The New Generation of War

Defense expert Chet Richards on Lebanon, Iraq, and the future of the American military


For 17 years, a small tribe of military analysts has explored the rise of Fourth Generation warfare, or 4GW, a term coined in a 1989 article for the Marine Corps Gazette to describe conflicts that pit a state against a transnational, non-state opponent. Unlike traditional guerrillas, who try to overthrow their host government, these non-state groups take on other states. For an example, look no further than the war now unfolding in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel.

Chet Richards, 59, has spent more time than most pondering the implications of Fourth Generation warfare. A retired Air Force Reserve colonel, Richards is editor of the invaluable website Defense and the National Interest and author, most recently, of Neither Shall the Sword: Conflict in the Years Ahead. Written with far more wit and clarity than is usually found in military texts, his book argues that the modern Department of Defense, designed to wage the Cold War, is ill-suited to protect Americans against the threats we face today. It also examines a range of strategic and structural alternatives, including such radical notions as privatization.

Reason: In Neither Shall the Sword, you wrote that Hezbollah "may represent the wave of the 4GW future more than does al-Qaida." Why so?

Chet Richards: I was tossing out a possibility more than making a prediction. I think Al Qaeda has shot its wad. It can perhaps still act as a catalyst or an inspiration for people who are inclined to do that sort of thing. Osama is still a very riveting speaker to that particular audience. But when you look at what they can actually do, it barely rises above the level of the criminal.

Hezbollah, because it lives within a population—it "swims within the sea of the people," like Mao said—it can draw strength from those people. Al Qaeda can't, at least since it got kicked out of Afghanistan.

So if Israel's going to get back at Hezbollah, who does it strike? Well, it strikes Lebanon. But that also gets a lot of people who could care less about Hezbollah and may even be hostile to it.

Reason: Some people argue that, since it essentially has its own territory in Lebanon, Hezbollah is effectively a state in its own right. Does that pose problems for the Fourth Generation thesis?

CR: Not really. Because it's not a state. It's more like a tribe. It doesn't have a clearly defined territory. It exercises some of the functions of a typical government, but if it's attacked, it'll just pull back. They've done it before. They're not going to go head to head with Israeli armor.

They have some of a state's advantages, because there is a population. Even if they get driven out, that population will probably welcome them back in when the time comes. Al Qaeda doesn't really have a state structure at all. They're more of a philosophy than a group at this point.

Reason: The other argument people make is that Hezbollah isn't an independent actor but is a catspaw of an outside state, Iran or Syria.

CR: Well, you see the problem right there. Which outside state is it?

I think Hezbollah clearly draws support. It's in Syria or Iran's short-term interest, or at least they think it is, to support them. Though these extreme non-state sects make the Syrians nervous. Remember, Hafez el-Assad took down the city of Hama in 1982 to get rid of a non-state threat, killing—depending on who you believe—between 10,000 and 40,000 people. Iran's farther away, and they're more in the same ideological camp, so it may not be as big a deal to them.

Reason: What do you think Israel's game plan is?

CR: That's a really, really good question. I think a lot of it's driven by domestic politics. They've got to be seen as doing something. On the other hand, they're clearly hesitating about sending large numbers of ground forces into Lebanon. They did that before, and it didn't turn out too well. I don't think they want to get back into the business of occupying south Lebanon. That just makes them a better target, as they were before.

Maybe they'll go up to the Litani River. That would certainly push the Katyushas beyond the range of Haifa—they're a fairly short-range weapon anyway. But then what happens? Do you occupy it in perpetuity? It would be a hostile Lebanese population, just like it was before. Do you have an ethnic cleansing? Could Israel get away with that?

If the bombardments don't produce whatever result it is that they want, which I assume would be a commitment by the Lebanese to keep Hezbollah out of the area where they could launch attacks against Israel, then you might see a deep stab into Lebanon followed quickly by a withdrawal. Basically a punitive raid. In the end it would accomplish nothing. At that point, if you're Lebanese, how do you stay neutral? The thing about invasion is, it turns dissent into treason.

Reason: If you were an Israeli, what would you want to see the government in Jerusalem doing right now?

CR: If their goal is to ensure rockets aren't directed at them, the only conceivable way they can do that is, eventually, to work some kind of deal with the government of Lebanon. And I don't see that you can do that if you've invaded Lebanon. I think there's going to have to be some behind-the-scenes negotiating between Israel and Lebanon and eventually Syria, which probably means the United States is going to have to throw some serious carrots in the way of both Lebanon and Syria.

Reason: If you were Lebanese, what would you want to see the government in Beirut doing right now?

CR: Right now there's got to be war fever. If you're living in the south, you're definitely going to be under a lot of pressure to support the Hezbollah resistance.

If you're living in the north, which means you're probably a member of one of the Christian or Druze sects, then maybe you figure, "What the heck. We're not involved with these guys. Maybe Hezbollah had it coming." Hezbollah is a political adversary in Parliament, and they've been a military adversary on more than one occasion.

Reason: Some of the places Israel has bombed have traditionally been anti-Hezbollah, which I would think would push some of those people into the other camp.

CR: It would. All I can figure is that for some reason Israel had some targetting information that there was stuff there that they wanted to hit. It might be traditionally anti-Hezbollah as a neighborhood, but there were specific targets in there that they wanted to go after. Otherwise it makes no sense at all.

If I'm a Hezbollah leader, it's a really good idea to have a safe house that's away from known Hezbollah locations. If Israel has been able to find and target those—and I assume they have their usual good human operations going on—then they would strike at them. But it seems to me there's a limit to how long they can keep doing that if they want to have any chance whatsoever of eventually getting the Lebanese government to control Hezbollah.

And of course, Hezbollah is part of the government.

Reason: You had a line in Neither Shall the Sword that reversed Clausewitz's most famous quote. You said that for groups like Hezbollah and Sinn Fein, politics is the continuation of war by other means.

CR: Martin van Creveld is the first guy I heard that from. Clausewitz thought in terms of war in early 19th century Europe. If you look at the map of Europe at that time, it looks like a calico quilt. There's little pieces of statelets all over the place, typically non-contiguous. If you were a princeling, one of the things you might want to do is consolidate your holdings a bit. War was another tool they could use for that.

For organizations like Hezbollah, war is sort of their raison d'etre. It's how they rose to the top: They opposed Israel, they claimed to have driven the Israelis out of south Lebanon. At times, when there's no war, they'll enter the Lebanese government and attempt to use the political process to advance their cause. But their natural state is armed conflict. They refuse to disarm, obviously. War is good for them.

Reason: The other Fourth Generation war on everyone's minds is the occupation of Iraq.

CR: It's not clear that what we have there is a Fourth Generation type conflict. Bill Lind [co-author of the paper that coined the phrase "Fourth Generation warfare"] goes ballistic whenever he hears me say this. But if the main purpose of the fighting there is to push us out, that's just garden variety guerrilla warfare. If there are transnational jihadis coming in, that gives it more of a Fourth Generation flavor, but revolutions have always attracted soldiers of fortune and adventurers and malcontents from all over the world. We invaded, and then after a while some of the elements in there started to attack. It's a largely Christian army plunked down in the middle of the Muslim Middle East. What do you expect?

However, if what we're really seeing is a communal civil war, things are really different. Because now each of the sides tries to figure out how they can use us to their advantage. You can see that now where some of the Sunni leaders are reported to have said, "Please don't leave, United States, because we'll get massacred by the Shi'ites." Originally the Shi'ites in the south were our friends. Now perhaps things are shifting. It's like we've gotten in the middle of this five- or six-way family dispute. Even the Shi'a are split among several different factions. We're one more player in a game we really don't understand.

Reason: If Dick Cheney called you up tomorrow and asked for your advice on how to proceed there, what would you tell him?

CR: I'd say, "Dickie, you've got two choices: Get in or get out." And by "get in," I mean open your Roman history. You can see how it has to be done. We're talking 27 million people in Iraq, so figure a couple percent, 500,000 to a million people, and lock the place down. Get it back under control, and then you can think about withdrawing.

If you're not going to do that, then just get out. What we have now is the worst of all possible worlds. We've got enough force in there to be an irritant and a target, but not nearly enough to influence the situation.

If you go in, you have to go in with enough force and enough people. You have to go house to house to take the weapons away. If you don't bring that much force in, you're better to get out.

Reason: Does the U.S. have that much force?

CR: We spend half a trillion dollars a year on defense, equal to the rest of the world put together. We choose to spend it on Cold War weapon systems. But if we wanted to spend it on a force that big, it would not be difficult to do. Look at it this way: We're spending more than we were at the height of the Vietnam War, when we had 500,000 troops in Vietnam, plus our commitments in NATO and the rest of the world. So if we wanted to do it, we certainly could. The question is, Why would we want to do it? Because we get tired of watching the war on CNN?

But if you're not going to do that, you might as well get out. If we tell them, "Hey, we're out of here by the end of the year, you guys figure it out," then we at least give them some incentive to come up with arrangements that they can live with.

It may not look anything like Iraq today. As you know, that's a pretty artificial creation. They're going to have some horse-trading, and there might be some little statelets; you might see the Sunni section becoming part of Jordan or Syria or something along those lines. I don't know what it will look like. But I can't imagine that beginning to coalesce as long as we're still in there stirring things up.

Reason: Suppose Cheney were to ask you about Afghanistan. How would your advice be different?

CR: The classic solution to Afghanistan is just get out. I think in this case that's probably not a bad one.

Reason: The U.S. went into Afghanistan because it was a failed state that allowed Al Qaeda to put bases there. How do you keep them from filling the void that reappears?

CR: I think they're already doing it. If we could go in and somehow change them, I'd say great. But people have been trying to do that for a long, long time. Alexander broke his pick in Afghanistan. He won several battles, but at such enormous cost that he had to withdraw.

We can probably do raids that ensure the Al Qaeda training camps don't become particularly effective. I don't think Clinton's drive-by shootings were the way to go. But if we had to we could put about a thousand special forces into an area and operate for a couple of weeks, disrupt the hell out of it, and then just leave. In the meantime they'll grow poppies and they'll fight among themselves. Let them play that game of polo with each other's heads and have a great time back in the thirteenth century.

Besides, most of the people who went through the Al Qaeda training camps, including that young American, were sent up north to fight the Northern Alliance. And of course the Northern Alliance is gone now.

I worry about Pakistan a lot more than Afghanistan. They have a well-educated population, they've managed to cobble together several nuclear devices, they can operate F-16s quite nicely, and yet they probably harbor more of what we'd call Islamic extremists than any other country in the world. They have a lot more potential to cause us problems, especially if the government is ever overthrown by Taliban lookalikes.

Reason: So what would you do about Pakistan?

CR: I don't know. I think I'd have some long talks with my new Indian allies about what to do about Pakistan. Not that we're going to intervene with the Indians. But they might be able to give us some insights.

As long as they don't attack us, and as long as they don't harbor large-scale facilities for training people who are going to attack us, then let them be Pakistanis and let them go on. If you have to intervene, do it, hopefully, in conjunction with some of your allies. Now that we've had those bombings in Madrid and London, I think the Europeans will be much more inclined to work with us—if we have a good case. If we're seen as just cowboying around the globe in defense of our own security, the rest of the world's just gonna let us do it. So when we're not doing anything else, we need to work on our alliances and our intelligence-sharing.

We might not always be the lead on this. There may be times when we need to go along and someone else is the lead.

Reason: You look at a range of general options for the United States, from isolationism to containment to rollback. Is there a breaking point between isolation and containment, or is it more of a continuum?

CR: I'd like to say that it's a continuum, because that sounds intellectually more defensible, but in fact they are almost discrete. Clearly, isolationism is sort of an extreme form of containment. But you can be isolationist in the sense that you're going to withdraw as much as you can from the rest of the world but still punish people. That's what Bill Lind pretty much recommends: isolation plus retaliation. You try to cut yourself off, but if you are attacked or attack is imminent, you have this big spasm out into the Third World.

He's not against using nuclear weapons in that case. It's kind of scary if you read the stuff that he writes. But it's logically consistent. If you're going to be isolationist, then you've got to make sure that nobody's lurking or plotting away behind your back.

Containment basically says, "What we want to do is keep the threat level down to something that we can stand, while staying actively involved in the rest of the world through other means to try to lure people to us."

Reason: By "other means," you mean diplomacy, trade…?

CR: Well, go back to George Kennan's original idea. That's where the term containment comes from. He said to contain the Soviet Union militarily so we didn't have World War III, but then to try to involve them in as many things as you can.

The other thing about Kennan is that by '48 or so, he was saying, "Hey, they're contained. Now we really need to start trying to involve ourselves with them." Everyone ignored him, and he had to spend the rest of his life saying this wasn't the containment he had in mind.

Reason: The terms "containment" and "rollback" carry a lot of baggage from the Cold War. It drove me crazy, in the lead-up to the Iraq war, to hear people debate whether we could "contain" Saddam, because I knew the largest possible sphere of influence Iraq could have would be smaller than the territory the Soviet Union started with. Do you think those words can get in the way of the conversation?

CR: Yeah. I'm certain there are some better words.

Reason: I don't have any to offer.

CR: But you raise a good point. Saddam was so weak, it didn't take very much to contain him. A tripline in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and that was about it. Turkey was more than capable of taking care of itself, and he already tried to attack Iran and that didn't work well. So basically, with just a little bit of stuff along his southern border, he was pretty well contained.

Reason: Did you oppose the war in 2003?

CR: Yeah, I thought it was a really dumb idea.

Reason: Five years after 9/11, what do you think is the most important legacy of the attacks?

CR: It was sort of a strategic bombing attack, by Osama and that group around him that we call "Al Qaeda" for the lack of a better name. It certainly had perturbations on our internal system—things like the USA PATRIOT Act and what appears to be the migration of political power to the executive branch.

The major change would probably be that near-term shift of power to the executive. But I'd have to qualify that by saying it hasn't been nearly as bad as I was afraid it was going to be. People predicted that we were going to suspend the Constitution, we'd suspend habeas corpus like we did during the Civil War, and the president would become an elected dictator. That, fortunately, didn't happen. Or at least hasn't happened yet.

Reason: Your book suggests a broad restructuring of the US military. In layman's terms, what would that entail?

CR: What we have right now is a military set up to fight large-scale state-versus-state war. So you have to ask, Who would we fight? If a country has nuclear weapons, you really can't have a large-scale conventional war. You can have military theater, but the fate of either side is not going to be decided purely through conventional weapons. And in any case, you probably aren't going to take the risk of trying to force another country to do what it really doesn't want to do if it has nukes. The India-Pakistan war came to a screeching halt as soon as India tested a nuclear device. The Arab-Israeli wars rode into history as soon as the Israelis made clear they had nuclear weapons.

What about the non-nuclear powers? Well, some of them are U.S. allies. Germany, Italy, Norway—looking down through the rest of human history, I guess you couldn't totally rule out a war with them, but in a world of limited resources you'd be hard put to spend billions and keep a big force just in case we fight a war with Italy someday.

So who's left? Brazil is an ally right now, but at some point it might have a Hugo Chavez type revolution. There's Hugo himself. There's Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. There's the junta in Myanmar. These guys all put together spend about three billion a year on defense. How much do we spend? 500 billion? There's something wrong with this picture.

We're spending half a trillion dollars, and when you look around, who's it going to defend us from? It didn't defend us from Al Qaeda. What are all these armored divisions doing out there, these mech divisions, all this other stuff that's basically left over from the Cold War and for that matter even World War II? I couldn't think of a good reason. So I think we should shrink the force down to match the threat. Keep a residual force, and get rid of the rest of that nonsense.

Then you ask what you need to fight non-state threats. And that's interesting, because it's not always clear when you're talking about non-state threats that you're talking about war. There's a lot of non-state threats—gangs, MS-13 for example—that are law enforcement problems. Armored divisions aren't going to help you much there.

So what about security threats that are a step up from that? Al Qaeda, or something like the FARC in Colombia if somehow we were to come into contact with them—if Mexico starts to go south, for example. Van Creveld said that basically, those are already private military organizations, and people who can afford it are already turning to other private military organizations to protect themselves from them.

If you look back through human history, this monopoly of force by the state, even in Europe, came along pretty recently. Privateers were legal up until the early 1900s. Up until then, much of the world's naval power was provided by private security companies.

Reason: We've still got that passage in the Constitution about letters of marque and reprisal.

CR: Exactly. So then you start looking around, and you see there's a huge industry out there today supplying this stuff. So why don't we harness that?

This gets into my natural loathing of monopolies. What we need in the United States is a way to harness creativity and initiative and entrepreneurship to solve at least a chunk of the problem of national security. Why leave that in the hands of state-sponsored bureaucracy, which has proven to be the least efficient, the least creative, the least dynamic sector of our society?

That was an interesting idea, so I decided I'd put it in the book and see what happens.

Reason: I'm naturally sympathetic to turning government functions over to private enterprise, but I'm also naturally suspicious of government contractors. When you talk about contracting with private companies, how do you avoid all the familiar problems we've had with, say, Pentagon procurement?

CR: I'm not sure you can. But if you have competition, and if you've got incentives for companies to rat out other companies if they break the law, then at least you have a mechanism for shutting down the ones that break the rules too egregiously and put the perpetrators in jail. Obviously it's not perfect, and obviously it could be easily abused. But over on the government side, unless you're willing to court-martial somebody, those mechanisms aren't there at all. When was the last time we court-martialed the commanding general of a division? But if you're the commanding general of a professional company and you're not getting the job done, you lose your contract. And if you start doing illegal things, you can be dragged into both civil and criminal court.

Enron screwed up, it went away. Military units screw up, we reconstitute them. We often promote the general in charge. General Sir Douglas Haig, the guy responsible for the Battle of the Somme, was given great honors and lived out his life in comfortable retirement, even though he killed 20,000 of his own compatriots on the first day of the battle.

Reason: What's the possibility of private military companies being retained by Americans who aren't in the government? Say some people decide they want to assist the people in Darfur and raise the funds and hire a company to do the job.

CR: I think there's a 100 percent chance of that happening. I couldn't tell you when.

Reason: Do you think it's desirable?

CR: Oh, yeah. Again, let's have some competition there.

Reason: Private security companies can be used for ill, too. We all know the history of the Pinkertons. How do you guard against that?

CR: You can't outlaw human nature. It's gonna happen. There is no doubt in my mind that there's going to be abuses. Then again, the Declaration of Independence lists all the abuses of standing military forces against the people. The thing the Founding Fathers were just deathly afraid of, and thought the biggest threat to people's liberties, was large standing military forces. Look down through history at all the times that armies have turned against their own citizenry. At least on the private side, they'll have some competition. It's difficult for one of those companies to do too much damage, because companies can bring the abuses of their competitors to the surface. If Blackwater starts doing things that are too egregious, there's an incentive for a Triple Canopy to rat them out. The Second Armored Cav doesn't have any incentive to rat out the Third Armored Cav.

I'm not sure private military companies, the way we have them right now, are going to evolve into what I'm talking about. They might. But they bring a lot of baggage with them.

Reason: Your book compares the Department of Defense to "the experience of large commercial organizations since the end of WWII. Most of them will go out of business before they make the changes necessary to survive." Government bureacuracies tend to be even more calcified than large corporations. How likely do you think it is that the military will restructure itself, in the directions you suggest or any other directions?

CR: Not until they lose a big war.

Reason: Do you see them losing a big war anytime soon?

CR: Nope.

I think transformation is a cruel joke, not just on the U.S. taxpayer but on members of the military, many of whom are really trying hard to make it work.

Reason: So do you feel like you're writing science fiction? Or do you think the change is going to come from some direction, you just can't predict where?

CR: I think it's the latter. What's going on today just can't go on.

It's like working for General Motors 10 or 15 years ago. The handwriting was on the wall. Their market share was starting to come down. Their quality was still terrible. Their costs were going through the roof. You might not have predicted that it would be Toyota that finally shoved you over the brink. You just knew that you were eventually going to open up a big enough hole that somebody was going to walk through it.

General Motors is not going to make it. But thank God for Toyota. As General Motors goes down and outsources more U.S. jobs overseas, Toyota is insourcing more jobs into the United States. It and other companies that have adopted the Toyota type production system are building better cars—faster, cheaper, quieter, more fuel-efficient.

Reason: So can I quote you as saying Al Qaeda is the Toyota of the military-industrial complex?

CR: Probably more like the Yugo.