On War #291: New 4GW Literature

by William S. Lind
February 10, 2009

Beyond the mindlessness of airstrikes in Afghanistan and elections (that decide nothing) in Iraq, the body of thoughtful literature about 4GW continues to expand. The latest offering, and an important one, is Michael Vlahos’s new book, Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change.

Vlahos offers a useful follow-on to Martin van Creveld’s last book, The Culture of War. Like van Creveld, Vlahos urges us to escape the Clausewitzian trap that sees war merely as an extension of politics, a tool employed by statecraft. That is true in cabinet wars, but Fourth Generation entities, having no cabinets, do not fight cabinet wars.

Rather, Vlahos argues, war is a “liturgy” that establishes or expresses identity.

My hypothesis is that harnessed human spirit is the essence of military effectiveness. This spirit represents identity, which itself can be understood as the core power of culture. Military effectiveness is at root always about culture.

While Vlahos does not use the terminology of 4GW theory — what he calls identity I call primary loyalty — he grasps a central fact of Fourth Generation war, namely that culture is a great deal more powerful than technology in determining war’s outcome. 4GW is a clash between two cultural meta-narratives, one embodied in the state, the other in non-state entities rising up against states. Regrettably, the state meta-narrative is weakened by a turning inward on itself, something Vlahos discusses with special reference to America.

Much of Fighting Identity is devoted to considering Globalization as an act of “creative destruction” that generates ever more non-state elements. Here, Vlahos usefully compares the current period of Globalization with two earlier globalizations, that which occurred in Late Antiquity and the globalization of the High Middle Ages. I think Vlahos is correct in seeing the present as the Third Globalization; it is only the hubris of Moderns that prevents them from recognizing parallels.

He further argues that in the end, those earlier globalizations too created new types of entities, entities which did not entirely fit in pre-existing frameworks. Here the book does present something of a terminological problem, in that Vlahos speaks of “states” and “non-state” entities anachronistically, before states existed. But in substance what he is saying is justified.

I do have one substantive quibble. Vlahos in effect argues that Rome never “fell.” Well, yes, it did, Mike. A city of 1,500,000 people ended up with 5000 inhabitants, while wolves prowled the forum. It is true that elements survived, especially symbols that conveyed legitimacy (which is different from identity). The Holy Roman Empire lasted until 1806. But 90% of the literature of the ancient world was lost, and in northern Europe, people forgot even how to make bricks. That’s like Americans forgetting how to make hamburgers, and it suggests some significant events took place. A dying St. Augustine watched from the walls of Hippo as the Vandals burned the villas.

Vlahos puts in context the American narrative and that of America’s Islamic 4GW opponents, by arguing that each supplies context for the other. Of America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, he writes:

Thus in looking at them, I came back at last to us. In its 9/11 War the United States embarked on a flamboyant enterprise: the “transformation” of the Muslim world…

We staged the grandest opera to remake the world, but also centrally to set up our own transcendence in history.

We achieved our apocalyptic goal, but not as we had planned. Our ensuing and intimate relationship with the Muslim world was liberating – at least in forcefully opening that world to new things. But they turned out not to be our things, nor old things, but things still taking form.

Fighting Identity does not offer the last word on culture and Fourth Generation war. Its merit lies in the fact that it is one of the first words. There is much work yet to be done. But as we all play the blind men and the elephant, Mike Vlahos has laid hands on some interesting parts of the beast. Those who hope someday to see the elephant would do well to read this book.

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 (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Direct line: 703 837-0483

Comments are welcome; please observe our comment policy.

Be Sociable, Share!

Filed in Uncategorized | 10 responses so far

10 Responses to “On War #291: New 4GW Literature”

  1. senor tomason 11 Feb 2009 at 11:01 am 1

    ‘Vlahos in effect argues that Rome never “fell.” ‘

    There is validity to this argument. The Roman Empire gradually disintegrated. Such a thing as the sudden collapse of the Roman Empire never happened. That is a historical myth. The overthrow of the fourteen-year-old “emperor” Romulus Augustulus in 476 A. D. is just an arbitrary event at an arbitrary point in time chosen by modern historians as a convenient point to end the Roman Empire. To use a medical analogy: the Roman Empire died slowly from cancer – not suddenly from a heart attack.

  2. Nightstickeron 11 Feb 2009 at 12:48 pm 2

    ‘Vlahos in effect argues that Rome never “fell.”

    For clarity it is useful to distinguish between the “end
    of the Roman Empire in the West” and the “Fall of Rome”.

    Rome, the city was abandoned by the Romans themselves as the administrative capitol of the Western Roman Empire many years before the 467 A.D. date . The last hundred years or so the capitol was what we now know as Milan and later Ravenna.

  3. rmhitchenson 11 Feb 2009 at 1:56 pm 3

    Dr. Vlahos is certainly one of the smarter high-concept guys out there and his new book looks like a winner. That said, what you quoted about the US invasion of Iraq sounds a bit over the top, rhetorically speaking. He’s right on about opening Pandora’s Box, but as for “new things” not being “our things,” I think there’s a lot of evidence in recent decades that “our things” do in fact have a lot of appeal, evidence that begins with migration patterns. Why have so many Muslims chosen to live in the developed West? The usual suspects are economic opportunity, stable & non-oligarchic non-autocratic governments, respect for human rights, etc. — things their homelands are far from achieving. OK, I sound like Francis Fukuyama, but there it is.

  4. JRBehrmanon 11 Feb 2009 at 2:49 pm 4

    Much more robust techniques for stress-testing and measuring the potential effectiveness of military, paramilitary, and civil formations are needed today because of the fact of radical change in culture, not just of politics (Clausewitz-2G) or even technology (Boyd-3G) but culture (4G).

    Note that “globalization” is a technological phenomenon of political-economic consequence with financial and military consequences that are still barely understood.

    So, what universal or durable conventions hold up under historic stress derived from physical laws?

    I think that Common Carriage (oldfangled admiralty law) and the Seven Laws of Identity (newfangled internet protocol) do.

    Military Keynesianism does not.

  5. Maxon 12 Feb 2009 at 2:53 am 5

    “Why have so many Muslims chosen to live in the developed West?”

    That’s a poinient observation, and along with the reasons you mention maybe for some, that by in large, in the western hemishpere the toilets flush.

    Joking aside however, one needs to take into account the scocial /economic disparities that plague the Middle East and Africa being as extream or worse as anyplace else.

    Some on the extream of the likes who may have been calling many of the shots at one time, might argue somekind of rediculous orchisrated consperacy.

    No sale here mind you.

    Even though the term “developed” is relative, and tied in with proserity, in the sense that on the one hand, you now have N. America, struggling economicaly, then by contrast you have the likes of Dubia, and by contrast then Somalia, or Gaza and war torn Lebanon.

    Middle east has its share of disparities, and perhaps far more pronounced than anywhere else.

    In thinking about the 4GW “Culture” reference, Lind maybe on to something there, or at least there maybe more than meets the eye.

    Something maybe very deep and quite profound ? I suspect,
    although I can’t quite put my finger on it just yet.

    Perhaps it applies to those with at least one foot, or maybe characterised as standing outside the “system” or status quo, and looking back inwards, but who see things differently and then set out to impose radical change, or to impose and agenda, particuarly by violent means ?

    I’m still thinking about it.

    I’m also thinking about the arsonists (criminals and perhaps very real 4gw entities) who have alledgedly triggered some of the recent devistating fires in Austrialia, perhaps in the interests of advancement somekind of radical enviromentalist or anarchist agenda.

    Good thread.

  6. Maxon 12 Feb 2009 at 3:06 am 6


    “Note that “globalization” and military consequences that are still barely understood.”

    I agree and would offer the illustration of widespread technolgies such as cellular microwave communications (cell phones and their wireless cyber based cousins) being used very effectively in 4GW warfare scenarios to negate the advantages of overwhelming force and superirority of conventional military means.

    IE: not just in communications, and in co-ordination and intelligence, the use of remote detonators for hidden roadside munitions and booby traps, etc,,etc.

    High tech, but very widespread and easily aquired means, defetes for more elaborate and costly methodolgies, that are still clung to
    and remain the prefered tools of the conventional military.

    Who knows what weird and wonderfull ideas the Taliban have in store in the desolate wildernesses of Afganistan and the ajoining lawless regions, for the next stage of the “Surge.”

    These people have all the time in the world, to think, plan and prepare.

  7. SRCon 12 Feb 2009 at 10:17 am 7

    The WESTERN Roman Empire fell in the 5th Century; the EASTERN Roman Empire lasted until AD 1451.

    One of the few worthwhile changes in historiography is the past 40 years has been the rejection of the idea that Occidental history falls into three parts: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. Instead a new concept developed, pioneered by Peter Brown, of “Late Antiquity”, a period from ca. AD 200 until the rise of Otto I. What this period really ought to be called in “The Byzantine Age”.

    The “Dark Ages” is an Enlightenment myth, fostered by the eloquent but wrong Gibbon. The decline in the Western Empire has also been exaggerated. Keep in mind also that materialists make a major mistake, one wisely seen by the Japanese thinker Taichi Sakaiya in his The Knowledge-Value Revolution. His point: some periods consume material things more than information (Graeco-Roman Antiquity, the High Middle Ages [the AD 1200s], and the “Modern Period” (AD 1400-1970). Other periods consume information more than material things (The ancient Egyptians, Late Antiquity and the Medieval period until ca. AD 1170, and the Post Modern world of post 1972). In the arts compare, say, The Apollo of the Belvedere with a stained glass window, or a Pompeian painting with a Ravenna mosaic, or the Today Show in 1953, and today the screen of CNBC during “Closing Bell”. It’s obvious which is more “realistic” (mimesis) and which is more “imaginative” and has more “bits” of information in “high definition.

    So it is quite wrong to call an age that consumes information more than matter “dark” or “primitive” on “decline”. Only materialists say this.

    And materialists will lose 4GW. For as in the arts, so in war. The first three Generations of war were of a materialist age. 4GW of an information-imaginative age.

  8. Duncan C Kinderon 12 Feb 2009 at 11:43 am 8

    If war is a ritual, then that would give rise to the question of what are rituals generally, of which war would be a subset.

    It is increasingly obvious that we are moving into a post fossil fuel age, in which solar and other renewables will play a vital role. Such renewables are cyclic in their nature.

    It just so happens that a great deal of traditional society manifested rituals intended to respond to such cycles. It is no coincidence that Christmas was dated to coincide with the Roman Saturnalia, the celebration of the solstice; and celebrations of Midsummers also were common.

    Mircea Eliade has discussed such rituals in The Sacred and the Profane and The Myth of Eternal Return. Sir James George Frazer detailed this muthos in The Golden Bough.

    While we cannot and should not try merely to copy such ancient rituals as patterns for a post modern society, they would be suggestive of what sort of thing might evolve.

  9. senor tomason 13 Feb 2009 at 12:35 pm 9

    “What this period really ought to be called in “The Byzantine Age”. ”

    I dislike the use of the term “Byzantine Empire” to refer to the medieval phase of the Roman Empire. This term was invented by modern historians and implies that the Roman Empire of the Middle Ages is unworthy of the name “Roman” and needs to be called something else.

  10. Duncan C Kinderon 15 Feb 2009 at 2:22 pm 10

    Another aspect of ritual worth exploring would be the ceremonial hunt.

    My brief survey of items returned by the Google search Ceremonial Hunt suggests that there ils a strong Native American tradition along these lines.