Despite the fact that the framework of the Four Generations of Modern War is relatively new, first appearing in print in 1989, some observers are now talking about a Fifth Generation. Some see the Fifth Generation as a product of new technologies, such as nanotechnology. Others define it as the state’s struggle to maintain its monopoly on war and social organization in the face of Fourth Generation challengers. One correspondent defined it as terrorist acts done by one group in such a manner that they are blamed on another, something traditionally known as "pseudo-operations."
These ideas are all valuable, and if people try to think beyond or outside the framework of the Four Generations, that is probably a good thing. An intellectual framework must remain open or it descends into an ideology, something poisonous per se (as Russell Kirk wrote, conservatism is the negation of ideology). At the same time, I have to say that these attempts to announce a Fifth Generation seem to go a generation too far.
One reason for the confusion may be a misapprehension of what "generation" means. In the context of the Four Generations of Modern War, "generation" is shorthand for a dialectically qualitative shift. As the originator of the framework, I adopted the word "generation" because I was speaking to and writing for Marines, and "dialectically qualitative shift" has more syllables than the Marine mind can readily grasp (think of the Emperor Joseph II’s response when he first heard Mozart’s music: "Too many notes."). Most Marines vaguely remember that Hegel pitched for the Yankees in the late 1940’s.
As that old German would be quick to tell us, dialectically qualitative shifts occur very seldom. In my view, there were only three in the field of warfare since the modern era began with the Peace of Westphalia; the Fourth marks the end of the modern period.
One simple test for whether or not something constitutes a generational shift is that, absent a vast disparity in size, an army from a previous generation cannot beat a force from the new generation. The Second Generation French Army of 1940 could not defeat the Third Generation Wehrmacht, even though the French had more tanks and better tanks than the Germans. The reason I do not think the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon mark a generational shift is that Wellington consistently beat the French, and the British Army he led remained very much an 18th century army.
While attempts to think beyond the Four Generations should generally be welcomed, there are some shoals to avoid. One is technological determinism, the false notion that war’s outcome is usually determined by superiority in equipment. Martin van Creveld’s book Technology and War makes a strong case that technology is seldom the determining factor.
A related danger is technological hucksterism: coming up with Madison Avenue slogans to sell new weapons programs by claiming that they fundamentally change warfare. This kind of carnival sideshow act lies at the heart of the so-called "Revolution in Military Affairs," and it dominates all discussions of national defense in Washington. Every contractor who hopes to get his snout in the trough claims that his widget "revolutionizes" war. As the framework of the Four Generations spreads, you can be sure that the Merchants of Death will claim that whatever they are trying to sell is an absolute necessity for Fourth (or Fifth) Generation war. It will all be poppycock.
From what I have seen thus far, honest attempts to discover a Fifth Generation suggest that their authors have not fully grasped the vast change embodied in the Fourth Generation. The loss of the state’s monopoly, not only on war but also on social organization and first loyalties, alters everything. We are only in the earliest stages of trying to understand what the Fourth Generation means in full and how it will alter — or, in too many cases, end — our lives.
Attempting to visualize a Fifth Generation from where we are now is like trying to see the outlines of the Middle Ages from the vantage point of the late Roman Empire. There is no telescope that can reach so far. We can see the barbarians on the march. In America and in Europe, we already find them inside the limes and within the legions. But what follows the chaos they bring in their wake, only the gods on Mount Olympus can see. It may be worth remembering that the last time this happened, the gods themselves died.