Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Fourth Generation Warfare and All That

There is a debate out there as to whether the notion of Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) as a theory is of any value. Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria, II recently published an article entitled Fourth-Generation War and Other Myths (, in which he criticizes the idea quite emphatically. I contend that he and others miss the point.

I’ve read a fair amount of the 4GW literature, and to be honest, I’ve never considered it to be a theory, and by the strictest definition, it isn’t. From my perspective, it’s little more than a mnemonic used to describe general yet significant changes in the way warfare is conducted given the evolution of the international system (to include such things as globalization, modernization, proliferation, and whatever other “ations” you care to include). I think as a definition for that sort of concept, 4GW fares well enough.

To my mind, this is where Echevarria really falls down in his analysis. By elevating 4GW to the status of theory, from which, supposedly, we can derive propositions, generate hypotheses, test, and thus infer new conclusions, he undermines his own critique.

Broadly speaking, the crux of his argument is that 4GW as a theory (which it isn’t) is flawed primarily because is rests upon a poor understanding of history; the fallacy of nontrinitarian warfare, and the myth of Westphalia. To my mind this is sort of like saying that the theory of relativity is flawed because it rests upon the misconception of Newtonian physics. My point being that for relativity, the conception of Newtonian physics is irrelevant.

Echevarria claims that nontrinitarian warfare is a non-concept because trinitarian warfare is present in all forms of conflict and therefore is a non-concept in and of itself. The problem here is that the context from which Clausewitz was coming was that the only entities that mattered in the international system were states, who behaved as unitary actors (this concept is obviously borrowed from Realism, but it is applicable nevertheless). When he is referring to directing war towards some end, he is discussing war qua war in the political context. What 4GW conceives of as nontrinitarian warfare is the violation of the concept that war is being conducted for the political ends of the state. What people thinking in terms of 4GW are seeing in this context is the combination of weak governance and globalization/modernization pressures that have allowed the advent of non-state actors who conduct warfare in the transnational arena for transnational ends. While this sort of thing is not so new in the broad construct of history, it is certainly new to our era.

Echevarria then goes on to say that 4GW fails because it apparently relies on the notion that the modern state system sprung from the loins of Westphalia overnight. Why it would depend upon this being so he doesn’t explain. What’s more, I’m not aware of any such claim in the 4GW literature that I’ve read. I think this point is, frankly, a bit silly.

But the thing is, aside from the two cases above, Echevarria really doesn’t seem to have much to say about what 4GW is actually doing wrong. He makes the wild claim that anyone using the term is undermining their own credibility, but he makes no real case to substantiate it, and frankly the statement smacks of pettiness. He makes a brief case for the inaccurate prediction of 4GW analysts that non-state actor groups, rather than executing “Judo throws” are instead providing public goods to the groups they claim to represent. Somehow he seems to think that this very act he describes as contrary to the 4GW claim that non-state actor groups try to undermine government, does not in fact undermine government. Frankly, I can’t think of a better “Judo throw” than for a non-state actor group to provide a public good that the established regime cannot or will not provide.

In one paragraph he describes the use of traditional weapons used in Rwanda and Sudan as things that 4GW fails to account for. Yet this failure in accounting is simple to explain when you consider that 4GW as a concept is strictly Amerocentric, which is to say that it is addressing the asymmetric threat environment of the US, not the symmetric environment internal to third world countries. He also makes, what I think, is a serious gaff when he tries to say that 4GW’s assertion that US capabilities are designed to operate in the nation-state framework is incorrect because in the past the US has successfully operated under the constraints of alliances. It is clear that Echevarria does not understand that this is a level of analysis issue, and that alliances are part of the nation-state construct. What 4GW is saying here is that the US capabilities are ill-suited to deal with non-state actors, which they are, largely due to political constraints, but also due to issues involving the military industrial complex.

In his discussion of the third incarnation, he describes the sequencing of generations of warfare as artificial. Of course it is. If we were to take that as invalidation, then every theory we’ve ever held would be invalidated. But what he seems to misunderstand is that the generational concept is largely applicable to the evolution of doctrine more than anything else, and I think that evolution is quite distinguishable.

Finally, Echevarria makes several statements as counters to 4GW that are, frankly, empirically questionable. His insinuation of the relationship between terrorism and globalization has not panned out in empirical work, he seems to conflate globalization with modernization, which are different concepts, and he seems convinced that a theory is set in stone the moment it is conceived.

I suppose by now you see that I’m not a big fan of this paper. That said, I think he makes one good point, which is that there are some who are trying to operate within the construct of 4GW as something separate from traditional insurgency. I believe this is a mistake. In fact, I think it is a mistake to promote 4GW beyond simple mnemonic device for describing the conditions of modern insurgency and terrorism, and thus the need to address them from a new doctrinal point of view. Constrained to that, I think 4GW is an important concept. But it does not rise to the level of a theory, in my opinion.

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