Morality and Fourth Generation War

Anyone who is anti-war will benefit from understanding the theory of war: why wars are fought, how they are fought, and how the peace is made and kept. The field manual of Fourth Generation war found here helps us understand many of the conflicts occurring around the world today and helps us glimpse the possible outcomes of these struggles. It applies to the war Israel is now fighting in Gaza and Lebanon. It sheds light on the difficulties that the American State and its soldiers face in fighting today in Iraq. Expect to find a document with many illustrations that explains how American soldiers should be trained to fight Fourth Generation war. But also expect a surprising emphasis on the moral level of war that connects directly to libertarian theory.

William S. Lind and experienced soldiers co-authored the Fourth Generation war field manual, which is a work in progress. He invites comment. Using the Fourth Generation model, Lind accurately assessed events in Iraq early on and predicted the current civil strife occurring there now. In his article of November 26, 2003, for example, he forecasted that "non-state forces will come to dominate" in both Iraq and Afghanistan because of basic American blunders. In his words: "In Iraq, the two fatal early errors were outlawing the Baath Party and disbanding the Iraqi army. Outlawing the Baath deprived the Sunni community of its only political vehicle, which meant it had no choice but to fight us. Disbanding the Iraqi army left us with no native force that could maintain order, and also provided the resistance with a large pool of armed and trained fighters." Lind has continued with many insightful articles that are archived on LRC.

The rudiments

Fourth generation wars are currently defined as wars fought by non-state forces against states. (I am not sure what wars fought by non-state forces against each other are called.) The states have greater resources if one simply counts armed forces, matériel, and money. The non-state forces are weaker, yet they can win as Fidel Castro showed in Cuba. They tend to be guerillas and use guerilla tactics, so that Fourth Generation warfare is virtually guerilla warfare.

Guerilla warfare is not terrorism. "Terrorism is an enemy special operation, a single tactical action designed to have direct operational or strategic effect. Because targets that have such direct operational or strategic effect are few and are usually well-protected, terrorism normally plays a minor role in Fourth Generation conflicts — though when it does occur the effects can be wide-ranging."

Most of the manual, through case study examples, advises Marine (or Army) forces how to integrate or interact with the local population in order not to drive them into the arms of the enemy and in order to gain effectiveness against the enemy. For example, the manual counsels against the instinct to escalate force. It advises de-escalation, being very patient, talking with locals and opponents, and not wanting to fight. It talks of withdrawing at times and not fighting every fight, not killing innocent people, and using cash for a host of issues including blood money. The recommended soldierly behaviors are many quantum leaps beyond giving chocolate bars to children or cigarettes to adults.

The moral level

Libertarians will find interesting the pervasive emphasis on the moral element of war as contrasted with the physical and mental levels. The word "moral" appears almost 50 times. The moral level of war is described as the most powerful level, the decisive level, the dominant level, and the all-important level. Battles can be won like leveling Fallujah or creating buffer zones in Lebanon while being a disaster at the moral level and thence a disaster in terms of the war’s ultimate outcome.

The term "moral" has several meanings in the manual. It does not here mean rejecting an entire war as illegitimate, unjust or immoral. It can’t because the manual is designed to nurture an armed force that supports its State. One thing it means is following the non-aggression axiom or respecting the legitimate rights of the population and the Marines’ opponents, including when they are taken prisoner. This includes but goes beyond the Geneva Convention. The authors write: "In terms of ordinary, day-to-day actions, there is a Golden Rule for winning at the moral level, and it is this: Don’t do anything to someone else that, if it were done to you, would make you fight."

Another thing that moral means in the manual is respecting the population as persons. This rule goes beyond the non-aggression axiom. It means soldiers not acting as if they are superior. It means Marines responding to the values of the local culture. If American bases replicate American living standards and locals are not allowed on them except in service roles or if soldiers do not respect traditional values of pride and honor or if soldiers inadvertently insult local people, all these things contribute to losing at the moral level.

It is gratifying to find support for basic libertarian doctrine in a manual that distills the accumulated wisdom, drawn from the experiences of fighting men, of what works and what does not work in wars that directly involve populations. This confirms the universality and practicality of rights embodied in the non-aggression axiom. It confirms that people everywhere hold common ideas of justice and fairness that soldiers (and others) cannot violate without negative consequences.

Although the manual suggests that warfare is reverting to pre-1648 modes, in some respects it calls for movement away from unlimited warfare and a return to the rules of eighteenth century war as discussed in Guglielmo Ferrero’s Peace and War. For example, it calls for limited engagement of armed forces and occupying a foreign area only as a last resort. It recommends not destroying or disbanding the armed forces of the enemy State, not humiliating the enemy, and treating them with the honors of war. The manual recommends not using the maximum of force and engaging the enemy in more lightly armed ways.

The moral and the practical

There are very good practical reasons for all of the manual’s advice and for limiting war, the main one being that it helps to win at relatively low cost and to keep the subsequent peace. Yet at the same time, the recommendations are more consistent with libertarian theory of war and peace (see Rothbard) than existing practices. One cannot expect a libertarian condemnation of war in a war field manual, but the movement toward a lower, more humane, and more sensible level of war is a big plus.

Sound moral rules that are consistent with human nature are at the same time practical rules that enhance value creation. This holds in war as well as in peace.

Many of the manual’s examples that stress moral behavior for practical reasons of not alienating the population and turning them into fighters against Marines are also examples of rights violations. Killing and maiming innocent civilians are prime examples. Breaking into homes, terrifying people, and abusing or torturing prisoners are all rights violations.

The American mistakes of disbanding the Baath Party and Iraqi Army had practical consequences that Lind clearly pointed out. At the same time, I will stretch a point by suggesting that there were some moral problems as well. Imagine that an enemy conquered General Motors Corporation, broke it up, outlawed it, and all the employees lost their jobs. Employees do not have rights in their jobs in a free market, but an outsider who comes in and coercively breaks the agreements between them and their employer is violating rights and creating moral chaos. Neither all Iraqi soldiers nor the whole Sunni bureaucracy were guilty or equally guilty of crimes that required the punishments of losing their livelihoods. This meant a lot to them and they were performing services for the State. Of course, the Iraqi State and Sunni control over it were gone, but America then set about rebuilding a new one. I judge matters in that context. As usual, America did not create a free market. It set about hiring and retraining new bureaucratic workers and policemen to do much that was earlier done by those who had been fired. It relied on Shiites. The criteria it used are murky. It seems to have discriminated against Sunnis or those who had police or military experience. It then forcefully integrated communities by using Shiites to police Sunnis. This could do nothing but ignite strife and provide opportunities for Shiites to take revenge against Sunnis. To this day, many bombings are directed at American-trained police and many killings are attributed to various death squads. As at home, the American State went for social engineering, acted immorally, and failed to envision the consequences of its acts.

There were basically three paths that America could have followed in Iraq once it had made the mistake of conquering the country: break up the old State and reconstitute it, retain the old State, or retain the old State but shrink it or subdivide it while withdrawing as quickly as possible. The worst course, which America chose, was to break up the old State and reconstitute it. The Fourth Generation manual strongly suggests preserving enemy States which is the second path. This indeed is preferable to path one which has led to civil war. The third path, however, is best of all, although it is far from easy. Free markets, property rights, and economic prosperity are key elements in overcoming sectarian violence because they give the prospect of large material gains that outweigh the nonpecuniary gains of revenge or bloodshed. They change the game from a zero-sum game to a positive return game. De-nationalizing the oil industry and distributing shares to all Iraqis would have jump-started this process. Instead, Americans engaged in national economic planning with large contracts going to American companies.

Weakness and moral strength

One theme of the manual is there is power in weakness and that a strong force loses at the moral level when it bullies a weak movement. "We also see the power of weakness. In Fourth Generation warfare, the weak often have more power than the strong. One of the first people to employ the power of weakness was Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s insistence on non-violent tactics to defeat the British in India was and continues to be a classic strategy of Fourth Generation war. Once the British responded to Indian independence gatherings and rallies with violence, they immediately lost the moral war."

The manual needs to clarify the dictum of power in weakness. It is not always so. It depends on the moral stature of the weak. Gandhi gained this stature by non-violent tactics and by personal abnegation. Other things being equal, Al-Qaeda (which is weak) loses at the moral level when it bombs and indiscriminately kills innocent civilians, whether they are voters are not. With all things not equal, Al-Qaeda’s strategy and tactics take calculated risks. While losing temporarily at the moral level, they may gain strategically if they unnerve their opponents and drive them into bad or immoral actions of their own. By the same token, strong forces that act morally and against clear injustices against them do not lose at the moral level. They lose if they overdo matters or harm innocent people while attempting to punish their enemies. In other words, what matters are violations of the non-aggression axiom and not simply weakness and strength per se.

An unfair criticism

The manual assumes, as it must, that the American armed forces will be motivated to carry out the wishes of their superiors and go at the Fourth Generation war in a creative way, which is what such war demands. A weakness may stem from this point of view. I will make an unfair criticism since, after all, the manual is written to instruct the American combat soldier on how to fight and win a war in a foreign country like Iraq or Thailand. It does not and cannot address why the American soldier is on foreign soil in the first place. But the criticism is a point worth thinking about because it’s related to the soldier’s behavior.

Let us ask: What are the aims of the war? Why is it being fought and what is the American force supposed to accomplish? While the manual aims for a remaking of the American armed forces in which soldiers will be taught to acquit themselves in ways to assure victory in Fourth Generation wars, it is hard to tell what victory is supposed to mean. That apparently has to come from somewhere else, but what victory means and where it comes from are unclear. Yet knowing what a war aims for is very important.

It is logical that the tactics and behavior of the armed forces have to link up with the war’s aims. To teach appropriate behavior in a vacuum of aims is dubious. The soldiers need to know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. The manual mentions the motivation of the enemy but doesn’t go into the motivation of the American soldier. For the Marines’ motivation, they need to know why one side is good and the other side is bad. Perhaps the divisions of sides are not clear. Then they need to know the difference between good and bad behaviors of a given side or sides as measured against some goal that the soldiers are trying to achieve. What is that goal? For example, how can soldiers treat villagers in ways to gain their cooperation against guerillas (as the manual teaches) unless they somehow know that the villagers prefer the victory and government that the soldiers stand for to what the guerillas aim to achieve or impose?

But the soldiers may not know these basic things. Early on, we are accurately told: "Once again, clans, tribes, ethnic groups, cultures, religions and gangs are fighting wars, in more and more parts of the world. They fight using many different means, not just engagements and battles. Once again, conflicts are often many-sided, not just two-sided. Marines who find themselves caught up in such conflicts quickly discover they are difficult to understand and harder still to prevail in."

If they are hard to understand, the Marines will be at a loss to know who’s who, what’s what, and what to do about it. This may be an exaggeration, I readily concede, but not a point without some merit. No manual, no matter how much it improves upon the old ways, can overcome a war begun in the wrong place, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons.


Rather than summing up, we can apply the teachings of the Fourth Generation war model to the current Israel-Lebanon war. It’s Fourth Generation war because Hezbollah is a non-State group with some State participation and pretensions. But it is not Lebanon. Hezbollah is very weak compared to Israel. The total number of its core armed fighters is variously estimated at 300 to 3,000, although Hezbollah itself says 5,000 to 10,000.

By Fourth Generation precepts, Israel has already lost by applying too much force too widely and too indiscriminately against Lebanese targets and not Hezbollah. It has killed and wounded hundreds of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands. Israel is using Third Generation war against a Fourth Generation enemy. Hezbollah wins simply by drawing out the battle, scoring some hits against tanks and ships, and maintaining intact most of its fighters and leadership who fade away into the countryside or hide in cities. It wins by recruiting new fighters because of Israel’s excessive use of force. Many articles and quotations already point to this outcome. It wins by gaining political support both in Lebanon proper and beyond its borders. It wins if after the war is over it engages an occupying force with guerilla tactics. Lobbing rockets into Israel does not help Hezbollah at the moral level because they are not hitting military targets. They are killing and injuring Israeli civilians. Perhaps this helps them project an image of strength and action against an overwhelming force. The United States loses because of its crystal-clear alignment with Israel. Bush and Rice immediately stand behind Israel, drag their heels, and wait. Rice holds out for lasting peace rather than a cease-fire. Obviously American leadership wants Israel to have time to continue the war and countenances the costs being imposed on the Lebanese people.