By Chuck Spinney
Introduction to the Changing Face of War
Uri Avnery’s thoughtful essay Scotland on the Euphrates questions the future viability of the nation-state as a form of social organization. His concerns are not new, although as Avnery noted, recent events certainly make them more believable — or less unbelievable to those who opine for the comforting stasis predicted by Fukyama’s silly postulation of the “end of history.” The Israeli military historian, Martin van Creveld, has been making arguments along these lines for years (e.g., The Rise and Decline of the State, 1999). And van Creveld was not the only one to address the emerging problems of sustaining the nation state in the emerging world.
Twenty-five years ago, in October 1989, four active duty military officers (2 marines and 2 army) and one civilian military historian wrote a prescient article in the Marine Corps Gazette, entitled “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation,” attached below. At that time, the Gazette was edited by Colonel John Greenwood (USMC Ret.); and thanks to him, the Gazette was by far the most stimulating, vibrant, and spunky of the professional military journals. The article initially attracted a lot of attention, but unfortunately 4GW became a buzzword in some overly enthusiastic circles. To make matters worse, the buzz triggered sharp resistance in traditional circles. In my view, the authors’ warning became diluted by the intersection of uncritical enthusiasm with hardening resistance, and was missed entirely.
But their warning was timeless and is particularly appropriate for today. For example, they predicted the general outlines of why the drone war — the apotheosis of what the traditionalists call the military-technical revolution — is failing so miserably in the face of the kind of adversaries these authors identified. Some might argue that their paper is written from the narrow confines of European military history and variations of what they call 4GW have always been around, particularly in the East. But this is a red herring; a careful reading shows that they accounted for and agreed with both these points.
More importantly, their central recommendation was missed entirely by their critics and many of their enthusiasts alike. These men were not being dogmatic about the future; the authors’ aim (and Greenwood’s) was to stimulate critical thinking and debate about future possibilities. Unfortunately, they were arrogantly dismissed by those living comfortably off a continuation of the status quo, and the unbridled enthusiasm of some of their followers weakened their case. In the end, they failed utterly in achieving their aim of stimulating a serious debate, but not for wont of trying.
The big green spending machine, the Military – Industrial – Congressional – Complex (MICC), rolled throughout the 1990s into the 21st Century, essentially unthinking and unchanged, driven by its own well established internal dynamics and constituent interests. The authors feared the MICC’s claim of a military-technical revolution quite explicitly in their discourse on what they called a technology-driven 4GW — which I urge readers to pay particular attention to.
As they feared, the MICC opted for a technology driven answer to the war on terror by force-fitting the MICC’s tired old cold-war-inspired vision of techno war — i.e. the system of network centric systems embodying (1) an all-seeing surveillance system, coupled to (2) an all-knowing computerized assessment, decision making and targeting system and a (3) command system that controls (4) precision weapons — into what Avnery clearly recognizes as an ideas-driven change to the face of war. The results have been disastrous and are continuing to worsen, an outcome also foreseen by these five men.
The United States is paying the price today: The arrogance of ignorance has created a perpetual war at ever increasing cost that is ruining America’s image in the world and bankrupting its government. Where this will lead, no one can say.
It is with a sense of admiration* that I am attaching their Gazette paper. I urge you to read it carefully and hope you find it interesting.
* Caveat emptor: two of the authors, William Lind and Colonel Gary I. Wilson (USMC ret), were colleagues and remain valued friends of mine.