The View From Olympus: Dreikampf or Vielkampf

The February Marine Corps Gazette includes an article in its series “Maneuverist Papers” titled “Introducing the Dreikampf” by Marinus.  Its thesis is that Clausewitz’s concept of Zweikampf, war between two opponents, is outdated:

Warfighting (the Marine Corps’ foundational doctrine statement) steals a page from Clausewitz’s On War by proposing the Zweikampf, or “two-struggle”, as the essential, universal definition of war.  It defines war as a violent clash between two independent and hostile wills. . .

But after witnessing nearly twenty years of warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, we cannot help but question if the Zweikampf is a universal construct after all.  It strikes us as something of a stretch to argue that the two-struggle has applied cleanly to those concepts–as well as to many others throughout history.  Perhaps the Zweikampf applies more narrowly to what we now call regular warfare, and there is an entire other category of war that the Zweikampf does not capture. . .

For these other forms of warfare, we propose a construct we will call the Dreikampf, or “three-struggle”, in which the third actor in the struggle is the common population that both belligerents struggle to impose themselves upon. . .

I agree with the Dreikampf concept–as far as it goes.  But it suffers from exactly the same problem it diagnoses in the Zweikampf, namely oversimplification.  Fourth Generation War theory says that what Marinus sees as one entity, the population, is in fact many entities, which fight with each other as well as with one or both of the foreign states which have armies in the unhappy land that is serving as the battlefield.

Marinus sees this plurality but does not draw out its implications:

Finally, populations are not likely to be as monolithic as the two other belligerents, nor as consistent and coordinated in their actions.  The contested population almost always will comprise multiple subgroups, each with different, if potentially overlapping, objectives, means, and methods.  Again, this variability only tends to increase the complexity of the dynamics.

The first implication is that these subgroups not only differ from one another but that some, perhaps many, will fight.  From their perspective, their power balance with other local subgroups is usually more important than their relationships with either outside belligerent, because they know the outsider will eventually go home.  At the moral level of war, these local power balances may depend in part on who does the better job of fighting one or both outsiders.  In other words, both outside powers are likely to find themselves fighting each other and a constantly shifting coalition of local elements.  This is not Dreikampf, a fight among three, but Vielkampf, a fight among many.

Fourth Generation Warfare theory adds that these subgroups fight not only for different objectives but for different kinds of objectives, many of which lie outside what we regard as the political process.  Objectives range from impressing the local girls to attaining everlasting salvation.  The fighters for these causes may range from a group of teenage friends who found guns or explosives through highly trained, paid soldiers belonging to non-state entities such as ISIS.  The resulting dynamics are not only complex, they are often too complex for an outside force even to grasp much less to leverage.  To the outsiders, the game becomes not worth the cost because no political settlement is possible regardless of how long the outsider remains.  Afghanistan is example A.

The third implication is perhaps the most threatening yet also the easiest to overlook.  The various loyalties and causes the local entities represent can bleed over into the outside state forces.  Intelligent Fourth Generation combatants seek to take physically far more powerful opposing state forces from within, attacking at the moral level.  Causes that are religious, racial, or ideological in nature are likely to have sympathizers inside the invading state forces.  Smart 4GW elements will identify those sympathizers, encourage them to act against their own forces and at the same time help them spread their alternate loyalty.  The U.S. military has already experienced this on a small scale, both in so-called “Green on Blue” attacks and in attacks by U.S. servicemen on their colleagues, motivated by Islam.  4GW theory says both could become much more frequent if enemies who represent trans-national loyalties make them their Schwerpunkt. So Dreikampf is bad news for state armed forces, but Vielkampf is worse.  If Dreikampf is a complex problem, Vielkampf is a wicked problem, one that often will have no local solution.  Generally, the only answer will be to stay out of the briar patch in the first place.  That, coupled with effective control of our own borders, should be our strategic answer to Fourth Generation warfare as a whole and to Vielkampf specifically.