Swans Commentary » swans.com October 23, 2006  



Fourth Generation Warfare And The Limits Of Empire


by Robert Wrubel





(Swans - October 23, 2006)   Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) is getting a lot of attention around the blogosphere these days. This is the doctrine, associated with writers like Martin Van Creveld and William Lind, that older forms of warfare -- pitched battles between massed armies (Napoleon) and "maneuver warfare" (wehrmacht) -- are being replaced by newer ones growing out of contemporary guerilla and insurgency tactics.

Here is a taste of this new vision of warfare:

In broad terms, fourth generation warfare seems likely to be widely dispersed and largely undefined; the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between "civilian" and "military" may disappear. Actions will occur concurrently throughout all participants' depth, including their society as a cultural, not just a physical, entity. Major military facilities, such as airfields, fixed communications sites, and large headquarters will become rarities because of their vulnerability; the same may be true of civilian equivalents, such as seats of government, power plants, and industrial sites (including knowledge as well as manufacturing industries). Success will depend heavily on effectiveness in joint operations as lines between responsibility and mission become very blurred. Again, all these elements are present in third generation warfare; fourth generation will merely accentuate them. (1)

There is a kind of Blade Runner chic in this desolate vision, a world in which central governments are collapsed or in hiding, and "enemy combatants" and their special ops opponents circulate freely among alienated populations. Some of the vision is speculative, and some comes from observation of the actual tactics of groups like Hisb'Allah, the Taleban and now the insurgents in Iraq, with their emphasis on de-centralization, mobility, small unit operation, systems disruption, closeness to the civilian population (not "hiding behind it," but living in it!), and use of current technology like the Internet. The key strategic aim of 4GW is not confronting an enemy's military head on, but undermining an enemy population's morale.

4GW is interesting to hardheaded, pragmatic military theorists trying to adapt traditional military doctrines to current realities of resistance. It also appeals to speculative futurist types who use current resistance as a lens to imagine future societies in which lines of central government are dissolving. Martin Van Creveld, the eminent Israeli military historian, (2) is an example of the former, as is Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's transformation project for the US military. John Lind, quoted above, is an example of both. John Robb, whose weblog Global Guerillas ("Networked tribes, infrastructure disruption, and the emerging bazaar of violence. An open notebook on the first epochal war of the 21st century.") is already thinking ahead to Fifth Generation Warfare!, sees 4 and 5GW as dialectical responses to globalization -- social transformations brought about by globalization's invasive technology and regimes.

You will also find a sprinkling of anti-imperialists and anti-globalists hanging around these sites, since 4GW is drawing much of its material and energy from observation of current insurgencies, and thus points to possible boundaries to the reach of US imperial power. Negri and Hardt (3) talk about an emerging "resistance" to global power, but only in the abstract. 4GW gives resistance a concrete reality -- of cells, invisibility, decentralized command, propaganda, small-scale operations and so forth. We can begin to think our way into the mindsets of revolutionary groups, and take heart from the puzzle they present to imperial power.

From the viewpoint of the hardheaded pragmatists in the military, the main selling point of 4GW thinking is that it is more efficient, less wasteful of society's resources, and more effective in fighting present conflicts. But that is precisely the problem with the subject of 4GW -- it is an attempt to find better ways to fight future wars. Listening to the advocates of it, you sense a kind of re-romanticizing of war in the context of high technology and information management. 4GW ascribes to the modern insurgent a Steven Segal lethality -- more mental than physical, more spiritual than mental -- which can only be countered by equally dedicated, enlightened, highly-trained and motivated special ops forces. Behind them, you can almost feel the nerds, staring at their computer screens, tracking down terrorists in their caves!

The ugliness and bizarre qualities of this new approach to warfare are well displayed in the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), published earlier this year by the Pentagon. To face the new threat of "global terror," the QDR puts great emphasis on high technology, remote surveillance, intelligence, mobility, secrecy, and propaganda. It posits a fantasy world in which military commanders know everything about the enemy -- the landscape in which he operates, the cultural context, his psychology and menu of tactics. It is a Faustian fantasy of power through knowledge, which defies the basic human truth that you can only know something by living it.

In actuality, the Quadrennial Defense Review is a mixed document, containing a little of the new and a lot of the old. It still includes the totally unnecessary Star Wars program; the full, useless nuclear arsenal; the same old emphasis on countering emerging state powers with military force; the same two-ocean navy, etc. A bridge between old and new may be seen in esoteric hybrids such as unmanned aerial and aquatic vehicles, robot soldiers, space-based weapons and monitoring, and other science fiction gadgetries that pit the full force of industrial technology against the wily guerilla sneaking through the desert at night.

4GW, as a shift in US war-fighting doctrine, offers the alternative to Shock and Awe of Craft and Subtlety. It is basically a revival of CIA-type covert operations on a larger scale. As such, it promises a qualitative improvement, a more realistic assessment of the enemy, and a lower level of violence -- but it is still war, still the application of force to resist social change. The ultimate goal of the Quadrennial Defense Review is to have skilled, undercover operatives in every country of the world where the US Empire encounters resistance, to disrupt it before it has a chance to form. This means not just military resistance, but economic, political, and social resistance, too -- women demanding clean water, farmers sitting down in front of bulldozers to protect their land, newspapers publishing articles critical of the government. The attempt to suppress all of this would be a police state on a global scale, and like all such programs of coercion and control, there is no inherent reason why it wouldn't be applied to the domestic population as well.

4GW points to a world in which central authority is breaking down and mega-states or organizations attempt to impose their will on stateless enemies, micro-states and other vehicles of resistance. As such, it is definitely relevant to the vision of writers like Negri and Hardt. But beware of the glitter of 4th or 5th Generation Warfare as imagined by the US military. It's highly aggressive, highly intrusive, highly lethal, and based on the dubious proposition that Resistance, the tattered but constantly re-invigorated impulse to be free, can be contained. It would be better simply to have a humbler foreign policy, limited to our actual, domestic social interest, and defend them in the old-fashioned way.


1.  "The Changing Face of War...," John Lind and others, Marine Corps Gazette, Oct, 1989. Lind's work is published on the Web site "Defense and the National Interest."  (back)

2.  Transformation of War (1991) and The Sword and the Olive: A Critical History of the Israel Defense Force (2002). The latter is a key work for anyone interested in the military's role in the transformation of Israel from battered child to psychotic parent.  (back)

3.  Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004).  (back)


· · · · · ·


For over a decade we've brought you uninterrupted ad-free advocacy work free
of charge. But while our publication is free to you, we are long on friends
and short on cash. We need you, our readers, to help us financially. 
Please consider sending a donation now. Thank you.

· · · · · ·

Internal Resources

Patterns which Connect



About the Author

Robert Wrubel is a writer and activist living in Sausalito, California.



Please, feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, please DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Robert Wrubel 2006. All rights reserved.


Have your say

Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.


· · · · · ·


This Edition's Internal Links

Change The Course - Jan Baughman

Thoughts On The US Midterm Elections - Louis Proyect

Get This: Imperialism Is Bipartisan - Aleksandar Jokic

US Midterm Elections: Recommendations - Jan Baughman & Gilles d'Aymery

The Games Played And Called Elections - Milo Clark

Election 2006: Delivering More of the Same - Philip Greenspan

Diplomacy - Milo Clark

Dead Earnest - Charles Marowitz

The Insurgent Word: Survival - Gerard Donnelly Smith

US Health Care In Crisis - Seth Sandronsky

Jack Kerouac In The Heel Of Italy - Book Review by Peter Byrne

Genesis Two - Poem by Guido Monte

Letters to the Editor

· · · · · ·


[About]-[Past Issues]-[Archives]-[Resources]-[Copyright]



Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/wrubel09.html
Published October 23, 2006