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Is 4GW Dead?: Point-Counterpoint and Commentary

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

4GW theory has always attracted overenthusiasts and  raging haters ever since the concept emerged way back in 1989, so debates about the merit of 4GW are nothing new; in fact, the arguments became so routine that they had largely gone sterile years ago.  After T.X. Hammes published his excellent  The Sling and the Stone and John Robb  went to the next level with Brave New War , it seemed that  little new was left to be said. In the late 2000’s, intellectual energies shifted to arguing the nuances and flaws of Pop-centric COINwhich proved in time to be even more bitter than those about 4GW.

Generations of War Theory Visualized by Chet Richards

What is different recently is that the person taking the affirmative on the question “Is 4GW dead?” was Dr. Chet Richards, who for years ran the premier but now defunct 4GW site, D-N-I.net, now archived here by the Project on Government Oversight.  Richards is no Clausewitzian true-believer or Big Army MBA with stars, but a former collaborator with John Boyd and a leading thinker of the 4GW school who had written several books with that strategic theme.

Therefore, not a critic to be dismissed lightly. Here’s Chet:

Is 4GW Dead? 

….The first thing to note is that 4GW is an evolution from 3GW, which they equate to maneuver warfare and the blitzkrieg as defined in MCDP 1 and Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict. These are styles of warfare conducted by state armies against other state armies, although the paper does invoke the notion of transnational terrorists near the end.

At some point in the late 1990s, the theory bifurcated. Bill Lind and Martin van Creveld began to emphasize the decline of the state and focus on transnational guerrilla organizations like al-Qa’ida. Tom Barnett called this the “road warrior” model. T. X. Hammes, on the other hand, characterized 4GW as “evolved insurgency” and envisioned the techniques described in the paragraphs above as also useful for state-vs-state conflicts.

….The 9/11 attacks, by a transnational guerrilla movement, seemed to confirm 4GW in both of its forms. In the last few years, however, everything has gone quiet. Transnational insurgencies, “global guerrillas” as John Robb terms them, have not become a significant factor in geopolitics. “Continuing irritation” might best describe them, whose primary function seems to be upholding national security budgets in frightened western democracies. The state system has not noticeably weakened. So it might be fair at this point to conclude that although 4GW was a legitimate theory, well supported by logic and data, the world simply didn’t develop along the lines it proposed.

A prominent critic of 4GW, Antulio J. Echevarria, may have been correct:

What we are really seeing in the war on terror, and the campaign in Iraq and elsewhere, is that the increased “dispersion and democratization of technology, information, and finance” brought about by globalization has given terrorist groups greater mobility and access worldwide. At this point, globalization seems to aid the nonstate actor more than the state, but states still play a central role in the support or defeat of terrorist groups or insurgencies.

Why? I’ll offer this hypothesis, that the primary reason warfare did not evolve a fourth generation is that it didn’t live long enough. The opening of Sir Rupert Smith’s 2005 treatise, The Utility of Force, states the case….

Chet’s post spurred a sharp rebuttal from William Lind, “the Father of Fourth Generation Warfare”:

4GW is Alive and Well 

So “the world simply didn’t develop along the lines it (4GW) proposed”? How do you say that in Syriac?

The basic error in Chet Richards’ piece of April 19, “Is 4GW dead?” is confusing the external and internal worlds. Internally, in the U.S. military and the larger defense and foreign policy establishment, 4GW is dead, as is maneuver warfare and increasingly any connection to the external world. The foreign policy types can only perceive a world of states, in which their job is to promote the Wilsonian nee Jacobin, follies of “democracy” and “universal human rights.” They are in fact, 4GW’s allies, in that their demand for “democracy” undermines states, opening the door for more 4GW.

In most of the world, democracy is not an option. The only real options are tyranny or anarchy, and when you work against tyranny, you are working for anarchy. The ghost of bin Laden sends his heartfelt thanks.

Third Generation doctrine has been abandoned, de facto, if not de jure, by the one service that embraced it, the U.S. Marine Corps. The others never gave it a glance. The U.S. military remains and will remain second generation until it disappears from sheer irrelevance coupled with high cost. That is coming much sooner than any of them think.

….In many of these cases, including Egypt and Pakistan, the only element strong enough to hold the state together is the army. But the “democracy” crowd in Washington immediately threatens aid cut-offs, sanctions, etc., if the army acts. Again, the children now running America’s foreign policy are 4GW’s best allies.

Fourth generation war includes far more than just Islamic “terrorism,” and we see it gaining strength in areas far from the Middle East. Gangs have grown so powerful in Mexico, right on our border, that I predict the state will soon have to make deals with them, as the PRI has done in the past. Invasion by immigrants who do not acculturate is a powerful form of 4GW, more powerful than any terrorism, and that is occurring on a north-south basis (except Australia) literally around the world. Remember, most of the barbarians did not invade the Roman Empire to destroy it. They just wanted to move in. In fact, most were invited in. Sound familiar?

What should concern us most is precisely the disconnect between the internal and external worlds. Externally, 4GW is flourishing, while internally, in the US government and military, it does not exist. This is the kind of chasm into which empires can disappear….

Fabius Maximus – who is a both a pseudonymous blogger and a group blog, also responded:

Update about one of the seldom-discussed trends shaping our world: 4GW 

One of the interesting aspects of recent history is the coincidence of

  1. the collapse of discussion about 4GW in US military and geopolitical circles,
  2. victories by insurgents using 4GW methods over foreign armies in Iraq and Afghanistan, &
  3. most important, the perhaps history-making victory by Bin Laden’s al Qaeda.

The second point is important to us, but the usual outcome since WW2 (after which 4GW became the dominate form of military conflict; see section C below).  The third point is the big one. Based on the available information, one of Bin Laden’s goals was to destabilize the US political regime. Massive increase in military spending (using borrowed funds). The bill of rights being shredded (note yesterday’s House vote to tear another strip from the 4th amendment). Our Courts holding show trials of terrorists — recruited, financed, supported by our security services. Torture and concentration camps.

….We — the Second American Republic — have engaged in a war with nationalistic, Islamic forces using 4GW.  So far we are losing.  For various reasons we are unable to even perceive the nature of the threat. In DoD the hot dot is again procurement of high-tech weapons — new ships, the F-35, the hypersonic cruise missile, etc.  All useless in the wars we’ve fought for the past 50 years, and probably in those of the next 50 years….. 

A few comments.

4GW has been heavily criticized – and accurately so – for making selective use of history, for unsupported maximal claims, for an excessively and ahistorically linear argument and for shifting or vaguely defined terms. Presented rigidly, it is relatively easy for critics to poke holes in it simply by playing “gotcha” (some of the criticism of 4GW did not get beyond ad hominem level garbage, but more intellectually serious detractors made very effective critiques of 4GW’s flaws).

That said, there were a number of useful elements or insights in the body of 4GW writings that retain their utility and I think are worth recalling:

  • Whatever one thinks of 4GW as a whole, the school drew attention to the threat of non-state irregular warfare, failed states and the decline of state vs. state warfare and did so long before it was Pentagon conventional wisdom or trendy Beltway talking head spiels on Sunday morning news programs.
  • While the state is not in decline everywhere in an absolute sense, it sure is failing in some places and has utterly collapsed elsewhere. Failed, failing and hollowed out states are nexus points for geopolitical problems and feature corruption, black globalization, insurgency, tribalism, terrorism, transnational criminal organizations and zones of humanitarian crisis. Whether we call these situations “irregular”, “hybrid”, “decentralized and polycentric”, “LIC”, “4GW” or everyone’s favorite, “complex” matters less than using force to achieve political aims becomes increasingly difficult as the interested parties and observers multiply. Some of the advice offered by the 4GW school regarding “the moral level of war”, de-escalation and the perils of fighting the weak in such a conflict environment are all to the good for reducing friction.
  • The emphasis of the 4GW school on the perspective of the irregular fighter and their motivations not always fitting neatly within state-centric realpolitik, Galula-ish “Maoist Model” insurgency, Clausewitzian best strategic practice or the Western intellectual tradition, were likewise ahead of their time and contrary to S.O.P. Even today, the effort to see the world through the eyes of our enemies is at best, anemic. Red teams are feared more than they are loved. Or utilized.
  • The bitter criticism the 4GW school lodged of the American political elite being allergic to strategic thinking and ignorant of strategy in general was apt; that American strategy since the end of the Cold War has been exceedingly inept in thought and execution is one of the few points on which the most rabid 4GW advocate and diehard Clausewitzian can find themselves in full agreement.

The lessons of 4GW will still be relevant wherever men fight in the rubble of broken societies, atomized communities and failed states.

Iran is a classic wicked problem

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — Iran, unknown unknowns, Madhyamika philosophy and a blessed unknowing ]

image from Jackson Pollock / AustinKids
an artist’s representation of a wicked problem to be untangled?


Dr. TX Hammes, who will need no introduction to most ZP readers, wrote a few days back in On Bombing Iran, A False Choice:

While there has been some discussion of Iran closing the Straits of Hormuz, there has been no consideration of other Iranian actions – mining harbors overseas (using merchant ships), major attacks on oil production chokepoints globally or major terror attacks using the nuclear equivalent explosive power inherent in many industrial practices. In short, bombing proponents assume Iran will be an essentially supine enemy and not attempt to expand the conflict geographically or chronographically.

Iran is a classic wicked problem. Any “solution” brings a new set of problems. Lacking a solution, the strategist’s job is to think through how to manage such a problem.

My train of thought now departing the National Defense University on Dr Hammes’ platform will make its way with stops at Hans Morgenthau, Jeff Conklin and Richard Feynman to a final destination deep in the heartland of Buddhist Madhyamika philosophy with Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel.


Drs. Francis J. Gavin and James B. Steinberg‘s recent Foreign Policy piece The Unknown Unknowns carried the subtitle:

If the past half-century of American political history has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t possibly know the consequences of bombing — or not bombing — Iran

and opined:

Based on our experiences — one of us a former senior policymaker, the other a historian of U.S. foreign policy — we are convinced that the “right” answer, but the one you will never read on blogs or hear on any cable news network, is that we simply cannot know ahead of time, with any degree of certainty, what the optimal policy will turn out to be. Why? Even if forecasters could provide probabilities about the likelihood of a narrow, specific event, it is simply beyond the capacity of human foresight to make confident predictions about the short- and long-term global consequences of a military strike against Iran.


It appears that this sense of unknowing has application beyond the specific question of whether or not to bomb Iran. Blog-friend Peter J Munson just the other day quoted Hans Morgenthau in a short SWJ piece titled Gentile: Realities of a Syrian Intervention — using a Morgenthau quote that he also features as an epigraph to his book, Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy.

So that’s Iran, Iraq and Syria — but the Morgenthau quote itself, from his Politics among Nations, is even more general in application:

The first lesson the student of international politics must learn and never forget is that the complexities of international affairs make simple solutions and trustworthy prophecies impossible.



And it goes further. Love that quote from Laurence J Peters that Jeff Conklin uses as the epigraph to his seminal paper on Wicked Problems:

Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them

Next up, here’s the Nobel physicist Richard Feynman speaking in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, a Horizon / Nova interview, illustrating the approach Morgenthau takes to international relations as applicable to the grand issues of philosophy, religion and science:

I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean.


And how far is that from Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, student and wife of the lama Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, writing in her book on Madhyamika, The Power of an Open Question (p. 58):

Maybe experiencing complexity brings us closer to reality than does thinking we’ve actually figured things out. False certainty doesn’t finalize anything. Things keep moving and changing. They are influenced by countless variables, twists and turns … never for a moment settling into thingness. So maybe we should question the accuracy or limitations of this kind of false certainty. Conflicting information confuses us only when we’re trying to reach a definite conclusion. But if we’re not trying to reach a conclusion in the first place — if we just observe and pay attention — we may actually have a fuller, more accurate reading of whatever we encounter.


Zen, too, welcomes this “open ended” approach in its working with koans, those mysterious and / or paradoxical riddles and / or poetic statements and / or legal cases for which such teachers as Dogen Zenji had such affection. In the words of Shozan Jack Haubner:

The searching, open-ended nature of koan work yields the kind of answer, however, that frustrates easy analysis, not to mention that most exquisite of all human pleasures: being “right.” For, ultimately, koan practice teaches that as long as a question is alive in the world around us, it should not — indeed, cannot — be settled once and for all within us. Koan practice does not put life’s deepest issues “to bed.” It wakes these issues up within us, waking us up in the process.

or consider this, from Lin Jensen, An Ear to the Ground: Uncovering the living source of Zen ethics:

Judgments on right and wrong are a nearly irresistible enticement to pick sides. And that’s exactly why the old Zen masters warned against becoming a person of right and wrong. It isn’t that the masters were indifferent to questions of ethics, but for them ethical conduct went beyond simply taking the prescribed right side. For these masters, the source of ethical conduct is found in the way things are, circumstance itself: unfiltered immediate reality reveals what is needed.

Policy-makers, of course, can’t suspend judgment indefinitely — but maybe a contemplative approach in general would make them better prepared for snap judgments and sound intuitions when such are called for. Clausewitz [grinning, with an h/t to Zen here]:

When all is said and done, it really is the commander’s coup d’œil, his ability to see things simply, to identify the whole business of war completely with himself, that is the essence of good generalship. Only if the mind works in this comprehensive fashion can it achieve the freedom it needs to dominate events and not be dominated by them.


And let’s go the distance…

Here’s Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel again, from an online retreat she gave last year for subscribers to Tricycle magazine:

We need to ask, what is love or beauty or pain before we objectify it? what happens when we can abide without conclusions? you know, these are questions for the practitioner, practitioners questions… and I wanted to use one word in Tibetan that I’ve found very useful for myself… and this is the word zöpa.. this translates usually as patience or endurance or tolerance, but there’s this very subtle translation of zöpa, which is the ability to tolerate emptiness basically, which is another ways of saying the ability to tolerate that things don’t exist in one way, that things are so full and infinite and leave you so speechless, and so undefinably grand – and these are just descriptive words, but you have to use some words to communicate, I guess — the ability to bear that, that fullness, like we’ve been talking about, not turning away, not turning away.

Hammes – Who Participates in War?

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

From the Strategy Conference…..

Books the Readers Recommended

Friday, August 8th, 2008

In mt previous  post, The Reading List of Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, I asked for reader suggestions on new additions to the list and you responded both here and at Chicago Boyz. Here is what you offered up:

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations  [ Jeremiah ]

War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage  [ Wiggins ]

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game  [ Wiggins ]

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference  [ Glenn ]

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking   [  Glenn ]

Explaining Chaos  [ Munzenberg ]

From Pablo to Osama: Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptation  [ Munzenberg ]

The Devil in the Details: Asymptotic Reasoning in Explanation, Reduction, and Emergence (Oxford Studies in the Philosophy of Science)                        Munzenberg  ]

Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization  [ Eddie – can’t find his second rec on Amazon]

Getting Real: The smarter, faster, easier way to build a successful web Application   [ Jeffrey ]

The Unfettered Mind: Writings from a Zen Master to a Master Swordsman                  [ Jeffrey ]

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable      [ Adrian – this was also a Hammes rec that I missed in my last post]

Gödel, Escher, Bach. Ein Endloses Geflochtenes Band.      [ Adrian ]

Daemon             [ Arherring ]

Halting State (Ace Science Fiction)    [ Arherring ]

The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War                   [ A.E. ]

City Fights: Selected Histories of Urban Combat from World War II to Vietnam   [ A.E. ]

Criminal-States and Criminal-Soldiers       [ A.E. ]

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets    [ David Foster ]

The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth                  [ David Foster ]

Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know About How Artists Work (Financial Times Prentice Hall Books.)   [ David Foster ]

The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to Our Changing Society      [ David Foster ]

The Logic Of Failure: Recognizing And Avoiding Error In Complex Situations  [ David Foster ]

Order Out of Chaos   [ Shannon Love ]

And here are mine:

Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century  

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (Strategy and History Series) 


Blogfriend and cybersecurity expert Gunnar Peterson steps up with his own list.

The Reading List of Colonel Thomas X. Hammes

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

The Armed Forces Journal cover story features Colonel T.X. Hammes giving an an “outside the box” reading list to change traditional thinking in defense circles:

Read different

Although the wider academic and business communities are coming to grips with the fact that many of these advances are changing the way we understand the world, the defense industry does not seem to see this as an issue. We still tend to view the world as responding to linear approaches applied by bureaucratic entities.

Fortunately, over the past couple of decades, a number of books have provided thought-provoking new theories of how the world works. Unfortunately, these theories do not align with the planning processes we use in the defense industry. The first step in fixing our planning processes is to examine how science’s understanding of reality is changing.The authors of these works highlight aspects of how the world has changed. This forces us to change how we frame problems, how we organize to deal with them and even how to get the best out of our people. For instance, if one still saw the world as a hierarchy, then one looked for the “leadership” of the Iraqi insurgency in 2003. Yet if one saw the world as a network in which emergent intelligence is a key factor, then one quickly saw the networked insurgent entities as they evolved an emergent strategy in Iraq. Our ability to adjust to the rapidly changing future security environment will, to a large degree, depend on our ability to understand the world as it is rather than as we have been taught to understand it. Reading these 12 books should help.

Here is the list, and it is a good one. I’ve read several, have some of the other books in my “antilibrary” and a few are new to me. You can go to the article to get some commentary regarding each book by Dr. Hammes:

Chaos: Making a New Science 

Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means 

Commander’s Appreciation and Campaign Design ( U.S. Army pamphlet)

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software

The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business (Collins Business Essentials)

The Wisdom of Crowds

The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why

Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity (Helix Books)

The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations

Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology

An excellent list but one to which I think we need to add a few more. While any comments are welcome, I suggest that readers also chime in and nominate a couple ( 1 or 2) worthy reads that fit the spirit of Col. Hammes’ intent. My nominations are  Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century by Howard Bloom and Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson.


Great recs are already in the comment section! I will start putting them together as a linked set of ” Reader’s Reading List”. Note also Smitten Eagle has posted up.

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