On War #247: Crossing the Channel

By William S. Lind

For centuries, Continental wars that included Great Britain tended to follow a pattern. The British would send an army to the Continent; it would be defeated by the French or Germans; the British would withdraw to their island; and their triumphant European enemy would draw up a superior force on the French or Dutch Channel coast. There was little doubt about the outcome, should that army land in Britain. But it could never get across the English Channel.

A recent conversation over dinner with a Marine lieutenant colonel, formerly a battalion commander in Iraq, helped clarify the nature of our “crossing the Channel” challenge in Fourth Generation war. With a combination of good counter-insurgency tactics (tactics that de-escalate confrontations), a strategy of protecting the population and some luck in the form of blunders by our 4GW opponents, we may be able to restore some degree of order in places where the state has disintegrated. We may further be able to take advantage of the restoration of order to get things working again on the local level: open the schools, turn the power back on, create some jobs, see local commerce revive.

What we do not know how to do, either in theory or in practice, is move from these local achievements to seeing the re-creation of a state. Yet in 4GW, that is crossing the Channel, because unless we can do that we cannot win the war.

As I have said before, the restoration of some degree of local security, such as we now see in parts of Iraq, does not in itself mean we are winning. Restoring local security is necessary to win, but not sufficient. The valid measure of victory is whether or not a state arises anew out of statelessness. If it does, the non-state elements who define 4GW lose, regardless of the nature of that state. If it does not, we lose and they win. That’s the bottom line.

At present, the best we can do toward seeing a state resurrect itself is try to build some connectivity between areas where relative order has been restored and hope for the best. A previous On War column written by the Fourth Generation Seminar gave some examples of how we might do that.

But this is substituting hope for operational art. It is the equivalent to the French or Germans sitting with their army on the Channel coast, hoping that a lucky wind or a chance conjunction of fleets or the intervention of the Archangel Michael might let them get across. The precedent is not encouraging.

The worst we can do is what we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, namely set up a puppet government under heavy American protection and pretend that it is a state. Such pretense fools no one, not even ourselves, as our deals with local sheiks in Iraq demonstrate.

Theory tells us what we cannot do, namely establish legitimate state institutions in occupied foreign countries whose cultures and traditions are very different from our own. Unfortunately, theory has no answer to the question of what we can do, beyond hope. As the old saying goes, hope makes a good breakfast but a poor supper.

The problem of crossing the Channel in 4GW is actually more difficult than it was for those French and German armies encamped on the Channel coast, hoping. They knew perfectly well how to cross the English Channel: in boats. They just could not do it in the face of the Royal Navy. As one admiral told the British cabinet during the French invasion scare of 1805, “I do not say the French cannot come. I only say they cannot come by sea.”

We have the boats and we have the superior fleet, in the form of complete material supremacy over our 4GW opponents. What we do not have is an understanding of how to employ that superiority to regenerate a state out of statelessness. Until theory can give us such an understanding – and it may find the problem insoluble – we, like yet another attempt to invade England, the Spanish Armada, will sail in expectation of a miracle.

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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