Michael: 4th Gen War, Al QaidaI just finished reading Marine Colonel T. X. Hammes latest book on the evolution of modern warfare, The Sling and the Stone. Col. Hammes wrote an article for the Marine Corps Gazette which is essentially a summary of his book. It lays out the thesis more completely and cogently than I could hope to here.
In a nutshell, Hammes (along with many other eminent military theorists and professionals) proposes that war utilizing distributed networks of military, political, economic, and cultural power, driven by a broadly accepted ideological focus creates a much different kind of warfare which is capable of overcoming even superior arms and power. Such networks are empowered by new technologies, but certainly not dependent upon them, having been used successfully in armed struggle for at least the last 70 years.
There are four issues which Col. Hammes’ work brings up which I feel inspired to comment and expand upon for anyone who has interest in the topic of the emergent strategic environment of warfare in the present and near future. The result is too long for a single post, so I will be posting these reflections as a series over the coming weeks.
I) What does the maturation of 4GW means for American strategy in current conflicts? Specifically, what sort of enemy do we face in Iraq and what are our prospects for defeating them?
II) How does an understanding of 4GW inform our strategy in the struggle with Al Qaida and other future transnational terrorist insurgencies?
III) Whether 4GW is similar to 2GW in favoring defense over offense, and whether 5GW, as and when it evolves, will break open the 4GW strategic environment like the armored maneuver of 3GW did to the static defense biased battlefields of 2GW?
IV) What does the maturation of 4GW means for large-scale warfare with major nation-state powers? How should 4GW affect our military doctrine and our global strategy? Will the future of warfare make protection of civilian populations obsolete or impossible?
Al Qaida is the highest expression of the evolution towards 4th Generation Warfare that America has yet confronted. Col. Hammes proposes as axiomatic that that a military power based on an earlier evolutionary stage of war has never, and will never, be able to overcome an emerging power using the strategies of the latest generation. He quite straightforwardly expresses the view that America, with our defense and intelligence agencies organized according to 3rd generation principles, cannot defeat Al Qaida.
That is a scary proposition. Let me repeat it. America, as currently led and using our current organization and strategy, cannot defeat Al Qaida.
Now, that does not imply that Al Qaida can defeat us in any meaningful way. We are a superpower, they are cells of terrorists. They do not threaten our existence as a society, but they can do us substantial and unacceptable harm. In this age of WMD, even one person has the potential to inflict unimaginable horror on our population.
This means that we have to approach the problem of Al Qaida with urgency, but also a sense of proportion. We cannot and must not destroy what is unique and most vital about our society while seeking to contend with Al Qaida and groups like them. That means we cannot abandon the rule of law for the comfort of transferring unaccountable power to our security forces and our executive. It means we musn’t abandon our commitment to human rights and dignity because our enemies have done so. But we must also exert considerable political will to make the changes to ‘business as usual’ at the Pentagon, the CIA, and other government agencies tasked with keeping Americans safe.
How can we re-organize to take advantage of the maturing 4th generation strategies that empower groups like Al Qaida? Hammes recommends first to abandon the hierarchical management structures that we have inherited from 19th century management principles for mass-production. The armed forces, the intelligence services, and the massive Homeland Security Department are organized in this fashion. This ensures risk aversity, slowness to adapt to change, stultification of human talents, bottlenecking of information flows, and suppression of the network effects which are perhaps the greatest advantage of 4th generation strategic organizing principles.
We also must stop looking at the challenge Al Qaida presents as purely a military problem of killing targets, or even an intelligence and police problem of detection and apprehension. 4th Generation warfare proceeds along all the vectors created by the networks of people within modern global society: this includes economic activity, religion, art and literature, politics and diplomacy, ideas and values. Today, we are miserably failing to advance our cause along these vectors. The only nod this Administration makes to the idea of public diplomacy is to send out a ham-fisted, tin-eared PR hack like Karen Hughes on an international tour of shame to be booed at while mindlessly reeling off sound bites. We cannot continue to operate American foreign policy as the political enforcer of last resort for globalized business and international capital. We have to dedicate ourselves to a vision of international justice and equity that will quell the fires of resentment that helps fuel terrorism.
Broadening our response for terrorist networks using 4th Generation War strategies is not just a better way to fight terrorism - it is the only way that will actually work. It is the responsibility of those who aspire to national leadership to articulate a vision for accomplishing this transformation. It is the responsibility of the American public to demand that our leaders move beyond exploiting our fears, instead engage our reason, speaking to the angels of our better natures. Unless we grow the hell up, and pull ourselves out of the disgusting political infantilization that we have been coddled into, the damage that networks like Al Qaida can do our well-being and our way of life may be catastrophic.