WAR ON TERROR: The four generations of war
William S. Lind

All over the world, state military forces are fighting non-state opponents, and almost always, the state is losing. This is because state militaries were designed to fight other state militaries like themselves. Against non-state enemies, most of their equipment, tactics, and training are useless or counterproductive. We are in the era of the fourth-generation war.

The first generation of modern warfare began with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years War. It also marked the state’s assumption of a monopoly on war; thereafter, war was waged by states, with state armies and navies doing the fighting. The first generation ran from 1648 to about the time of the American Civil War, and it was characterized, on the whole, by a battlefield of order, creating a military culture of order that endures to this day.

And there’s the rub. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, the battlefield of order began to break down. Ever since, state militaries have had to grapple with a growing contradiction between their internal culture of order and the external reality of an increasingly disordered battlefield.

The second and third generations of war represent two different approaches to that problem. Second-generation war was developed by the French army during and after World War I, and is best summed up in the French expression, “The artillery conquers, the infantry occupies.”

Second-generation war maintained the first-generation culture of order. Decision-making was centralized and hierarchical; orders were detailed and controlling, to permit synchronization of all arms; and success was measured by comparative body counts.

Second-generation armed forces focus inwardly on methods, processes, and procedures. They prize obedience over initiative, for initiative and synchronization are not compatible. And they depend on imposed discipline. The American army and Marine Corps learned second-generation warfare from the French during World War I and still practice it today, with exceptions depending on the preferences of individual commanders.

Third-generation warfare, also known as maneuver warfare, was developed by the German army in World War I; by 1918, the Blitzkrieg was conceptually complete, lacking only the tanks necessary for operational mobility. The Prussian/German roots of third-generation warfare go back earlier, to the Scharnhorst reforms that followed Prussia’s defeat by Napoleon. One of those reforms changed what was required of a Prussian officer. Instead of being responsible for obeying orders, he became responsible for getting the result the situation required.

In nineteenth-century war games, junior Prussian officers would be given problems that could only be solved by disobeying orders. This created a military culture that focused outward, on the enemy, instead of inward on rules and processes: Prussia had broken with the first-generation culture of order.

The new third-generation tactics developed by the Germans in WWII were the first nonlinear tactics. On the defense, the objective became sucking the enemy in, then cutting him off, rather than holding a line. On the offensive, the attack flowed like water through the enemy’s defenses, seeking the weakest point to penetrate, then rolling him up from his own rear forward.

Operationally as well as tactically the goal was usually encirclement. Speed replaced firepower as the most important tool, and dislocation, mental as well as physical, was more important than attrition. The German army prized initiative over obedience and self-discipline rather than imposed discipline.

Much of the US military reform movement of the 1970s through the early 1990s was an attempt to move the armed forces from the second to the third generation. While the Marine Corps formally adopted maneuver warfare as doctrine in the 1990s, most of what the Marine Corps does remains second generation. The other US services remain almost wholly second generation.

Fourth-generation warfare is the greatest change since the Peace of Westphalia, because it marks the end of the state’s monopoly on war. Once again, as before 1648, many different entities, not states, are fighting war. They use many different means, including terrorism, not just formal armies. Differences between cultures, not just states, become paramount: different cultures will fight differently.

All over the world, state militaries are fighting non-state opponents, and almost always, the state is losing. State militaries were designed to fight other state militaries like themselves. Against non-state enemies, most of their equipment, tactics, and training are useless or counterproductive.

William S. Lind is director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism of the Free Congress Foundation