On War #301: Escaping the 2GW Trap

William S. Lind
April 20, 2009

As the U.S. sends thousands more American soldiers to Afghanistan, it risks speeding its own defeat in that graveyard of empires. Why? Because the Second Generation practice of the U.S. military reduces tactics to little more than bumping into the enemy and calling for fire. The fire, most often delivered by aircraft that can see and understand little of what is happening on the ground, often kills civilians. Even when it does not, the disproportion of pitting jet fighter-bombers and attack helicopters against guys in bathrobes armed with rusty rifles turns us into Goliath, a monster. Both effects bring about our defeat on the moral level. In effect, the Second Generation leaves us in a trap of our own making: to win the engagements we have to lose the war.

How might U.S. forces in Afghanistan escape the 2GW trap? To start with, they should accept and live by a principle laid down by Marine Corps General James Mattis, one of our more successful commanders in Iraq. That principle, taken from medicine, is, “First, do no harm.” When and where fighting is likely to cause civilian casualties, wreck the civilian infrastructure and alienate the population, don’t fight. A withdrawal is better than a combination of tactical victory and strategic loss.

Second, seek to de-escalate. De-escalation is the way state armed forces prevail in Fourth Generation wars. De-escalation is the first principle of FMFM 1-A, Fourth Generation War and the field manuals derived from it. Those field manuals are available on d-n-i and, for U.S. military personnel, on the website of the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Warfare School. Any soldier or Marine heading for Afghanistan who has not read these FM’s is ignoring an important resource. They include two books of 4GW Tactical Decision Games units can use for their own training.

Third, use The Grid to evaluate every mission before it is undertaken. The Grid is a simple tool I devised last year in a seminar with Royal Marines who were on their way to Helmand Province. Its purpose is to try and forsee the larger consequences of tactical actions, or, as one Royal Marine general put it, to predict potential second-order effects. Here it is:

The Grid

Physical Mental Moral

Second Generation armed services consider only one of the nine boxes on the grid, the Tactical/Physical box in the upper left corner. They are subsequently surprised by the results of their action in the eight other boxes. The surprises are seldom pleasant.

The Grid is easy to understand and relatively easy to use, though the questions it poses may require both commanders and intelligence officers to think in ways different from those they are accustomed to. S-2s and G-2s will have to go beyond the rote processes of Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB), which in truth is merely intel for dogs (“How old are you, Rover?” “Woof, woof, woof.”).

Before undertaking an action, commanders and their staffs should attempt to fill in every box. Then, they should consider whether the probable results in all the boxes are what they want. If the answer is no, they should probably re-evaluate what they intend to do in the Tactical/Physical box. The process is iterative and Socratic, not mechanical. Of course, no one can know what all the effects of an action will be; certainty is not to be expected in war. But as units gain experience in the theater, the quality of their estimates will improve. Even a “best guess” is preferable to not asking the question.

Together, these three recommendations can help U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Afghanistan escape the Second Generation trap of winning tactically at the expense of losing strategically. They are not a substitute for the reform we really need, namely moving all the U.S. armed forces from the Second to the Third Generation, while thinking seriously about the Fourth. But as palliatives of a fatal weakness inherent in 2GW, they have value. Especially when time and events are pressing, it is useful to remember the old Russian saying, “Best is the enemy of good enough.”

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

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[WordPress does a lot of things very well, and quickly. Unfortunately, tables are not among them — please accept my apologies if The Grid does not display properly on your system.]

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