The Gist: Hammes’ book postulates that what is termed “4GW”, or fourth generation warfare, is merely the evolution of warfare to keep pace with the parallel political, technological, social, and economic evolution of the world in general. Just like a living organism, warfare changes with its environment; thus, as the world becomes more and more networked, more and more flat, more and more fragmented with more and more non-state actors on the international scene, and with the rising power of multinational corporations and mega-markets, warfare itself also changes to make the most advantage of this new environment.
Hammes begins his book by introducing Toffler’s wave theory, which posits that human society is characterized by great waves of technological progress that propagate through societies and change the society’s structure, values, and moral codes. The first such wave was the shift from hunter-gatherer to organized agriculture. This gave rise to complex, hierarchical societies, a professional warrior class unencumbered with concerns about growing food and, more importantly, where the additional riches generated by organized agriculture gravitated to landowners.
The second Toffler wave was industrialization, where wealth again shifted hands, this time from landowners to captains of industry. The professional warrior classes made possible by organized agriculture now became mechanized, and those societies that were not industrialized could not withstand the onslaught of new wealth and more lethal weaponry and tactics.
The third Toffler wave is information, where “intellectual property” is the new widget, and with this change, the stuff that used to indicate power and wealth can now be ‘stolen’ without any physical change in possession. Moreover, the democratization (for lack of a better word) of information means that states no longer have a monopoly on information. In fact, information technology takes power away from governments and other hierarchical institutions and gives it back to individuals and loose confederacies of individuals, bound together based on blood, language, creed, skin color, political wedge issues, or other common trait or interest or affinity. Worse still (for government, that is), governments can no longer take for granted the loyalty of the people residing within the State’s borders…they have to compete for that loyalty, an important change that is crucial to 4GW. In other words, the new way of social organization is a return to a more tribal way of existing, and 4GW warriors leverage those ties and interests to mass lethal force in battle against their foes faster and more robustly than 3GW forces.
In short, with each successive wave, how humanity associates, how humanity interacts, what constitutes wealth and how that wealth is acquired and defended, changes with each wave that passes through society. Thus, as the information wave enhances the ability of individuals to communicate and associate with one another on an unprecedented scale, so too does the nature of warfare change to reflect this environment.
Hammes briefly describes 1GW, 2GW, and 3GW as follows: 1GW featured the tactics of line and column that massed men at the point of effort. 1GW was characterized by the advent of gunpowder, and technological improvements in agriculture and transportation that increased societal wealth and the size of excess manpower that could be used for fighting. The technology of nationalism was developed to politically mobilize a citizenry into a levee en masse ready to fight and die for the State, a population that may otherwise have little connection to the State. 1GW peaked with the Napoleonic war.
2GW sought advantage over massed manpower through the massing of firepower. 2GW was characterized by the technologies of the rifled musket, breechloading firearms, the machine gun, “king of battle” artillery, improved transport, the telegraph, and the development of the general staff (which enabled the effective control progressively larger and larger armies). The advent of industrialization increased societal wealth even more, and shifted wealth from landowners (the locus of wealth for milennia ever since the transition from hunter-gatherer societies) and concentrated it in the hands of the captains of industry. The defense, always the strongest form of warfare, became predominant, as more lethal firepower made foot-borne assaults on fixed fortifications suicidal.
3GW restored maneuver to the battlefield with the mechanization of armies via tanks, personnel carriers, mobilized artillery, and aviation. 3GW could be viewed as the maturation of industrial-era warfare.
As mentioned previously, the key thread running through Hammes’ book is that changes in society drive changes in warfare, and that recent changes in global human society as a result of social evolution are key to 4GW. One factor that Hammes identifies as crucial to 4GW warfare is the proliferation of international actors, such as the UN, IAEA, and WTO, regional actors such as NAFTA and OAS, and NGOs, such as Amnesty International, Hamas, and the Red Cross. Whether benevolent or not, one thing is certain: each non-state actor usurps, erodes, and/or bypasses the sovereignty of the nation-state. Another factor is the rise of influential nations in their own right that lack defined political states, such as the Palestinians and Amerindian tribes in the United States. A third factor is the proliferation of states cause by the break up of great colonial empires and subsequent wars of independence. The fourth and final factor that Hammes identifies is the rise of multi-national corporation and the increasingly significant influence of large marketplaces and electronic trading exchanges. Taken together, these last two developments greatly constrain the power of traditional hierarchical institutions like the nation-state, either from fear of economic pain inflicted by the marketplace for unpopular actions, or from multi-nationals that ignore the diktats of a government or, if unable to do so, simply moves their wealth-generating (and tax-generating) activities elsewhere.
Hammes traces the beginning of 4GW to the end of WWII, to the dawn of the information age. IT is what catalyzed 4GW…information technology permits the easy flow of information across national boundaries through communication nodes (people and organizations, as well as hardware), the connections between which can be viewed as networks. Through these military/political/economic/social networks, 4GW aims to convince the enemy’s decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit. This is a radical departure from previous ‘GWs’, all three of which are more or less characterized by how they go about targeting the enemy’s fielded forces, and is a return to a more classical way of war. A way of war that is more Sun Tzu than Clausewitz and Jomini, more anything goes than Augustinian ‘just war’ theory, more Eastern than Western. In a way, 4GW is a “back to the future” of sorts where the polite, ordered, rule-based Western way of war–warfare which requires both sides to play along by a pre-agreed set of rules–is rejected in favor of a more total, anarchic, all’s-fair attack not on the opponent’s warrior class but on the society’s political will. 4GW warriors have no truck with attacking targets considered to be off limits, ‘protected’, or ‘non-combatants’. They may, in fact, prefer to attack these non-traditional target sets because of the asymmetric impact those attacks may have on the 3GW enemy’s will to carry on the fight.
Hammes spends about half of the book painstakingly chronicling the evolution of 4GW, starting first with an in-depth evaluation of Chairman Mao’s employment of early 4GW (characterized by the ‘political mobilization’ of peasants against the government and by network-building with outside constituencies to bring international pressure upon Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists) and incrementally examining, in series, the application of and incremental improvements upon 4GW by Ho (who perfected Maoist insurgency and internationalized his conflict to degrade the political will of the French and American populations, bolster the political will of their international left-wing allies, and erode the legitimacy and credibility of the French and American governments), the Sandinistas (who transitioned 4GW from Mao’s/Ho’s peasant-based insurgency to urbane urban insurgencies, and added a religious liberation theology to what was previously an atheistic doctrine), by the Palestinians in their first Intifada (who used the media to devastating effect), and finally by UBL and al Qaeda (which turned insurgency into an endeavor not unlike a venture capital firm).
Hammes finishes his book by analyzing the current conflicts in Iraq (which he uses as a case study to argue the fecklessness of technological solutions to 4GW warfare) and Afghanistan (where we are fighting a 4GW tribal network with a modern hierarchical 3GW military), characterizing 4GW in depth, and by suggesting ways in which modern technological societies can address and combat this existential threat to their existence. Hammes offers several ways in which our miiltary can better handle the 4GW threat, starting first with organization. Hammes contends that our military is organized, trained, and equipped, and has an entire culture, an entire personnel system, and entire military-industrial complex built around 2GW and 3GW warfare. In addition, the military is a hierarchical institution structured very much like the 2GW and 3GW societies that birthed it. It is centralized, cumbersome, slow to react, and consensus-driven at the top, where our foes are decentralized and agile and quick to respond to opportunities…their networked organization more effectively transmits information and decides on courses of action where analysts in our structure are still staffing their information through the hierarchy. Changing these structures will be difficult, as doing so will dislocate many workers, each of whom are Congressional constituents. But Hammes argues that changed it must be.
In short, a 4GW adversary will not find it difficult to get inside our OODA loop, particularly so when commercial imagery is readily available and the whole of the MSM–broadcasters of leaked information to the world, they are–is a sensor for them. Furthermore, DoD is continuing to centralize and become more top-heavy, where the dominant forces in society and in business is decentralize and flatten, making DoD that much less able to respond or to be able to leverage techniques and lessons learned from industry.
One thing I noted early on was the Euro-centric naming convention about the “generations of warfare”. In 1GW, the armies raised by nation-states clashed in a contest of men and materiel, thereby isolating populations weary of decades of total war and eager to have someone else (a) do the fighting by proxy for them, and (b) ease human suffering from war, and (c) lessen the impact to the fabric of society from losing a fight. One could argue that 1GW is a more “Christian” way of war. 2GW and 3GW followed in this same suit, making warfare more and more lethal yet still more or less confining that deadly force to uniformed personnel. In fact, it is quite interesting to consider just how artificial the Western way of war really is when compared to the Eastern way, particularly in the way it depends on both actors adhering to a set of rules about how each side conducts itself. The Geneva conventions and the ‘laws of war’ can be seen as extensions of this Western way of war, extensions of the Westphalian nation-state, ways to limit the suffering and adverse effects of such an inherently violent and worldly act.
It is this nation-state model, and the powerful 2GW and 3GW armies that such societies are able to field, that 4GW evolved to attack. While agrarian society made equalitarian hunter-gatherer societies hierarchical, and while industrialization made them more hierarchical still (as well as ever more specialized), informationalization tends to undermine hierarchical societies and the vertically integrated institutions that comprise them. Moreover, informationalization introduces a new social contract that challenges the power base of a centralized state–loyalty based not on nationalistic pride or duty-honor-country, but loyalty based on affinity or on a rational cost-benefit analysis. This affinity or “what’s in it for me” attitude contrasts significantly with the sort of patriotic loyalty that the nation-state model demands, a loyalty demanded of an (ideally relatively homogenous) citizenry solidified and maintained via tight control of information, political or otherwise. Another feature of the nation-state’s control over its citizens is its monopoly on violence, applied politically against those who rebelled against the state’s assertion of authority.
Indeed, 4GW seems to drive at the very root of what makes a government legitimate, what gives a government its right to rule. It thus raises a critical question…is the right to rule determined by who has the most guns or a monopoly on deadly force? Or is the right to rule the choice of the people, who themselves decide which group does best by them and therefore gains their (fickle) allegiance? Thus while the reductionist view of government as simply a glorified protection racket still retains its validity in a 2GW or 3GW society, 4GW seems to exploit the modern notion that a people’s rulers are chosen by the consent of the governed, and the government that wishes to remain in power must cater to the needs and desires and wants of the people. In a way, 4GW appears to simply be the methods of warfare catching up to the radical concepts of America’s Founding Fathers–that the legitimacy of a government is determined by the strength of its support among the polis, and in this way is government assured to be the people’s servant, not the people’s master.
A related thought I had while reading this book was that I more clearly see now the folly of our nation’s refusal in the 1990s to “do” nation building, to refuse to consider the need to secure the loyalty of the people when engaging in overseas empire-building. It goes beyond 4GW, all the way back to at least the Romans, who recognized that if one is to have an empire, one must convince your subjects that you have the right to rule, that your way is best for them. The ruler must provide law and basic civil institutions. And this ‘convincing’ must go on in the face of competing visions, for throughout Hammes’ book, I noted a pattern repeated time and again…the insurgents undermined the legitimacy of the host government before moving in with their surrogate. They did so by propoganda (Mao’s “political mobilization”) and, when necessary, false-flag operations that cast the government as much a problem as the criminals themselves. They also did so by sowing fear caused by a climate of fear of crime and violence that the insurgents themselves generated. Then, as the ‘last man standing’, they filled the power and civil services vacuum, better serving the needs of the populace than the legitimate government. Perversely, and host government efforts to crack down on the insurgents often radicalized the citizenry even more, sometimes pushing them even further toward the insurgents.
This brings me to my next point, one that Hammes himself brought up: we must know what sort of fight we are about to engage in before we decide to get involved. That dictum appears to apply in spades to the United States’ current fights in both Iraq and in Afghanistan…that we are approaching that conflict from the classic Western/American/3GW perspective, one that seeks technological advantage in an arena where technology yields victory. Unfortunately, 4GW is a war more about ideas than about whose technologies are superior. Hammes states in his book that the political power an idea generates was crucial to the 4GW warrior. Thus the center of gravity of a 4GW opponent is not how many guns or muj fighters he has; instead, his center of gravity is the idea(s) that rallies more fighters to the 4GW opponent’s cause. It is this idea that must be countered, discredited, or subverted, and our current approach of seeking technological military advantage is as wasteful as it is beside the point. It may be worse than that, as Hammes contends that technological advancements, in particular our focus on 3GW technology, have actually eroded our capability to fight potential 4GW opponents. Worse, such technological superiority may in fact may entice us to become involved in situations we do not fully understand nor are prepared to fight in…a sort of technological hubris…because we think our superior (fill in the blank) technology will assure actual combat superiority on the ground.
In addition, I think it isn’t enough to fight the insurgent’s messages defensively, responding tit-for-tat when presented with a new message attempting to gain the loyalty of the people. So long as they retain the propoganda offense, the government will always be at a disadvantage against the 4GW warrior. Instead, the government must seize the propoganda offense, to find its own message that appeals to the citizenry both at home and abroad and play on that.
Hammes’ work appears to dovetail nicely into the theories of futurists such as David Ronfeldt and John Robb, who have postulated that society in general is on the cusp of transitioning from an institutional market-based society (I+M society) into a networked society (I+M+N). While I have posted on these theories here, I see the social fabric moving regressing toward a less ordered, more tribal-like existence, facilitated by the presence of information technology and catalyzed by the disintegrative influence of aggressively atheistic Marxism. 4GW exploits this lack of cohesion in Western countries and turns our weakness into one of their primary strengths. Moreover, this disintegration portends badly for governments struggling to maintain their hold on power…the trends favor the 4GW warriors.
Lastly, I found myself wondering what a 4GW military would look like. How does a country stuck in 3GW thinking recruit, indoctrinate, train, organize, and equip forces in a 4GW or 5GW manner to fight a 4GW foe? One thing appears certain…a tall, risk-averse hierarchy where decision-making power and authority is concentrated at the middle cannot innovate fast enough to keep pace with a thinking enemy that wants to win too.
Overall, this was a good book that well illustrates the challenges we face when fighting a global fourth-generation enemy. Well recommended for anyone who wishes to understand the nature of what we as a society are up against in Iraq and Afghanistan.
About the author: EW is a well-trained monkey charged with operating heavier-than-air machinery. His interests outside of being an opinionated rabble-rouser are hunting, working out, motorcycling, spending time with his family, and flying. He is a father to three, a husband to one, and is a sometime contributor here at Spearhead. More of his intolerable drivel is available at
the blog The Elusive Wapiti.