The View From Olympus 12: States and Gangs

The spread of Fourth Generation war means that as we watch states exit the world stage left, we will see gangs entering from stage right. This phenomenon is visible to some degree almost everywhere.

El Salvador is a country where the process has gone so far that in many areas, the gangs are more powerful than the state. The Sunday, October 6 New York Times carried a story on how El Salvador successfully dealt with the gang problem, at least for a while. It made a deal with the gangs.

“Making a Deal With Murderers,” by Oscar Martinez, tells how gang violence virtually destroyed the life of the people of El Salvador:

“The year 2011 was one of the deadliest since the end of El Salvador’s civil war in 1992. There were an appalling 4,371 murders—11 people killed every day. With 70 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, it was one of the most violent countries in the world…

The cause of the bloodshed was no secret: the war between the rival gangs Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha.”

Both gangs, interestingly, got their starts not in El Salvador, but in southern California. Of course, the American answer (for other countries as well as itself) was and remains more effective law enforcement.

That is the best answer to all Fourth Generation threats—where it is possible. But in El Salvador, as in a growing number of countries, it was not possible. The state was simply too weak relative to the gangs.

So, the Times reported, the government did the next best thing: it negotiated with the gangs. It denied doing so, but the Times reporter is quite confident it did. The main thing the government seems to have offered to gangs, in return for lowering the level of violence, is better prison conditions. The Times story stressed how important that is:

“The prison issue is hugely important to the gangs: sooner or later gang members end up there, and gang operations are largely run by the leaders inside, where the conditions are truly filthy and inhumane.”

In return, the gangs did lower the level of violence. El Salvador remains a violent place by our standards, but the Times piece estimates that the partial truce had saved more than 2000 lives.

As states continue to weaken, more and more of them will confront rising gang violence and consequent declining civic order. The state’s first responsibility is the maintenance of order. It was for that purpose the state arose, and if it cannot do the job its legitimacy will vanish.

The question then becomes how to restore order. The only possible answer is, by any means that will work. If the state is still capable of it, bloody repression has much to recommend it. But a growing number of states will not be capable of it, either because they are too weak physically or because the state leadership is too weak morally. At that point, the Salvadoran answer may be the right one: cut a deal.

Making a deal with powerful gangs is what the late Roman Empire had to do. That did not end entirely well, but it had no alternative. Modern states, some of them, will also have no alternative. It is better to make a deal that reduces the violence than to let it rage unchecked. The latter course merely results in the emergence of another stateless region. A weak state is better than none.

The View From Olympus 11: How Raids Can Work

Last weekend’s raids in Libya and Somalia by US special operations forces raise a question that has long bedeviled similar raids in Afghanistan. Can they work strategically? That is to say, can they bring us closer to a favorable outcome in our war with the Taliban and al Qaeda?

The answer, at present, is almost certainly no, at least so far as the Taliban is concerned and probably not against al Qaeda. The reason is that operational art, the key linkage between the tactic of raiding and the desired strategic result, is missing. As a result, we have defaulted into the usual approach of a Second Generation military, a war of attrition. The Taliban has too much depth in personnel to be vulnerable to a war of attrition. Al Qaeda, as a much smaller organization, has less depth, but so far it has had enough to make up its losses, including that of Osama bin Laden. We are left playing what the troops call a game of whack-a-mole.

Is there a way we might inject operational art into raiding and thereby make it strategically meaningful? I think there is.

The answer must begin with recognizing that a “spec op” is only a real special operation if it works on the operational level of war. Otherwise, we are misusing the term “special operations” for what are merely the tactical actions of military SWAT teams.

That in turn requires understanding what “operational art” means. Operational art is that link between tactics and strategy. Its practitioner decides what to do tactically, and how to use tactical events (including sometimes defeats) to strike as directly as possible at an enemy’s strategic center of gravity, a “hinge” in the enemy’s force that, if struck, can cause him to collapse. Inherent in operational art is economy of force: ideally, you only fight tactically when doing so is operationally meaningful, i.e., it holds the potential to be strategically decisive (of course, the enemy sometimes makes you fight when you would rather not). Determining why, where, and when to fight tactically on a strategic basis is the essence of operational art.

A campaign or war of attrition is the nullification of operational art. It seeks strategic victory merely by fighting tactically wherever and whenever possible. In contrast, operational art lies at the heart of Third Generation maneuver warfare.

An excellent example of a true special operation undertaken by a Third Generation military is the abduction of Admiral Horthy, the regent of Hungary, by German special operations forces (they coined the term: Sonderverbände) in World War II. Germany had received correct intelligence that Admiral Horthy was about to change sides from the Axis to the Allies. This was a strategic threat to Germany. Not only would a number of Hungarian divisions turn from allies into enemies, Hungary’s Balaton oilfields were one of Germany’s last petroleum supplies.

The German answer was a special operation, led by the famous commando Otto Skorzeny, that kidnapped Admiral Horthy. It involved almost no tactical fighting, but it was decisive. Hungary remained a German ally.

If we apply operational art to raids against al Qaeda (and to a lesser extent the Taliban, who are rapidly becoming yesterday’s problem as we leave Afghanistan), what does it suggest we do? Again, mere attrition of random al Qaeda leaders is not likely to bring a strategic decision. However, more sophisticated targeting of our raids could.

Like all militaries (including our own), al Qaeda has a few competent leaders and lots of less competent or incompetent ones. Putting incompetent or non-competent leaders into key al Qaeda positions could well be strategically decisive because it could lead al Qaeda to destroy itself. Therefore, our raids would become true special operations if we carefully targeted al Qaeda’s competent leaders while intentionally not targeting the incompetent or non-competent ones. Our operational goal would be to create vacancies that would allow the incompetent leaders to move steadily upward in the organization.

Obviously, this requires very good intelligence to know who in al Qaeda is competent and who is not. But we would at least be asking the intel boys an operational question, not merely a tactical one, i.e., where is someone, anyone, we can go after.

Will it work? No one can ever know a result beforehand in war. But operational art at least opens the door to strategic success, whereas its absence leaves us playing whack-a-mole. We have not defeated a Fourth Generation opponent through attrition yet, and there are no signs we are about to do so. Who thinks, wins.

The View From Olympus 10: 4GW Strengths and Weaknesses


Al Shabab’s assault on a Kenyan shopping mall illustrates some of the strengths of Fourth Generation Islamic forces. One, they can carry out acts of terrorism that undermine a state’s enthusiasm for war against them. Second, and more dangerous in the long run, they can push a government into responding to terrorism by moving toward a national security state. Why is that more dangerous? Because a national security state regards every citizen as a potential threat and treats them accordingly. That undermines the state’s legitimacy, and Fourth Generation war is above all a struggle for legitimacy.

I probably don’t need to point out that 9/11 and subsequent (minor) incidents of terrorism have brought a growing national security state to America. It is not a coincidence that Americans express ever-increasing detachment from and hostility toward their own government. Who can try to board an airplane without feeling like a suspect? That diminution of the US government’s legitimacy is a bigger victory for al Qaeda than the damage and casualties inflicted on 9/11.

But if we step away from the horror show generated by incidents such as that in Kenya, we can see a larger narrative of the weakness of most Fourth Generation Islamic entities (there is one exception; Hezbollah): they cannot govern.

In Egypt, a year of government by the Muslim Brotherhood was so disastrous that the people widely welcomed a coup. The September 16 New York Times reported of the funeral of a leading Islamist killed by the military, a funeral in a small, rural town, that

It is customary for the community to gather behind the family for the procession to the graveyard. Mr. Abdel Aal, however, was greeted with epithets—someone called him a dog, someone else an infidel. One family even held a wedding at the same time, something unheard-of.

“Pure” Islam’s failure to govern is weakening Fourth Generation Islamic organizations throughout the Middle East. The French succeeded (for a time, anyway) in Mali because the puritanism of the 4GW Islamic fighters had alienated their local allies. In Syria, that same puritanism has brought popular demonstrations against al Qaeda-allied forces in towns they control, even though demonstrators are often beaten or shot. Al Shabab was driven out of Mogadishu and other Somali cities because the locals so loathed its puritanism that they welcomed foreign troops, something that seldom happens. The American “surge” in Iraq only succeeded because al Qaeda in Iraq had alienated its local Sunni allies, again by its “pure” interpretation of Islam.

The first rule of politics—and like all war 4GW is political, though not wholly so—is “Don’t lose your base.” Over and over again, Islamic 4GW forces win militarily, but then lose because they alienate their base.

Why do they keep repeating this mistake? I suspect they do so because they cannot not do so. The kind of people they recruit as fighters are overwhelmingly puritans. Who else but a fanatic will become a suicide bomber? You cannot tell puritans to moderate their behavior, and the behavior they impose on others, because that would instantly make them “impure.” If the leadership of an Islamic 4GW organization tells its fighters not to enforce their version of Islam, they desert to another, more “pure” 4GW entity. Because of the ever-fractionating nature of 4GW, there is no lack of alternatives.

Puritanism is ever thus, and cannot be otherwise. An exchange between a Royalist and a Puritan during the English Civil War in the 17th century comes to mind. The Cavalier said to the Roundhead, “Ours are the sins of men; drinking and wenching, but your sin is the sin of the Devil; spiritual pride.”

All this is an old story in the Islamic world, and should come as no surprise to those who make American foreign policy, except that they are children who believe they can make the wold anew. In a monograph titled “Terror’s Mask: Insurgency Within Islam,” (Johns Hopkins University APL, May, 2002) Michael Vlahos laid out the age-old cycle. Islamic puritans arise, who accuse the local Islamic rulers of “corruption.” They create and lead a movement to restore “pure” Islam, and succeed in taking power. They then discover that pure Islam cannot govern, and have to compromise. That makes them “corrupt” so the cycle begins anew.

The fact that one 4GW Islamic entity, Hezbollah, has not fallen into this trap should draw our attention. Could this have something to do with the fact that it is Shiite and the others are Sunni? Not being a scholar of Islam, I don’t know. But it is a question scholars of Islam could usefully investigate.

In the meantime, repeated failures of Sunni 4GW entities to govern tells us what we should do to defeat them: leave them alone. They will alienate their base and destroy themselves, if we just give them time to do so. If we intervene, the usual result will be to push the locals toward the puritans in order to oppose us. Even where foreign troops have been welcomed, their welcome usually wears out quickly, and their support for one or another local “government” undermines that government’s legitimacy.

To borrow a wonderful phrase from Admiral Raphael Semmes CSN, we should leave be “the cockatrice’s egg that hatched forth the Puritan.” The cockatrice will foul its own nest soon enough.

The View From Olympus 9: Sea Change

by Carlos Latuff via
by Carlos Latuff via

Congress did not vote on attacking Syria, but everyone knows the Obama administration would have lost. The last whip count I obtained, on the Friday before Russia brokered a deal, showed 229 House members announced against or leaning against, 25 announced for or leaning for. In the Senate, the majority leader postponed a vote because he did not have a majority.

This marks a sea change of the first magnitude. The opposition to another war in the Mideast was led not by liberal Democrats, but by Republicans. The permanent war party headed by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham was left turning slowly in the wind. This is all the more remarkable because the feared Israeli lobby, AIPAC, was in favor. Republicans had to defy Israel, the neo-cons, and the Pentagon (a friend told me he heard a three-star Army general say a week before the deal, “I really hope this Syria operation is a go because it would help us defend our budget.”), and they did.

What suddenly put some spine into all the Republican jellyfish? The folks back home. Luckily, the run-up to war coincided with a Congressional recess, so Member of Congress were home listening to their constituents. Overwhelmingly, the people said “no more stupid wars in the Middle East that kill our kids for nothing.” Friends on the Hill told me calls and emails were very heavy and ran 96-98% “no.” Some offices received not a single call or message asking for another war.

This is a sea change because it is a major change in outlook by the Republicans’ base. The first rule of politics is “Don’t lose your base.” If you do, you’re done. The base, especially out here in the Heartland, overwhelmingly said “no.” Republican Members of Congress dared not ignore that.

Not only did the permanent war party lose its base, so did the Pentagon. If we are not going to fight more unnecessary overseas wars, why do we need the world’s most expensive military? Were our armed forces sized only to defend us, the defense budget could easily be cut by at least half.

This fact too is now on the radar screen of many Republican Members of Congress. Rightly, they see endless deficits and rising debt as more of a threat to the country’s future than any potential overseas opponent. They know we cannot balance the budget, begin to reduce the debt, not raise taxes and still pour around a trillion dollars a year into the national defense budget function (that’s Budget Committee language for all national security spending).

One big question remains: Will the public’s aversion to an attack on Syria carry over to a possible attack on Iran or war with China? Here in the Heartland, I think it will. We’ve seen too many kids come home in a box or a wheelchair, watched too many trillions (not billions) poured into the sand.

A period of peace and retrenchment could open the door to the military reform our armed services urgently require. We have a couple million good guys trapped in terrible systems, systems that drain away all thought about war, all initiative and moral courage, and reward only the institutional corruption that puts defense budgets above defending the country. Peace could give us a chance to drive the moneychangers out of the temple of Mars.

The View From Olympus 8: White House Press Release, December 7, 2016

press conference

President Barack Obama today welcomed to the White House Mr. Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda, for the formal signing of a pact of alliance between al Qaeda and the United States of America. The new alliance treaty envisions broad-scale cooperation between al Qaeda and the United States in the cause of destroying states. Following the signing of the treaty, President Obama will direct US government agencies, including the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA to work with their al Qaeda counterparts on projects of joint benefit, including generating phony intelligence to justify American military interventions, carrying out pseudo-ops to create humanitarian tragedies that can be blamed on state leaders, and generally spreading anarchy throughout the world.

In a joint news conference with Mr. al Zawahiri, President Obama said, “This new alliance formalizes the cooperative relationship between the United States and al Qaeda that began with the American missile strikes on the Syrian government and its armed forces in the fall of 2013. At the time, some Americans had concerns about finding themselves on the same side as al Qaeda. But the subsequent fall of the Syrian dictator, Bashar al Assad, followed by free elections in Syria that were won by a coalition of the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda, showed that we had concrete interests in common. America’s war with Iran in 2015, after I had determined that country had also crossed one of my “red lines,” again found the United States and al Qaeda fighting on the same side. The disintegration of the Iranian state, the chaos the United States left in Afghanistan, and the fractioning of Pakistan may have benefited al Qaeda somewhat more than this country, especially in providing al Qaeda with Pakistan’s former nuclear weapons. But I feel confident that out of the stateless chaos now engulfing much of the Islamic world will emerge a more genuine and deeper democracy. I am sure all Americans agree with me that nothing is more important than democracy at home or abroad, regardless of who or what might get elected.”

Responding to a question about the probability the Senate will ratify the American-al Qaeda treaty, President Obama stated, “I know this country had some differences with al Qaeda in the past, but I am confident the Senate will join me in looking not to the past but to the future. Just as the Senate voted for the missile strike on Syria in 2013 that began this alliance, so I am certain it will support me in my efforts now to bomb and rocket the rest of the world into being more peaceful and democratic. I can think of no better partner for destabilizing other states than al Qaeda. I am sending Secretary of State Kerry to the Hill next week, where I am sure his combination of eloquence, intense conviction, and cooked intelligence will make an effective case for this treaty. He will be accompanied by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wearing a paper bag over his head.”

Invited by President Obama to state his views on the new alliance, Mr. al Zawahiri responded, “May the sand fleas of ten thousand camels infest the crotch of your firstborn.”

The View From Olympus 7: Here We Go Again

obama biden syria
Evidence is accumulating that the Russians are right about the source of the poison gas attack in Syria: the rebels gassed their own people in order to spur foreign intervention in a war they are losing. Once again America is being lied into war on the basis of faulty intelligence.

The most important evidence thus far in favor of the Russian position is circumstantial. It makes no strategic sense for the Assad government to take an action likely to lead to an American attack. The Assad government is not desperate. On the contrary, the war is developing in ways favorable to the government. Neither Assad nor his commanders appear to be idiots. The question of why they would act so contrary to their own interests appears to have no answer—and has not been answered by the Obama administration in its push for war.

On the other hand, the rebels do need foreign intervention. They would have no hesitation at all about gassing their own people in order to bring it about. Such casualties are just more “martyrs” in their world view.

The circumstantial case is overwhelming: Assad didn’t do it. But there is more than circumstantial evidence.

A source in London informed me that last week one of the major British newspapers posted an article on its website saying the rebels did in fact launch the gas attack. The article stated that the nerve agent employed came from Libya via Turkey, using a pipeline the rebels have used for many other types of weapons. Libya had such nerve agents in its arsenal. The story is credible. But it was taken down just a few hours after being posted. Why? Undoubtedly at the demand of Her Majesty’s government, which is happy to participate in the Obama administration’s disinformation campaign despite the vote in Parliament. Her Majesty might wish to consider employing a better class of servants.

Another source has informed me that one of the UN inspectors just back from Damascus has also said the rebels were responsible for the gassing. I cannot confirm that report. The Obama administration will be putting immense pressure on the UN not to let the truth come out if any of its observers did come to that conclusion.

If the Russians are right—and they have far better intelligence sources in Damascus than we do—a vote in Congress for war would destroy American credibility everywhere. It would isolate America and make it into a laughingstock.

The question would immediately arise of how such an intelligence failure happened again, despite the supposed “lessons” of the Iraq war. We now know that the Bush administration demanded the answers it wanted from the intelligence community, regardless of the evidence. The same thing may well be happening now, since President Obama has painted himself into a corner. Because every entity in Washington makes preserving and increasing its budget its top priority, the intelligence community is probably just as willing today to cook the books as it was ten years ago. Its failure to address the primary question here, why Assad would act directly contrary to his own interests, points in that direction.

Meanwhile, the prospect of an American attack on Syria has created a strategic dilemma for Israel. An obvious way for Syria to retaliate for an attack would be to unleash Hezbollah against Israel. Hezbollah now has a large arsenal of long-range rockets with large warheads. Some can reach as far as Tel Aviv. Israeli air power can take most of these rockets out quickly—but only if Israel strikes before they are launched. If Hezbollah strikes first, Israel could get clobbered. But if Israel strikes first, it will bear the responsibility for starting another Middle East war. There is good reason why Israel has met Obama’s request to Congress with silence.

Prudence, the uppermost conservative virtue, dictates Congress vote no on President Obama’s request to start another war (one where we will be allied with al Qaeda). Parliament had the courage to do the right thing. Will Congress? Much may depend on the answer.

Real History

“Real History” was originally published as “Alternate History” in the July 2011 issue of The American Conservative magazine. Here Mr. Lind describes a paradigm shift from the Whig, or Progressive, interpretation of history to an understanding of history both more accurate and more conservative. We are grateful to The American Conservative for permission to republish this piece here.

At any given time, most cultures have a dominant narrative, a collectively agreed upon story that explains where they came from, where they are going, and why. Narratives change over time—modern Italy’s is not that of ancient Rome—and several may be in contention at once. But one is usually dominant.

The contemporary West’s dominant narrative is the story of human progress. It reigns throughout the Establishment—politically, intellectually, economically, even theatrically (which is important in a decadent age). To question the progressive narrative instantly positions a person or institution beyond the pale: a weirdo, kook, or nutcase. Such people do not merit rational discourse; rather, they are offered psychological treatment.

As formidable as it first appears, the progressive narrative’s dominant position may soon be shaken. Just as the Establishment depends on the progressive narrative for legitimacy, so the narrative depends on the Establishment for protection. But the Establishment itself is failing.

Politically, the Establishment—which includes most members of both parties and almost all office-holders—cannot come to grips with America’s decline. It can act only within a narrow range, limited by controlling interests at court that feed off the country’s decay. Its range of action is too narrow to conceive and implement policies that might reverse decline.

Intellectually, the Establishment has been reduced to parroting the shibboleths of political correctness. Anyone with a contrary idea is not incorrect for this or that reason; he is a “thisist” or a “thatist.” When the only remaining intellectual prop of a ruling caste is name-calling, it is bankrupt.

Economically, the Establishment stands for globalism, which averages the once prosperous economies of the West with those of the rest of the world. They come up, but we go down. And as the middle class in Western countries finds itself impoverished, its wrath is turning against those who stole its bread.

Only theatrically does the Establishment appear yet unchallengeable. At most junctures in history, this would not have counted for much. Today, when many people’s lives revolve around being entertained, it counts for a great deal. By offering entertainment that appeals to the worst elements in human nature, the Establishment has given itself a lock on popular culture. To be viable, a competitor would have to raise the level of public taste, a task the education Establishment guarantees will prove impossible.

Yet beyond the theatrical, the whole vast edifice that is the Establishment is creaking and groaning. The gap between the demands of external reality and what the Establishment labels “possible” grows ever wider. From the hills of Afghanistan to the jungles of Wall Street, the Establishment is failing to produce. Individual crises, starting with the economy, are already upon us. Should many of them gather and snowball, the Establishment will face systemic crisis. That means a change of dynasty: the Establishment falls.

Should that happen, it may carry the dominant narrative with it in ruin. At the least, the progressive narrative would be open to serious challenge. With that prospect before us, it is worth our time to compare the dominant narrative with the alternate narrative.

Enlightenment or Dark Age?

Starting points in intellectual history are ambiguous, but the progressive narrative might be said to begin with Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum.” Man, and human reason, should be the measure of all things. Upon this belief the subsequent Enlightenment erected a great edifice, splendid in appearance. It is difficult not to identify with P.J. O’Rourke’s definition of utopia as the 18th century with modern medicine and air conditioning. Alas, not all that is beautiful is true.

The Enlightenment dismissed most of what came before it, excepting elements of the pre-Christian classical world, as “obscurantism.” It particularly loathed the Age of Faith, the Middle Ages. The Enlightenment’s heirs in the education Establishment now tell young people they need to know no history at all. It is merely a dark tale of bottomless evil and oppression.

Beyond Descartes and the primacy of human reason, the Enlightenment set as its foundation stones Lockean sensationalism and Newtonian physics. Locke argued that we can know nothing beyond what we are able to detect with the five senses. Newton depicted a clockwork universe, a model the Enlightenment believed could be extended  to man and society, as in La Mettrie’s Man the Machine. (God has a sense of humor: La Mettrie was working on a second book, Man the Plant, when he died from eating toadstools he mistook for mushrooms.)

A fourth foundation derived from heresies ancient and modern: egalitarianism. Put together, they yielded what remains the framework of the progressive narrative today: by applying reason to observable phenomena, we can mechanistically design and erect a society where everyone is equal, the summit of human happiness.

Its framework established, the progressive narrative then traces its glorious march through history. The French Revolution triumphantly united the ideas of Enlightenment with politics, giving us the Rights of Man—most importantly égalité and license. While it may have shown an excess of zeal, the Revolution nonetheless charted the course to earthly paradise that has inspired all right-thinking men and women since.

In 1814, the dark forces of reaction achieved a temporary success. But the human spirit could not be held down for long. The American Civil War saw progress triumph, while in Europe socialism beckoned oppressed workers and peasants to rise up against feudalism and attain precious equality.

The 20th century, while bloody, confirmed that the march of Enlightened progress was unstoppable. World War I destroyed the reactionary monarchies of Europe—Russia, Prussia, and Austria —and made democracy the wave of the future. The Rights of Man triumphed again in World War II, despite the slight inconvenience, easily glanced over, that the decisive role in the Allied victory was played by Stalin’s Soviet Union.

With the fall of communism in Russia in 1991, history itself came to an end. Liberal, democratic, market socialism with human rights for all was now the unquestionable norm to which everyone on earth would conform. Where necessary, benign invasions and occupations would hurry the process along. We are all Jacobins now. Ain’t it grand?

Faith and Reason

The alternate narrative dares to reply, “No.” Far from believing that civilization began in the 18th century, following 1300 years of inky darkness, this counter-narrative has its feet planted in the Middle Ages. Like the Medievals, this tradition holds that reason without faith is incapable of hopefully addressing life’s central questions: Why are we here? Where are we going? Reason, restricted to what the five senses can detect, offers only a Gallic shrug.

Not surprisingly, after three centuries of “Enlightened” propaganda, almost everything modern people think they know about the Middle Ages is wrong. Medieval society not only represents the nearest man has come to building a Christian society, it was also successful in secular terms. Living standards rose, and with them population. That was true for all classes, not just the nobles. Monarchs were far from absolute—royal absolutism was in fact the latest thing in 18th-century fashion, a system for promoting rational efficiency—and subjects had extensive rights. Unlike the abstract Rights of Man, as practiced during the Jacobins’ Reign of Terror, Medieval rights were specific and real, established by precedent.

Our Medieval ancestors were observant and creative. They invented important technologies: the wheeled plow, the windmill, soap. (Medieval people loved to bathe; it was the Renaissance that stopped.) They had elaborate table manners; latter-day “Medieval feasts” would have appalled them. They made beautiful objects. And they built—oh, how they built! Can anyone visit the cathedrals at Chartres or Salisbury or the now desecrated St. Chapelle in Paris and think these people were primitive? And yes, they knew the world was round.

The Enlightenment’s picture of the Middle Ages, like so much it produced, was a bright, shining lie. We would be wiser to speak of the enlightened Middle Ages and the verdunkelte 18th century.

Empirical Problem

The alternate narrative’s view of what followed is selective. The Renaissance brought advances the High Middle Ages would have welcomed, including Christian humanism and the recovery of many texts from the classical world. But it also laid the basis for secular humanism, a prideful and subversive force that continues to do great damage to societies and souls alike. The Protestant Reformation pointed to some genuine abuses in the Church and also renewed the importance of Scripture. But the shattering of Christendom, the rise of an unsound doctrine of sola Scriptura, and the loss of the sacraments in much Christian worship were too high a price.

With the Renaissance and the Reformation, we come to the beginning of the Modern Age. As Jeffrey Hart wrote in Cultural Conservatism: Theory and Practice:

Sometime during the fifteenth century, the great and glorious project of modernity was launched in earnest. To put it briefly: whereas ancient Greek and Roman culture, with their extension and modification in medieval Christian culture, sought to understand the world and live according to that understanding, the modern project sought not to understand the world in its totality but to control it and use it. The ancient and medieval project issued in metaphysics, which attempted to reach a full understanding of a reality, part of which remained mysterious. The modern project issued in empiricism, which narrowed the focus of inquiry to the world which was available to the five senses and had the explicit intention of mastering it.

The alternate narrative accepts the question that defines the Modern Age, namely, how can man use the forces of nature for practical ends? But it insists that question is second order, not primary as the progressive narrative would have it. The most important question remains what Professor Hart delineated: how can man understand reality in all its dimensions, seen and unseen, physical and spiritual, and live according to that understanding?

The ability of the alternate narrative to answer questions of ultimate meaning is important in a time when technology threatens to master man rather than serve him and when the fruits of empiricism include material abundance but spiritual emptiness. The liberal, democratic, secular state may mark the end of history, but only by serving as its tombstone. Again, Professor Hart:

It is not surprising that empiricism has produced a sense of evanescing meaning, for empiricism never promised to deliver meaning of any sort, let alone ultimate meaning. It had no use for those intuitions and visions and purported revelations that had been taken into account by metaphysics. Empiricism had nothing to say about the foundations of being or the structure of moral authority. … Empiricism promised something else altogether, and speaking both metaphorically and literally, it delivered the goods: material abundance and enhanced physical well-being through the progressive mastery of nature.

The alternate narrative’s framework thus combines two elements: the Middle Ages’ faith and desire to see that faith reflected in society, and modernity’s use of reason to master nature. Because faith takes precedence, the alternate narrative can set limits: not everything possible is desirable. “Progress” can lead to getting things very wrong.

The alternate narrative’s history of modern times suggests that not only can we get things wrong, we have: the misnamed Enlightenment represents a fundamentally wrong turn.

Modern Conservatism

But the alternate narrative by no means rejects the whole 18th century: not Haydn nor Mozart, neither Fragonard nor the rococo, not all philosophers and certainly not reason. On the contrary, it is in the 18th century that secular champions of the alternate narrative emerged, driven by the philosphes’ attacks on what almost all men had for generations held true. In Germany, the residual influence of Leibnitz held the worst excesses of French rationalism at bay. Before the outbreak of the French Revolution, men such as Rehberg and Brandes in Hannover were writing what we would recognize as culturally conservative works, such as Brandes’s refutation of feminism, Über die Weiber, published in 1787.

But it was in England that the greatest defender of the alternate narrative stood forth to do battle: Dr. Samuel Johnson. So vast was Johnson’s intellectual power, so fearless his war on cant, that virtually alone he prevented the errors of the philosophes from sweeping over the British Isles. Without Johnson, the Edmund Burke of the Reflections is unimaginable.

Johnson was no “obscurantist.” If not entirely of the Enlightenment, he was very much in it. No one could confuse The Club with the Spanish Inquisition. Johnson was a man of reason. But he was also a man of deep Christian faith, born of suffering, and of reverence for traditions. Up against the airy speculations of the French and their admirers he set the solidity of the Anglo-Saxon. When Boswell asked him how he refuted the argument of Bishop Berkeley that we could not really know the existence of anything, Johnson kicked a large stone and said, “I refute it thus.”

Johnson stood for king, church, hierarchy, and subordination: no leveler he. Boswell recounts Johnson as saying, “So far is it from being true that men are naturally equal, that no two people can be half an hour together, but one shall acquire an evident superiority over the other.” On order in society, Johnson opined, “Sir, I am a friend to subordination, as most conducive to the happiness of society. There is a reciprocal pleasure in governing and being governed.”

“Time, sir,” he said, “is the only test of the merits of anything.” He detested oppression—Johnson famously offered the toast “Here’s to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies”—but he regarded as piffle the notion that “natural man,” “uncorrupted” by civilization, was somehow superior to man in society. Dr. Johnson died before the outbreak of the French Revolution, but it is not difficult to imagine that his reaction would have been similar to Burke’s.

That Revolution, which the dominant narrative celebrates as a triumph of “liberation,” is to the alternate narrative one of two great catastrophes of the West in the modern era. With Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790 and often considered the founding work of conservative political thought, the alternate narrative finds the revolutionary French republic a wanton destroyer of much that was noble, beautiful, and good in the ancien regime. It unambiguously wears the White cockade.

It is not merely that the French Revolution unleashed 25 years of bloody war on Europe, nor that it brought tyranny, not liberty, in its wake. By mixing the false ideas of the Enlightenment about the perfectibility of man and society with political praxis, setting the precedent for using the power of the state to build an earthly utopia, the French Revolution laid the basis for socialism, Marxism, Soviet Communism, fascism, in short for ideology itself—the word, as well as the phenomenon, was coined during that hellish event. The Revolution opened a Pandora’s box whose evil spirits had, by the close of the 20th century, devoured tens of millions of lives and much of the substance of Western civilization.

In 1814, the three great conservative, Christian, European monarchies—Russia, Austria, and Prussia—closed the box. The alternate narrative celebrates their achievement. But though the box was closed, the poisons it had contained remained loose.

Suicide of the West

As recently as the summer of 1914, less than a century ago, the world restored in 1814 was still recognizable. Kaisers, tsars, and kings reigned. The goodness and rightness of social classes, each with its respective duties, was acknowledged by all but Marxists. The Christian religion, if not universally believed, was generally respected. Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of all values,” in which the old virtues become sins and the old sins virtues, was regarded as the raving of a syphilitic madman.

In that fateful summer, the West still governed the world. Its confidence in itself was high. The 19th century had brought vast progress; more was certain in the 20th. Living standards rose, populations grew, movements such as temperance were bringing social ills under control. Health insurance and pensions, pioneered by Germany, were rendering the working class more secure, while spreading prosperity was beginning its transformation into a new middle class.

Then the West put a gun to its head and blew its brains out.

The alternate narrative sees World War I as the West’s second catastrophe in the Modern Age. As the Marxist historian Arno Mayer has argued, in 1914 America represented the international left. By 1919, America was organizing the international right. America had not changed; the spectrum shifted around it.

The catastrophe of World War I encompassed three disasters. The first and greatest was that it happened. It was not inevitable. Kaiser Wilhelm II neither wanted war nor expected one—so Colonel House, Woodrow Wilson’s advisor, reported to the president in 1915 after extensive talks with the German leader.

A European war probably became unavoidable when Tsar Nicholas II, under great pressure from his foreign minister and war minister, reluctantly ordered general mobilization instead of mobilizing only against Austria-Hungary. That set the clock ticking for Germany.

The worst malefactor in turning the conflict into a worldwide conflagration was probably the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, who did want war (as did Churchill) and led Germany on, suggesting Britain would stay out until the momentum of the Schlieffen plan became irreversible. Grey said the price to Britain would be little different if she remained neutral or joined the Allies. And so the British Empire bled to death in the mud of Flanders.

The second disaster was America’s entry into the war, engineered by President Wilson after he won re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” Wilson was a progressive, and the progressives knew the only way they could create the vast and powerful federal government they desired was through war. That would allow Washington to seize any power it wanted on grounds of “military necessity” while labeling critics unpatriotic—and jailing them. So began the devouring of the American republic by Leviathan.

The third disaster was that the wrong side won. Had America stayed out, the war would probably have ended in 1917, following the mutiny that year of the French army, in a compromise peace. Such a peace would have been favorable to the Central Powers, but even with France defeated, Germany had no answer to the British blockade. A balance of power would have returned.

A victory by the Central Powers would have meant a 20th century with no Hitler and no Stalin. Germany used Lenin as a weapon of war, but a victorious Germany and Austria-Hungary would never have tolerated a Bolshevik Russia. Unlike the Allies, who attempted to intervene against the Bolsheviks, the Central Powers were placed to act effectively. German troops occupied Russia almost to St. Petersburg and the Austrian flag flew over Sevastopol. Germany and Austria would have restored a tsar—albeit perhaps not the Romanovs; the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha might have bagged another throne. As to Hitler, victorious Kaisers would have no place for a Führer. Hitler had talent as an architect; perhaps he would have helped found the Bauhaus.

In this world, Professor Mayer’s spectrum shift to the left would never have happened. Conservative Christian monarchies would have triumphed. A spectrum shift to the right, while not inevitable, was possible; a defeated French republic might have been replaced with a monarchy. (Le Figaro: “The Estates General, deadlocked among the Legitimist, Orleanist, and Bonapartist candidates, today offered the throne of France to Prince Louis Napoleon of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha…”)

It is perhaps too much to hope that the 20th century’s grimmest reaper, ideology, would have found itself in history’s wastebasket. But it would have lost to its oldest opponent, legitimism, and lost badly. It might have been sufficiently weakened to give Europe and the world a century of relative peace, like that following the settlement of 1814.

Instead, the empires of Russia, Austria, and Germany were swept from the board. The poisons unleashed by the French Revolution flooded unchecked around the globe. Totalitarian ideologies conquered Russia, Germany, Italy, and in time others, including China. The 20th century became history’s bloodiest. The Allied victory in World War I brought not the end of war envisioned by the fanatical Wilson but the beginning of the end of the Modern Age. The West’s belief in itself, invincible in 1914, lay dead in the ruins of places like Ypres and Verdun.

A Century of War

From the perspective of the alternate narrative, World War II is less important than World War I. Its outcome confirmed the verdict of 1918. The West’s will to live, mortally wounded in the first war, had a stake driven through its heart by the second. Tens of millions of people died, whole communities were erased, incalculable capital went up in smoke. By 1945, all that was left in Europe was exhaustion.

Because the dominant narrative often accuses the alternate narrative of “fascism,” cultural Marxism’s term for any defense of tradition, clarity on the ideological outcome of World War II is important. The alternate narrative is hostile to all ideologies; as Russell Kirk insisted, conservatism is the negation of ideology. The alternate narrative dares hope for a world governed by tradition, custom, and habit, with wide local variations. It knows, and history confirms, that any attempt to use the power of the state to reshape society according to some set of abstract ideas brings tyranny and social dissolution.

Between fascism and communism, the alternate narrative sees little to choose. In September 1939, Nazi Germany’s concentration camps held just over 20,000 people. That same month, Stalin’s gulag held 1.3 million. Hitler liquidated six million people; Soviet Communism killed 60 million. Hitler’s holocaust was a crime; so was Stalin’s induced famine in Ukraine. Such are the wages of ideology.

The Allied victory in 1945 put an end to fascism, but at the price of Stalin swallowing half of Europe. Goebbels’s Iron Curtain—Churchill borrowed the phrase from him—did indeed run from Stettin to Trieste; behind it, every crime was permissible.

Then followed the third Western civil war in a century, the Cold War. The alternate narrative regards this as a necessary war: the threat of communist world domination was real. But the twilight struggle’s effects on what was left of Christendom—which includes Russia—were again disastrous.

After 1945, America was the West’s great hope. Undamaged by the world cataclysm, she rose to vast heights. But the 1950s proved to be her last normal decade. The counterculture revolution of the 1960s undermined her institutions: the family, the schools, even the churches. (Happy the day when a “gay Episcopal bishop” was one who ended up wearing the lampshade after too many martinis.) Popular culture cut its ties to high culture and became a source of endless moral degradation.

Meanwhile, the globalists exported America’s industry, reducing her middle class to penury. Overextended diplomatically, militarily, and financially, led by a “New Class” of self-seeking incompetents, she is well along the Spanish road to ruin. (Olivares, the White House operator is calling.)

What the dominant narrative presents as the march of progress, the alternate narrative sees as a trail of tears. In less than a century, the West suffered greater losses than at any time since the fall of the Roman Empire. It was stripped of its world pre-eminence, its belief in itself, much of its historic culture, and even its will to live, as its birthrates show.

Postmodern Promise

The alternate narrative has been buttressed from Dr. Johnson onward by many serious works of history, politics, and philosophy—from Edmund Burke to Russell Kirk. It boasts an extensive and impressive historiography and bibliography. The dominant narrative pretends none of it exists.

Dare we hope that the alternate narrative, now largely unknown, unheard, and disregarded, might soon become dominant? Systemic crisis might open the door. If so, what remains of the West may find a solid postmodern footing in the framework the alternate narrative offers. That framework in no way rejects reason, science, or modernity’s mastery of nature. (Some neo-pagan postmodern views, such as Deep Green environmentalism, reject all three.) Rather, it calls for reason to join again with faith on the model offered by our Medieval ancestors and build anew a splendid Western civilization.

The View From Olympus 6: Time to Change Sides

syrian fighters
Napoleon supposedly said that the only time Italy ends a war on the same side it began it on is when it changes sides twice. While Italy’s historic twists and turns may not have covered it with glory, they have shown Italians have not forgotten Machiavelli. When a wise prince finds he has entered a war on the wrong side, he does what his interests direct. He changes horses in midstream.

It is time for America to change sides in Syria and in Egypt. The “side” supported by the children who make American foreign policy is that of liberal, secular democracy. But such people—they could all fit comfortably in one hookah parlor—are not a “side.” They are few, weak, and irrelevant. Whatever the final outcome in the Middle East, it will not be liberal, secular democracy. That’s just as well because what that really means in the code spoken by the Washington elite is Brave New World.

The real options in Syria and Egypt, and many other places, are three. The most desirable is a secular dictatorship. Less desirable is an Islamist democracy, i.e., tyranny of the majority. Least desirable of all, and most dangerous to America’s interests, is a failed state, a new stateless happy hunting ground for Fourth Generation entities.

Unfortunately, America’s current actions in both Syria and Egypt support option three. If there is any chance of restoring a state in Syria, it is represented by the Assad government. Such a government would be what it was, option one. That is the most desirable outcome. So what is Washington doing? Shipping arms to the rebels and preparing to shoot cruise missiles at Assad’s forces. That puts us in the position of de facto ally of al Qaeda. Brilliant.

In Egypt, the military represents option one. If it fails, Egypt could well become a failed state. Yet there we are cutting arms deliveries to the military government, condemning them for violating the harlot “democracy” and allying de facto with the Muslim Brotherhood. If there is a way to oppose our own interests more effectively, I can’t see it.

Should adults suddenly return to take the conduct of our foreign policy back from the kiddies, it is obvious what they should do: change sides. We should back Assad in Syria and the military government in Egypt. How might we do that? By doing nothing.

There are few things that would more damage Assad in Syria or the military in Egypt than overt American endorsement and support. The coin in such conflicts is legitimacy, and at least in the Middle East America has no legitimacy to confer. Anyone we support loses legitimacy thereby.

That does not mean cutting off aid to Egypt’s military. It means status quo ante. We provide neither more nor less aid than we did before. We honor existing contracts for weapons. Behind closed doors, we urge other countries to be realistic too. But our official line is that we do not meddle in the internal affairs of other states.

This is the line that both Russia and China are taking. It is working well for them. Their interests in the Middle East have not greatly suffered from the region’s turmoil. They have not lost thousands of troops and trillions of dollars there. They are not widely hated by the region’s people. They have not served al Qaeda and other 4GW Islamic entities by destroying states.

Changing sides may not be honorable, but it can be smart. In the amoral arena that is international relations, smart beats honorable every time. Just ask Machiavelli.


The following is a piece Mr. Lind published previously in The American Conservative magazine, originally titled “Rage Against the Machine” (January 13, 2003). Here he discusses the numerous negative paradigm shifts likely to be consequences of society’s uncritical embrace of new technologies. We are grateful to The American Conservative for permission to republish this piece.


Russell Kirk, who may have been the only conservative in the post-war American conservative movement, forbad the importation of television sets into his ancestral manse, Piety Hill. One day, in his absence, his wife and daughters smuggled one in. Dr. Kirk discovered it, and they in turn soon discovered him, high in the tower with television in hand, pitching it off the roof.

Television, like all virtual realities, comes from Hell. (The author of this piece, having hosted several television programs, knows how difficult it is to use the medium for good; in effect, one has to do bad television.) Earlier generations of conservatives knew instinctively that machines could be Hellish, and they regarded innovative technologies with distrust.

It is perhaps a measure of how much conservatism has withered away that most American conservatives now welcome any new technology that comes along. They love cell phones, which destroy what little is left of the public space. They gush over genetic engineering, which will create weapons that bring back the Black Death. Most of all, they embrace computers and all their progeny even though, all around us, our fellow subjects of Heaven are using them to create virtual realities they can inhabit almost full-time. (Fortunately, they still have to eat.)

The first Christian principle, and the first principle of Western civilization, is that there is and can be only one reality. If there can be multiple realities, we lose both Jerusalem and Athens. If there can be more than one reality, there can be more than one God; so falls Jerusalem and monotheism. If there can be more than one reality, what is logical in one means nothing in others, where logic itself may not hold; so falls Athens and reason. All things are indeed relative where realities proliferate.

Hell has always hated reality, for in the real world, Christ is King. Old Screwtape’s problem, for millennia, was that philosophy made a poor weapon against reality. Even Hell’s most sophisticated philosophical device, ideology, fell sure prey to reality, seldom lasting more than a couple of generations. His Wormship knew that he needed a more powerful and enduring weapon than philosophy could provide. He needed convincing but false images of the true: virtual realities.

Virtual realities existed, to be sure. Nero’s Domus Aurea was one; Marie Antoinette’s life as a shepherdess another. Military headquarters were often wonderful generators of virtual reality. (We now flood ours with computers, making the problem worse.) But these took great power and vast resources to create and were also impossible to sustain.

If Hell were to triumph over reality and make it stick—which comes very close to triumphing over God—it needed to find a mechanism that could create powerful, compelling virtual realities, proliferate them widely, and enable people to live in them, self-convincingly, most of the time. And then, brilliantly, Hell’s workshops begat the cathode ray tube and the video screen.

It is clear that many modern people live lives where the video screen, in all its many variants, is the dominating reality. (Perhaps we should borrow here from Derrida and write reality.) Televisions are on and squawking throughout the house, from rising through going to bed. The children spend countless hours with their video games; sunny days are irrelevant. The adults’ version is the Internet, whose most common use is for pornography. All offer alternate realities, an ever growing variety of them, all getting better and better in their ability to seem real. First they are alluring, then satisfying, and finally compulsive. Snap! Go the jaws of Hell.

If most conservatives were still conservative, they would find this troubling. Some do find the content of many virtual realities discomfiting; the Roman arena begins to pale in comparison. But few seem to see that the Reality Principle (Marcuse’s old enemy) is itself at stake. Is watching a Mass on television the same as going to Mass? No. Is knowing that it is a fine day in Ouagadougou the same as enjoying a fine day in the park? Again, no. Is watching people on a video screen the same as knowing actual people? No, indeed. But in more and more lives, the virtual is replacing the real.

And the image is substituting itself for the Word, the Logos. The West spent three thousand years struggling to substitute the Word for the image. The war of the Word against the image is perhaps the most basic theme of the Old Testament. Thousands of Christians gave their lives in that fight. Now, thanks to the video screen, history is running backwards because on video screens images are far more powerful than words. Not surprisingly, paganism is on the rise, beyond and within the Church.

If conservatives cannot see the danger in the thing itself, in the substitution of the false for the true, one would expect they would at least, be alarmed that all virtual realities are subject to manipulation. Today, in America, most of them are manipulated, deliberately and systematically, to serve the ideology of cultural Marxism, a.k.a. political correctness. Thus we get endless television programs and video games where men are puny and women strong (they beat up the men), muggers are white and doctors are black, and the only normal-seeming white males are homosexuals. Thanks to virtual realities, the entertainment industry has become the most powerful force in American culture, and it is largely owned by the cultural Marxists. Through it, cultural Marxism does what it is supposed to do, psychologically condition. Soon enough, in any life where virtual realities hold sway, anyone who dares think that maybe Western civilization really is superior looks in the mirror and sees “another Hitler.” Does the prospect of Brave New World not bother conservatives anymore?

The answer to all the above, from many technology-addicted conservatives, is that computers and their ilk provide wonderful sources of information. That is undoubtedly true. But it raises a further, very conservative, question: is information itself all that wonderful?

I often lecture to young people, college grads, usually on military topics. They are adept at the information technologies, having imbibed them as their mother’s milk. The problem, to put it bluntly, is that most of them cannot think. They cannot think because of information, not because of a lack of it.

An Amish friend of mine, David Klein, put it well as we talked under the trees of his Wayne County, Ohio, farmyard this past summer. Using information technologies, he said, is like trying to build a car by reaching blindly into a vast dumpster and using as parts whatever comes to hand. That is how these young minds work. They cannot grasp any sort of intellectual order or framework. All they have ever encountered are bits and pieces of this and that, spewed randomly out of some cosmic, universal vending machine. It is not simply that things do not make sense; these young people have no concept of things making sense. As Ortega warned would happen, they have become technologically competent barbarians.

Again, an earlier generation of conservatives would have understood. When life is, in effect, an endless process of interruption, thought, as we traditionally knew it, becomes impossible. Western thought is linear, but “information” is chaotic. More, thought requires being alone with your thoughts, something the technologically dependent can neither attain nor abide.

Just as intellectual chaos is normal to the information generation, so is their lowly status as humble servants to lumps of beige plastic. I will confess that a year ago, I was browbeaten by my office into putting a fax machine in my summer home in Ohio. It was more demanding than a cat. Unless I met its every beeped and coded wish, and they were many, it refused to work. (Even a neglected cat will still catch mice.) This summer, I realized I was the servant and it the master and resolved this inversion of the natural order in Kirkian fashion, by taking a sledgehammer to it. Its human replacement, a FedEx courier, does the same job with far less trouble.

But rebellion of this sort lies far outside the ken of those who worship the computer and its siblings. They cannot imagine lives without their machines, even though we lived such lives (quite nicely, too) just a few decades ago. No sabot in the gears for them; without their calculators, they cannot even add. Go to the bank some fine day and ask the young teller to do something that “isn’t in the computer,” and she will look at you with great, cow eyes.

Conservatives used to know that information does not equal knowledge and that knowledge does not equal understanding. (T.S. Eliot had something to say on the matter.) The transitions require thought, and computers, in both their informational and virtual reality guises, are enemies of thought. Thought only works if it is unplugged.

Clausewitz and Boyd: The Case for a Defensive Grand Strategy

The following is a piece Mr. Lind published previously in The American Conservative magazine, originally titled “Strategic Defense Initiative” (November, 2004). In it he makes the case for a paradigm shift in America’s grand strategy. As this article is germane to this website, we thought it worth republishing. We are are grateful to The American Conservative for permission to do so.


In the cacophony of an election year, one matter of prime importance seemed to be agreed by all parties: in the so-called War on Terror, America must remain on the offensive. Immediately before George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech, the White House released as an excerpt, “America is on the offensive against the terrorists.” Speaking to the Congress of Tomorrow in Philadelphia later the same month, Bush said, “No question, we will win the war on terror by staying on the offensive. This administration and this leadership is committed to making sure we stay on the offensive against the terrorists.” He told the American Legion, “We’re on the offensive against terror, and we will stay on the offensive against terror.” Following the Madrid railway bombings, the Washington Post reported, “Bush’s aides said he began talking to other world leaders about his determination to remain on the offensive in the war on terrorism.” It sounded as if the ghost of von Schlieffen prowled the halls of the Bush White House.

The offensive strategic orientation of John Kerry was subtler but present nonetheless. In March 2004, speaking to the International Association of Firefighters, Kerry said, “I do not fault George Bush for doing too much in the War on Terror; I believe he’s done too little.” And in a speech at Drake University in December 2003, where he laid out a broad foreign-policy vision, Kerry said, “From the Battle of Belleau Wood to the Battle of the Bulge, from Korea to Kosovo, the story of the last century is of an America that accepted the heavy responsibility of its historic obligation—to serve as not just a beacon of hope, but to work with allies across the world to defend and extend the frontiers of freedom…To provide responsible leadership, we need … a bold, progressive internationalism—backed by undoubted military might—that commits America to lead in the cause of human liberty and prosperity.” This is strong Wilsonianism, which by its nature puts America on the strategic offensive.

There is little doubt that “being on the offensive” sounded good to most voters. But if the objective is to design a strategy that brings victory in the War on Terror, a different approach may have much to recommend it. That oft-quoted if seldom read Prussian, Carl von Clausewitz, believed that the defensive was the stronger form of war.

Early in his book On War (a German friend has a first edition; he notes, “It is in perfect condition. It was in a regimental library, so it was never touched.”), Clausewitz writes, “defense is simply the stronger form of war, the one that makes the enemy’s defeat more certain … We maintain unequivocally that the form of warfare that we call defense not only offers greater probability of victory than attack, but that its victories can attain the same proportions and results.” In a direct swipe at most of what is being said and written at present, he perorates, “So in order to state the relationship precisely, we must say that the defensive form of warfare is intrinsically stronger than the offensive [emphasis in original]. This is the point that we have been trying to make, for although it is implicit in the nature of the matter and experience has confirmed it again and again, it is at odds with prevalent opinion, which proves how ideas can be confused by superficial writers.” And, perhaps, by candidates for high political office.

What might a defensive strategy in America’s War on Terror look like? Before we can approach that question, we must address two other points. First, the threat America faces is not merely terrorism, which is only a technique. The threat is Fourth Generation warfare, which is a vastly broader phenomenon. Fourth Generation war marks the greatest dialectically qualitative change in the conduct of war since the Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years War in 1648. It has three central characteristics:

  • The loss of the state’s monopoly on war and on the first loyalty of its citizens and the rise of non-state entities that command people’s primary loyalty and that wage war. These entities may be gangs, religions, races and ethnic groups within races, localities, tribes, business enterprises, ideologies—the variety is almost limitless;
  • A return to a world of cultures, not merely states, in conflict; and
  • The manifestation of both developments—the decline of the state and the rise of alternate, often cultural, primary loyalties—not only “over there,” but in America itself.

Second, no state armed forces know how to defeat Fourth Generation opponents militarily, and thus far none have been able to do so. Politically, the most fundamental characteristic of the Fourth Generation, a crisis of legitimacy of the state, is not recognized in any national capital. Combined, these two facts render many states extraordinarily vulnerable to Fourth Generation opponents.

Col. John Boyd, USAF, America’s greatest military theorist, defined grand strategy as the art of connecting to as many other independent power centers as possible, while isolating the enemy from as many independent power centers as possible. The grand strategic question facing the U.S. is how to do that in a 21st century that will increasingly be dominated by non-state, Fourth Generation forces.

The answer begins by considering why the state first arose toward the end of the 15th century. Medieval Europe was a highly ordered, cultured, and successful society. It was brought down primarily by the plague, a point of more than historical interest in a world where many non-state forces may be able to carry out biological attacks. After the medieval order fell, it was succeeded by disorder, which led naturally to a strong desire for order, which in time was supplied by the state.

As we already see in those parts of the world such as West Africa where the state is disappearing, the state, like the medieval world, is followed by disorder. A Fourth Generation world will be one where disorder spreads like mold in a damp bathroom.

What does Colonel Boyd’s definition of grand strategy mean in such a world? It means America’s grand strategy should seek to connect our country with as many centers and sources of order as possible while isolating us from as many centers and sources of disorder as possible. This is the only reasonable chance of preserving something called the “United States” in a 21st century dominated by Fourth Generation war. And, as we will see, it leads toward a defensive, not offensive, military strategy.

What do we mean by centers and sources of order? First, places where the state still stands. The state arose to bring order, and in portions of the world it continues to do so. While the crisis of legitimacy of the state is universal, that does not mean it will everywhere reach catastrophic proportions. Those places where the state endures not simply as an empty form will remain centers of (relative) order. America is already connected to those places in a wide variety of ways and should strive to remain so. Actions such as the war in Iraq that tend to isolate us from successful states run counter to our interests.

In a Fourth Generation world, surviving states will not be the only centers of order. One of the central characteristics of the Fourth Generation is a return to a world where culture will often be more significant than statehood, and some cultures tend toward order. An example is Chinese culture, which extends well beyond the borders of the Chinese state. Order is the highest Chinese virtue; so, at least, Confucianism would suggest.

As people around the world transfer their primary loyalty from the state to a wide variety of other entities, some of these entities may also emerge as sources of order. Religions may become sources of order; we see that happening today as Christianity grows in places of chronic disorder such as Africa. Ideologies may be centers of order, depending on the ideology. Businesses and other commercial undertakings may be sources of order. So might mercenary armies. Because some, perhaps many, sources of order in the 21st century will not be states and may even appear strange or disreputable, the people who run foreign ministries may find it difficult to imagine building connectivity to them. But that is one of the novel actions the Fourth Generation will require.

One of the primary centers of disorder in the 21st century will be failed states—areas where the state has either disappeared or become simply one more criminal gang among many. Current examples include much of Africa, Somalia, Mesopotamia (following America’s destruction of the Iraqi state), Afghanistan, parts of the former Soviet Union, and the West Bank of the Jordan River. These areas represent the future for much of the world. Just as some cultures are likely to be centers of order, others will be centers or sources of disorder. One culture provides an example of the fact that centers and sources of disorder may not be identical—Islam. Because Islam is a religion of rules, it is capable of providing internal order in Islamic societies. As Robert Kaplan has noted, a stranger with a fat wallet can walk safely through some of the poorest Islamic slums. Islam, however, is likely to be one of the principal sources of disorder in a Fourth Generation world, even while some parts of the Islamic world may be centers of order. The reason is that Islam demands its believers wage endless jihad in the dar al harb, the non-Islamic world (literally the “world of war”), and a world where the state is weakening will be a happy hunting ground. The long-standing Arab military tradition of irregular light cavalry warfare is especially well suited when adapted with modern technologies and carried out at operational and strategic levels. Indeed, that is much of what Washington now calls terrorism.

One important way in which centers of disorder will also act as sources of disorder will be by producing hordes of refugees and emigrants. It is natural to flee disorder. But as some European countries have already discovered, accepting refugees from centers of disorder imports disorder. Just as people from highly ordered cultures, such as Germans or Scandinavians, take order with them wherever they go, so people from disordered places are bearers of chaos. The ways of life necessary for survival in centers of disorder—lying, cheating, stealing, and killing—become habits, and they are not easily left behind.

Other centers and sources of disorder will to some extent mirror centers of order: religions, ideologies, commercial enterprises (the drug trade is already a powerful example), mercenaries, and so on. One source of disorder that will not have a mirror image is disease. Centers of disorder will become breeding grounds for plagues and diseases of every sort, and some of them will travel well. West Nile virus is already a growing concern in the U.S. and it is merely the forerunner of a vast Pandora’s box. The fact that some diseases may be genetically engineered as weapons of war will make the danger all the greater.

The Bush administration appears to recognize dimly that the fundamental fault line of the 21st century will be that between order and disorder. In his Sept. 25, 2003 speech to the United Nations, Bush declared, “Events during the past two years have set before us the clearest of divides, between those who seek order and those who spread chaos.” The administration errs in assuming that the forces of order are the stronger party, and this assumption underlies its offensive strategy. But because the root of Fourth Generation war lies in a crisis of legitimacy of the state, and the state is still the main agent of order in the world, the forces of order in the 21st century will be weaker than the forces of disorder. When the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq, it assumed order would be easy to maintain or restore because the Iraqi state would endure. The actual effect of the invasion was to destroy the Iraqi state and replace it with chaos.

This brings us to the next question: what do we mean by “connect” and “isolate”? Connection is easy enough to understand. Goods, money, people, and ideas all flow freely with minimal barriers. Americans view those to whom we are connected as friends, extending help in times of need and also asking for and receiving assistance, including in war. Commercially, we buy their products and sometimes they even buy ours.

“Isolate” is more difficult to understand, in part because in the lexicon of the present foreign-policy establishment, “isolationism” is a term of opprobrium. But as America learned on Sept. 11, a Fourth Generation world will be a place where our physical security will depend on our ability and willingness to isolate ourselves from certain forces.

What isolation means will vary from case to case, but in some situations it will require actions that appear harsh by current standards. For example, we may find it necessary to prohibit people from certain places from entering the U.S. We may need to profile on a variety of bases, including religious belief and ethnic origin. Isolation may also inflict hardships on Americans, as when we must avoid becoming dependent on imports such as Middle Eastern oil.

In general, isolation will mean minimizing contacts that involve flows of people, money, materials, and new primary loyalties, such as religions and ideologies, into the United States. Flows in the other direction will generally be less dangerous, except for the fact that one-way relationships are difficult to sustain. They tend to become reciprocal, which means importing danger. Americans will require a newfound self-discipline in a Fourth Generation world, realizing they cannot have it all (and have it cheaply) without creating serious threats to America’s homeland security.

In terms of foreign relations, isolation will more often apply to regions where the state is weak or has vanished. But it will sometimes be necessary for us to isolate ourselves from other states, especially states that exist in form but not in reality. Unfortunately, friendly relations will leave open the door to the non-state elements that are the real powers within the hollow form of the other state, and those powers may be threats to us. Saudi Arabia may soon be a state that falls in this category.

How does this isolate the enemy, which in our strategy means centers and sources of disorder, from other independent power centers? Here, our proposed grand strategy works indirectly, in a way John Boyd might appreciate. To use one of his favorite expressions, it folds the enemy back on himself.

As the offensive strategy of the Bush administration has demonstrated, when we choose to engage centers and sources of disorder, attacking them militarily or demanding reforms inconsistent with their cultures, we provide an external threat against which they can unite. Conversely, if we isolate ourselves from them, we will help them focus on and thus accentuate their internal contradictions. This is a classic case of inaction being a form of action.The Islamic world offers an example. Islam mandates jihad against all non-Islamics, which means Islam will always be a threat to the U.S. But Islam itself is also riven with internal conflicts. Those internal conflicts are now minimized because Islamics can call for unity against an external threat. Even so, internal conflicts persist: many Shi’ite Iraqis blame car bombings in Shi’ite areas on Wahhabi Muslims.In Terror’s Mask: Insurgency Within Islam, Michael Vlahos argues that what we are seeing in the Islamic world today follows an age-old pattern. Purist elements arise that accuse existing Islamic governments of straying from Islam; they triumph, only to find that pure Islam cannot govern; attempting to make things work, they also become corrupt; and new purist elements gather to bring about their overthrow. This cycle could work to America’s advantage if she isolated herself from it, because it focuses Islamic energies inward. As Boyd would say, it tends to fold Islam back on itself.

What are the implications for the conduct of strategy, the military component of grand strategy?

First, note that no strategy is a hard and fast rule that can be applied mechanically. Strategy is an art; its conduct, as Helmuth von Moltke said, is a matter of expedients. In the conduct of strategy, the engineering approach to problems favored by Americans is not useful. Past attempts along engineering lines, such as the Weinberger Doctrine and the Powell Doctrine, resulted only in pseudo-strategies that were useless in the real world. Real strategies do not seek to create templates but rather inform and shape specific actions, harmonizing them and giving them a coherence that will often be visible only in retrospect.

Within this context, one of the first implications of our recommended grand strategy is that America’s current military strategy—a strong strategic offensive coupled with a weak tactical offensive—is wrong. Strategically, we are launching military attacks on perceived opponents worldwide, or at least threatening to do so, under a doctrine of preventive war. But tactically, our attacks are weak because it is relatively easy for our real enemies, non-state forces, to sidestep them.

Both Afghanistan and Iraq provide examples. America took the strategic military offensive, invading both countries. But in Afghanistan, on the tactical level, both al-Qaeda and the Taliban survived our attempts to destroy them and are now coming back. The reason they could do so is that our Second Generation armed forces fight by putting firepower on targets, and Fourth Generation forces are very good at making themselves untargetable. Even in Operation Anaconda, when al-Qaeda stood and fought, the inability of the Second Generation American Army to fight a battle of encirclement (something that is central to Third Generation tactics) allowed the enemy to escape with small losses.

The situation in Iraq is similar. For the most part, the Iraqi armed forces did not contest our advance to Baghdad. Whether that was part of their strategy is not yet known. But the result was to leave those forces alive and armed to serve as a basis for a guerrilla war. The non-state forces that are emerging from the wreckage of the Iraqi state are proving to be as untargetable as those in Afghanistan.

Instead of a strategic military offensive coupled with a weak tactical offensive, our grand strategy would urge a strategic military defensive coupled with a powerful strategic and tactical counter-offensive. In simple terms, this means we would leave centers and sources of disorder alone militarily (and in other ways) unless they attacked us. But if they attacked us, our response would be Roman, which is to say annihilating.

The logic of a defensive strategy is almost self-evident. If our grand strategic goal is to connect ourselves to order while isolating ourselves from disorder, we will not want to undertake military offensives aimed at other states that are themselves centers of (again, relative) order. If successful, such offensives will usually result in the destruction of the opposing state and its reduction to a new center of stateless disorder. Offensives against centers and sources of disorder run directly contrary to the goal of isolating ourselves from them. As we see both in Afghanistan and in Iraq, the most thorough way to enmesh ourselves in a center of disorder is to invade and occupy it. A strategically defensive military posture is a necessary outgrowth from our recommended grand strategy.

The second part of our prescription, an annihilating counteroffensive, needs some elaboration. Here again, Clausewitz is helpful:

What is the concept of defense? The parrying of a blow. What is its characteristic feature? Awaiting the blow. It is this feature that turns any action into a defensive one; it is the only test by which defense can be distinguished from attack in war. Pure defense, however, would be completely contrary to the idea of war, since it would mean that only one side was waging it. Therefore, defense in war can only be relative, and the characteristic feature of waiting should be applied only to the basic concept, not to all of its components.

The challenge facing an annihilating counterstroke is not theoretical but practical: how do we accomplish it? There may be some instances in which our Second Generation armed forces can do it, for example by carpet bombing from B-52s. Should we ever succeed in transitioning the American armed services to the Third Generation, more options would open up, such as large-scale battles of encirclement. But in some cases, unconventional weapons will have to be employed.

When that is the case, it will be imperative that the employment of unconventional weapons follows instantly after a successful attack on the United States. As Machiavelli would understand, such a reaction must appear to be a “spasm” on our part, not a calculated act. In 1914, had Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia within 48 hours of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, she might well have gotten away with it. While the world, in shock over the 9/11 attack, might have accepted an apparent American spasm with unconventional weapons, it also might have objected that any first use of such weapons would be the end of efforts to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

But in fact, from a Fourth Generation perspective, the genie of WMD is already out of the bottle. The Fourth Generation threat is not states delivering nuclear weapons by ballistic missile but non-state actors developing genetically engineered plagues that can be delivered anonymously by shipping container (small nuclear weapons, bought or stolen, may come the same way). The technology already exists, and unlike that required to build nuclear weapons, it does not require much in the way of facilities. It is knowledge based, and the knowledge is or soon will be universally available. Such plagues can be more, not less, devastating than nuclear weapons.

A defensive military strategy that includes an annihilating counterattack is consistent with our grand strategy of isolating centers and sources of disorder while folding them back on themselves, yet it runs no danger of being perceived as weakness on our part. On the contrary, it both demonstrates and demands more strength of will than is currently evident in the Washington establishment, in either political party.

The next implication, or perhaps precondition, of our grand strategy is one that is very difficult, yet essential, to grasp. America itself may not remain a center of order in a Fourth Generation world. As dangerous as the importation of Fourth Generation war into America is, more dangerous still is the Fourth Generation war that America may develop from within.

To survive the crisis of legitimacy of the state that lies at the heart of Fourth Generation war, a state needs two qualities: an open political system and a unitary culture. At present, America has a closed political system, dominated by an establishment that is in essence a single political party, and she is pursuing a policy of multiculturalism that enhances and exacerbates cultural frictions. While an open political system and a unitary culture are to some degree fungible—Japan’s unitary culture will probably allow the Japanese state to survive despite its closed political system, while Switzerland’s open political system preserves legitimacy despite three distinct cultures—any state that has neither is likely to experience a crisis of legitimacy. At the least, we cannot assume that the United States will not experience such a crisis, to the point where self-generated Fourth Generation war is not even a possibility. Police departments in some large American cities would be quick to note that they are already facing Fourth Generation opponents on the streets.There are, of course, steps the American state could take to minimize the chance of Fourth Generation war developing here. The most urgent is to end the current de facto policy of open immigration. Because multiculturalism works against acculturation of immigrants, mass immigration from other cultures is a clear and present danger in a Fourth Generation world. When large numbers of immigrants retain a primary loyalty to their own cultures rather than to the American state, they provide an ideal base for Fourth Generation war.

More broadly, if America is to avoid Fourth Generation war on her own soil, she needs to address the two origins of the crisis of legitimacy of the state. That means opening up the political system and abandoning multiculturalism for a policy of encouraging what used to be called Americanization (and is in fact the adoption of Anglo-Saxon norms, at least in the public square). Americanization means actions such as restoring America’s public schools as primary centers of acculturation, a role they played effectively a century ago, and making English the only legal language in public business. Opening the political system means actions such as giving third parties a real chance against the two major parties, term limits, putting “none of the above” on the ballots, reducing the power of money in politics (what American politicians call “campaign contributions” are recognized in the rest of the world as bribes), making much more use of ballot initiatives and referenda, and restraining the judiciary from legislating.

On the grand strategic level, where foreign and domestic policy unite, avoiding Fourth Generation war on America’s own soil (regardless of its source) means recognizing that in a Fourth Generation world, the enemy is disorder itself. This does not mean that the answer to the Fourth Generation threat is to increase the raw power of the state through ill-considered legislation such as the Patriot Act. On the contrary, giving the state extraconstitutional powers will exacerbate its crisis of legitimacy. The American Constitution, as it was created and understood by the founders, is a means to a new legitimacy, not an obstacle to it.

America’s ability to prevent the spread of Fourth Generation war elsewhere in the world will be small. Overt American military support to states facing Fourth Generation threats will most often be counterproductive because it will undermine the legitimacy of the government the United States is fighting to uphold. The more relevant question is how an America that has succeeded in avoiding the Fourth Generation at home might relate to a world where the state is generally in decline.

The Islamic world, as noted, may not everywhere be a center of disorder, but it is likely to be a vast source of disorder. Isolating ourselves from it will mean weaning ourselves from dependence on Arab oil (Russian oil could substitute, at least for a while). Because China may be a major center of order in the 21st century, those voices in Washington that see war with China as inevitable represent folly. From a Fourth Generation perspective, America and China are united by the most powerful of all strategic common interests, an interest in the preservation of order. China should be viewed as a strategic ally of the first importance, under any government that can maintain China’s internal unity.

Latin America is likely to be an area where the crisis of legitimacy of the state sharpens and Fourth Generation forces grow more powerful. Isolating the United States from the resulting disorder will above all mean effective immigration control. Africa is already being devoured by Fourth Generation war, which is not surprising in a region where states were never real and most governments are kleptocracies. The rapid spread of Christianity could provide a countervailing force, but Africa’s future is probably war, plague, famine, and death. Isolating America from Africa will be necessary but should not be difficult, barring pure imbecility on the part of American politicians. India’s future is uncertain; her national unity depends on maintaining the veneer of the Raj, which is wearing a bit thin. Isolating America from a disordered India, should India crumble, would not be difficult.

Europe’s future, like that of the United States, is not so assured as some may assume. Europe has imported an enormous source of disorder in the form of immigrants from other cultures, many of them Islamic. It is by no means impossible that the 21st century will see Europe compelled to undertake a second expulsion of the Moors. If Europe is to survive, it will have to bring its birthrate up substantially. Russia is an important part of Europe, and regrettably it is a part where the state is now fragile. The U.S. missed a golden opportunity to forge an enduring, strategic alliance with Russia when Communism fell; to the degree that opportunity has not been lost—largely through inane American actions such as going to war with Serbia on behalf of Islam—it should be pursued.

One theme shines through this brief circumnavigation: the requirement that America not be dependent on any part of the world that is a center or source of disorder. Here, the implication is less for American foreign policy than for American economic policy. While the United States need not pursue a policy of autarky, it does require what might best be termed full economic independence. That is to say, we need to be able to manage on what we’ve got if we have to, in terms both of natural resources and manufacturing capability.

By now, one point should be clear: a defensive strategy oriented toward a Fourth Generation threat leaves us with an entirely different frame of reference from the one that now prevails in Washington. Everything changes, in what would be the greatest alterations in American grand strategy, military strategy, and force structure since 1917.Nothing illustrates better the magnitude of the challenge than the response a defensive strategy and its logical outgrowths would surely elicit from those in power. “Is such a transformation even imaginable politically?” they will ask. Their answer, stated or implied, will be, “Certainly not.” At the same time, the question that the decline of the state, the state’s loss of its monopoly on war, and the rise of the Fourth Generation poses is, “Would even these changes be sufficient to enable the United States to protect itself in a world dominated by Fourth Generation war?” The distance between those two questions measures the likelihood that the American state will survive the 21st century.