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” To summarize, we seek to radically change the cultures and political systems for much of the world, to halt foreign revolts and civil wars of which we do not approve, to bring global peace and prosperity, to make friends (even with those states whose rise we seek to restrain), and to “transform” our so far unreformable national security apparatus. Those who thought President Bush was kidding about these learned better in the months following our invasion of Iraq.”

– Fabius Maximus

For some time now, an author whose nom de guerre is “Fabius Maximus”, after the ancient Roman general of the Punic wars, has been a regular and at times, prolific, contributor to the Boydian and 4GW school oriented Defense & the National Interest. Fabius, who comments here at Zenpundit on occasion, also set off one of the most popular, if heated and controversial, threads at The Small Wars Council, catching the attention of noted COIN strategist Col. David Kilcullen. Kilcullen’s theories later became a subject of frequent critique from Fabius in his DNI articles.

While I had hoped to meet Fabius in person at Boyd 2007, he did not attend and I am not privy to his identity or professional background. Fabius’ arguments must rise or fall entirely on their own merit and he has been content to engage his critics on this basis at the SWC and elsewhere. Clearly he is a member of the 4GW school and is an admirer of Col. John Boyd, William Lind, Dr. Martin van Creveld and Dr. Chet Richards but has not shrunk from advancing his own ideas or original criticisms.

Recently, Fabius completed his tenth article in a series on America’s Long War for DNI and, as Fabius has entertained and enraged members of the community of “reform” defense intellectuals and COIN practitioners, it is timely for us to take stock of his strategic argument:

The Long War Series – from DNI’s Fabius Maximus Archive

Part XOne step beyond Lind: what is America’s geopolitical strategy?
Part IX4GW at work in a community near you,
Part VIIIHow to accurately forecast trends of the Iraq War,
Part VIIKilcullen explains all you need to know about the Iraq War,
Part VIThe bad news is that Lind’s good news is wrong,
Part VThe Iraq War as a warning for America,
Part IVBeyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq,
Part IIIStories or statistics? Read and compare to find the truth!
Part IINews from the Front: America’s military has mastered 4GW!
Part IAmerica takes another step towards the “Long War,”

I have read the roughly 20,000 words offered here previously and I re-read them for this post. I have also read most of the authors of the original works that Fabius Maximus cites in his series. Therefore, I feel qualified to offer a few observations in regard to the strategic paradigm that this body of work represents and the assumptions, clearly stated as well as implicit, upon which it is built.

Many of the specific analytical criticisms of American policy and performance in Iraq and Afghanistan made by Fabius are incisive, some are rather questionable and a few are brilliant. I encourage you to read his efforts for yourself rather than simply accepting my word for it. What interests me most though, given the scope of the series, are his premises. As I discern them, they are:

That 4GW is the environment in which we find ourselves conducting operations – and doing so quite poorly at that with a military predisposed toward 2GW offensives. Or irrelevantly on the strategic level where we happen to be executing COIN well on the tactical level.

We cannot significantly affect the internal dynamics of alien societies that we understand poorly or not at all, regardless of the carrots or sticks used. We are marginal factors at best.

American war policy is being constructed on the false analogy of the Cold War model.

Al Qaida is more phantom than menace.

War is the wrong conceptual metaphor and the wrong operational-bureaucratic response to the conflict in which we find ourselves.

Our response, which serves bureaucratic and factional interests at homes, undermines our global strategic position and wastes our economic strength.

A better grand strategy for America is nonintervention and reducing friction with the rest of the world. Or failing that, at least bolstering states, any states, rather than collapsing them into failure with military attack or other pressures ( Lind’s “Centers of Order vs. Centers of Disorder”)

If George Kennan argued for “Containment” of Soviet Communism in his “X” article the best descriptor of the grand strategy of Fabius Maximus might be ” Conservancy” – dialing down our kinetic response to terrorism to the surgical level and recognizing this contest as more ideological conflict than war and, in general, recognizing our limitations in attempting to become masters of the universe. Many readers would associate this paradigm with the Left but I believe that to be incorrect. Instead, reflecting a deeply paleoconservative reading of history and American traditions in foreign policy that historian Walter A. McDougal called “Promised Land” and others “city on a hill” and ” isolationism”.

The virtues of “conservancy” as I interpret Fabius is that it minimizes both costs and future commitments for the United States, leaving us better able to afford to deal with strategic threats to vital national interests, when unanticipated threats arise, as they surely will. It would serve as a reality check on statesmen to pursue fewer, more coherent, simpler, more easily realizable and markedly cheaper objectives, which will have far higher probability of success ( as opposed to say, attacking Iran while engaged in Iraq. Or perhaps invading Russia in winter or fighting a land war in Asia. Some folks around PACOM with a few years ago with uber-journalist Robert Kaplan’s ear, thought an unprovoked war with China was a splendid idea). When forced to intervene, our footprint will be light; more like British frontier agents of old or the 55 advisers in El Salvador in the 1980’s than the invasion of Iraq. As a nation, our foreign policy would stay on the good side of the diminishing returns curve.

The drawbacks include, in my view: being flatly incorrect about al Qaida’s potential to initiate attacks on the operational or strategic level specifically, and about the threat of radical Islamist-Mahdist movements in general, when coupled with increasing capacities to leverage against complex systems ( see John Robb’s Brave New War); underestimating the geopolitical ripple effect of the U.S. shifting to a conservancy posture, upending the global security arrangements upon which the calculations of statesmen currently depend. The unanticipated consequences of the latter are large. Within two to three levels of unfolding decision-tree possibilities, any potential response by the U.S. is simply swamped. We benefit by the status quo. Changing our position imposes costs.

I invite Fabius Maximus to respond as he likes and I will publish his remarks here, unedited. Readers are invited to offer their own critique in the comments section.

13 Responses to “”

  1. Fabius Maximus Says:

    Great summary, I wish I had written that. Thanks for the comments! Much to consider, but here are a few quick thoughts.

    Our primary disagreement appears to be over al Qaeda. We’ve clearly damaged its apparatus while invigorating the movement of which it is a part. I believe we could have done the former without the latter, in which case our position would be far stronger than it is.

    We must consider the consequences of not just a type II error (false negative) but also a type I error (false positive).

    You suggest I am making a type II error – danger present but not detected. Making this error after 9/11 would have meant that western police and security services aggressively pursued al Qaeda, the Marines/SOF tossed them out of Afghanistan (then left) — but no invasion of Iraq. Since these efforts have produced almost all the gains to date, I don’t see how we’d be worse off. Our post-invasion strategy ignited the formation of al Qaeda in Iraq, so its defeat is hardly a net gain. I doubt any of the future military actions we will take as a result of our military’s strategic focus on al Qaeda will be more effective than Iraq.

    What if we are making a type I error – danger not present but treated? We’ve elevated al Qaeda to our primary strategic threat, perhaps without sufficient basis. It’s not a cheap mistake. Vast expenditure of resources, a focus blinding us to other threats and concerns (note the Bush Administration’s paralysis in other critical fields, such as domestic and trade policy), and stress on relationships with important allies such as Turkey.

    Two other points. I am not sure what you mean by “We benefit by the status quo.” I believe the post-WWII geopolitical and financial regime is ending. However beneficial, it’s going away and we need to prepare for what comes next.

    As for the “threat of radical Islamist-Mahdist movements in general”, we will just have to see. Our current policies seem to guarantee that this will become a serious threat, which does not seem a wise approach. It is early days yet in the development of modern Islam, and I believe we have time to wield a big stick later. Let’s try other approaches for now.

  2. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Ha, Mark, you labeled this post “5GW” as well as “4GW”!


    I haven’t read Mr. Mximus’ articles, so I can’t really comment on them, although given your characterization I wonder if some bit of “conservancy” might actually benefit a 5GW approach.

    Anyway, something to be contemplated while this back-and-forth builds between you and FM.

  3. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    “War is the wrong conceptual metaphor and the wrong perational-bureaucratic response to the conflict in which we find ourselves.”

    –of course, this combined with “4GW is the environment in which we find ourselves conducting operations” — i.e., a 4GW environment must be addressed in any grand strategy — has a slightly 5GW tone. I’m wondering what specifically provoked you to label the post with 5GW…

  4. deichmans Says:


    I’m curious (like Curtis) as to your notion of 5GW. While some of FM’s mentors (particularly Bill Lind) have summarily dismissed “5GW”, I think this thread will be very helpful in discriminating between 4GW (culture-based asymmetrical warfare focused on the “rage of the people”) and 5GW (perception-based warfare focused on the context of conflict — fusing the Clausewitzian notions of popular rage with political rationality). Interesting aside: could 5GW factor the third element of Karl von’s trinity (“military probability”) out of the equation?

  5. Fabius Maximus Says:

    Is there such a thing as 5GW?

    No. Nor is there such a thing as 4GW. They are just intellectual tools, with no existance of their own.

    The only question is their utility — their value in analysis and generating useful operational insights.

    “The map is not the territory, the name is the not the actual object…”

  6. deichmans Says:


    I agree — the “generational” construct is simply a taxonomy for comparing and contrasting methods of warfare. That said, I believe the 4GW construct is too limited to account for the subtleties in context and meaning that we have begun to see employed in effective strategic communications campaigns.

    Therefore, I believe the idea of a “5th Generation” is apt — and is useful for filling in gaps in the 1/2/3/4GW construct.

  7. Fabius Maximus Says:

    Agree! It’s all about what we do with the tools.

    Any thougths on this series of articles about our new Long War?

    A background note: I have three major series of articles in progress.
    1. Grand Strategy — what should America do?
    2. The Long War — discussing what we are actually doing.
    3. The Insurgents’ Handbook — what are our opponents doing.

    You can see them at the archive:

  8. mark Says:

    Hi everyone,

    Why “5GW” as a tag ?

    I do not define 5GW with the specificity than Curtis or Dan or John Robb might prefer. My position on defining 5GW is that it is the form of conflict that evolves in order to defeat 4GW forces. States and non-state actors are mucking about, trying to figure out what the best counter might be and what level or levels of warfare it might be present at.

    Agree or disagree with Fabius’ prescriptions, his grand strategy is an attempt to respond to the problem of 4GW – hence the 5GW tag.

  9. Fabius Maximus Says:

    This discussion illustrates one aspect of the need for better geopolitical thinking, esp. military theory. So far the only topic addressed in these comments is what label to apply. This interest in classification is nice, but what about substance?

    It’s an age-old problem in military theory. Soldiers usually fight for only a few years during an entire career. Few fight as much as Marlborough, with his ten years of off and on campaigning.

    As a result, military theory tends to become overly complex, like 17th century books about military drill – describing evolutions not just useless but impossible. Successful practice of war requires extreme simplicity in theory.

    I doubt our enemies spend much time debating how to classify the various perspectives on modern warfare. I’ll bet they focus more on effectiveness and applications.

    Just an observation.

  10. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:


    Are you out fighting the good fight, or merely talking and theorizing about the dynamics, when you spin series after series in installment after installment?

    Fact is, you are wrong in your assumption that theory has no place in warfare, particularly as warfare moves beyond the bombs (high-tech or suicide) and guns — and also wishing for a simplicity, or a straight line, to guide us through the complexity we face.

    Framing will be more important than ever, especially because relevant effects will occur at some distance, quite indirectly, from the actual bombs and guns being used. Taxonomy aids framing.

    So far the only topic addressed in these comments is what label to apply.

    Entirely untrue, and an example of what an overfondness for simplicity produces.

    Successful practice of war requires extreme simplicity in theory.

    If this is true, one should add also what “simplicity in theory” requires. Many simple theories prove wrong when put into practice. Unless you are advocating an entirely ad hoc approach, with much trial followed by much error, for discovering the ultimately simple but effective theory to guide practices, you’ll need to invite theory into your tent. Positive initial conditions, which theory can help to formulate (when sufficiently explored) may prove more efficient than merely “mucking about”, to use Mark’s phrase.

  11. Fabius Maximus Says:

    “Are you out fighting the good fight, or merely talking and theorizing about the dynamics, when you spin series after series in installment after installment?”

    What does this mean?

    “you are wrong in your assumption that theory has no place in warfare”

    I never said or assumed that. After all, I have written tens of thousands of words *about* military theory. Supporting evidence, please?

  12. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    “I doubt our enemies spend much time debating how to classify the various perspectives on modern warfare. I’ll bet they focus more on effectiveness and applications.”

    My apologies, FM. You are not so much against military theory as against a type of military theory, then?

    I’ll bet many of our enemies do in fact debate how they’ll “classify the various perspectives on modern warfare.” They may not debate internally, to the degree that they are monolithic within their various formations; but they debate externally in their attempt to classify America, the West, and how we view warfare in comparison to their own classifications.

    Internally, there may be much debate within the enemy forces, particularly factional debate. (E.g., bin Laden vs al-Zarqawi.) “Who is within the Umma, who are the heretics, who are Satan’s minions; and, how do we fight each without destroying ourselves in the process?” — this requires a theory of classification to understand.

    While probably true that “our enemies” do not focus much on xGW — although reports of their familiarity with the concept of 4GW can be found — it is probably untrue that they are streamlined warfighters flowing with automaticity.

    “What does this mean?”

    It means that you elevate the enemy into an efficient, fairly non-thinking force (who, unlike us, have little worry with theory, having already found the simplest yet most efficient theory to guide their operations) while deriding our own attempts at finding the best theory to guide us — while at the same time you spin out reams of your own theory!

    So the question was: What are you doing to protect the empire, Fabius Maximus: 1) flowing with automaticity as you conduct your own operations, or 2) theorizing endlessly within the ether that is the Internet (also known as “blah blah blah”)?

    I’m using your yardstick when I voice that question.

  13. Opposed Systems Design :: FM Smackdowns :: September :: 2010 Says:

    […] aren’t on my site, an accurate cataloging of “smackdowns” would need to include a zinger like this one from Weeks and this concise bull’s eye response from the Small Wars […]

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