The United States and almost all other states are caught up in the biggest change in war in about 350 years. Technology has little to do with it.
To understand the future of war we must first drop back and look at its past. Our starting point is the Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years’ War. Westphalia gave the state a monopoly on war. Today, we automatically think of war as conflict between states, with state armies, navies, and air forces fighting other similar state armed forces.
But, before Westphalia, war had much broader bounds. Many different entities fought wars: families, tribes, races and ethnic groups, religions, regions, cities, business enterprises—the list is almost endless. They used many different means as well: poisonings, bribery, assassinations, dynastic marriages, as well as battles and campaigns. For the latter, their armed forces ranged from any male old enough to hold a weapon to highly trained (and expensive) mercenaries, of whom the Swiss were usually both the most costly and the best. The Pope still uses them.
Between the fall of the (highly successful) Middle Ages and the rise of the state, which begins in the late 15th century, Europe was beset with wandering bands of armed men who hired themselves out as soldiers when they could and otherwise took whatever they wanted from anyone too weak to resist. After Westphalia, state armies went out, rounded these men up and hanged them from the nearest tree, to the cheers of the local population. War became a monopoly of the state. And so it remained up through most of the 20th century.
But today, the state is losing its monopoly on war. State militaries find themselves fighting, not other state armed forces, but armed non-state entities: the Taliban, ISIS, Hezbollah (the most competent of the lot), Hamas, drug cartels (who now rule Mexico, where three cartels are now each more powerful than the state), ethnic groups, gangs, religious cultists—again, the list is almost endless, as it was before Westphalia. They again use many different means, not just battles. Perhaps the most powerful is war by immigration. Immigrants who refuse to acculturate or come in such numbers that they cannot be acculturated are more dangerous than foreign armies, because the armies eventually go home, while immigrants stay, permanently altering the cultural landscape. The new landscape they create is the one whose dysfunction they fled, because that is all they know.
Curiously, state armed forces, which are vastly stronger by all normal estimations of combat power, usually lose to these physically very weak non-state entities. Why? To answer that question, we must turn to the work of America’s greatest military theorist, Col. John Boyd.
Boyd argued that war is fought on three levels: the physical, the mental, and the moral. The physical level, where almost all state armed forces focus their efforts, is the weakest. The moral, where most non-state entities focus, is the strongest. The reason they win on the moral level is what the Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld calls “the power of weakness.” State armed forces are so massively superior to their non-state opponents on the physical level that every conflict turns into another fight between David and Goliath. In the three thousand or so years that biblical story has been told, how many people have rooted for Goliath? The result is that state armed forces physically win almost every encounter, but at the cost of moral defeat. In the end, they defeat themselves.
In the 1980s, I came up with an intellectual framework that is useful to put all this into context. I call it the four generations of modern war, “generation” standing for dialectically qualitative transformation.
First-generation war is war of line and column tactics, which starts with Westphalia and runs up to about the American Civil War.
Second-generation war is war of firepower and attrition and was developed by the French Army during and after World War I. Its essence is putting firepower on targets consistently to grind their numbers down over time. The U.S. armed forces learned second-generation war from the French and still practice it today.
Third-generation war, also called maneuver warfare or blitzkrieg, was a product of the German Army during and after World War I. It is the formal doctrine of the U.S. Marine Corps today, though Marines seldom follow their doctrine.
All three generations represented changes in their times to the way war was previously fought. Fourth-generation war is, as van Crevald says, a change not in how war is fought (though that will change, too) but in who fights and what they fight for. It is a war fought against or among enemies that are not states.
The origin of fourth-generation war lies not in technology nor in tactics, but in a vastly larger phenomenon: a growing and near-universal crisis of the legitimacy of the state. All around the world, the state has become a prisoner of a new class—an elite class that can’t make things work, that uses its wealth and power to insulate itself from the consequences of things not working, and which cares about only one things: remaining the elite.
The non-elite majority is seeing through the game and trying, where they are allowed, to vote the bastards out; hence the victory of President Donald Trump in 2016. But the whole elite rallies to defend its position, often by destroying the person who threatened to topple it. And when populist forces do score a victory, the deep state mobilizes to thwart them at every turn. Eventually, ordinary people just switch the whole thing off.
But that “thing” includes their primary loyalty. Instead of giving it to the state, which they now view as illegitimate, they bestow it, as before Westphalia, on a wide variety of alternatives: on races and ethnic groups, religions and cults, business enterprises (legal and illegal), gangs, regions, causes such as “animal rights” and radical environmentalism—again, the list is endless. And many of these people, who would never fight for the state, willingly, even eagerly, fight for their new primary loyalty. (The environmentalist who engages in “tree spiking” by burying a metal rod in a tree, hoping to kill a logger, is committing an act of war, not just a crime.)
And so states dissolve in a many-sided civil war, returning one former state after another to a Hobbesian state of nature, a place where life is dominated by wandering groups of armed men taking whatever they want from anyone too weak to resist.
What are some of the implications of fourth-generation war theory for the world around us? Understandably, the war in Ukraine draws the most attention. That war is being fought within the state framework, so it is not fourth-generation warfare. Russia’s armed forces find themselves facing “people’s war,” not just Ukraine’s armed forces. People’s war is powerful, but it is not new. Napoleon faced the same thing in Spain. What fourth-generation warfare theory warns is that, if Russia loses, the Russian state may be so delegitimized that the Russian Federation breaks up. That, in turn, could leave us and the rest of the world facing a chaotic region full of nuclear weapons and delivery systems that can reach the other side of the world. As Trump would say, “Not good.”
Another implication is that the U.S. military has little chance of winning fourth-generation wars. Our failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, et cetera, were not flukes. They were an almost inevitable result of sending a second-generation military to fight fourth-generation wars.
Technology does play a role in fourth-generation warfare, but the important technologies come from the civilian marketplace, not defense companies. The most important technologies are those which enable rapid and unjammable communication, communication not just of words but of images. The U.S. Air Force bombs a family compound in Syria tonight; tomorrow pictures of dead women and children are all over the internet. China has shown a state can erect a “Great Firewall” of censorship, but what price in legitimacy does it pay for doing so?
Drones, too, play a role in fourth-generation warfare, but non-state entities will probably benefit more from them than will states. Again, they can buy most drone capabilities on the civilian market.
Both states and non-state forces are discovering that drones are easy (and fun) to shoot down. An air force could cheaply build some squadrons of outdated planes like the Fokker D.VIIs used in World War I or the P-51 Mustangs of World War II, dedicate them to anti-drone work, and have pilots lined up from miles eager to fly them. Instead of paying the pilots, the air force could make them pay to play!
Technologies readily available on the civilian market will interact with the changes fourth-generation warfare brings in who fights and what they fight for to create new and significant challenges for state armed forces. We have already seen this in the effectiveness of suicide bombers. No smart weapon is as smart as a human being, and suicide bombers have shown they can penetrate most defenses. Historically, suicide attacks have been rare; the fact that they are becoming common in fourth-generation war shows just how massive a change in war we are facing.
The most important point about fourth-generation war for America’s security is to realize it is coming here, to a theater near us. In many parts of the country, it is already here. Just talk to a major city’s police department off the record. Drug cartels are waging fourth-generation war on American soil, as are other gangs, many of which are racially based. To see a preview of fourth-generation war, take a look inside America’s worst state prisons. We are importing fourth-generation war on a massive scale across America’s southern border. The culturally Marxist political establishment is holding the door open because masses of immigrants from dysfunctional cultures will help it destroy Western, Chrisian, Anglo-Saxon culture. Little does it understand what its fate will be in the resulting maelstrom.
There are actions we could take to prevent large-scale fourth-generation war on American soil, with the state collapse it will generate. We desperately need reform of our police forces, moving away from militarizing the police, which isolates them from the people they are to protect, to community policing where police officers specialize in de-escalating situation through talk. At the same time, we must end the current war on cops, accepting that police officers often deal with bad people who respond only to force, and that their own lives are at stake in ambiguous situations that require split-second decisions. Local politicians, press, and courts must again give cops the benefit of the doubt or they will find no one willing to be a policeman.
Police reform and realism among courts and local politicians, in turn, must lead to the American state doing what states arose to do: ensure order, chiefly by protecting the safety of persons and property. Order must cover every square foot of American territory, including in the black inner city. Today, the state is writing off more and more of our country as terra incognita—places where the state’s writ does not run. In the long run, that is fatal to a state’s legitimacy. If the state cannot guarantee order, people will transfer their loyalty to something else that can. Freedom means ordered liberty, not chaos dominated by young thugs with guns.
Let me add a personal note. In the 1930s, my mother lived in Washington, D.C., then as now a largely black city. One day she said to me, “I walked alone, at night, through black neighborhoods all the time. I never thought anything of it.” There was no reason why she should have. Those neighborhoods were safe for both blacks and whites. Retroculture tells us that what we did once, we can do again.
Where we may be looking at fourth-generation war, at home or abroad, one consideration must be at the forefront of our minds. Fourth-generation war is above all a contest for legitimacy. Every culture, every country has its own definition of legitimacy. Those definitions vary, but as Thomas Hobbes argued, all contain one common element: the state must establish and maintain order. Whatever the local definition, a state must have legitimacy or it will perish. It may last for a while by ruling through terror, as the Soviet Union did. But that merely postpones the final reckoning.
Since Westphalia, a state that failed has always been replaced by another state that can deliver the Hobbesian contract. As fourth-generation war spreads, failed states may be replaced by something other than a state; Hezbollah provides an example in southern Lebanon. Or what follows may be prolonged disorder, of the sort Europe saw in the 14th century before the rise of the modern state. But no state or other entity can survive for long without legitimacy. That includes the United (or Disunited) States of America.
For those who would like to read more about the concept of fourth-generation war, I recommend two books by Martin van Creveld, The Rise and Decline of the State and The Transformation of War. For practitioners, including police officers, I recommend 4th Generation Warfare Handbook, which I co-authored with retired Marine Corp. Lt. Col. Gregory A. Thiele, as well as my forthcoming book, The New Maneuver Warfare Handbook. On what I call cultural Marxism and its consequences, I suggest Victoria: A Novel of 4th Generation War, which I published under the pseudonym Thomas Hobbes.