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.

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Mr. William S. Lind
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