Fourth Generation War Comes to a Theater Near You

Mobs loot, burn, and vandalize while politicians advocate defunding the police. A commune was established in Seattle and turned into Lord of the Flies while government did nothing. Blacks demand equal treatment from police despite a violent crime rate many times greater than that of whites, and mainstream media will not report honestly the differences in crime rates. “Wokeness” spreads among idle youth who flunked English 101. What is going on?

What is going on, right here on American soil, is war; a new kind of war that is also very old, waged by entities other than states. I call it Fourth Generation War and, to paraphrase Leon Trotsky, you may not be interested in Fourth Generation War—but it is interested in you.

In the 1980s, when working with the Marine Corps, I came up with an intellectual framework I call the Four Generations of Modern War. Military historian Martin van Creveld’s books The Rise and Decline of the State and The Transformation of War are foundational works in my framework, which flows from one of the defining elements of the modern age, the rise of the state.

The Four Generations framework begins in 1648, when in the Peace of Westphalia the state claimed and subsequently enforced a monopoly on war. This seems automatic to us today; war means armies, navies, and air forces of a state or an alliance of states fighting similar armed forces belonging to other states.

But war’s definition was not always so narrow. Before Westphalia, many different kinds of entities fought wars: families (think of the Montagues and Capulets from Romeo and Juliet), clans, tribes, races, religions, and even business enterprises. India was conquered not by Great Britain, but by the British East India Company, a business with an army and a fleet. They used many different tools to fight; for the most part, armies and navies as we know them did not exist. Fighters ranged from every male able to carry a weapon, through poisoners inserted in a rival’s kitchen, to highly specialized mercenaries who hired themselves out to anyone with cash. The Grimaldis, whose descendents still rule Monaco, got their start as galley fleet entrepreneurs.

People fought for many different reasons, not just raison d’état (political reasons). They fought for eternal salvation, for slaves to sell, for booty, for land, for pay, and because young men with idle hands like to fight—and the local women liked fighters. War flowed not like the Arno but like the Everglades, slowly inundating everything.

The state, as it arose beginning around the year 1500, gradually put an end to this.  The state came to impose and sustain order and the safety of persons and property. War not made by states threatened that order. So, the state rounded up the non-state fighters and hanged them from the nearest tree, to the loud huzzahs of the population.

The First Generation War ran from Westphalia to about the middle of the 19th century. I discuss this period in detail  in my book co-authored with Lt. Col. Gregory A. Thiele, 4th Generation Warfare Handbook (2015). It was a time characterized by tactics of line and column, which led to (for the most part) orderly battlefields which led in turn to a military culture of order.

That culture continues in almost all state armed forces today. That’s a problem, because starting in the mid-19th century the battlefield became steadily more disorderly. Part of the reason state militaries now so often lose against rag-tag opponents is that they have in effect one foot on the dock and one foot on the boat.

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