The View From Olympus


This begins a new series of columns on military affairs, as a follow-on to my long-running On War series (I will continue to write a military column for The American Conservative magazine as well). Since I am now retired and take my motto from Augustine (before he became St. Augustine), deificari in otio, I have decided to title the new series, “The View From Olympus.” Olympus isn’t too far from Cleveland. will be the column’s regular home, though websites that often printed On War are welcome to re-publish The View From Olympus as well.

The framework for The View From Olympus will be that of On War, namely the Four Generations of Modern War. I developed this intellectual framework in the 1980s, initially as the Three Generations; the Marines to whom I was then lecturing kept asking what the Fourth Generation would be like, so I answered their question. I first laid the whole framework out in print with some co-authors in the October 1989 Marine Corps Gazette.

The framework of the Four Generations of Modern War fits well with TraditionalRight’s focus on paradigm shifts because it chronicles four such shifts in the art of war in the modern period, which is to say roughly since 1650. Each generation represents a dialectically qualitative change in the conduct of war (not the nature of war, which is fixed and unchanging; retired Army general Jim Dubik has written an excellent paper on this important distinction). Dialectically qualitative changes are somewhat fancier versions of paradigm shifts, of the “bursting dam” variety; see Hegel for a further discussion.

First Generation war begins roughly with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and runs through the American Civil War. Tactically, it was war of line and column, where armies moved in column and fought in line. On the whole, First Generation battlefields were battlefields of order, which in turn created a military culture of order. That culture was inward-focused on drills, rules, regulations and orders; demanded obedience, not initiative; and depended on imposed discipline. The fact that armies were recruited by sweeping the gutters and most soldiers wanted to desert reinforced the need for a culture of order. The main significance First Generation war has for us now is that state militaries came to define themselves by the culture of order and they still do today.

The Four Generations framework is based on land warfare, but it is worth noting that in the second half of the 18th century, probably beginning when Anson became First Sea Lord, the Royal Navy developed and embraced the culture we associate with Third Generation maneuver warfare. By 1800, it was outward focused on getting the result the situation required regardless of rules, fighting instructions, or order; it wanted initiative, not rote obedience, at least from ship captains on up; and at least among officers had moved slightly from imposed to self-discipline. There is a marvelous book on how and why the Royal Navy lost that culture and became inward-focused again in the 19th century, The Rules of the Game by Andrew Gordon.

The First Generation has another, meta-level characteristic that is rapidly again becoming important: it marked the assertion by the state of a monopoly on war. Previously, wars had been waged by many different kinds of entities: not only governments (governments go back into pre-history, but the state is relatively new, dating to about 1500; see Martin van Creveld’s book, The Rise and Decline of the State), but also families, clans and tribes; religions and sects; races; cities and business enterprises, legal and illegal; etc. With Westphalia, states in Europe said, “No more.” After that, non-state combatants, soldiers who did not belong to state armies, were no longer seen as legitimate and were usually hanged or shot on the spot. When state armies met non-state opponents as European power expanded world-wide, the state virtually always won. By 1900, the state system and war between states had a monopoly, at least outside the jungles of New Guinea or the Amazon. As we will see, that is no longer true.

Both the Second and Third Generations of Modern War were born in World War I. In 1914, the armies of the European Powers marched to war looking like, and often fighting like, those of 1814. The result was catastrophic for everyone, with hundreds of thousands of men killed in a few months. In the west, the overwhelming power of artillery and machine guns forced both sides into the trenches. (On the eastern front, lower troop densities allowed both tactical and operational maneuver to continue, at least in some sectors.

The Second and Third Generations were created by the French and German armies respectively. The French army built its new doctrine around a single fact: on the western front, the battlefield was dominated by indirect artillery fire. Overall, about 80% of the casualties suffered by all parties on that front in World War I were from artillery. Summarized by the French army as “the artillery conquers, the infantry occupies,” Second Generation tactics synchronized all arms in a highly choreographed “methodical battle.” Attacks were with limited objective, and defense depended more on maneuvering fires than troops. Overall, Second Generation war was a contest in mutual attrition, where victory was supposed to go to whoever could bring the most firepower to bear.

Second Generation war as developed by the French during and after World War I remains relevant to us in two ways. First, it preserved the First Generation culture of order. Second Generation war remains inward focused on orders, processes, procedures, etc.; it may be thought of as “war by formula.” It wants obedience, not initiative; synchronization and initiative are incompatible. And it remains based on imposed discipline, to the point where between the wars French officers were forbidden to publish anything that contradicted official doctrine.

The other way Second Generation war remains relevant is that the US Army and Marine Corps still fight that way, despite the Marine Corps’ official doctrine of maneuver warfare. The US armed forces absorbed Second Generation war from the French during and after World War I, then promptly forgot where it came from. We still practice it tactically, attempting to win wars by putting ever more (“precise”) firepower on ever more targets. And we still embrace a Second Generation military culture of order: centralized, inward-focused, valuing obedience over initiative and relying on imposed discipline.

Meanwhile, back in the First World War’s trenches, something very different was happening in the German army. Already imbued with a culture of outward focus and initiative thanks to the Scharnhorst reforms during the Napoleonic war, the German army solved the dilemma of the trenches with radically new tactics. Attacks no longer sought to push a line forward. Rather, small groups of men flowed like water around enemy strong points, always seeking the path of least resistance and, when they found one, drawing others after them. Attacks were with unlimited objective, seeking to collapse the enemy from the rear forward. In the defense, instead of trying to hold a line, the Germans sucked the enemy in as deeply as possible, then cut him off with counterattacks that left him encircled. These tactics demanded radical decentralization of decision making, with orders specifying only the result to be attained, not method.

During the 1930s, the new tactics of 1917-18 were married with the Panzer divisions to create the Blitzkrieg. Tanks permitted not just tactical but also operational maneuver, making fast, decisive campaigns possible once again. The new tactics and operational art, combined with a military culture that was outward focused, decentralized, prized initiative over obedience and depended more on self-discipline than imposed discipline, gave us Third Generation war, also known as maneuver warfare. When the Second Generation French army and Third Generation Wehrmacht met head-on in 1940, the Second Generation went down to defeat in six weeks—despite the fact that the French had more tanks than the Germans.

Since the mid-1970s, I have endeavored to convince the US military to move from the Second to the Third Generation, with little success. The Marine Corps did adopt Third Generation maneuver warfare as its official doctrine in the early 1990s when General Al Gray was Commandant. It published some quite good field manuals on it. But it changed nothing else, least of all its inward-focused culture of order, so what it does remains, like the US Army, almost purely Second Generation war. For a couple hundred billion dollars a year, we are buying a military museum.

Fourth Generation war represents the largest paradigm shift in the conduct of war since 1648. It reverses what the Peace of Westphalia established, the state’s monopoly on war. All over the world, state militaries designed to fight other state armed forces much like themselves instead find themselves battling non-state entities: again, as before Westphalia, families, tribes, and clans; races and religions; sects and “causes,” i.e. ideologies, which are new since Westphalia but have their parallels in pre-Westphalian heresies; business enterprises including gangs, etc. All things old have been made new again. Unlike in most of the modern age, when state armed forces fight these non-state elements, the state forces almost always lose. The US Marine Corps, the best of the American armed services, is now 0-4 (Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan).

As Martin van Creveld says, what changes in Fourth Generation war (his term is “non-trinitarian warfare,” referring to Clausewitz’s trinity of state, people, and army) is not how war is fought, but who fights and what they fight for. This is a larger change than changes in how war is fought. Van Creveld’s book The Transformation of War is by far the best on the subject.

Not only is Fourth Generation war non-trinitarian, it escapes Clausewitz’s definition of war as politics carried on by other means. Many of the objectives for which Fourth Generation warriors fight are not political (some of course are). They range from having fun and grabbing women and loot through attaining eternal salvation. Much Fourth Generation war is supply-side war, generated by the presence of large number of young men with no jobs, no money, no access to women, and no future. What do such young men naturally do? Fight.

Some commentators have mistakenly defined Fourth Generation war merely as insurgency. This reduces it to just another buzzword and obviously not a paradigm shift. Their error is not looking beyond how war is fought. Many Fourth Generation entities do employ the techniques of insurgency, but these techniques are not the origin of their strength. Their strength is mental and, above all, moral, not physical. It is a product of the causes they represent and as van Creveld has pointed out, of their very physical weakness. They represent David confronting Goliath. In the several thousand years the story of David and Goliath has been told, how many people have identified with Goliath? Over time, Fourth Generation war will affect how war is fought. It has already rendered most of the hi-tech, hyper-priced weapons in the arsenals of state armed forces irrelevant. Why do we need the F-22 Raptor? To shoot down Taliban flying carpets (Chet Richards adds, the fact that so far the F-22 has not bagged a single carpet shows we need a new radar and a new platform to carry it).

An example of 4GW changing how war is fought is the advent of the suicide bomber. Suicide attacks have been quite rare in military history. The fact that some Fourth Generation entities are able to employ them routinely show 4GW’s power at the moral level. Suicide bombers have given Fourth Generation forces their own precision-guided weapon, one at least as effective as our drones firing missiles. Against our Hellfires they pit the Heaven-fired. Which is winning?

Fourth Generation war is in its early stages, and will take at least a century to play itself out (talk of Fifth Generation war is nonsense; we cannot see that far ahead). What is at stake is the state system itself, and with it conservatives’ highest good, order. If the state system collapses, the world faces another calamitous century, like the fourteenth in Europe (see Barbara Tuchman’s book, A Distant Mirror).

This is the framework of the Four Generations of Modern War. First laid out in the 1980s, it has been justified by events, or so some observers have said. It continues to unroll in north and west Africa, in the Levant, in Mesopotamia, and the Hindu Kush. One might add, along America’s souther border and in the hearts of her cities. An American government that seeks to bring order to Afghanistan cannot maintain it 1000 yards from the US Capitol after nightfall. Were Washington open to reality, which it is not, that might tell it that something is changing. The Establishment’s attitude is best summed up by the reputed statement of the Chief of Staff of the Italian army shortly before World War II: “If you have a full plate of pasta for life and a little wine, who care about anything else?”