The View From Olympus 14: The Power of Weakness

One of the most important contributions made by the Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld to Fourth Generation war theory (he calls it “non-trinitarian war”) is the power of weakness. It is also one of the most difficult for the US military to understand.

A recent event, the US assassination by drone of the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, illustrates both points. The American government hailed the killing as a victory. But in Pakistan, the response was outrage. An article in the November 4 New York Times, “Death by Drone Turns a Villain Into a Martyr,” reported that

Virtually nobody openly welcomed the demise of Mr. Mehsud, who was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistani civilians…

The problem, some analysts say, is that hostility toward the United States may be clouding Pakistanis’ ability to discern their own best interests. In the conflagration over Hakimullah Mehsud’s death, (Boston University professor) Mr. (Adil) Najam said, the government has failed to distinguish between opposition to drone strikes and to the removal of a homicidal, militant enemy.

It’s very destructive that we can’t untangle these two things,” he said. “The reaction has become absolutely absurd.”

Actually, if we understand the power of weakness, the reaction is inevitable. The problem is, almost no one—perhaps no one at all—in the American national security establishment does understand it.

To do so, you must start with Col. John Boyd’s three levels of war: physical, mental, and moral. These do not replace the three traditional levels of war; tactical, operational, and strategic. Rather, Boyd’s three levels and the traditional three levels interact. The best way to think of how they may interact is through a simple nine-box grid, with physical/mental/moral on one axis and tactical/operational/strategic on the other (You will find this grid in the K.u.K. Marine Corps Field Manual FMFM 1-A, here).

The US military focuses virtually all its efforts on one box, the physical/tactical box. This is typical of Second Generation militaries, which visualize war as putting firepower on targets in a contest of attrition. That is why we see killing enemies with drone strikes as victories.

But the physical/tactical box is the weakest on the grid. The most powerful box, where actions decide the outcomes of wars, is the moral/strategic box. That is where intelligent Fourth Generation entities focus their efforts, which is why they usually win, despite being far weaker physically than their state opponents.

In fact, they win at the moral/strategic level not despite the fact that they are physically weak, but at least in part because of it. To onlookers, the two sides appear to be David and Goliath. As can Creveld emphasizes, most Fourth Generation forces are physically very, very weak. They are mostly made up of guys in bathrobes and flip-flops armed with rusty AKs and bombs made out of chicken manure. State armed forces, in contrast, are armed with things like drones.

Drones may be the weapon with the most moral boomerang effect. A drone strike puts no American in any danger. The operator sits in an air conditioned office on American soil, puts in his shift, then goes home for dinner. If a drone is lost, it’s no big deal. Fourth Generation forces have no weapons that can reach the drone. Drones fly over their heads all the time, and they can do nothing about it. A drone-armed Goliath is enormous, and the Fourth Generation David is tiny, so tiny his situation seems hopeless—as it is at the physical level.

Which is what makes him powerful morally. That is the power of weakness, and one question makes that power clear: in the 3000 or so years the story of David and Goliath has been told, how many listeners have identified with Goliath?

Once we understand the moral level of war, we can easily understand why virtually all Pakistanis now view Mr. Mehsud, a mass murderer, as a martyr. He was killed by Goliath in a fight where he had no chance at all. Not just this drone strike, but all drone strikes have the same effect. We win physically and tactically at the expense of making ourselves a hated monster and thus losing morally and strategically. The drone calls forth its nemesis, the suicide bomber, because people will do anything, including kill themselves, to get back at Goliath.

We may still find it difficult to grasp why Pakistanis would rally to the cause of someone who had murdered thousands of them. Again, van Creveld offers the answer: at the moral level, the weak and the strong face different sets of rules. The weak can kill thousands of civilians without generating outrage because they are so weak. They have no “precision” munitions, they can make no claims of an ability to target him but not her. We boast all the time about how “precise” our weapons, including drones, are. So obviously when we kill civilians, we intended to. Just as a child can get away with behavior an adult cannot, so the weak can get away with actions the strong cannot.

The American military understands none of this. Nor, for the most part, is it interested (SOF may be one exception). It does what it does, namely putting firepower on targets. If that doesn’t work, it loses again, shrugs, and goes on to do the same thing someplace else. So long as the money keeps flowing in, defeat does not seem to concern it, and military theory is irrelevant to it. So the weak keep winning, as around the world, the state withers away.