Fourth Generation Warfare

In 1989, a group of military officers, led by historian William Lind, developed a theory called “Generational Warfare.” Published in the Marine Corps Gazette, this article hypothesized that the history of warfare had evolved in three discernible stages that often overlapped and co-existed, and that the world was entering a frightening new stage. The significance of their theory can be seen in the accuracy of their description of this fourth phase.

First generation warfare lasted from the Peace of Westphalia (1648) to the American Civil War (1860), and is identified through its tactics (line and column), technology (the smoothbore musket), and participants (nations). Before this era, war was waged by tribes, cities, individuals, or even businesses.

Changes in technology brought about the second generation (1860-1918). Industrial strength, which produced heavy artillery, the rifled musket, and the machine gun, gave some nations a profound military advantage.

Third generation warfare emerged at the end of WWI and continued into WWII and beyond. It was a new era of maneuverability. For example, the introduction of the tank and the airplane shifted soldiers into non-linear, multidimensional battlefields. Tanks and planes also facilitated the use of blitzkrieg, where the swiftness of an invasion gave a nation a decided advantage.

But in an eerily prescient declaration they made 16 years ago, the authors describe with great precision the type of war in which we currently find ourselves. Fourth generation warfare (4GW) is described by the authors as follows:

“Fourth generation adversaries will be adept at manipulating the media to alter domestic and world opinion…Television news may become a more powerful operational weapon than armored divisions… Some terrorists already know how to play this game.” These ominous words speak starkly about the reality of al-Qaeda’s manipulation of the media. Consider that during the height of coverage of Hurricane Katrina a rash of attacks took place in Iraq, including a dozen bombings during one nine-hour period that killed 167 and wounded 600. It seems that terrorists don’t take kindly to getting bumped off the front page.

“The distinction between ‘civilian’ and ‘military’ may disappear.” We see this clearly in the lives led by the 9/11 attackers and the London bombers – they passed as regular civilians while they were plotting their acts of destruction. More recently, we see how Iraqi insurgents blend right in with the rest of the population – so much so that they quickly and easily plowed a truck into a group of children receiving candy from American troops.

“The opponent’s political infrastructure and civilian society become battlefield targets.” The attacks of 9/11 and the recent London bombings were focused on civilians. And the terrorist bombings in Madrid were clearly timed to impact Spain’s elections, resulting in a significant change in their political infrastructure. The terrorists were so successful in Spain that we can only assume they will try the same tactic again.

“A major target will be the enemy population’s support of its government and the war.” Taking civilians hostage has been seen to mobilize citizens to come out against the war in Iraq. Victims of such kidnappings appear to be targeted not due to their personal views or actions, but due only to their nationality. For example, Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena was against the war, but was kidnapped in an attempt to stir up the strong anti-war sentiment in Italy. In Spain, where support for the war was weak, Islamic terrorists killed 191 civilians and threatened to turn Spain “into an inferno” unless the country stopped its support of the war. Spain capitulated.

“It will be critically important to isolate the enemy from one’s own homeland, because a small number of people will be able to render great damage in a very short time.” We are not in a traditional war between nations – it is a war between small bands of ideologically driven Islamic extremists and rest of the world. The adage “We need to fight them abroad so we don’t have to fight them here” is accurate to a point. It would be true if we indeed were adequately protecting ourselves here at home. However, our lack of resolve to enforce the immigration laws we have and to take protection of our borders seriously leaves us far too vulnerable to domestic terrorist attacks. The CIA has already reported that known al-Qaeda operatives have been spotted in northern Mexico.

“Terrorists use a free society’s freedom and openness, its greatest strengths, against it. They can move freely within our society while actively working to subvert it…Terrorists can effectively wage their form of warfare while being protected by the society they are attacking.” This is true in this country and is true in Great Britain as well. It’s one of those things that makes this war so unlike previous wars. There are no set battlefields, and the combatants dress and act like the guy down the street. In our country, the 9/11 terrorists were all in violation of our weakly enforced immigration laws, while most of the London terrorists were actual citizens. In both cases, the terrorists were able to carry out their acts in large measure due to the freedoms we enjoy.

One of the most sobering facts about Lind’s 1989 article is that it has been found in terrorist training manuals and in the abandoned al-Qaeda hideouts in the Afghanistan caves of Tora-Bora.

4GW is a phenomenon that is evolving as we watch. It is not war as we once knew it. It is war with no clear battlefields, no easily identifiable enemies, and is driven by extremist loyalties to religion, ethnic group, or ideology.

The authors give this warning: “Whoever is first to recognize, understand, and implement a generational change can gain a decisive advantage. Conversely, a nation that is slow to adapt to generational change opens itself to catastrophic defeat.”

May we heed these words.