the art of war

generation one: firepower

war_strategy_2with the advent of gunpowder, modern military strategy made its impressive entrance into the arena of armed conflict resolution. can you imagine being a fighter in that very first army without guns, staring across the battlefield with your broadsword in hand at a wall of fully loaded muskets? in all likelihood, you wouldn’t even have time to spoil your polished chainmail britches before taking that first metal bullet in the face. as you can imagine, there weren’t many of these early lop-sided slaughters, but the resulting shift in combat tactics was actually quite enormous.

during that first generation of war, all that really mattered was: 1) access to gunpowder, and 2) access to manpower. the guy with the most men (and, of course, the most guns) inevitably won.

into this strictly quantitative environment came the more qualitative age of military enlightenment…

generation two: manpower

even the guys with the guns didn’t like such an egregious imbalance of power (shooting fish in a barrel is only fun for so long), so once again, a military stalemate resumed. everyone knew that gun-on-gun battles at close range were bona fide slaughterhouses, and too many people were dying needlessly horrific deaths. the social cost alone became incentive enough for change, but that change didn’t exactly come “cheap”…

unlike bows and arrows, muskets were expensive and required significant infrastructure to produce. for the first time the industrial capacity (and wealth) of a nation became one of the central determinants of military success, conferring a significant advantage on the trading nations of western europe compared to the more agricultural nations of the east.

but unlike bows and arrows, muskets were easy to fire. anyone with just a few minutes of training could learn how to use them. and as greusome as they were in close combat, there was still one gigantic advantage in their massive european adoption…

the inaccuracy of the weapons necessitated large groups of massed soldiers. this led to a rapid swelling of the size of armies. for the first time huge masses of the population could enter combat, rather than just the highly skilled professionals. the drawing of men from across the nation into an organized corps helped breed national unity and patriotism, and during this period the modern notion of the nation state was born…

nationalism was a powerful military force, and helped concentrate macro-level social spending on initiatives that were “collectively beneficial” (like, for instance, a fully modernized army). outspending your neighbours on your military was a sure-fire strategy for imperial success. industrialization gave wealthy nations the ability to win their battles strictly based on size. and as the rich got richer (and bigger), their weapons and infrastructure got bigger and better.

the second generation required not just improved weaponry, but the evolution of an entire political, economic, and social structure to support it. second generation war grew from the society of the times (1914-1917). it required the international political structure that focused on the balance of power, formed the alliances, and stuck to them through four incredibly expensive, exhausting years of war. further, it required the output of an industrial society to design, produce, and transport the equipment and huge quantities of ammunition it consumed.

at that point, with one world war already under their belts, the armies of the world set out to actually learn how to use all that expensive modern weaponry. at long last, tactics would emerge as a driving force in conflict resolution. and this time, it was the germans who brought the best bottle of wine to the table.

generation three: tactical warfare

increasingly isolated after wwi, and with harsh economic sanctions restricting its industrial development, world war two presented the germans with a very serious dilemma. tremendously underfunded relative to their allied counterparts, the germans somehow needed to overcome their inferiority if they hoped to be even remotely successful in their expansionist military conquest.

third generation warfare was a response to the increase in battlefield firepower. however, the driving force was primarily ideas. aware they could not prevail in a contest of material because of their weaker industrial base, the germans developed radically new military strategy. based on maneuver rather than attrition, the attack relied on infiltration to bypass and collapse the enemy’s combat forces , rather than seeking to close with and destroy them directly. the defense was in depth and often invited penetration, which set the enemy up for a counterattack…

nothing scared the allies like the german word “blitzkrieg“. so radically different was this arian surprise attack that it actually shifted the tides of war in favour of the ruling national socialists, and christened the world with a new form of military power. as in the past, the third generation of warfare was an evolution inspired by necessity. the germans were fighting for a political cause, in the face of tremendous international pressure, and were actually able (if only for a brief moment) to overcome the combined military effort of nearly the entire industrialized world. third generational innovation was able to overpower some of the most highly mechanized and well-equiped armies in the world, effectively breaking the ties between militaryspending and military success.

which brings us naturally to…

generation four: asymmetrical warfare

the fourth generation has one defining characteristic: it’s the concept of “win at all costs”. in this generation, the lines between armies and civilians are blurred. wars between nations and “unaffiliated combatants” are now commonplace. anything that needs to be done to further a given political cause is completely acceptable under the framework of this fourth generation of war.

suicide bombers become acceptable means of soliciting change in a rival political entity. guerrilla ambushes become fully justified if the end result is partisan political gain. in the fourth generation, even the mightiest of the third generation powers can be knocked down to their knees by a group of motivated individuals, a minimal amount of capital, and the sort of “outside the box” thinking that inspired the tragic but fully expected events of september 11th, 2001.

today, everyone is both soldier and target. today, size is both a blessing and a curse. today, enemies can spring up from anywhere, and the innovative “blitzkrieg” is no longer confined to the battlefields of western europe and northern africa. in the fourth generation, freedom takes a back seat to “homeland security”, and the only real casualties are the civilians.

trading freedom for security

so what does it all mean? what does this fourth generation affect john q. everyman. well, one thing it doesn’t mean is that we’re actually “soldiers”, and that we should all shave our heads and visit our nearest weapons dealer as soon as humanly possible. what it does mean is that we have to start being more responsible for our actions as voting citizens of a representative democracy. we have to start taking a better look at the impact of our country’s foreign policy decisions, or we risk exposing our fourth generation achilles’ heel (i.e. a relatively free society) to those who might someday look to exploit it.

in the end, if we really want to march around the globe pointing our finger in everyone else’s face, then we better be prepared to face a significant “fourth generation” response. because every goliath will always have its david, and in the the entire history of the world, no single power has ever ruled forever.