Fourth Generation Warfare

The Marine Corps, Again: Fire/Counterfire.

By William S. Lind, Traditional Right

The October, 2021 Marine Corps Gazette contains a long letter from Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper and Col James K. Van Riper, both USMC Ret., denying the value of the concept of Fourth Generation war and of the broader intellectual framework of the Four Generations of Modern War. Their timing is perhaps a bit off, since we just saw the Marine Corps, along with the other American armed services and some NATO allies, defeated in a Fourth Generation war in Afghanistan. But I have known General van Riper for decades and respect him highly, so a reply is in order.

As the Van Ripers’ note, war has an immutable nature, though the conduct of war (they say “character”) changes over time. Change itself is thus part of war’s nature, and it makes war’s nature dialectical. One way of war establishes itself for a shorter or longer time as dominant; it is challenged by a new way of war, usually mixed with elements of the old, becomes dominant and the cycle begins anew. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis; we see it over throughout history. I call the new syntheses “generations.” The Van Ripers’ can call them “bananas” if they want to. But to deny war is dialectical is to deny its nature.

As to Fourth Generation war, the Van Ripers miss its essence. It is not, as they state, insurgency, nor do 4GW entities win by having superior will. It is a contest for legitimacy, which makes John Boyd’s moral level of war decisive: people regard as legitimate whatever entity seems most moral to them (their standards of morality may be very different from ours). The entity that has legitimacy in their eyes is one they are willing to fight for, to the point of becoming suicide bombers (throughout military history, suicide attacks have been rare). It is the power of 4GW at the moral level that enables physically weak entities like ISIS and the Taliban, who have no tanks, fighters/bombers, artillery, or the other usual measures of combat power, to defeat the U.S. Marine Corps and other state armed forces. With our massive firepower, we win all the battles, but they win the wars.

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