state system.

The blurred distinction between peace and war at the heart of 4GW requires persistent attention to grand strategy—the cultivation of alliances and the engagement of one's own population—as well as the military strategies and tactics directed at the enemy.

America and the West must address the sources of the anti-American, anti-Western rage sweeping the post-colonial world. Measures must be taken to alleviate the poverty, the lingering remnants of colonialism and the violations of human rights which sustain the ranks of the miserable, the alienated and the downtrodden. They are the raw material upon which 4GW feeds. They supply the warriors for whom mortal life is so cheap that suicide on behalf of the Cause is a triumph instead of a tragedy.

When social conditions are attained that make life more worth living for than dying for, then 4GW will fade into history.

Harold A. Gould is visiting professor of South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia. Franklin C Spinney is a civilian in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The views expressed above do not represent those of the Department of Defense. This article was originally published in Defense Week.  Republished here with permission of the authors.


Fourth-Generation Warfare Is Here

By Harold A. Gould and Franklin C. Spinney