A new generation of warfare

Brett M. Decker

Posted on October 9, 2008

Militaries learn while the battle space evolves

The appropriate posture for deployed U.S. military forces is a hot topic of debate in America’s presidential election. To deflect attention from the fact that he opposed a surge strategy that successfully pacified Iraq, Democrat Barack Obama repeatedly is insisting that the strategy that worked in Iraq will not work in Afghanistan as well. Republican John McCain counters that counterinsurgency operations are never cookie-cutter endeavors and that flexibility and ability to adapt to the specific situation on the ground are universal counterinsurgency principles that certainly can be applied in Afghanistan. Despite what Obama likes to believe is true, the contemporary way of war is winnable for a superpower–it simply can take some time for militaries to recognize and adjust as warfare evolves.

Col. Thomas X. Hammes’s book The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century offers an in-depth narrative on different historical stages of warfare and what the author perceives to be war’s Fourth Generation (4GW), which he says is where we are stuck now. This historical backdrop sets up his main thesis, which is that the United States military and its political leadership need to understand unconventional war because it is the wave of the future. Because the United States is so powerful in conventional military terms that its superiority cannot wisely be confronted by conventional means, enemies will increasingly seek unconventional methods to attack America and her interests and allies. To be ready for the conflicts of the future, Col. Hammes provides a comprehensive alternative for what the future of war might look like, how the military can recognize a new mode of warfare as it is implemented by enemies, and how to respond to it.

This book is useful in that it provides experienced analysis of the situation on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. The reader gets to see how a senior military leader sees the conflict and gets a glimpse of how commanders in the field assess contemporary combat scenarios and how operational options are considered. The author succinctly sums up the relevance of his topic in Chapter 1: “Not only is 4GW the only kind of war America has ever lost, we have done so three times: Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia. This form of warfare has also defeated the French in Vietnam and Algeria and the USSR in Afghanistan. It continues to bleed Russia in Chechnya and the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in other countries against the al Qaeda network. The consistent defeat of major powers by much weaker fourth-generation opponents makes it essential to understand this new form of warfare and adapt accordingly.”[1] Failure to adapt will lead to further defeat, which is a very real threat as military bureaucracies are notoriously hesitant to change. The old adage that the army is always ready to fight the last war is all too true too often.

To prove his point, Col. Hammes walks through the history of the development of modern warfare. One of the controversial academic points he makes is that warfare is evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary. He writes that changes in warfare occur in response to major changes that are happening in society at the time. In reference to the different stages of the generational evolution of warfare, he explains that, “Each evolved as practical people developed real-world solutions to specific tactical problems.”[2] For example, the First Generation was based on putting as much power at one point in a line or column as possible. Mass conscription of the Napoleonic era meant more force was available to overwhelm an enemy if that force was concentrated in the right spot. This evolved into the defensive trench tactics of World War I as more precise artillery took a more prominent role over infantry. The Third Generation (3GW) was based on maneuver, which restored the pride of place of the offensive through the use of tanks and more mobile firepower. In this context, 4GW is a natural evolutionary stage because U.S. superiority in 3GW necessitated something new, and the cultures of many places were ripe to snipe at hegemony.

One of the inconsistencies in the author’s stance is that he simultaneously states that war evolves technically as a solution to new societal developments while strongly criticizing the prominent theorists of the schools of thought that espouse views on network-centric warfare and force transformation. He sniffs at the notion that these schools see technology (especially hi-tech weaponry and new information technology) as the main driver of change in how wars are fought. On this subject, he condescendingly comments that, “The pro-RMA (Revolution in Military Affairs) position is simple: Technology is the answer. Unfortunately, they never clarify exactly what the question is.”[3] However, it seems to me that if Col. Hammes is correct that societal changes alter how we conduct war, then the network-centric school of thought is trying in good faith to predict where society (and thus warfare) will go in the Information Age. Of course, as Col. Hammes complains, many expensive hi-tech weapons systems are pushed by the Pentagon’s need to guarantee large budget outlays in the future and military contractors’ interest in big defense contracts, but that does not mean all the theories are irrelevant. The author tends to look at competing threats as either/or propositions when the reality is that the United States needs to be ready for all of the above.

There has been some criticism of the Hammes book among several prominent commentators on military affairs. One mixed review was penned by William S. Lind, author of (among other works) the Maneuver Warfare Handbook and (with former Senator Gary Hart) America Can Win: The Case for Military Reform. Although mostly complimentary of the Hammes effort, Mr. Lind (who is quoted extensively by Hammes) argues that the colonel veers off course when discussing the big picture of Fourth Generation warfare, especially when he ipso facto equates it with insurgency. According to Lind, “In doing so, he equates the Fourth Generation with how war is fought. It is usually fought guerilla-style, but that misses the point: What changes in the Fourth Generation is who fights and what they fight for. This error leads to others, such as believing that Fourth Generation war focuses on the mental level. Hammes writes, ‘The fourth generation has arrived. It uses all available networks-political, economic, social and military-to convince the enemy’s political decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit.’ In fact, Fourth Generation war focuses on the moral level, where it works to convince all parties, neutrals as well as belligerents, that the cause for which a Fourth Generation entity is fighting is morally superior. It turns its state enemies inward against themselves on the moral level, making the political calculations of the mental level irrelevant.”[4]

U.S. challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan have revived academic and literary interest in the topics of insurgency and unconventional warfare so there now is a growing wealth of other works in the field on the same subject. Among the most articulate is Lt. Col. John A. Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam in which the author dissects the difference in the successful approach the British took to squash the 1949-60 insurgency in Malaya and the unsuccessful U.S. efforts in Vietnam during the following decade. The crux of the matter, as Lt. Col. Nagl sees it, is that, “Counterinsurgency requires the integration of all elements of national power–diplomacy, information operations, intelligence, financial, and military–to achieve the predominantly political objectives of establishing a stable national government that can secure itself against internal and external threats.”[5] Max Boot’s The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (Basic Books, 2002) reminds that the United States has a long and mostly successful history at low-intensity conflict–an exercise which is important to counter the defeatist mindset of those like Obama who claim that insurgencies cannot be vanquished by democracies. All investigate the phenomenon of weak forces enjoying advantages over much stronger powers. These insightful works are only a few on an impressive list that gets longer by the day. The more we know about the subject, especially what was done wrong in the past, the more likely we are to act and react efficiently and intelligently to future challenges.

In the final analysis, Col. Hammes’s The Sling and the Stone is a useful addition to the growing canon of material that studies the history, development, role and practitioners of insurgency and counterinsurgency warfare. When U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Marine Lt. Gen. James F. Amos wrote and published a new U.S. counterinsurgency manual (known as FM 3-24) two years ago, it had been more than two decades since America’s land-war services had thought about counterinsurgency enough to release a new compendium for how U.S. forces should view it and handle it. The more analysis the better because this manner of warfare is the future as it represents the only way weaker states and non-government groups can challenge the overwhelming force and technical superiority of the U.S. military. If the first rule of war is to know thy enemy, Col. Hammes and his book further that goal. As the author convincingly states his case: “As the only Goliath left in the world, we should be worried that the world’s Davids have found a sling and stone that work.”[6]

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