The View from Olympus: The Marine Corps, Again: Fire/Counterfire.

The October, 2021 Marine Corps Gazette contains a long letter from Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper and Col James K. Van Riper, both USMC Ret., denying the value of the concept of Fourth Generation war and of the broader intellectual framework of the Four Generations of Modern War.  Their timing is perhaps a bit off, since we just saw the Marine Corps, along with the other American armed services and some NATO allies, defeated in a Fourth Generation war in Afghanistan.  But I have known General van Riper for decades and respect him highly, so a reply is in order.

As the Van Ripers’ note, war has an immutable nature, though the conduct of war (they say “character”) changes over time.  Change itself is thus part of war’s nature, and it makes war’s nature dialectical.  One way of war establishes itself for a shorter or longer time as dominant; it is challenged by a new way of war, usually mixed with elements of the old, becomes dominant and the cycle begins anew.  Thesis, antithesis, synthesis; we see it over throughout history.  I call the new syntheses “generations.”  The Van Ripers’ can call them “bananas” if they want to.  But to deny war is dialectical is to deny its nature.

As to Fourth Generation war, the Van Ripers miss its essence.  It is not, as they state, insurgency, nor do 4GW entities win by having superior will.  It is a contest for legitimacy, which makes John Boyd’s moral level of war decisive: people regard as legitimate whatever entity seems most moral to them (their standards of morality may be very different from ours).  The entity that has legitimacy in their eyes is one they are willing to fight for, to the point of becoming suicide bombers (throughout military history, suicide attacks have been rare).  It is the power of 4GW at the moral level that enables physically weak entities like ISIS and the Taliban, who have no tanks, fighters/bombers, artillery, or the other usual measures of combat power, to defeat the U.S. Marine Corps and other state armed forces.  With our massive firepower, we win all the battles, but they win the wars.

The van Ripers argue that:

Many of the characteristics that Lind identifies as central to the fourth generation of war — the rise of non-state actors, decentralization, and the blurring of the lines between combatants and civilians — have dominated wars of past ages.  They are not new to a so-called fourth generation of war.

I agree completely, and I have pointed the same thing out for decades.  The framework I advocate is the four generations of modern war, war beginning with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.  4GW has many similarities to war before the rise of the state.  

The Van Ripers discount the fading states’ legitimacy around the world, but do not seem to understand that even in their own country, a growing number of people question it.  How many Trump voters consider the combination of the Biden Presidency and Democratic control of both Houses of Congress legitimate?  Had the election gone the other way, how many people on the left would accept President Trump as legitimate?  How many did so in his first term?  As I have said and written many times, you do not have to go to the Hindu Kush to fight Fourth Generation war; it is coming to a theater near you.

Finally on the subject of 4GW, the Van Ripers write, “Lind has continued to champion the fourth generation of war ever since, without success, having failed to operationalize it in any meaningful way.”  May I suggest to them the Fourth Generation Warfare Handbook, co-authored by Lt. Col. Greg Thiele, USMC, and myself?  It is based on seminars Lt. Col. Thiele and I led at EWS and thus on the experiences of many Marine captains just back from fourth generation wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Van Ripers complain that I continue to say the Marine Corps has adopted maneuver warfare doctrine only on paper, not in terms of what Marines actually do.  Ever since FMFM 1, Warfighting, was published, Marines of all ranks have said to me, “What the Marine Corps says is great, but it’s not what it does.”  At a conference put on by T&E a few years ago, which I attended, there was unanimity, colonel through staff sergeant, that the Corps is not doing maneuver warfare.  But there is an easy way to settle this: let HQMC order all Marines to read the (now) MCDP 1, Warfighting, then vote on one question:  “In your daily life as a Marine, do you experience what this book says Marines should be doing?”  I’ll wager Cleveland pierogies to Lejeune sand fleas the “no” vote will win it.

I suspect the Van Ripers’ letter was written in response to a request from Headquarters, Marine Corps, and perhaps partially by HQMC, to discredit my critiques of the Corps’ recently adopted strategy.  I am aware many Marines individually think intellectually about war.  But only an institution that checked its brain at the door could come up with a strategy so comically bad as the one now promoted by HQMC.  That strategy is to prepare for a war with China in which Marines will take islands from the Chinese, then mount anti-ship missiles on them to shoot at Chinese warships (some varients include anti-submarine warfare too, presumably with underwater bayonet charges).  To recapitulate what I have said elsewhere, this strategy has three notable deficiencies:

  • First, China is a nuclear power, and nuclear powers do not fight each other in conventional wars because the risk of escalation is too great.  If such a war did occur, the US Navy and Air Force already have many times the number of anti-ship missiles we would need, especially since the Chinese would keep most or all of their surface warships in port.  The Corps’ strategy adds nothing to the defense of our country.
  • What the country does need is a service specialized in Fourth Generation war, because state collapse is the main danger we face.  State collapse brings, among other problems, vast numbers of refugees.  One mission a Fourth Generation focus would give the Marine Corps is returning refugees from the country or region they came from, which may not want to receive them.  We will need the capability,, for places with sea coasts, to make a (possibly opposed) amphibious landing, dump the refugees ashore, and leave quickly.  Punitive expeditions against places that harbor terrorist threats are another logical Marine Coprs mission.  By becoming America’s force of choice for a world of collapsing states, the Marine Corps would give itself a strategy meaningful to national security and to the American public.
  • Finally, by adopting a strategy of “me too” — a few more anti-ship missiles in a war unlikely to happen — the Marine Corps raises the question of its own future.  We still have a Marine Corps because past generations of Marines came up with roles the public and politicians could grasp, were unique to the Marine Corps and clearly met a real national security need.  I do not want to see the Marine Corps disappear.  But if today’s Marine Corps, as an institution, cannot do better than the farce of a strategy HQMC has come up with, its future is in doubt.  Remember, the Corps is no longer inexpensive, and we have a debt crisis in our future.

I thank the Van Rippers for their letter, as it helps bring out facets of Fourth Generation war that need to be addressed.  I am particularly grateful for their citation, as a critique of 4GW, of an article in Parameters from 1993, “elegant Irrelevance: Fourth Generation Warfare,” by Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr. That same McKenzie, now a general, is the CINC of Central Command, where he recently presided over our final defeat in a twenty year war against a Fourth Generation entity, the Taliban, and our tail-between-the-legs withdrawal from Kubal.  Ironies are seldom that delicious.