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4GW and Legitimacy at SWJ

Fourth Generation Warfare and William Lind was the topic of a critical essay by Major Lincoln Farish at Small Wars Journal. The article was interesting, despite my disagreement with the author on most points, because he was wrestling with important questions related to insurgency and COIN at a time when FM 3-24 is undergoing revision and the role of COIN itself in US Army operational culture is being questioned. Tight defense budgets= Musical chairs at the Pentagon. 🙂

Unfortunately, the article contained, in my view, significant problems in terms of understanding 4GW or strategy in general.Here is the article. It isn’t overly long. I am going to be commenting on passages that caught my attention and I invite readers to do the same and check out those made by Ken White and Slapout in the comments section at SWJ:

The Quest for Legitimacy 

According to The U.S. Army Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual an insurgency is “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government.” FM 3-24 continues with, “political power is the central issue in insurgencies and counterinsurgencies: each side aims to get the people to accept its governance or authority as legitimate.” Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) advocates propose fighting insurgents with small cadres of highly-trained infantry, avoiding the large footprint of earlier generations of war created by command and control echelons above the company. Even if the 4GW proponents are correct on the tactical level, their proposed methods will not be successful in defeating an insurgency strategically as 4GW does not offer a legitimate alternative to the insurgents at the strategic or national level.

Premises here are incorrect.

First, while I do not speak for Mr. Lind, any fair reading of his many columns, articles and posts of the past decade (!) would demonstrate that he was, as Ken White and Slapout indicated, strongly opposed to expeditionary COIN adventures unless they were absolutely unavoidable.  His 4GW grand strategy was for the US to scrupulously avoid “centers of disorder” and view all states, even ideologically hateful misfits, as potential allies against 4GW forces. Where required, the US would instead rely on “punitive raiding” against such 4GW entities but not hunker down in the mud with them on a permanent basis.

William S. Lind, the architect of the 4GW concept, argues for units to become “true light infantry.”  He writes, “virtually all Fourth Generation forces are free of the First Generation culture of order; they focus outward, they prize initiative and, because they are highly decentralized, they rely on self-discipline.” Discipline is a key issue here; a company commander only has the authority to punish soldiers up to the (U. S. Army) rank of Sergeant (E-5). This is to protect not only the soldiers, but to give the commander the ability to maintain order and discipline commensurate with his position and abilities. A company is usually composed of only three to four officers, and they have little ability to conduct an investigation without disrupting combat operations….

…. Clear, codified, equitable discipline is one of the features that separate a military from a street gang or an insurgent movement…..

….It [4GW forces] should be trained and equipped to use cash to draw on the local infrastructure for most of its needs.”  Lind expects a company to handle most of its logistical needs with a minimum of support from a higher echelon, in other words, Lind is advocating an autonomous company.

One of the assertions of 4GW theory is that a large military with a  2GW culture organization based on hierarchy, micromanagement. limited or no autonomy of subordinates will go down to defeat ( or at least protracted stalemate) with a smaller, but more agile, adaptive 4GW force. Secondly, that counter-4GW units should be retooled to “mirror” these advantages in initiative and flexibility because the disciplined firepower of conventional military trumps those of irregulars (who of course, lack tanks, attack helicopters, cruise missiles, FOBs with food courts that include Pizza Hut and other hyperexpensive brontosaurian logistical tails). This combat advantage of light infantry over guerrillas is the reason for Lind’s advocacy of “Jaegers“.

H. John Poole, another disciple of 4GW, goes even further. Poole advocates using fire teams (a 3-4 man team) to perform deep interdiction to deny an enemy maneuver room, destroy minor camps, supply areas, and staying in place for up to three months at a time. In this scenario, how is it possible that the team effects the capture of prisoners? Would the team have to allow surrendering personnel to escape? How would enemy causalities be treated? Would the team leave enemy wounded, and how would that be portrayed to the media and world-wide? Whatever flaws there may be with 4GW, the biggest one is with legitimacy.

Poole is a tactical expert, which I certainly am not, even in terms of historical study. As I am not qualified to debate the utility of fire-teams vs. platoons or companies, I will simply note that in a different strategic context, both the Soviets and NATO contemplated and prepared for very deep, behind the lines, operations, by small, pre-positioned, sleeper cells. We also have scouts and a variety of special forces units and CIA clandestine operatives running around AfPak and the Horn of Africa – how do they currently handle these problems? Does SEAL Team 6 usually return home from a raid with 50+ prisoners?

A Western democratic government is considered legitimate if its rule is primarily derived from the consent of the populace. An illegitimate government would be one that ruled by coercion. Legitimate governments are inherently stable. They engender the popular support required to manage internal problems, change, and conflict. A lack of legitimacy in a constituted government results in a lack of popular support, and an end to the government’s actions.

Well, while I understand the point of contrast the author is making, and I’m deeply in sympathy with the inherent Lockeanism, the idea that liberal governments who have the consent of the governed do not regularly exercise coercion is fundamentally and empirically incorrect. This is easily demonstrated by refusing to pay one’s taxes, or attempting to sell unpasteurized milk, engage in sedition, build a house at variance with local zoning or in a myriad of ways. States enforce law where they do not have voluntary compliance and that enforcement, or threat thereof, constitutes coercion in a very real sense. If a state cannot make use of coercion in time of need, then it has failed as a state.

What states with consent of the governed have is a comparative advantage. Their greater legitimacy permits their actions of coercion- unlike that of a a hated, mad, tyrant – to take place less frequently and then with with less friction when they do. Enjoying greater voluntary compliance, more legitimate states have moral leeway and the political benefit of the doubt of the populace, when confronting lawbreakers and applying coercion to other challengers to the state’s authority. It is this very moral authority possessed by the state that 4GW forces seek to erode.

 Conrad Crane proposes six possible indicators of legitimacy:

– The ability to provide security for the populace.

– Selection of leaders at a frequency and in a manner considered just and fair by a substantial majority of the populace.

– A high level of popular participation in or support for political processes.

– A culturally acceptable level of corruption.

– A culturally acceptable level and rate of political, economic, and social development.

– A high level of regime acceptance by major social institutions.

While this is a good guide from a western view of what constitutes a “legitimate” government, not every group in the world would agree, and legitimacy is in the eyes of the beholder. What was legitimate in earlier times may now be unacceptable, what is legitimate in one area of the world is not in another.

Crane’s indicators are usefully pragmatic in a heuristic sense, but probably not sufficient in themselves – “legitimacy” is a huge subject and has many aspects or facets in terms of internal politics, external diplomacy, cultural identity and both positive and international law.  While “legitimacy” is difficult to define to the mutual satisfaction of military leaders, lawyers, statesmen or academics, populations seem to “know it when they see it” (and more importantly, when they don’t). The rub with pop-centric COIN theory, from a 4GW perspective, is that it is extremely difficult (though not always impossible) for armed outsiders to bestow or shore up legitimacy of a state.

I suspect that gambit works most effectively with new or emergent states also seeking acceptance or peace with neighboring states and aid from the international community and less well in cases of purely civil strife.

Insurgencies that are trying to develop legitimacy have integrated themselves locally into the social and political fabric of societies worldwide. They establish a “shadow government,” first addressing the needs of the local populace. Insurgents establish themselves as organizations capable of addressing the everyday problems of the local population. Insurgent groups have set up schools, medical clinics, sports clubs, and programs for free meals. Hamas and Hezbollah have also become powerful political parties within their respective governments. The key difference is that to be seen as legitimate, the insurgent only needs to appear legitimate in the area they are operating in and in accordance with the mores of the local populace.

Much of this passage is actually in concordance with classic 4GW thinking. I would hedge in that many 4GW entities, for example, criminal-insurgencies or loyalist paramilitaries (4GW entities acting in support of the state) have no interest in becoming a “shadow government”. Some, like Hezbollah and HAMAS do, but an across the board assumption is an effort to intellectually shoehorn all insurgencies everywhere into the Maoist model – that they seek to replace regime as the state’s new rulers- and that is one of the major flaws of pop-centric COIN assumptions.

Atrocities committed by insurgents, even if they were reported could be easily ignored.  International opinion matters little to an insurgent organization that is local, and is not subject to, or concerned with, international laws.


Atrocities by irregulars may or may not be ignored. Largely that is the fault of policy, our elite’s decided lack of will in consistently pursuing their publicity, condemnation and where possible, exemplary punishment. That said, whether atrocities by irregulars are ignored or not and whether leaders of non-state forces hold international opinion in contempt, as parties to an armed conflict they are indeed subject to the laws of war and international law. Breaking laws does not mean that therefore, you are somehow above them.

The national government, on the other hand, has to appear legitimate at the international level, the national level, and at the local level. At each level there may be different beliefs as to what does or does not constitute “legitimate” governance. The counter insurgent has an even more difficult time, as they must be seen as “legitimate” in their home country, the host country, internationally, and at the local level. There is a difference in what actions and processes are seen as legitimate by these successive levels and the counter insurgent must not only be cognizant of these expectations and restrictions, but abide by them as well.

Generally correct, but all levels of legitimacy are not equally important all of the time.

The context of situations matter a great deal – first of all, the shooting part of war does count even in 4GW or COIN. It does not help to be scrupulously legitimate in all OF your actions if you lose the war to insurgents and are captured, tortured lavishly and displayed in a cage before being executed on live television.  Appealing to the sense of legitimacy of generally adversarial and distantly located foreign elites may or may not matter vs. appealing to the primary loyalty of villagers in guerrilla country. Or it might.

It is important to remember that in terms of legitimacy, the counterinsurgent  has an audience of overlapping political communities, but communities of unequal importance to the outcome. All actions in counterinsurgency warfare have political trade-offs. The bias is to ruthlessly accept those trade-offs that methodically and irrevocably advance the COIN side to victory and eschew ones where the costs greatly exceed any potential gain. To quote John Boyd, when considering conflict and threats, we should only undertake operations and policies that:

  • Support our national goal, which at the highest level involves improving our fitness, as an organic whole, to shape and cope with an ever-changing environment
  • Pump-up our resolve, drain-away our adversary’s resolve, and attract the uncommitted
  • End the conflict on favorable terms
  • Ensure that the conflict and peace terms do not provide seeds for (unfavorable) future conflict.

To continue:

The 4GW method of COIN does not properly account for legitimacy. Following the 4GW method, insurgent groups will be able to use the need for legitimacy by the counter insurgents to disrupt operations. If a charge is made that the 4GW forces have committed an atrocity, there will be a lot of interest in that story by outside groups. The media will want information, and human rights groups will bring political pressure for a full and complete investigation to be conducted, something a company commander will not have the resources to do.

I find this passage to simply be strange, given the emphasis that various writers of the 4GW school placed upon the mental and moral levels of war. Whether you agree with 4GW and William Lind or think that both = horseshit, it remains a fact that concern with legitimacy is one of 4GW’s central tenets as a theory or school of strategic thought. See, there’s this guy, an Israeli military historian, named Martin van Creveld and……

The problem, I suspect, is with how the author approaches legitimacy and the division of responsibility for questions of tactics, operations, strategy and policy. Bill Lind’s advocacy of of jaegers never seemed to me to imply that a master sergeant or captain out in the backcountry would be running an international level IO on his own. In his area of responsibility, with locals, sure – just not when Lara Logan or Dr. Jakob Kellenberger of the Red Cross shows up.

If the alleged atrocity is not investigated properly, regardless of the veracity, legitimacy for the operation and popular support at all levels will be at risk. The insurgents will be able to use the incident as a rallying cry against the counter insurgent forces. The lack of a full and complete investigation will give credence to their claims, and there will be allegations of “cover ups” and “obfuscation,” by those sympathetic to the insurgent cause. Outside neutral groups, like NGOs and the media, will not be able to quickly and easily refute these allegations, further reinforcing the insurgent’s claims. These claims harm the legitimacy of the counter insurgent operations and degrade popular support. Without popular support the U.S. Army would be forced to leave, allowing the insurgents to reoccupy the area. Tactically the insurgents may have been beaten at every turn, but strategically they have won. Given the proposed structure of 4GW forces, small 3-4 man teams, out of direct contact with higher headquarters for extended periods of time, with a minimum of command oversight- how would an investigation occur? How would media requests be handled, or investigations by human rights NGOs? How would the team or the company even be able to demonstrate that they were not responsible for the alleged crime? Do 4GW adherents believe that the US Army would be given the benefit of the doubt by the international press?


First of all, all of what the passage describes occurs now, under the present system, beloved by Big Army, of top down micromanagement of company and platoon leaders by senior field grade or, remarkably, general officers. Any incarnation of 4GW COIN operations have not failed in the way Farish described but every major media failure that has happened in the war can be attributed in part, to the current institutional culture, climate and structure that produced such slick American IO moments as Abu Ghraib and “the Runaway General“.

Admittedly, as it is untried, a 4GW style COIN operation might not do any better than this, but really, it could hardly do worse.

The current mass of command and control, while cumbersome and at times inefficient, exists to protect the soldier and to allow him to conduct his mission with minimal disruption. To try and strip that away to a “lean fighting force” is to invite tactical success, but strategic failure. 

Top-heavy, slow moving, risk-averse, military bureaucracies ensure strategic victory?  Administrative process defines or formulates strategy? WTF?

With the loss of a robust command structure and the protection it brings from outside agencies, it will be easy for the insurgents to portray soldiers as cold-blooded killers, rampaging throughout the land with no oversight and no regard for international law, the UCMJ, or legitimacy. Without the appearance of legitimacy popular support will erode, without popular support counter- insurgent forces will be forced to cede the battlefield to the insurgents.

Move….out…of….your….comfort zone.

In general, military history and strategic thinking need to be taught earlier in the career arc of professional officers than the War College level as a counter to the habits of mind inculcated by organizational culture. The relationship between tactics, strategy and policy is always holistic, not distributed between “tactical leaders”, “operational planners” and civilian “policy wonks”. Strategy does not live way up at HQ or in the White House but should be a ladder or chain of implications that reach down to guide tactical decisions and upwards to a national or grand strategy.

11 Responses to “4GW and Legitimacy at SWJ”

  1. Dave Schuler Says:

    This is altogether too post-modern for my tastes.  Isn’t Maj. Farish conflating issues of authority and legitimacy with authenticity?  For a government to be legitimate is pretty simple.  It must hold authority by whatever means and it must be recognized by other legitimate governments as legitimate.
    Government is inherently coercive.  If that were not the case no one would ever be put in jail  for tax evasion.

  2. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Zen,
    This paragraph should be underscored:

    In general, military history and strategic thinking need to be taught earlier in the career arc of professional officers than the War College level as a counter to the habits of mind inculcated by organizational culture. The relationship between tactics, strategy and policy is always holistic, not distributed between “tactical leaders”, “operational planners” and civilian “policy wonks”. Strategy does not live way up at HQ or in the White House but should be a ladder or chain of implications that reach down to guide tactical decisions and upwards to a national or grand strategy.

    Flatter is better; less hierarchy is better—the more levels, the more removed the guys on the ground from the commander’s true intent. Clarity is diminished, and implicit understanding much more difficult.

  3. Dave Schuler Says:

    On a different but tangentially related subject TNR has declared war on Syria.

  4. Lynn Wheeler Says:

    In Boyd’s “Organic Design For Command And Control” … he would highlight Guderian’s “verbal orders only” during the blitzkrieg and contrast that with the us army’s rigid, top-down, command&control structure. The “verbal orders only” supposedly was to give the person on the spot the greatest latitude in decision making w/o having to worry about CYA and after-action retribution. Boyd would also mention that in ww2, german army was 3% officers while the us army was 11% officers growing to 20+%.

    Part of Boyd’s explanation was at entry to ww2, us army was faced was deploying an enormous number of people with little or no experience and so used the rigid, top-down, command&control structure to leverage the little available experience … however, the structure then became institutionalized. In the 80s, he would point out that this was even starting to have severe downside on US corporate culture as the young soldiers from ww2 started to climb the corporate later and emulating organization that they they had been taught.

  5. slapout9 Says:

    You should hear Boyd himself on the Polar Bear tpaes about verbal orders…he is fanatical about it! he didn’t believe in writing anything down unless you had to for clarity or to CYA. Also his concept of organization is not really about flatter, it is about being faster! Now that usually means flatter but understanding that the goal is to be faster is the main point at least that is my opinion of what he was saying.

  6. Fred Leland Says:

    Great piece Zen

  7. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Concur on Boyd’s emphasis on speed with respect to “flatter.” I made the comment because our military is being strangled by bureaucracy, and its inherent rigidity and proclivities for “mother-may-I?” thinking. In my work, I’m focusing on first causes and hoping speed follows.

  8. Lynn Wheeler Says:

    Rigid, top-down, command&control structure, assumption that only those at the very top had the skill and knew what they were doing … then contributes to large growing bureaucracy. Assumptions about only those at the the very top know what they are doing, contributes to the growing “TO BE” culture … and Boyd’s “To Be Or To Do” choice. Leaking of the culture and contaminating corporations and helps contribute to MICC.

    Boyd would say that they spent 18 months laying the ground work and preparing for this article (gone behind paywall but lives free at wayback machine, 7Mar1983)

  9. seydlitz89 Says:


    Interesting thread.

    I find this passage to simply be strange, given the emphasis that various writers of the 4GW school placed upon the mental and moral levels of war. Whether you agree with 4GW and William Lind or think that both = horseshit, it remains a fact that concern with legitimacy is one of 4GW’s central tenets as a theory or school of strategic thought. See, there’s this guy, an Israeli military historian, named Martin van Creveld and…… 

    Tempting, very tempting . . . no time though.:-)

  10. Ski Says:

    Farish is out of his league. He has no concept of what he is even trying to write about. Oh well, perhaps getting wire brushed on SWJ is better than getting wire brushed within a military academic environment.
    The US Army also had a pretty decent maneuverist commander named JS Wood, Commander of the 4th Armor Division in WWII. His entire division trained for two year prior to their entry into France…and they raced across France using nothing more than verbal fragmentary orders. Unfortunately, Wood either pissed off Patton or he burnt out…the history is very vague on what his cause for relief was..but 4th AD was the speadhead of 3rd Army in almost every attack in France.

  11. Lynn Wheeler Says:

    my wife’s father was command of 53rd armored engineering from 14aug42 until 7jun44 … http://www.8th-armored.org/books/leach/tw02.htm … from URL:(exercise in the US):

    Problem three began on 21 December 1943 with the 53rd Armored Engineering Battalion being used primarily to insure Division mobility. The efforts of the entire Battalion went toward building bypasses, breaching minefields, and constructing bridges. As the problem continued and the enemy forced the Division to retreat from newly won ground and take up a delaying action the engineers put down minefields, blew up bridges, and built obstacles to slow the enemy advance.

    … snip …

    He was then given command 1154th engineering group. Engineering groups were highly fluid operations … typically 3-6 battalions … being added/removed as needed and frequently out in front … preparing way for armor. I’ve found/scanned his ETO status reports at National Archives … small sample:

    On 28 Apr we were put in D/S of the 13th Armd and 80th Inf Divs and G/S Corps Opns. The night of the 28-29 April we cross the DANUBE River and the next day we set-up our OP in SCHLOSS PUCHHOF (vic PUCHOFF); an extensive structure remarkable for the depth of its carpets, the height of its rooms, the profusion of its game, the superiority of its plumbing and the fact that it had been owned by the original financial backer of the NAZIS, Fritz Thyssen. Herr Thyssen was not at home.

    Forward from the DANUBE the enemy had been very active, and an intact bridge was never seen except by air reconnaissance. Maintenance of roads and bypasses went on and 29 April we began constructing 835′ of M-2 Tdwy Br, plus a plank road approach over the ISAR River at PLATTLING. Construction was completed at 1900 on the 30th. For the month of April we had suffered no casualties of any kind and Die Gotterdamerung was falling, the last days of the once mighty WHERMACHT.

    … snip …

    after end of hostilities … he was assigned as adviser to Generalissimo and was able to take his family with him to Nanking (MAGIC … military advisory group in china).

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