Academic journal article Military Review

Understanding Fourth Generation War

Academic journal article Military Review

Understanding Fourth Generation War

Article excerpt

RATHER THAN commenting on the specifics of the war with Iraq, I thought it might be a good time to lay out a framework for understanding that and other conflicts. I call this framework the Four Generations of Modern War.

I developed the framework of the first three generations during the 1980s, when I was laboring to introduce maneuver warfare to the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC). (2) The Marines kept asking, "What will the Fourth Generation be like?" The result was an article I co-authored for the Marine Corps Gazette in 1989: "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation." (3) (Our troops reportedly found copies of the article in the caves at Tora Bora, the al-Qaeda hideout in Afghanistan.)

Modern Warfare

The Four Generations began with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the treaty that ended the Thirty Years' War. With that treaty, the state established a monopoly on war. Previously, many different entities had fought wars--families, tribes, religions, cities, business enterprises--using many different means, not just armies and navies. (Two of those means, bribery and assassination, are again in vogue.) Now, state militaries find it difficult to imagine war in any way other than fighting state armed forces similar to themselves.

The First Generation. The First Generation of Modern War, war of line-and-column tactics, where battles were formal and the battlefield was orderly, ran roughly from 1648 to 1860. The relevance of the First Generation springs from the fact that the battlefield of order created a military culture of order. Most of the things that distinguish military from civilian--uniforms, saluting, careful gradations of rank--were products of the First Generation and were intended to reinforce the culture of order.

The problem is that, around the middle of the 19th century, the battlefield of order began to break down. Mass armies, soldiers who actually wanted to fight (an 18th-century soldier's main objective was to desert), rifled muskets, then breechloaders and machine guns, made the old line-and-column tactics at fast obsolete, then suicidal.

The problem since then has been a growing contradiction between military culture and the increasing disorderliness of the battlefield. The culture of order that was once consistent with the environment in which it operated has become more and more at odds with it.

The Second Generation. Second Generation War was one answer to the contradiction between the culture of order and the military environment. Developed by the French Army during and after World War I, Second Generation war sought a solution in mass firepower, most of which was indirect artillery fire. The goal was attrition, and the doctrine was summed up by the French as "the artillery conquers, the infantry occupies." Centrally controlled firepower was carefully synchronized (using detailed, specific plans and orders) for the infantry, tanks, and artillery in a "conducted battle" where the commander was, in effect, the conductor of an orchestra.

Second Generation war came as a great relief to soldiers (or at least their officers) because it preserved the culture of order. The focus was inward, on rules, processes, and procedures. Obedience was more important than initiative. In fact, initiative was not wanted because it endangered synchronization. Discipline was top-down and imposed.

Second Generation war is relevant today because the U.S. Army and USMC learned Second Generation war from the French during and after World War I, and it remains the American way of war, as we are seeing in Afghanistan and Iraq. To Americans, war means "putting steel on target."

Aviation has replaced artillery as the source of most firepower, but otherwise (and despite the USMC's formal doctrine, which is Third Generation maneuver warfare), the U.S. military today is as French as white wine and cheese. At the USMC desert warfare training center in California, the only thing missing is the tricolor and a picture of General Maurice Gamelin in the headquarters. …

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