The Problem with Fourth-Generation War Antulio J. Echevarria II Strategic Studies Institute
For theorists of Fourth Generation War (4GW), there’s both good news and bad news. The good news is that there is only one problem with the notion of 4GW. The bad news is that the theory itself is the problem. Like the fabled emperor who had no clothes, 4GW is bereft of any intellectual garments: the concept itself is fundamentally and hopelessly flawed. It is based on poor history and only obscures what other theorists and analysts have already clarified. Although the idea of 4GW emerged in the late 1980s, it has gained considerable popularity of late, particularly as a result of recent twists in the war in Iraq. It is worth a moment, therefore, to consider the theory’s basic premises. In brief, the proponents of 4GW claim: The first generation of modern war was dominated by massed manpower and culminated in the Napoleonic Wars. The second generation, which was quickly adopted by the world’s major powers, was dominated by firepower and ended in World War I. In relatively short order, during World War II the Germans introduced third-generation warfare, characterized by maneuver. That type of combat is still largely the focus of U.S. forces . . . [4GW is an] evolved form of insurgency [that] uses all available networks—political, economic, social, military—to convince the enemy’s decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit. (Armed Forces Journal, November 2004) Unfortunately, this construct is misleading on several counts. First, the theory’s sequencing of the so-called generations of war is both artificial and indefensible. Portraying changes in warfare in terms of “generations” implies that each one evolved directly from its predecessor, and, as per the natural progression of generations, eventually displaced it. However, the generational model is a poor way to depict changes in warfare. Simple displacement...
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