On War #259: Evaluating 4GW Missions

By William S. Lind

I spent last week with the Royal Marines in Plymouth, England, at a conference where they were trying to prepare intellectually for deployment to Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Inspired perhaps by the atmosphere of historic Stonehouse Barracks, where Marines who served at Trafalgar once drilled, I came up with an approach to one of 4GW’s most difficult theoretical challenges, namely the relationship between the three traditional levels of war – tactical, operational, and strategic – and John Boyd’s three new levels of war, the physical, the mental and the moral. The seminar that wrote the FMFM 1-A, Fourth Generation War, wrestled endlessly with this problem with little success. If what I will lay out here works – which I leave to others to judge – it may represent a step forward.

The major general leading the conference asked for two products, a “Why We’re There” statement and some sort of graphic that could serve as an evaluative tool over the long term. Thinking about the second, it seemed to me the place to start was with a mission-type order that would encompass the whole British effort. The commander’s intent is clear: restore order in Helmand province. 4GW theory suggests the Schwerpunkt should be de-escalation, because that is what promises to be decisive in restoring order. What we need is a “mission generator” that permits us to evaluate missions in terms of supporting the intent and the Schwerpunkt.

I suggested a simple grid, three boxes across and three down. Those across would be labeled “Physical,” “Mental” and “Moral;” those down, “Tactical,” “Operational” and “Strategic.”

  Physical Mental Moral
Tactical      
Operational      
Strategic      

How would the grid work to evaluate possible missions? Let’s consider three examples, looking just at the basics; in a column, I don’t have the space to fill in every box. First, killing the enemy: physically it reduces threats to order, mentally it makes some potential enemies afraid to fight us, but morally it turns us into Goliath and also obligates the relatives of those we kill to fight us in their blood-feud culture. Going down, it counts as a win tactically, offers little but attrition operationally and works against us strategically because every fight is an escalation that diminishes order. Since a higher level dominates a lower, on both scales killing the enemy is a net negative.

Next, consider capturing the enemy. Physically, it is harder and riskier than killing him. Mentally, it may be less frightening and thus less effective. But morally it works in our favor because the strong appear merciful (assuming prisoners are treated well) and a suspicion of cowardice hangs over anyone who surrenders. Looking down, a capture is equal tactically to a kill as a win, operationally it is still just attrition but strategically it is a plus because captives are useful chips in bargaining de-escalatory deals. Net result: missions should put a premium on capture vice killing.

Let’s look at one more example, this time originating at the operational level. How might our grid help us evaluate moving out of FOB’s into villages, towns and cities? Physically, the risk to our troops goes up. Mentally, we may be more apprehensive but the people become less frightened of us as they get to know us. Morally, it is a huge plus because we are now protecting the people instead of living in isolation in order to protect ourselves. Going down, tactically we may have to suffer more casualties than we inflict in order to de-escalate, which puts high demands on the self-discipline of the troops; operationally, it is a plus because when we establish order locally we are serving the intent; and strategically, the spread of order is what leads to mission accomplishment and our return home.

As the boxes fill and as we evaluate many potential missions, we begin to be able to do what John Boyd called many-sided cross-referencing. Of course, in considering the grid we must never forget the intent and the Schwerpunkt, which are the first touchstones for any mission evaluation.

The Royal Marine major general who led the conference said the grid may be useful for considering second-order effects. I think that is true. But it is important that we not consider effects at the mental and moral levels to be secondary (which is different from second-order). A Second Generation military will be tempted to do so, because it still thinks of the physical level as dominant. We see that error repeated daily in a hundred ways in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Just as the operational and strategic levels dominate the tactical, so the mental and moral levels trump the physical. I think the Royal Marines get that, as do many U.S. Marines. Both countries’ armies are another question.

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
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314
Direct line: 703 837-0483

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