Last week, the 4th Generation Warfare Handbook was released, written by military historian William S. Lind and current Marine Corps Lt. Colonel Gregory A. Theile.
Instead of a normal book review, I will try to apply the tenets of this handbook and 4th generation warfare in general to our war with ISIS.
A quick overview of the four generations of modern war (those taking place after the conclusion of the 30 years war)is best done with direct historical examples.
Looking at the American Civil War, there’s a clear evolution in tactics between the beginning and end of the war. The difference between Bull Run and Petersburg represents the evolution on both sides from massed manpower to massed firepower.
The culmination of the second generation of warfare was the French army after World War One. They developed the ultimate tactics in firepower warfare. This is the tradition the modern US military has grown from.
However, the implicit problems in top-down, highly coordinated operations met their match in the form of mobile divisions of German troops operating largely independently. Able to react and adapt faster than French troops could coordinated a response, the German army got a nation with a superior army and superior firepower to surrender in six weeks. That’s third generation warfare versus the second.
The best example of fourth generation war defeating a second and sometimes third generation force is the Second Gulf War. Despite winning constantly on the tactical and physical levels; the United States and its allies lost in the mental and moral levels more often than not. Physical, mental and moral levels of war are mentioned extensively in the handbook, and the moral supersedes all others. So by playing the role of David being continually beaten by Goliath (a metaphor Lind invokes repeatedly), and watching the Americans lose the moral level of war, insurgents in Iraq were able to continually stand up to American forces.
The fourth generation of war represents a fight over the loyalties of people and the legitimacy of the state. On the one hand, the nation states of the world need to maintain a monopoly on violence. On the other, there are causes people are willing to fight for that are not nation states. As these two come into conflict, we see more and more 4th Generation warfare.
ISIS is an interesting enemy. By taking the mantle of a state, they have many of the vulnerabilities of a state. They seek 2nd and 3rd generation style victories in the Middle East as a means of legitimately. Over in Europe and America, however, they are keen to fight at a 4th generation level.
The United States and NATO nations have regularly failed in fighting 4th generation forces. Fortunately, the 4th generation part of this war is currently on our best ground, Europe and North America.
ISIS fights us at home with attacks like Paris, but also by triggering the mass of refugees in the first place. Even if the refugees were indistinguishable from the current population, they would present a resource depleting and attention grabbing problem that degrades the legitimacy of the state as it struggles to control the flow.
Attacks like Paris have two big intentions. The first is to take away the state’s monopoly on violence. If actors other than the state can commit violence within a state, that state simply isn’t doing its job. This eats away at the legitimacy of the state.
The second effect is to goad the West into attempting a 2nd generation war in Syria where ISIS hopes to turn a certain loss on the physical level into a victory on the moral level. Standing tall against the imperialist infidel crusaders and all plays well on Al-Jazeera. The ultimate hope is to trigger blundering, decade spanning campaigns like Iraq and Afghanistan.
So the West is faced with two fronts in the war against ISIS. One in the West and one in the Middle East. Let’s talk about what the 4th Generation Handbook says about both.
The 4GW War in the West
However western governments choose to handle migration, the governments need to look like they are in control of the situation. This certainly hasn’t been the case in Europe.
Flat out refusal, and the repatriation and dispersal of potential enemy elements already in country is the simplest and most likely method to succeed, but the political viability of this remains uncertain for now.
Whatever number of refugees Western governments choose to accept, it needs to be in a distributed, non permanent way. Any migrants need to be spread thin throughout the country. And there has to be a plan for sending them home as the conflict ends.
Preventing and breaking up enclaves is key. If you expect any sort of assimilation, it will only happen outside of ethnic and religious conclaves.
In lieu of trying to integrate refugees into the country or to turn them away, they could simply be sent to a third party. Paying countries to take in and support the refugees is one way to handle things and still look good. You reduce the potential for Paris-style attacks in your own country. You also don’t look like a horrible villain to the bleeding hearts. It works on a tactical and moral level. This of course takes lots of money, but as Lind states, money is one of the state’s most powerful 4th generation assets.
Fighting ISIS in the Middle East
While Lind touches on fighting 4th Generation war in western countries, the main focus of the book is on fighting wars in the Middle East, or wherever non-state actors are likely to come into play.
The first question that has to be asked are what are our goals in fighting ISIS in the Middle East. These are the ones I identify:
- Elimination of ISIS control over state functions over large parts of the Middle East.
- Establishment of peace across the Syria and Iraq
- Establishment of stability across Syria and Iraq through state power.
Currently, ISIS wants to operate like a state that uses traditional warfare to accomplish its military goals. When ISIS tries to take an area, it rolls in with force and asserts control. In many ways they function like a 3rd Generation force, because they are highly mobile but lack the communications to have the overarching control of Western army commanders. Of course they lack training and skills to exercise precision and tactical excellence like well-trained Western armies. Their advantage is their adaptability.
Also, make no mistake, ISIS’s plan is likely to fall back into a 4th Generation insurgency model should the West come to occupy the areas now held by ISIS.
The goal in this sort of conflict is to defeat ISIS’s state without allowing them to slip into 4th generation insurgency mode.
This is where Lind’s light infantry discussion in the 4th Generation Warfare Handbook comes in handy. We need to take a few months and train a volunteer battalion, and eventually a division, and then a corps of light infantry. They should take active, reserve and retired soldiers, as well as civilian volunteers. The first people to train should be outdoors-men, hunters, and trackers.
Lind goes into extensive discussion of the training and types of operations light infantry might undertake. Light infantry would: operate without oversight from headquarters, live off the land for extended periods, choose their own missions, and receive a very broad operational objective. These units should be deployed throughout the region to engage in ongoing guerrilla warfare against ISIS.
The orders given to the light infantry will be simple: Disrupt ISIS’s ability to govern its territory and to move freely within it. ISIS will be forced to look like an impotent government, rather than insurgents against an occupying foreign power that a tank column driving through Raqqa would create.
Every 10 days or so, light infantry battalions can cycle in and out of the area via helicopter extraction and rest up and plan their next insertion. The light infantry will have an advantage over ISIS because of better training, coordination, planning and supply. They also have the ability to call airstrikes when strictly necessary. Armed drones on call to assist light infantry would be very useful.
Once the light infantry have degraded ISIS and made their lives difficult, the Baathist Syrian government, the Peshmerga and the Iraqi government will have an edge over ISIS and can make gains against them. By not relying on overwhelming western force, the victories by Middle Eastern governments make them look strong and legitimate which strengthens their position in the eyes of their citizens. This enables the ultimate goal of returning the areas to effective control by states.
Once all of this has been completed, likely taking over a year, we’ll be left with two war-torn countries with nascent governments which are struggling to maintain legitimacy, peace and order in their states.
At this point, refugees can be returned to their home countries, as the threat has passed. If Western governments are unwilling to return refugees once hostilities have ceased; there’s no hope for them.
The nations of Syria and Iraq will need help recovering and rebuilding strong states. At this point, the West can use a little 4th Generation warfare of its own to cement gains.
Willing westerners should be financially backed to emigrate to Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi and Syrian governments would hopefully see this as a way to jump start their renewed countries. Western immigrants could be leaders in establishing better nations than what came before, with a vested, long term interest in their new country.
The benefits for us should be obvious. The kinds of people who do this kind of thing tend to have big families and follow Christianity, so there’s a chance we could add a sizable, enterprising, Christian minority back to the Middle East. It would be one that would keep the rulers of Syria and Iraq from acting out too much, for fear of Western countries protecting their brethren. Once western minorities in the Middle East reach critical levels, they will tend to begin westernization of Syria and Iraq.
If all that could happen, it would certainly be a huge win for the Western world. The most important thing, I believe, about “The 4th Generation Handbook” is it gives us a new language and way of thinking about the kinds of conflicts that are being fought today, mostly incompetently, by the West. With a new way of looking at things, it might allow us to dream of real, meaningful victories for the West in the Middle East.