On War #251: War or Not War?

By William S. Lind

Between February 8 and February 14, four American schools suffered attacks by lone gunmen. The most recent, at Northern Illinois University on February 14, saw five killed (plus the gunman) and 16 wounded. Similar attacks have occurred elsewhere, including shopping malls.

Is this war? I don’t think so. Some proponents of “Fifth Generation war,” which they define as actions by “superempowered individuals,” may disagree. But these incidents lack an ingredient I think necessary to war’s definition, namely purpose. In Fourth Generation War, the purpose of warlike acts reaches beyond the state and politics, but actions, including massacres of civilians, are still purposeful. They serve an agenda that reaches beyond individual emotions, an agenda others can and do share and fight for. In contrast, the mental and emotional states that motivate lone gunmen are knowable to them alone.

The whole “Fifth Generation” thesis is faulty, in any case. However small the units that fight wars may become, down to the “superempowered individual,” that shrinkage alone is not enough to mark a new generation.

Generational changes are dialectically qualitative changes, and those are rare. Normally, a dialectically qualitative change only occurs after time has brought many dialectically quantitative changes, such as a downward progression in the size of units that can fight. In effect, quantitative changes have to pool behind a generational dam until they form so vast a reservoir that their combined pressure breaks through in a torrent. I expect it will take at least a century for the Fourth Generation to play itself out. A Fifth Generation will not be in sight, except as a mirage, in our lifetimes.

This is not to say that the lone gunman phenomenon, and its increasing frequency, are wholly unrelated to Fourth Generation war. They have some common origins, I think.

At the core of 4GW lies a crisis of legitimacy of the state. A development that contributes to the state’s crisis of legitimacy is the disintegration of community (Gemeinschaft). Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the powerful, highly intrusive state, community has increasingly been displaced by society (Gesellschaft), where most relationships between people are merely functional.

That progression has now gone so far that never before in human history have so many people lived isolated lives. I sometimes visualize a conversation between a Modern man and a Medieval man, where the proud Modern says, “You poor man! It must have been terrible living without air conditioning, automobiles, washing machines and hot showers.” The Medieval man replies, “You poor man! It must have been terrible living so alone.”

Isolation and the alienation, anomie and rage that proceed from it fuel both lone gunmen and a broad sense of detachment from the state. Why give loyalty to the state if the society if governs offers nothing but alienation? In turn, alternatives to the state, such as gangs, offer alternatives to isolation as well.

The commonality does not stop here. Increasingly, people who are cut off from other real people fill the void with virtual people. They spend their lives immersed in television, video games, the internet and so on. As Dave Grossman has demonstrated, those technologies can do an excellent job of turning loners into killers, both by overcoming their inhibitions to killing and by giving them refined shooter skills. The same technologies spread alternate loyalties, such as Al Qaeda, Deep Green environmentalism, (which has spawned numerous acts of terror, both here and in Britain) and a variety of other virtual worlds.

In sum, the decline of the state and the disintegration of community march on together. So, through the video screen, do the rise of alternate loyalties and the generation of lone gunmen. Both are part of the end of the Modern Age, facilitated and accelerated by technologies that are Modernity’s penultimate achievements. As Ortega warned, civilized men are being replaced by technologically competent barbarians. Barbarians “act out” their emotions by killing, and they give their allegiance to chieftans, not states. Lone gunmen are not carrying on war, but the phenomena that create them also feed the Fourth Generation. The calamitous Twenty-First Century will give us more of both.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact:

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
717 Second St., N.E.
Washington, D.C. 20002
Direct line: 202-543-8796

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