Defending 4GW Against Echevarria

The Problem with Fourth-Generation War ,” by Antulio J. Echevarria II, Strategic Studies Institute, February 2005,

A bit ago I asked for criticisms of 4GW. Chet Richards from DNI kindly gave me a link to an article by Lieutenant Colonel Antulio Echevarria, who has published many papers on war. Greatly respecting Echevarria’s experience and service, I criticize his work as follows

In The Problem with Fourth-Generation War, Echevarria’s makes three main points

  1. War does not change in “Generations”
  2. Even if it did, the next Generation would not be “4GW”
  3. Even if it was, some past wars were also “total wars”
  4. 4GW is just another name for Insurgency

I believe that Echevarria is wrong on all three counts

First, His Claim That War Does Not Evolve In Generations

In context:

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 rarely takes place, significant developments often occur in parallel. Firepower, for example, played as much a role in World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts as did maneuver, perhaps more.

4GW theorists agree with Echevarria. That is one reason for 4GW suspicion of a “revolution in military affairs.” As Hammes writes in The Sling and The Stone, warfare evolves messily in stages driven by practical considerations on the ground.

Likewise, Echevarria’s criticism of the “generational” model is unfair. I am alive and working, though my father and grandfather are still alive. I have yet fully “displaced them”. But I am younger than they are and I am “the future” in a way they are not.

Second, His Charge That The Next Generation Would Not Be ‘4GW’

Second, even if it were valid to portray major changes in the conduct of war as an evolutionary progression from 1GW to 3GW, the next logical step in that progression would not be the sort of super-insurgency that 4GW theorists try to depict. Instead, 4GW would be closer to the vision of Net-centric warfare—small, high-tech forces networked together in a knowledge-based system of systems that enables them to act rapidly and decisively—currently propounded by some theorists. To their credit, the proponents of 4GW criticize Net-centric warfare for being too dependent on high-technology, and for being too inflexible to accommodate a thinking opponent. Yet, and quite ironically, this is the very direction in which the logic of their particular theory of military evolution would lead them, if they were true to it. The logic they use to explain key developments in the conduct of war, thus, actually undermines their case.

Let’s check them off, using a notable 4GW attack as an example

  • small – 19 men. check.
  • high-tech – attack coordinated using global telecommunication infrastructure. check.
  • networked – both technologically (see above), ideologically, and socially. check.
  • act rapidly – attacks were completed before conventional forces could respond. check.
  • and decisively – WTC destroyed. Pentagon damaged. Thousands killed. check.

Third, His Charge That Some Past Wars Were Also Total Wars

In other words, [4GW Proponents] establish a false comparison by which they wish us to conclude that most of the wars of the modern age, which they claim were characterized by firepower or maneuver, were narrowly focused on military power and, unlike the super-insurgencies of the information age, rarely involved the integration of political, economic, and social power. Yet, even a cursory review of the Napoleonic, and the First and Second World Wars reveals that this is not true. Political, social, and economic capabilities were, in many cases, employed to the maximum extent possible. Some historians, in fact, go so far as to maintain that the First and Second World Wars were, in effect, examples of “total” war precisely because of the extent to which the major combatants mobilized the elements of their national power.

Echevarria is attacking the wind. 4GW does not mean that there were no “total wars” in the past. In deed, this definition of “total war” would seem to exclude 4GW — thus making Echevarria’s point meaningless!

The major break between 4GW and past wars is that 4GW seeks to end the enemy’s will to fight, while previous generations of war focused on removing his ability to fight. The examples of “total war” that Echevarria cites fall into this latter category.

Fourth, His Change That 4GW Is Just Insurgent-Warfare

In fact, insurgency as a way of waging war actually dates back to classical antiquity, and thus predates the so-called second and third generations (firepower and maneuver) as described by 4GW theorists. Insurgents, guerrillas, and resistance fighters figured large in most of the wars fought during this period. Mao was certainly not the first, nor even the most important, theorist to articulate the virtues of insurgency, or Peoples’ war, as it was sometimes called. Clausewitz, for one, called it a “reality (Erscheinung) of the nineteenth century,” and provided some valuable insights into its nature. Insurgency did, after all, help the American colonies win independence from the British crown, and it nearly thwarted the ultimate Prusso-German victory over France in the War of 1870-71.

Finally, there is no reason to reinvent the wheel with regard to insurgency as an effective form of war. A great deal of very good work has already been done, especially lately, on that topic, to include the effects that globalization and information technologies have had, are having, and are likely to have, on such movements. We do not need another label, as well as an incoherent supporting logic, to obscure what many have already made clear.

Echevarria’s mistake is understandable. I made the same mistakeonce discussing the Great Sioux War. The classical insurgencies were not Fourth Generation Wars. They were Pre-Modern Wars. These are struggles based more on family structure than ideological networks. Echevarria’s demonstration that pre-modern war preceded all generations of modern war is thus meaningless.

I hope I have understood Echevarria’s arguments. What other criticisms of 4GW exist?

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4 thoughts on “Defending 4GW Against Echevarria
  1. Read Echevarria yesterday. About 1/2 done with the Hammes book.

    speaking as a historian with at least a passing interest in military affairs, Hammes is correct when he discusses the elements of the next generation being present in prior wars.

    The moment when the intellectual realization of the importance of technological or tactical change and the subsequent implications forces a significant reorientation of existing military practice, can be revolutionary.

    Railroads, as Hammes pointed out, were used extensively in the Civil War. The revolutionary, was the Prussian Von Roon who forced the general staff to conform all their war mobilization plans to the parameters of German railroad timetables in order to maximize Prussia/Germany’s comparative advantage in rolling stock.

  2. “The major break between 4GW and past wars is that 4GW seeks to end the enemy’s will to fight”

    Strategic bombing?

    Exemplary displays of force are older than the Romans. They have a lot to do with “end[ing] the enemy’s will to fight.”

  3. Dr. Nexon,

    The difference between 3GW and 4GW difference is that 4GW tries to force a qualitative change, while 3GW tries to force a quantitative reevaluations. As I mentioned in another post [1], 4GW focuses on Orientation while 3GW focuses on Decision.

    For example, we can simplify the British public’s thought process as

    “While the cost of war is not too high, fight bad guys”

    Strategic bombing tries to change the value of the quantitative value “the cost of the war” past the fuzzy value “too high.” The bombings themselves increase the cost of the war, while propaganda decreased “too high” (by saying “a Berlin-centered England wouldn’t be so bad…” ).

    4GW would have tried to change the identity of the British public itself. It would have tried to shift the British public, not just into neutral observers, but allies. It would have convinced the public in the 1940s, in a way that many Marxists were able to do by the 1970s, that Britannia herself was the evil empire.

    I mentioned this distinction between Influencers (who focus on qualitative change) and Enforcers (who focus on quantitative change) in an earlier discussion with Mark. [2] Another historical example of this quantitative/qualitative difference is in ancient Palestine, where Zealots attempted to make the cost of holding that land too high, while Christians focused on changing the nature of the Roman regime.


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