The Four Generations of Modern War

Rather than commenting on the specifics of the war with Iraq, I thought it might be a good time to lay out a framework for understanding that and other conflicts. The framework is the Four Generations of Modern War.

I developed the framework of the first three generations (“generation” is shorthand for dialectically qualitative shift) in the 1980s, when I was laboring to introduce maneuver warfare to the Marine Corps. Marines kept asking, “What will the Fourth Generation be like?”, and I began to think about that. The result was the article I co-authored for the Marine Corps Gazette in 1989, “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation.” Our troops found copies of it in the caves at Tora Bora, the al Quaeda hideout in Afghanistan.

The Four Generations began with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the treaty that ended the Thirty Years’ War. With the Treaty of Westphalia, the state established a monopoly on war. Previously, many different entities had fought wars — families, tribes, religions, cities, business enterprises — using many different means, not just armies and navies (two of those means, bribery and assassination, are again in vogue). Now, state militaries find it difficult to imagine war in any way other than fighting state armed forces similar to themselves.

The First Generation of Modern War runs roughly from 1648 to 1860. This was war of line and column tactics, where battles were formal and the battlefield was orderly. The relevance of the First Generation springs from the fact that the battlefield of order created a military culture of order. Most of the things that distinguish “military” from “civilian” – uniforms, saluting, careful gradations or rank — were products of the First Generation and are intended to reinforce the culture of order.

The problem is that, around the middle of the 19th century, the battlefield of order began to break down. Mass armies, soldiers who actually wanted to fight (an 18th century’s soldier’s main objective was to desert), rifled muskets, then breech loaders and machine guns, made the old line and column tactics first obsolete, then suicidal.

The problem ever since has been a growing contradiction between the military culture and the increasing disorderliness of the battlefield. The culture of order that was once consistent with the environment in which it operated has become more and more at odds with it.

Second Generation warfare was one answer to this contradiction. Developed by the French Army during and after World War I, it sought a solution in mass firepower, most of which was indirect artillery fire. The goal was attrition, and the doctrine was summed up by the French as, “The artillery conquers, the infantry occupies.” Centrally-controlled firepower was carefully synchronized, using detailed, specific plans and orders, for the infantry, tanks, and artillery, in a “conducted battle” where the commander was in effect the conductor of an orchestra.

Second Generation warfare came as a great relief to soldiers (or at least their officers) because it preserved the culture of order. The focus was inward on rules, processes and procedures. Obedience was more important than initiative (in fact, initiative was not wanted, because it endangered synchronization), and discipline was top-down and imposed.

Second Generation warfare is relevant to us today because the United States Army and Marine Corps learned Second Generation warfare from the French during and after World War I. It remains the American war of war, as we are seeing in Afghanistan and Iraq: to Americans, war means “putting steel on target.” Aviation has replaced artillery as the source of most firepower, but otherwise, (and despite the Marine’s formal doctrine, which is Third Generation maneuver warfare) the American military today is as French as white wine and brie. At the Marine Corps’ desert warfare training center at 29 Palms, California, the only thing missing is the tricolor and a picture of General Gamelin in the headquarters. The same is true at the Army’s Armor School at Fort Knox, where one instructor recently began his class by saying, “I don’t know why I have to teach you all this old French crap, but I do.”

Third Generation warfare, like Second, was a product of World War I. It was developed by the German Army, and is commonly known as Blitzkrieg or maneuver warfare.

Third Generation warfare is based not on firepower and attrition but speed, surprise, and mental as well as physical dislocation. Tactically, in the attack a Third Generation military seeks to get into the enemy’s rear and collapse him from the rear forward: instead of “close with and destroy,” the motto is “bypass and collapse.” In the defense, it attempts to draw the enemy in, then cut him off. War ceases to be a shoving contest, where forces attempt to hold or advance a “line;” Third Generation warfare is non-linear.

Not only do tactics change in the Third Generation, so does the military culture. A Third Generation military focuses outward, on the situation, the enemy, and the result the situation requires, not inward on process and method (in war games in the 19th Century, German junior officers were routinely given problems that could only be solved by disobeying orders). Orders themselves specify the result to be achieved, but never the method (“Auftragstaktik”). Initiative is more important than obedience (mistakes are tolerated, so long as they come from too much initiative rather than too little), and it all depends on self-discipline, not imposed discipline. The Kaiserheer and the Wehrmacht could put on great parades, but in reality they had broken with the culture of order.

Characteristics such as decentralization and initiative carry over from the Third to the Fourth Generation, but in other respects the Fourth Generation marks the most radical change since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In Fourth Generation war, the state loses its monopoly on war. All over the world, state militaries find themselves fighting non-state opponents such as al Quaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the FARC. Almost everywhere, the state is losing.

Fourth Generation war is also marked by a return to a world of cultures, not merely states, in conflict. We now find ourselves facing the Christian West’s oldest and most steadfast opponent, Islam. After about three centuries on the strategic defensive, following the failure of the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683, Islam has resumed the strategic offensive, expanding outward in every direction. In Third Generation war, invasion by immigration can be at least as dangerous as invasion by a state army.

Nor is Fourth Generation warfare merely something we import, as we did on 9/11. At its core lies a universal crisis of legitimacy of the state, and that crisis means many countries will evolve Fourth Generation war on their soil. America, with a closed political system (regardless of which party wins, the Establishment remains in power and nothing really changes) and a poisonous ideology of “multiculturalism,” is a prime candidate for the home-grown variety of Fourth Generation war — which is by far the most dangerous kind.

Where does the war in Iraq fit in this framework?

I suggest that the war we have seen thus far is merely a powder train leading to the magazine. The magazine is Fourth Generation war by a wide variety of Islamic non-state actors, directed at America and Americans (and local governments friendly to America) everywhere. The longer America occupies Iraq, the greater the chance that the magazine will explode. If it does, God help us all.

WILLIAM S. LIND is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation.


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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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