The Quick and the Dead: War in Open Societies

In 1989, warfighting theory was thrown into upheaval by the publication of "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation," by William S. Lind, Colonel Keith Nightengale (USA),  Captain John F. Schmitt (USMC), Colonel Joseph W. Sutton (USA), and Lieutenant Colonel Gary I. Wilson (USMCR). They pointed out the trend in war toward a greater blurring of the distinctions between soldier and civilian, frontline and rear, state and nonstate actor; they then predicted that this trend would culminate in what they called "fourth-generation warfare," or 4GW:
In broad terms, fourth generation warfare seems likely to be widely dispersed and largely undefined; the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between "civilian" and "military" may disappear. Actions will occur concurrently throughout all participants' depth, including their society as a cultural, not just a physical, entity. Major military facilities, such as airfields, fixed communications sites, and large headquarters will become rarities because of their vulnerability; the same may be true of civilian equivalents, such as seats of government, power plants, and industrial sites (including knowledge as well as manufacturing industries). Success will depend heavily on effectiveness in joint operations as lines between responsibility and mission become very blurred. Again, all these elements are present in third generation warfare; fourth generation will merely accentuate them….

A major target will be the enemy population's support of its government and the war. Television news may become a more powerful operational weapon than armored divisions….

Terrorists use a free society's freedom and openness, its greatest strengths, against it. They can move freely within our society while actively working to subvert it. They use our democratic rights not only to penetrate but also to defend themselves.
Building on this work, many academics began thinking about how the nature of war itself was changing. Two researchers whose work I have followed for several years now are John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt at the RAND Corporation, who have written extensively on swarming in battle, and what they call "Netwar" (for example, see here). Starting at least a decade ago, every major work that they have published has included the following policy implications: "Hierarchies have a difficult time fighting networks…. It takes networks to fight networks…. Whoever masters the network form first and best will gain major advantages."

While the US military and government appreciate the need for networking and more flexible communications, at least in theory (which is already a sizeable improvement over earlier attitudes), the fundamental approach has been to graft network structures onto fundamentally hierarchical organizations, without restructuring those organizations at all. We are better now at networking than ever before, but we are still constrained by the inherent limitations of the underlying hierarchies.

Not so our enemies. It is unclear to what extent terror groups were already moving towards 4GW and decentralized networks on their own, and how much they learned from the theoretical work of Western warfighting scholars. But it is clear that they have learned from us. When al-Qaida took responsibility for 9/11, their statement made repeated, explicit reference to 4GW theory:
The time has come for the Islamic movements facing a general crusader offensive to internalize the rules of fourth-generation warfare. They must consolidate appropriate strategic thought, and make appropriate military preparations. They must increase interest in Da'wa [proselytizing], and recruit the peoples' public and political support. In addition to the religious obligation, this has become an integral part of the means to triumph in fourth-generation warfare. Old strategists, such as [von] Clausewitz and Mao Zedong, have already indicated this. Perhaps the best example is the phenomenon of the intifada, that wiped out the Zionist military's mighty superiority over the Muslim Palestinian people.
Here we have one of the fundamental dangers of an open society: its enemies can learn from its expertise just as quickly as the society itself can—especially when military doctrines are developed in public discussion, allowing adversaries to react accordingly or use such doctrines themselves. That is not to say necessarily that open societies are doomed in war (though it is worth noting that historically, most doctrinal discussions were censored from the public view during wartime), but it does highlight the costs of inflexibility.

If an open society is to disseminate the best work of its military theorists, it had better be implementing those theorists' recommendations as quickly as they determine that those recommendations are sound. Otherwise, the society risks falling victim to strategies of its own devising, purely due to its institutional lethargy. Yet in the United States, often our best theorists were made into pariahs because their work threatened to upset the wrong applecarts. For example, Col. John Boyd, despite his brilliance and the self-evident truth of his OODA Loop, and despite his crucial work on the F-16 fighter, was quickly blackballed from polite company among Pentagon brass. Only the Marine Corps appreciated him fully, and took the erstwhile fighter pilot under its wing during the latter portion of Col. Boyd's life.

This seems to be a problem in all levels of public life, where changes that desperately need to happen are axed for fear of disrupting the status quo. We cannot afford the luxury of such complacence for long, especially as new threats are looming ever closer. Life is change; if our institutions will not change to better fit the need, we will all pay the price.

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