Parting Thoughts, for Now

This will be the last "On War" column, at least for the foreseeable future. I will (unexpectedly) retire from the Free Congress Foundation, where I have worked for 22 years, at the end of this month. Once I am reestablished, either with a new institution or in retirement, I intend to restart the column. When that will be I do not know. It also depends on obtaining connection to a telegraph line, which is not available everywhere.

After 325 columns, what is left to be said? Two points, I think, are worth noting in closing. First, since the Marine Corps Gazette article that first laid out the framework of the Four Generations of Modern War was published in 1989, events have largely followed the course it predicted. That is not to say I was right in all my predictions in these columns. Were my crystal ball that accurate, I would be a rich man. (Being rich, as a Rothschild once defined it, is being able to live comfortably on the interest on the interest.) But in broad terms, the theory has had predictive value, which is the test of any theory.

In particular, the theory’s definition of Fourth Generation war has proven prophetic. Since 1989, the world has witnessed a progressive weakening of the state and rise of alternative, non-state primary loyalties, for which a growing number of men are willing to fight. That is the heart of my definition of Fourth Generation war. As Martin van Creveld says, what changes is not how war is fought, but who fights and what they fight for.

Other definitions of 4GW, including defining it as just a new name for insurgency, miss the mark. Fourth Generation war is more than a buzzword. It is the biggest change in war since the Peace of Westphalia.

The second point I would close with is that the U.S. military doesn’t get it. Some European militaries do get it. Many Fourth Generation entities (not all) not only get it, they are writing the book. But the U.S. military is largely an intellectual void. Its two implied (and related) theories, that wars are decided by comparative levels of technology and by who can put the most firepower on targets, have both been proven false. Were they true, we would have won the Iraq and Afghan wars quickly. In fact, the Pentagon was so blinded by its false theories it thought we had won them quickly. Sorry, guys.

While many junior and field-grade officers in the U.S. military have found value in the Four Generations framework (which says that American armed forces are not one, but two generations behind), the brass studiously ignores it. "Not invented here" is part of the problem, but the larger part is that our major headquarters think little if at all about war. What they think about is money. 4GW does little to justify bigger budgets. On the contrary, it suggests that most "big ticket" weapons programs are irrelevant to where war is going. That is not what the brass, or the defense companies they plan to work for after retirement, want to hear.

What might change that picture? Nothing will change in DOD until the money simply isn’t there anymore. The news, which is simultaneously good and bad, is that the money soon won’t be there. Like every previous imperial power, we are bankrupting ourselves. A trillion dollars here and a trillion dollars there, and soon it adds up to real money. The twin financing mechanisms of piling up debt and debasing the currency can only go on so long. We can already see the night at the end of the tunnel.

There is no better way to end this series of columns, at least for a while, than to recommend a book. The best book on where America now stands and where it is going is J. H. Elliott’s The Count-Duke of Olivares: A Statesman in an Age of Decline. Olivares was what we would now call the prime minister of Spain in much of the first half of the 17th century. His era saw Spain go from "the only superpower" to a downward plunge that lasted three centuries. Unusually, the more one looks at the details, the more the parallel holds. Then, as now, the root problem was the same: the court was controlled by interests that lived off the nation’s decay. Consider the book Scrooge’s recommendation for good Christmas reading.

Author: William S. Lind

William Lind is director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. He is a former congressional aide and the author of many books and articles on military strategy and war.