4GW is Groundless, and Here’s Why

“War has changed” has become a common refrain in modern pop culture. Defence analysts and armchair generals alike tell us that the character of modern war is unlike that of any previous era. Where once the primary form of warfare was counterforce, with armies fighting armies, the primary form of modern war is that of armies fighting insurgencies, or so the theory goes. The idea that modern war is significantly different from any type of historical war can be found in places as diverse as scholarly articles and popular films. Two prominent advocates of this idea have been the strategic theorist William S. Lind, and the Israeli strategist Martin van Creveld. Both are exponents of 4th Generation War theory, namely the idea that war has been evolving through the centuries in successive “generations.” Lind describes these generations of warfare.[1] 

  • 1st Generation: Relies on the line and column as the primary formation and the smoothbore musket and bayonet as its primary weapon.
  • 2nd Generation: Still relies on linear fire, but with the genesis of maneuver emerging and the single-shot bolt-action rifle as the primary weapon.
  • 3rd Generation: Uses basic infiltration techniques to bypass enemy defences as well as defence in-depth, with magazine-fed bolt-action rifles and machine-guns as the primary weapons.
  • 4th Generation: Modern insurgency and counterinsurgency, which features states facing off against evolved, technologically sophisticated insurgents who use terrorist attacks to strike directly at the vulnerable points of modern nations.

An examination of the 4GW theory shows that its authors and exponents do not seem to believe war as a concept existed prior to the invention of gunpowder, despite the generations of complex warfare carried out by ancients.[2] In Fourth Generation War and Other Myths, Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria II argues 4GW theory is overly technologist, based on a simplistic view of blitzkrieg theory, and overly focused on predicting the future.[3] Lind, himself an apostle of the “German technological/strategic superiority” viewpoint, certainly based his theories in large part on those of the Wehrmacht Heer during the Second World War.[4]

The validity of the Wehrmacht’s primacy is now in doubt, meaning that the main aspects of 4GW are at the very least problematized.[5] However, what this paper takes issue with is the idea that warfare has evolved in general. Profound continuities have existed in warfare from the time humans first picked up heavy sticks, and any attempt to separate it into neatly delineated iterations or generations risks oversimplification. By attempting to sort military history, or any history, into neat generations, we risk overlooking points of continuity that might enhance our impressions of what “the past” must have been like.

While 4GW theorists admit that nations have fought insurgencies before the so-called 4GW era, they view modern insurgencies as “evolved insurgencies” which operate outside the Clausewitzian trinity. As time goes on, the evolved insurgencies will become increasingly sophisticated technologically and tactically, using strategic attacks to “judo throw” modern nations, bringing them down by striking at weak points. Dr. Echevarria notes that this model failed to predict the raw, unsophisticated brutality of the Rwandan Genocide, a 4GW conflict that did not fit into 4GW theory. To that I would add the Islamic State. While making sophisticated use of social media, the Islamic State in its battlefield tactics and equipment is no more technologically sophisticated than the Taliban.[6,7]

Julius Caesar

In fact, Julius Caesar’s legionnaires in Gaul and Britain encountered irregular fighters who used tactics that would be familiar to insurgents and counterinsurgents of today. War has not changed; the tools, methods, and perceptions of war have. With few exceptions, humans have been using similar tactics to address counterinsurgency from ancient times to the present. Counterinsurgency theory suffers a fatal flaw, as each time the need arises, it seems a hitherto unknown form of conflict. In ancient Gaul and Britain, in the 19th century Philippines, in 20th and 21st century Afghanistan, the same mistakes were made over and over again. Each successive generation of warfighters believes they are fighting a new type of war. As such, the same approach is taken and the same mistakes are made. This is true from ancient times to the present day.

During the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar fought one of the first recorded counterinsurgency conflicts against indigenous Britons.[8] Expecting a counterforce struggle of the type in which the Roman army specialized, Caesar organized and deployed his army as if he were fighting another army of roughly comparable size and training. In one example, a disparate British tribe, led by the chieftain Cassivellaunus, deployed their army in the same manner, engaging Caesar’s forces in the cautious way favoured by a small but tough band of warriors fighting the largest and most powerful army in the world. This changed when British forces attacked a Roman foraging party outside the main Roman encampment. The foraging party was well-equipped and well-manned—composed of three entire legions and the whole of Caesar’s cavalry—and were set upon by a harassing force of Britons led by Cassivellaunus. The British forces were completely defeated, and from then on never engaged the Romans in pitched battle.[9]

The Britons then adopted insurgency techniques that are still familiar today. For example, when the Roman cavalry sortied out to pillage the British countryside, they would be ambushed by British chariots hiding in the woods, forcing the mounted soldiers to keep close to their protecting infantry.[10] This same technique was used, with success, by Iraqi and Afghan insurgents against coalition forces in 21st century conflicts.[11]

Bewildered by the constant harassing raids and unable to isolate the indigenous forces from their hiding spots or supply lines, the mistakes of the Britons themselves saved Caesar’s British campaign. Thinking he could convince the three British kings of Kent to rise against the Romans, Cassivellaunus attacked the Romans as an organized army, not an irregular force. During the battle Caesar’s army smashed the British forces, taking no losses in the process. Cassivellaunus surrendered, and Caesar left Britannia and retreated from Gaul, leaving it in the hands of his regional administrators.[12]

Caesar’s war against the Britons was the earliest recorded example of an asymmetrical conflict. While the broad strokes of Caesar’s campaign bore little relation to the way modern COIN campaigns are conducted, Caesar’s use of cavalry closely corresponds to the way that armour is used in COIN settings today.[13] In turn, the British response to Caesar’s use of cavalry matches up with the methods modern insurgents use to hamper enemy armour.[14]

While other warriors engaged in operations similar to COIN—suppressing the population of occupied territories, quelling provincial rebellions—the study and execution of “small wars” did not emerge as a proper subject of military scholarship until the late 19th century. It is particularly interesting to note that the two major European empires of the 19th century—the French and the British—routinely engaged in such small wars, colonial wars, and wars of empire worldwide. These small wars were considered diversions rather than real wars, a stamp on the ticket for eager expeditionary young officers. One of these young officers was an Anglo-Irish artilleryman named Charles Edward Callwell. Unlike many of his brother officers, Callwell took note of the circumstances and tactics of these small wars, and in 1868 published a monograph, which in 1896 became the book Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice. This work was the first attempt to address the problem of COIN since Caesar tried to make sense of the British tactics in his Bellum Britannicum.

A British convoy under attack by mounted Boer guerrillas - South Africa, 1901. (Military History)

While Small Wars was written in 1896, its lessons are strikingly and sharply relevant to today’s world. The chapters contain lessons on such things as the winning over of an occupied nation’s civilian populace, the reasons insurgency is attractive, patrolling skills, and bush and hill warfare.[15] The writing style is brisk, and speaks of seasoned experience. While not meant as a strict doctrinal manual, it nevertheless contains many useful insights and is extremely informative. It begins with a sort of overview of the various types of irregular fighters, organized and unorganized, that a colonial soldier could expect to encounter.[16] The first few types of insurgent are lumped generally together; proper organization and military skills are less important than traditional tribe or clan methods of warfare and the infliction of maximum damage upon the enemy. While fierce, Callwell notes, these can be dealt with without undue trouble. The chapter changes pace when it comes to the Boers.

Callwell was a veteran of the Second Boer War, a turn-of-the-19th century conflict between Britain and modern-day South Africa.[17] It is safe to say that, until that conflict, a guerrilla war on the organization, scale, and effectiveness of the Boers had not yet been encountered by the British. The shock of the British encountering the Boers is equivalent to Caesar’s first encounter with the British warriors, for sheer shock value. When an established military force encounters an organized irregular force, it is forced to come to terms with the fact that its traditional counterforce tactics no longer apply. The British did not, it seems, study Julius Caesar’s British campaign and were forced to learn the lessons in the same way Caesar did—the hard way.

This, then, is an eternal lesson of any proper COIN operation—the force must be flexible.[18] A rigidly trained, top-down military practised at performing complex drill maneuvers under fire—as the British Army was at the time of the Second Boer War—will consistently fail against an insurgency because it does not have the operational flexibility to respond properly.

To properly stabilize a COIN situation, a flexible force equipped with cultural knowledge must engage and weaponize the civilian populace against the insurgents. In their heavy-handed use of concentration camps, population isolation, and trench warfare, the British bashed out a victory but did not truly win—as evidenced by the Boer support for the Germans during the First and Second World Wars.[19] Had they studied Caesar’s campaigns, they might have learned from his mistakes. Namely, approaching an indigenous population in a COIN context with brutality and suspicion might ensure a battle won, but it will just as surely ensure a lost war.

Yet, when Callwell wrote his treatise on small wars, he did not reference Caesar at all. Similarly, the US military’s “groundbreaking” manual on COIN, FM 3-24, never mentions Callwell. This is the fundamental flaw in 4GW theory. By focusing on categorizing military history into neatly defined generations, it misses the essential points of continuity that exist within the history of irregular warfare, insurgency, and COIN. On close examination, the wars our ancestors fought were not so very different from the so-called evolved insurgencies of 4GW. It is often said that war never changes. That sentiment, it seems, is more true than we know.

William Pitch is a third-year political science student at the University of Winnipeg, and a first-year Officer Cadet in the Regular Officer Training Program of the Canadian Armed Forces. The opinions expressed here in no way express the official position of the Canadian Armed Forces or any other government entity.

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Header Image: Caesar's first invasion of Britain: Caesar's boat is pulled to the shore while his soldiers fight the resisting indigenous warriors. Lithograph by W. Linnell after E. Armitage. (Wikimedia)


[1] William S Lind, “Understanding Fourth Generation War” Antiwar.com (2004). Retrieved from http://www.antiwar.com/lind/?articleid=1702.

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Antulio J. Echevarria II, Fourth-Generation War and Other Myths (Carlisle, PA: US Army Strategic Studies Institute, 2005), 5-6.

[4] Ibid., 14-15.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] Barak Barfi, “The Military Doctrine of the Islamic State and the Limits of Ba’athist Influence”  CTC Sentinel 9, no. 4 (2016) 18-24.

[7] Ehsan Mehmood Khan, “A Strategic Perspective on Taliban Warfare” Small Wars Journal (2010). Retrieved from http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/a-strategic-perspective-on-taliban-warfare.

[8] Robert Nowlen, “Caesar’s Expeditions to Britain and Modern Counterinsurgency Theory” (senior honours thesis, Eastern Michigan University, 2011), 1.

[9] Nowlen, “Caesar’s Expeditions," 8-12.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 38-40.

[12] Ibid., 15.

[13] Ibid., 28.

[14] Ibid., 40.

[15] Charles Edward Callwell, Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, 3ed (London: Harrison and Sons, 1906), 5-20.  Note that the initial monograph and the first two editions preceded the Boer War; the third edition, however, incorporated the insights gleaned by Callwell from that conflict.

[16] Ibid., 27-30.

[17] Ibid., xvii.

[18] Ibid., 270-300.

[19] Martin Schonteich and Henri Boshoff, “Volk”, Faith, and Fatherland: The Security Threat Posed by the White Right (Institute for Security Studies Monograph Series, 2003) 13-15.