Monday, July 13, 2009

Strategic Theory or 4GW, Take Your Choice Since You Can't Have Both

Recently Fabius Maximus made a comment on his blog as to Clausewitz being "conceptually useless" since "he spoke of a trinity of the people, government and the military". Since all the conflicts today are "fourth generation" warfare and "non-trinitarian", "Clausewitz's theories do not apply". This from FM's post entitled, "The trinity of modern warfare at work in Afghanistan". The link is already posted, so I won't bother. While I enjoy much of what FM writes, I have to take issue with these statements which I find highly questionable and counter-productive from a strategic theory perspective. Plus in spite of making such sweeping statements, from what he has posted on his blog, I get the impression that FM has not actually read On War. . .

There is so much to respond to here that one doesn't know where to start.

In Section 28, Chapter 1 of Book 1, in On War, Clausewitz describes the "remarkable" or "paradoxical trinity". . .

War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity --composed of primordial violence, hatred and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.

The first of these aspects mainly concerns the people; the second the commander and his army; the third the government. The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of government alone.

These three tendencies are like three different codes of law, deep rooted in their subject and yet variable in their relationship to one another. A theory which ignores any one of them or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship between them, would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.

Our task therefore is to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies, like an object suspended between three magnets.

In On War, Clausewitz describes different types of theory: a theory of the art of Napoleonic war, a theory of politics and the general theory of war. This section is the capstone to the entire general theory of war, which is a theory of war, not warfare, and able to cover all wars since it deals with social and moral, not material elements. In fact the mention of "people", "army" and "government" are the first mention of any material elements in the entire chapter, this being the most important chapter in terms of the general theory. To spell it out once more, the Clausewitzian trinity is "primordial violence, hatred and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone." To these can be matched material elements (which are not of course "the trinity"), but can be used to help explain it. Whereas the moral elements are common to all wars, the material elements make each war unique. One could replace people, army and government with tribe, warriors and chief and the general theory would still apply. So the trinity is about war as subordinated to politics/policy, not about the state. War is seen as part of political/social intercourse which is not limited to actions between states.

Thus "trinitarian warfare" is not a Clausewitzian concept, but a 4GW concept, so let them take it on as their own, FINALLY. That is except THEIR concept for what it is, essentially a strawman to which they compare their competing concept of non-trinitarian warfare.

Then perhaps we can actually start to discuss how 4GW links tactics with operational art and gains a military aim in support of a political purpose, but that of course is not possible if one rejects Clausewitz, since Clausewitz is and remains the basis for strategic theory.

Imo 4GW is simply a reified concept, which its promoters see as actually existing in reality, something which is an absurdity from a Clausewitzian perspective. This essentially puts the cart before the horse since strategic theory is seen as drawing concepts from military history, not "existing" before the history actually occurs.

Strategic theory is about a "system" of concepts used to analyze war, not conflict (such as the metaphorical wars on drugs, between the sexes, on poverty, against dandruff, among parents and teenagers, etc). War is the organized use of violence within or between political communities. Robbing a bank is not warfare and neither is a lone gunman shooting unarmed people. Both are violent crimes since neither criminal represents a political community in any legitimate (as judged by the political community involved) way.

This is one of the greatest inconsistencies of 4GW. Its proponents claim that 4GW is just about anything ("the tactics of non-trinitarian conflict"), but if it is just about anything, how is there to be any pattern that could form the basis of theory? It is precisely these patterns present in war as a social phenomenon that Clausewitz used to form the general theory.

The war in Afghanistan is not a "4GW war", but a war of distinct political communities confronting an occupying foreign coalition which wishes to impose its will on some of the locals, who resist. The Taliban, far from being a "4GW entity", represent the former government who are fighting to regain political power. A foreign occupier imposing his will has never succeeded in Afghanistan before, using buzzwords like "4GW" or "COIN" to describe military operations and confusing the issue, isn't going to make it happen this time.

Until we rediscover the basic truth, that wars occur within a political (broadly defined of course since "politics" is defined as the struggle for power and resources within a political community) context we will continue to misread and misunderstand the conflicts in which we have become engaged. Who benefits? Perhaps those for whom the reified concept conceals the actual political purposes. Notice that 4GW takes no account of the distinction between "Empire" and "State", focusing instead of the patently false assumption that all states are in some deterministic death spiral. This distinction, more than that between "dying state" and "4GW entity" is something important for all those interested in US foreign policy to consider today.

Changes in political conditions lead to changes in, an evolution of the nature of war. War being an interaction causes these changes to affect both sides but in different ways.

I have been working on a post on the development of operational art which will come up soon.

For those interested in following up on the weaknesses of 4GW, one of the best articles is Matt Armstrong's The misleading theory of fourth generation warfare.

and of course LtCol Echevarria's 4th GW and other Myths .


  1. Link to Matt Armstrong's article . . .

  2. Thanks Seydlitz. Your posts keep my appreciation of inquiry and history tuned up and running on all cylinders. I do occasionally enjoy F Maximus and W S Lind but they both get way too giddy over their theoretical suppositions.


  3. i've argued until i'm blue in the face with FM over '4GW". he is emotionally and intellectually invested in it and can't see the forest for the trees, IMO.

  4. Everything in it's proper context.

    I can accept 4GW war as an explanation for a basic trend...kind of like if we all stood at the edge of Yellowstone Park and one of you was to point a distant forest and say, "hey, look, that forest is green."
    Yes it is, but calling a forest green doesn't really cover the nuances that exist in that forest, and same with 4GW.
    I think the problem with the proponents of 4GW are running into is trying to make gold out of straw, and they're having a devil of time convicing everyone else of it...well, that and the facts just are not cooperating with them either.
    The problem I think that exists is the same issue that devils Anthropologists trying to eke out a living digging small, crumbling bones out of a matter what insignificant part of the body the bone may have dropped from they are compelled to speculate that this...this bone right here, is the missing link!
    Send me money.
    Of course, once the claim is made, the headlines are splashed with the new "discovery" and the discoverer goes on a short, whirlwind tour of all things golden, writes a book, sells millions, rolls in some cash, and is able to refund next years dig.
    But what happens to the bone?
    Well, that bone is later pulled out by a grad student who diligently, and meticulously pulls the secrets out and discovers it's just another hominid that has been identified a dozen times over. But that is not news...and so the grad writes his paper disabusing the discoverer of his "missing link" and the only person who cares is the scholars who are interested.
    Society has moved on to the new celebrity.
    And that is what we have here with 4GW war versus has withstood the test of time, and the other is a poorly crafted step-child birthed and quickly relegated to being the heir apparent without so much as a lineage check on it's pedigree.
    When it comes down to brass tacks, I'd just as soon have Herr Clauswitz explain the issue than the 4GW child who is still trying to learn to understand itself.

  5. Great analogy Sheer!!


  6. Mike-

    That's good way to put it.

    Major Scarlet-

    Welcome to MilPub! Yes, agree. I used to post over at DNI and still think highly of CR (he published a couple of my papers on his site). But, it soon became apparent that they simply are not open to contrary views and will never question their assumptions, which of course is another symptom of a reified concept.

    In Boydian terms they seem to be caught in their own positive feedback loop, would you agree?


    I too like the analogy, but would only make 4GW a chicken bone . . . ;-)>

  7. My compliments as well, Sheer.

    Might I add that 4GW is possibly a product of those who haven't figured out why we are behind the power curve, and thus a new theory is ginned up to cover what might very well be a failure to understand what is really going on.

    We really haven't a clue about the workings of tribal cultures, nor do we seem to want to learn. Lessons are available from our own history, if one simply investigates Tecumseh and his brother, The Prophet, and their failure to establish a confederation of Native American Tribes during the War of 1812. Even though their very existence was threatened by a failure to cooperate, the various tribes couldn't. Tribes are tribes are tribes are tribes, and inside every tribe member, there REALLY ISN'T an "American" waiting to burst free. But we just can't imagine anyone who might not want to be just like us.

    So, rather than understand the cultures of the peoples with which were are dealing, we create a new theory of warfare that embraces chaotic thinking to explain what is actually not chaotic, just not understood.


  8. Seydlitz,
    Glad to see someone opening up the dialogue on 4GW. When Fabius Maximus moved to his own site, I anticipated a interesting dialogue on various aspects of 4GW, but his version and mine are a considerable distance apart and his overall approach has become uinviting. Possibly your comments and site may stir a more open dialogue.

    That said, I find myself seeing 4GW differently than most, it seems. To dispense with the isuue with which, I am in agreement, the non-trinitarian thing has never held much interest for me. Your quote from Clausewitz seems most adequate to explain that "gov-mil-people" still applies even in asymmetric context. Linkages may be blurred, even broken on occassion(Vietnam as perfect example yet the "trinity" was still there - just completely disfuncional.)

    But the argument used related to the "generations" used by Anderson and Col Echevarria plus others on Small Wars Journal, seems too focused on academic purity for my taste. Is the "generations" context all encompasing of the history of war? Not even close, but so what? The use of musket firing line abreast advancing blue and red coats of 1GW, the issues of range and firepower of 2GW, and the technology breakthroughs combined wth new ideas of 3GW blitzkrieg all paint a needed picture of contrast for warfare evolving to non-state, non-historic battlespace use of a next "generation."

    The value of 4GW is not in presenting a new theory that is i's dotted, t's crossed, intensely referenced, academically blessed, but rather in providing a window - a lens, if you will - on world conflict/confrontation events that have most definitely changed in nature since the 20th century World Wars. ( I have exchanged e-mails with Dr. Richards on this,and included his writing and that of Col GI Wilson on my own site - Project White Horse)

    Perfect - hardly - useful for explaing much that goes on - I say yes. New name for Insurgency? NO No No. 4GW is neither terrorism or insurgency but most likely includes both in various degrees, but that doesn't make it "everything" as Anderson argues, only a hyper complex entity.

    It's greatest use may not be for the military at all. It may be of incredible value for context for readiness and preparation for those who may have to defend this country when all the "over there" stuff fails to deter a dedicated asymmetric enemy.

    As you stated "where to start" AND where to stop?

    Couple of last points. 1)It's worth re-reading the original Marine Corps Gazzette article. No mention on "non-trinitarian," in fact no mention of a lot of things people argue against. Having followed my own advise, it's amazing how many points Lind, GI Wison, etc make, that are point- on to our world today.

    2) Great debate, decision process ongoing related to iregular warfare, hybrid warfare, counter insurgency, crusaders and conservatives on where we go next. To me the one book/concept not often discussed is General Rupert Smith's confrontation/conflict/war (maybe) model with major point being we've moved beyond "industrialized war" as the major driver to "war amongst the people."

    People have always been "amongst war" sometimes by choice of one side or sometimes by chance but now it is most certainly by choice of the non-state actor. This, not insurgency or being "non-trinitarian" is the major characteristic of 4GW.

  9. Not enough data. 4GW theory is complex (and sometimes contradictory), with various 'camps'.

    The problem is lack of research. Amazing with all the conflicts that no one seems to see the need to go and talk to the other side. See the comments by the author of Black Hawk Down for one example.

    Why not researchers going all around Vietnam talking to the old veterans. Talk to people from Hezbollah, talk to .. you get the drift.

    Instead the best information comes from journalists on the ground. Lamb in Lebenon (several sources), Cockburn in Iraq (Counterpunch), Syed Saleem Shahzad (Asia Times) on the Taliban, Fisk (Independent, who had actually interviewed BL several times), etc.

    Pulling them together, they show a complex picture, though the common themes of 4GW theory does help make sense of it.

    Iraq is a case in point: What is forgotten is that the US went in real hard before there was any opposition. Abu Grahib plus the many other 'camps'. Huge numbers of people rounded up and systemically tortured. The society, economy and infrastructure willfully destroyed. Home invasions, theft and a 'take no prisoners' attitude.

    The US forces were brutal right from the word go, the gloves were certainly off (this is all well documented by people on the ground). And fired up with all the propaganda about Iraq causing 9/11.

    Naturally this provoked a bit of a reaction and a resistance was born.

    The intent, as I interpret it, was an attempt to shock the population into a state of terror and compliance, so it could be looted, good old fashioned empirialism. Or in other words, replace a brutal dictator with an even more brutal occupation. But Saddam was, like most long lived dictators, knew his limits and was far more targetted in his terror.

    The US occupation was cavalier and indiscriminant. With, the then ruling, Sunni's taking the brunt of it. No surprise then that that is where the first resistance came from.

    The focus on them gave the Shiite's time to organise (with a lot of help from Iran of course) into a cohesive block which then used political power to now dominate Iraq.

    4GW theory predicted this outcome pretty clearly, Lind (for example) was on record very early on at predicting the actual outcomes.

    As for Afghanistan, who needs 4GW theory to work it out ... only a fool invades them.

    Though notice how it has been Empires in their dying days who go there: UK, USSR and now the US.

    Food for thought.

  10. To All,
    The US Army doctrine, before we theoried up to explain our losses or to make them more palatable,was called SPECTRUM OF WAR.
    Mob Plans were based on assumptions and instituted into law. Example;100,000 man callup and transition to war etc..
    We had LIC which included Terrorism/UW/GW and we stuck the LIC office at CGSC in a dark little corner office and made it a graveyard. Now we base careers and fortunes on fancy words like 4gw which are rather meaningless.imho.
    The old Spectrum Of War covered the topic quite well except idiots like GWB and Rumsfeld never understood any of it. They and we still don't.

  11. Thanks gentlemen for your comments. Having a bit of a problem with the left arm, so typing with one hand. Let me think about what ya'll have posted, and I give ya'll a considered response in a few days. Do agree as to the significance of Rupert Smith, I posted a review of his book on amazon btw . . .

  12. Here's how not to do counter insurgency:

    Syed Saleem Shahzad , Asia Times

    Some quotes:

    "The months-long offensive in and around Swat has, however, stirred bitter resentment against the Pakistan Army and its Operation Rah-e-Raast (Operation for the Right Path)"

    "The army's media relations department has claimed on at least four occasions that Mullah Fazlullah, nicknamed "Radio Mullah", the leader of the pro-Taliban Tehrik-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM) that controls the insurgency in Swat, had been seriously wounded. "

    "The military operation has seen the emergence of a new supreme commander of the Swat Valley - Bin Yameen. He is fiercely anti-army and insiders say that even if ceasefires agreements are made, he will ignore them and fight to his last man and last bullet"

    "Renowned as a pir (spiritual guide), Bin Yameen is a former Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM - led by Maulana Masood Azhar) leader in Swat. He spent seven years as a prisoner of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance after being captured in Afghanistan fighting for the Taliban in the 1990s. On his release, he returned to Swat and joined the JeM. In mid-2000, he was picked up by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence for alleged involvement in an unsuccessful plot to assassinate president General Pervez Musharraf.

    A top jihadi leader who was detained - also without trial - over the same incident told Asia Times Online, "He [Bin Yameen] was the victim of the worst sort of torture by army personnel, right up to the time it became crystal clear that he was not involved in any activity against the army or Musharraf. He became full of venom against the army." "

    "The Pakistan army had favored opening several fronts against militants in the troubled tribal areas, but the new US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, and other US officials wanted to concentrate on closing the Taliban's supply lines to Afghanistan's Helmand province, as a NATO operation was planned for there."

    "The incident stunned the army and it was faced with the reality that far from eliminating Baitullah, he had emerged as the leader of all of the Pakistani Taliban; tribal feuds had been put aside. This was despite the fact that the army clarified on a number of occasions that the military operation was only against Baitullah, not even against his tribe. Clearly, no one believed the army. "

    "During the operation, aircraft destroyed the biggest seminary in the agency, in the process killing the highly respected 72-year-old religious scholar Mufti Amin, a pro-army cleric who opposed suicide attacks on the Pakistani security forces. "

    And so on.

    Can it get worse than this?