Book Reviews, Charles, Military History, War
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4th Generation Warfare Handbook (William S. Lind)

2021 will be the twentieth anniversary of our endless, pointless war in Afghanistan, and 2023 the twentieth anniversary of our endless, pointless war in Iraq. This book, the ideas in which predate both those wars, and in fact date back to shortly after we lost the Vietnam War, says that our military should train to fight a new kind of warfare, fourth-generation warfare, in order to win victory. What struck me most about this book is that it’s not all that new. It’s still a worthwhile short read, but you will get more out of it if you read it along with a far more insightful work—Carl Schmitt’s 1962 Theory of the Partisan.

In Lind’s terminology, fourth-generation warfare, which we will define more precisely in a moment, is basically warfare by a state against non-state opponents. You might think that’s exactly what we do in Afghanistan and Iraq, and as far as I can tell, it is. Lind’s claim, however, is not that we need to be prepared to fight a fourth-generation, guerilla-type war. His claim rather is that our military fights fourth-generation war, including current wars in the Middle East, with second-generation methods, decades after it should have known better. His book’s target, therefore, appears to be higher-ranking military officers who have flexibility to change local approaches to American warfare.

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Whether Lind’s claims are true, I am not qualified to evaluate. I have little knowledge of the nuts and bolts of modern military theory, and less of tactics or operations. I have several close family members in the military, but never served myself (though I may yet fight in the civil wars, and am still young enough to do so). Yes, I know a lot about military history, but that is a different thing. Perhaps as a result, I’m still not quite sure what to think of this book. People keep recommending it to me, and much of it seems to offer useful insights into how the United States should conduct itself in wars in the Third World. I’m just not sure any of those insights are unknown to its target audience.

Lind is not a soldier either. He developed the basic ideas in this book, more extensive treatments of which elsewhere he points the reader to, with a small group of military officers, around 1980. I wasn’t paying attention then, but I do remember that in the late 1980s, and in the run-up to the First Gulf War, American military thought, and the public’s thoughts about America being involved in wars, revolved wholly around the trauma of America losing the Vietnam War. We now remember the First Gulf War, 1991, as a triumph, but that conclusion was far from foregone—many voices at the time argued that the war would be another Vietnam. Nonetheless, it broke the in-retrospect salutary feeling that perhaps America should not over-extend itself, and in the decades since America has, to no benefit for us, now become a fully imperial power, actively fighting in places that serve no purpose for the American people as a whole.

History and politics are not Lind’s concern, however. His concern is tactical success in places where America is fighting. In Lind’s frame, second-generation warfare, characterized by the French after World War I, emphasizes rigid order, heavy use of artillery (and later, air power), and execution of pre-set rules and “school solutions.” Lind says this is how the United States still largely fights today. Third-generation warfare, exemplified by the Germans in World War II, is non-linear, emphasizing speed and tempo rather than firepower, and encouraging flexibility and initiative, deemphasizing centralized decision making. You would think all state militaries would have adopted third-generation warfare by this point, given that it seems to succeed almost all the time, if other factors are equal, but Lind says this is wrong, and because militaries adore a “culture of order,” most remain essentially second generation.

States fighting each other today is some combination of second- and third-generation warfare. Fourth-generation warfare, on the other hand, involves a more disparate hybrid—large armies designed for second-generation warfare attempting to occupy territory where there is no operating state military and the inhabitants are ethnically, religiously, and politically hostile. Lind calls militarized inhabitants in opposition “non-state forces,” but a much better term is the older “partisans.” Contrary to what Lind implies, the task of a state military fighting partisans is not a new problem; Julius Caesar faced it. Even the specific challenge that Lind is trying to address, a large, highly-trained, centralized state army fighting what amounts to a guerilla insurgency, is old—its modern incarnation was probably first seen in the Peninsular War. In any case, Lind thinks we’re too often doing it wrong.

Lind ascribes the hostility of the locals in fourth-generation warfare to a “crisis of the legitimacy of the state.” The state in question is not us, the attackers, but the state that might otherwise claim the loyalty of partisans. He means the partisans have a primary loyalty to something other than the state—most often ethnicity or religion—so that even if the state is defeated by the partisans’ enemies, fourth-generation warfare continues in a way second-generation or third-generation warfare would not. He seems to think this is an odd condition, but the natural condition of most societies is that those things are very important, and often more important to citizens than the state. (America was long an exception, although, as we saw this past summer, our elites are doing their best to encourage racial violence, which will not end well.) It is therefore only natural when any state is destroyed that the new organizing principle is something that precedes the state, so I’m not sure that dressing this basic fact up in fancy language adds anything for the reader, not to mention that if recent history is any guide, mostly this “crisis” is caused by the United States destroying the functioning state that had existed.

Regardless, Lind’s main practical point is that fourth-generation warfare should be light infantry warfare. Not in the sense that term is used in today’s military, meaning mechanized infantry without armored vehicles, but more like Roger’s Rangers or other successful small, fast-moving, lightweight forces that live off the land, such as the Selous Scouts (not an example Lind gives, and there are other gaps, such as nothing about drones and similar technology, and how those might affect both light infantry and partisans). For such units, in essence guerillas in their own right, mental attitude, of flexibility, toughness, and creativity, is even more important than speed of movement, and they emphasize basic skills often lost in second- and third-generation warfare, from land navigation to physical fitness to broad weapons proficiency.

The book alternates specific advice with short fictional vignettes showing how the principles should be applied in a conflict (a nameless Middle Eastern war). About half the discussion concerns light infantry in all its practical aspects. The rest addresses other topics Lind thinks tied to light infantry success. He points out that the less stable a conquered state, the harder the fourth-generation challenge. Thus, keeping a defeated state’s military and bureaucracy largely or wholly in place is essential to keeping the challenge manageable. This only applies where there is a defeated state (and is something America failed to do in Iraq—remember the odious Paul Bremer?). Collapsed societies (Somalia, Afghanistan) or an American civil war are therefore likely to be a much greater fourth-generation challenge than a place like Iraq. Lind recommends wide use of bribes, with zero track being kept of them—but that was not a success in Afghanistan, where the wily locals simply took our money and laughed. He suggests offering green cards to those who help us—but we have a long history of higher-ups lying to and betraying the locals who help us based on the promises of our men on the ground, and this has continued in Iraq and Afghanistan. He recommends building bridges with the press—but ignores that today’s monolithic press corps is just as ideological as any partisan, so only left-wing bridges will have any chance of being successful, and those are rarer than hens’ teeth in wars, at least until the United States invades Poland to run a rainbow flag up the flagpole in front of Parliament. So yes, I’m sure using light infantry makes more sense than driving Abrams tanks through the streets and shooting 120mm shells at every swarthy man in a burnoose who pops off a shot with an AK. But I’m not sure this book adds much to common sense.

Underlying these practical points is a key philosophical point—that just because the American military has the physical ability to do something that appears tactically useful does not mean that doing it will advance us toward victory. Instead, it will frequently erode what Lind calls our “moral” position, which he says is crucially important for victory. This is an unfortunate choice of words, because Lind uses “moral” in two entirely distinct senses. We might call these “spiritual morals” and “practical morals.” Lind never distinguishes between the two, which makes what he is specifically recommending sometimes unclear. In all cases, though, Lind uses “moral” arguments to call for measured, limited approaches to partisan warfare, rather than a war of annihilation.

The first use of “moral” is its traditional use in America, meaning “not sinful under Christian principles.” True, nobody would openly define “moral” that way today—instead, there would be mention of “ethics,” and John Rawls would come up, and there would be meandering talk of justice, unmoored from any first principles. But what Lind means, and what others mean when they talk about the “morality” of war, is what has often constrained Western powers in wars in the Third World—the desire to not get wrong with Jesus Christ. That may be the desire of the country’s leaders, but more often is their desire for public opinion, still largely tied to Christian morality, to not turn against them. Actions that are not “moral” in this sense do not erode our tactical position, however, so strictly speaking they should be ignored by Lind in his analysis, yet they keep creeping in.

The other sense of “moral” that Lind uses is “not offensive to the locals.” For example, in a culture that emphasizes pride and honor, humiliating men, especially by manhandling their women, is a very bad idea, and very counterproductive, in that it stiffens the spine of the locals and provides a spur to retributive violence. His analysis is somewhat superficial; he seems to think that “bullying” is always counterproductive, although this is largely an artefact of Western, specifically English, notions of “fair play,” not something particularly resonant in many other cultures, which did not read Tom Brown’s School Days, and are happy to gravitate to the strong horse. Actually, Lind is perfectly well aware that it is possible to utterly crush partisan movements, especially in cities, by bullying on a mass scale. He calls this the “Hama model,” after Hafez al-Assad’s successful repression of Sunni Muslims in Hama in 1982, killing thousands—and turning the city into a model of stability for decades. You have to go all the way, though (and America can’t, because of the first sense of “moral”), but if you don’t, offending the locals, whipping them up against you, most definitely can have a tactical impact on victory. Ask the British in the First Afghan War.

On a side note, speaking of the British and Afghanistan, I happened to see a picture the other day of a statue of the last stand of one Lieutenant Walter Hamilton VC, who died in this type of violence, in 1879, in the Second Afghan War. He had earlier earned the Victoria Cross, and he and several dozen men under his command died to the last man defending the British representative to the Afghans, when attacked in Kabul by mutinous Afghan troops. Whether this was due to what Lind would call a “moral” offense I am not sure. What I am sure of is that our society no longer honors a man such as Hamilton. Can you imagine a statue like this one being presented to today’s young as something to admire? No, you can’t. But you can be sure they see plenty of (talent-free) statues of the fentanyl-addled scumbag George Floyd. A society gets more of what it honors.

Staying for a little in the past, because it’s more pleasant there, viewing Lind through the lens of the classic Carl Schmitt work on partisans can help us with understandings missing in Lind. Schmitt’s view is that partisan warfare, that is, irregular warfare against states, can only exist if there is regular warfare. By this he means not war among states, but warfare with rules, rules designed to implement “morals” in both senses Lind uses. This distinguishes partisan warfare against Rome, where there were no rules, from that against a nineteenth-century European state, where there were—a key distinction lost in Lind. It is this binding by rules that makes fourth-generation warfare so challenging for a modern Western state.

Schmitt does not view partisans as so much a manifestation of a tactical problem, as Lind does, but of total enmity, a crucial focus of Schmitt in many of his writings. Partisan warfare in the modern world is ideological, which means it is not limited in the way that warfare directed to political ends traditionally is, in that when those ends are achieved the fighting stops short of the total destruction of one side. At the same time, the new rules of warfare “bracket” the partisan, making him someone not entitled to the protection of the rules, a mere bandit. Both these mean that the partisan fights more viciously, and the reaction is equally vicious, in an upward, or downward, spiral. For Schmitt, enmity is natural and unavoidable, but partisan conflict removes limits that can otherwise be placed on enmity, creating “absolute enmity,” leading to wars of annihilation. This suggests why the measured and limited fourth-generation tactics Lind lays out as common sense are difficult to implement in practice—it is not just stupidity and sclerosis, as Lind implies.

Schmitt gives as example the French experience in Algeria, where the French general Raoul Salan was unable to break the Algerian insurgency, leading Salan himself to engage in terrorism and assassination on French soil (or rather in France proper, since Algeria was just as much French soil). I doubt that Lind’s advice would have made defeating the Algerian partisans possible. Schmitt was not optimistic about fourth-generation war—he saw that with modern technology, the erosion of strong social structures, and the cross-border nature of partisans, they could be much stronger than in the nineteenth century. Lind offers no solutions for these problems.

I cannot tell if the ideas in this book have been implemented to any relevant degree by the American military. If they have, perhaps they have helped the United States on a tactical and operational level. However, if we are incompetent in the larger strategic realm, better tactics and operations will not save us. And we are nothing if not incompetent in the strategic realm.

Lind doesn’t think that our goal should be “to remake other societies and cultures.” But that, not benefiting the United States and its people, has been the entire United States strategic project for the past thirty years, on a military and every other level. When we went to war in Iraq, not for oil but to serve George W. Bush’s insane idea that he could turn Iraq into a peaceful democracy, few conservatives thought what we were doing was giving leave to our rotten elites to, a few decades later, try to destroy countries like Poland and Hungary. The raison d’être of all outward-facing United States actions abroad is now to spread globohomo, the project of the Left, by any means necessary across the world to any country that is not on board with it and does not have the ability to resist. The American elite sponsors under our flag, and funds, weevils who travel the world, flying rainbow flags and dispensing pallets of cash, the latter dished out to small minorities eager to corrupt and destroy the societies in which they live—and to create astroturf NGOs who manipulate English-language media. (A very small example of this received rare publicity last week when “stimulus” checks were tied to ten million dollars going to force Pakistan to progress toward “gender equality.”) If this doesn’t work to destroy the culture of countries that won’t get on board with globohomo, America stands ready to implement regime change through “color revolutions,” and, no doubt, with sub rosa military force. This, not fourth-generation warfare against Islamists, and not pushing back against Chinese hegemony, is the real strategic focus of America. It’s not pretty.

Of course, our military is by no means exempt from this corruption. It is, as far as I can tell, completely rotten at the head, and several levels below, although many enlisted men, and many (but far from all) lower-ranking officers are opposed to the Left’s project. The bad news is that if we ever have to fight anybody but partisans, such as the Chinese, it’s going to go poorly—although perhaps leading to desirable regime change here, if our ruling classes are discredited as a result. The good news is that if our illegitimate soon-to-be President, Joe Biden, ever tries to use the military to impose the Left’s will on our own soil, that will also go poorly. I guess it’s a race to see which comes first. Happy Inauguration Day!

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  1. I am in the US military, though as of yet have not served in a deployed role so everything I say here is what I have heard from many people I know who have served in Iraq/Afghanistan from the ranks of E-1 to O-6. What I got from all of them is that the military is fighting handcuffed and blindfolded. The biggest example of this is that (especially under Obama) soldiers were not allowed to shoot the Taliban unless first fired upon. The Taliban could practically parade in front of the army but if they didn’t shoot the army couldn’t open fire. Needless to say this gives partisans a massive advantage when they can move freely and set up perfect firing positions without being hindered.

    • Erik says

      It makes me wonder though if ROE will be far less stringent against Americans in a counter-left insurgency.

    • acetone says

      Had a friend say the same thing to me 10 years ago regarding rules of engagement. He was US army in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sounds like not much has changed.

  2. Altitude Zero says

    Of course, Lind also ignores the fact that most insurgencies are not successful, and that Western armies have been successful time and time again fighting against irregular forces. Malaya, the Philippines (twice!) Kenya, Central America, Aden, Thailand, Peru – over and over again, Western or western backed forces have won against the “unbeatable” insurgents. Even in Vietnam and Algeria, the biggest counterexamples, the insurgencies were militarily defeated, and were saved by political victories by the Left in Paris and Washington. As for Iraq and Afghanistan, we should get the Hell out of both places, but in Iraq, the insurgents did not and will not win, and Afghanistan is not so much undergoing an insurgency as existing in its usual state of chaos, about which the US can, and should, do nothing. And of course, as noted above, “moral” action,in the Christian sense, is far less restrictive than the “lawfare” impediments placed in the way of our military forces by leftist lawyers and clerics who actively seek the defeat of our forces – just read De Vittoria on “Just War” if you doubt this.

    Lind means well, but as near as I can tell, his book could be boiled down to “don’t use a sledgehammer to kill a fly”, which doesn’t really require several hundred pages to say.

    • Erik says

      I mean this is kind of the point though right. We’re not willing to wipe out entire populations. And without that will it’s not possible for us to win a war in a third world country against an insurgency. Even the successful examples you mention like Peru, well Peru was a divided society, most Peruvians are not marxists and so the shining path could be defeated and that war was fought by Peruvian authorities willing to use real violence to suppress them.

      • That speaks to the difference between external threats and internal. If we are dealing with insurgency, fundamentally, we are dealing with “crime” not “war”.Either we are allied with the local leadership and are helping to stomp out what is essentially a violent criminal organization, or we are NOT allied with the local leadership, in which case we are essentially proclaiming our own sovereignty and then proceeding to deal with who we perceive to be criminals.

        If we go into a place where the locals hate us and don’t want us there and are willing to fight us to keep us out of their business, we are an invading army looking to force the populace into submission.

        It appears to me, as others have stated, that to accomplish a true stomping out of a criminal organization, you either need the majority of the locals on your side also willing to stomp them out, or you have to institute some pretty harsh (one might almost say fascist) controls over criminal activity, up to and including secret police. That would almost certainly be seen as immoral and therefore we don’t do it. But short of that, I don’t know of any such project that has ever really been successful.

    • I think the difference is that in all those successful fights against insurgents the western armies were more than willing to play dirty and use tactics that the US won’t today.

  3. acetone says

    Winning a war in Afghanistan
    Broke: mastery of 4th generation warfare
    Woke: mastery of 15th century morality

    The military science grift: develop some nontestable theory about how to win a war (provided it aligns with moral perspective of the intended audience), prove theory with abstract examples and/or cherry picked historical situations, hammer into a book shaped thing or power point presentation for consumption at a war college, profit!

    I have a better idea! Why don’t we look at the last few people who conquered Afghanistan and see how they did it?

    Babur unified Afghanistan in 1500s. He make moral claim to rule by being a descendent of Timur and Genghis Khan. He enforced claim by stacking towers of severed heads wherever the claim was contested. Interestingly, Babur also seems to have been a drunkard, a homosexual (kept many catamites), a poet and the author of his own biography. Today he is held forth by modern scholars as an enlightened ruler despite the skull towers and pedophilia (see recap of 2010 economist article below):

    And how did Timur conquer afghanistan in 1400s? Timor established moral claim by first installing a descendant of Genghis Khan as a ruler while he served as the true leader of his empire. Later he took a descendant of Genghis Khan as a wife. He fought his entire life to expand his empire and enforced his claim to rule with violence. In wars stretching from Russia to Syria to India his armies killed an estimated 5% of the world population over his lifetime. His usual method on campaign was to treat cities that surrendered generously while treating cities that rebelled harshly (cementing captured defenders alive inside walls, etc).

    What lessons can we learn here?

    Moral claims to rule appear arbitrary and are bent to the requirements of the empire builder. These days we justify our adventures based on increasing representation and democracy. Looks like any number of other moral claims for action have been made in past (and could be made in future). The thing that history does show is required to conquer Afghanistan is enforcement of claims with the threat/actuality of real violence at scale. Not a few individuals but large numbers of people (skull tower type numbers) sufficient to compel surrender/peace. If we aren’t willing to stack the heads we will have to become less ambitions in what we are trying to accomplish.

    • Altitude Zero says

      There’s a lot of truth to this, but the Soviets were head-stackers in a big way,they killed at least one million Afghans, and they still couldn’t make their rule stick. Having a realistic objective is probably the most important thing here. Setting up a more or less unhostile regime in Afghanistan or Iraq is doable. Turning them into believers in democracy (or communism, for that matter) – absurd.

      • acetone says

        From wikipedia I am seeing 15k soviet russian casualties, 18k soviet afghan casualties and upto 90k mujahideen casualties in 9+ years. 10k casualties/year looks like a low rate of casualties for the mujahideen, certainly not enough to force peace given the large populations on both sides of the afpak border and throughout the muslim world feeding fighters into the conflict. Looks like the soviets didn’t implement a head stacking policy and if they did, they didn’t execute it effectively.

        On the other hand, I would say that the mujahideen/taliban did execute an effective head stacking policy after soviet withdrawal in in the late 1980s. Which makes sense, since they had a good historical understanding of their country and a more flexible and morally unfettered approach to drawing the civil war to a conclusion.

        These days, when we justify an action on moral terms this is done to coalesce western public opinion behind the foreign adventure not necessarily to convince the people we are invading that they deserve it. I think this has been the case always and forever in aggressive democracies.

        And absolutely, knowing the objective of any military action is important. Congress shirks their duty not reviewing the objectives of our actions more often. I do believe that if a military action is to achieve an outcome (any outcome), there needs to be a means to achieve this end. In military context, history shows this means imposing violence/death. Our de-emphasis of this in military contexts reduces the effectiveness of our military interventions and has led to 50+ years of lost wars (or, at least, wars that were not won).

  4. Altitude Zero says

    I certainly wouldn’t argue that the Taliban knows Afghanistan better than either we or the Soviets did or do, and that the rules of engagement placed on our troops these days are absurd. As for Afghanistan casualties, you’re absolutely right about military casualties, but demographers estimate that there were somewhere between 560,000 and 2 million civilian casualties, along with 5 million refugees. That sounds like some serious head-stacking to me, although I have no idea how accurate these numbers are. Certainly Soviet rules of engagement were way less restrictive than what we labor under today.

    Here’s the source for the above numbers:

    • acetone says

      Thank you for the link to the paper. I read it.

      What population reduction (e.g., head stacking threshold) allows a lasting peace to be won in Afghanistan? While the head stacking threshold is suggested partly in jest as there are other factors in play for ending a conflict, for the sake of completeness I will carry the analysis forward.

      In premodern times, against premodern opponents, theater wide population reduction as high as 25% may be required to realize peace. I base these estimates on the reduction of the German population that ended the 30 years war (~30% German population reduction) as well as Timur’s mortality totals in his campaigns (~5% world wide population, all concentrated in his central asian theater). The thresholds here are surprisingly high and likely influenced by the length and complexity of the conflict (e.g., multiparty war makes it harder to realize peace since multiple parties need to agree to terms, length of war increasing mortality due to starvation and disease, capability of premodern societies to survive high mortality conflicts due to high total fertility rate replacing population losses, etc).

      In a modern societies population drops as small as 4% might be sufficient to realize a lasting peace (e.g., Japan’s population reduction was 4% during WWII, while Germany’s total loss is likely somewhat larger — 5m casualties out of prewar population of 79m — I have not found demographic numbers to estimate total population loss). Sometimes modern countries win conflicts despite large population losses (e.g., WWII USSR population dropped from 197m to 171m — 13% loss, though arguably USSR wasn’t a modern society at time of WWII).

      Today, Afghanistan likely has characteristics more in common with a premodern than modern society. So population loss will likely need to be closer to 25% than 4% to realize lasting peace on terms favorable to invader. How close did Soviets come to the required population reduction/head stacking threshold? From the paper you cite, not close at all. While demographic population estimates described in the paper are noisy and unreliable, for arguments sake I accept them at face value. Demographers estimated that births equaled deaths in Afghanistan during the Soviet/Afghan war, resulting in an stable population size during the conflict (i.e., 0% net population loss). During the duration of the US/Afghan conflict the Afghan population has doubled (i.e., 100% population gain). In both conflicts the estimated number of Afghan casualties are balanced by a high birth rate thus, from the mujahideen/taliban perspective, there is little motivation to make concessions required for peace. They can carry on the fight indefinitely.

      What can we learn from this? If the head stacking threshold analysis is correct, we need to increase the lethality of our military if we hope to achieve peace from military conflict. IMO, this challenge doesn’t relate to troop numbers, training, technology etc, rather increasing the willingness of politicians (and since we are still supposedly a democracy, the voters) and the military to use lethal force on the enemy. Circling back to my broke/woke joke in my first post, we need an innovation in morality (or a return to an older morality) if we ever hope to win wars again.

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