Cyberpunk Review » Gibson on the 4th Generation War - We’re Losing!

August 1, 2006

Gibson on the 4th Generation War - We’re Losing!

Terminator Screencap


William Gibson posted a pretty interesting Blog entry a few days ago on the mismatch between the US’s military approach with what actually seems to be the direction of modern warfare. The idea of fourth generation warfare is raised. Wikipedia defines fourth generation warfare as follows:


Fourth generation warface is used to describe warfare’s return to a decentralized form. In terms of generational modern warfare, the fourth generation signifies the nation states’ loss of their monopoly on combat forces, returning in a sense to the uncontrolled combat of pre-modern times. The simplest definition includes any war in which one of the major participants is not a state but rather a violent ideological network. Fourth Generation wars are characterized by a blurring of the lines between war and politics, soldier and civilian, peace and conflict, battlefield and safety. While this term is similar to terrorism and asymmetric warfare, it is much narrower. Classical examples, such as the slave uprising under Spartacus or the assassination of Julius Caesar by the Roman senate, predate the modern concept of warfare and are examples of the type of combat modern warfare sought to eliminate. As such, fourth generation warfare uses classical tactics—tactics deemed unacceptable by the preceding generations—to weaken the technologically advantaged opponent’s will to win.


Gibson uses Thomas Khun’s notion of a paradigm shift (yes, this is a completely overused word) to describe the the change in the nature of warfare that seems to be well underway and speculates as to why the US hasn’t recognized the shift. In the end, Gibsons states:


The bad news is that the policy-makers of the United States and Israel apparently (still) don’t get the new paradigm, and the bad news is that Hezbollah (et al, and by their very nature) do. Though that’s only bad (or double-plus-ungood) if you accept, as I do, that the new paradigm allows for a more effective understanding of reality. So if you still like to pause to appreciate the action of phlogiston when you strike a match, you may well be okay with current events. So many, God help us, evidently are.


Here the US has spent billions on creating the groundwork for proto-Skynet, and unfortunately it seems that our adversaries have already passed us by. While we waste close to a hundred billion acquiring the F-22, a supra-awesome dogfighting plane who’s utility vanished when the wall fell, our adversaries have already adapted to this 4th generation warfare paradigm. In practice, it’s as if we’re trying to squash a thousand ants with an oversized hammer, while trying to be careful not to hit the non-combatants standing right next to the terror-ants. The terrorist organizations recognize that when the “dominant” force kills civilians, they lose in the court of public opinion (never mind the beheadings - these don’t count, right?). Worse, when the weaker force merely survives, this now translates as a victory. All this seems to significantly weaken the power of the aggressor’s advantage.

This notion of decentralized warfare seems to go in line with a range of changes. In a networked society, perhaps the notion of centralization itself has become obselete. We see huge tensions now with invasions of privacy rights, supra-search engines scanning through everything and so forth - all signs of a centralized control system asserting its power. But you almost have to wonder if we’re really just seeing the equivalent of a rubber band stretching past its tolerance levels in an attempt to keep a hold on everything. The fear of course is it eventually breaks, and social order comes crumbling down with it.


Appleseed Screencap


So what’s a useful strategy for a dominant power to win in a 4th Generation War? Clearly, the conventional tools of domination have lost their importance. Perhaps the answer is to become decentralized as well - to fully embrace a net-centric method of warfare in a way that emphasizes one to one combat, but one which still utilizes the technological advantage. One can almost envision a cyberpunked mecha-force coming to fruition, where high-tech soldiers are encased in armor and become the equivelant of ultra-mobile tanks invading the battlefield. Then again, perhaps a better strategy for victory is more complex, more nuanced, and involves more sedate methods of control. I know engagement and diplomacy don’t seem very sexy, and rarely seem to amount to significant progress, but perhaps a “sexy veneer” can be added to make this alternative seem more enticing.

In any event, its not too hard to imagine a scenario where a continued course in the current direction has a strong possibility of creating a cyberpunked dystopia not unlike some of the movies on this site. While that’s probably good for business here at CyberpunkReview (that is, if I was attempting to generate revenue from this site), unfortunately, I’m guessing it would be somewhat detrimental for the society at large. Then again, what’s the cyberpunked version of that old expression? Ah yes, “Think Locally, Act Globally!” Good for business indeed.

This post has been filed under Cyberpunked living by SFAM.


August 1, 2006

DannyV said:

Fascinating stuff.

I think there are few avenues where our inevitable fall into cyberpunk are as evident as modern warfare. The truly pathetic American notion of “we can kick anyone’s ass” is truly outdated in the modern battlefield(not insulting Americans, guys, I’m just saying it IS an attitude many have and one that is detrimental). The fact is, enemies of the American military are infinitely more adaptable, infinitely more dedicated, and infinitely less restrained. This is a result of many factors, including less military might(which forces them to utilize more clandestine methods, including possibly organized crime and, yes, terrorism), the homecourt advantage(something American soldiers will NEVER have), and moral and religious conviction. Foreign enemies have a truly frightening conviction of their righteousness of cause, and they utilize this to justify truly atrocious actions. However, the fact is, it works: not only are they able to thoroughly demoralize American troops, but they also cause loss of support back at home. In our globalized media world, this is even more dangerous, as any mishap by the military is instantly known the world over, and can cause loss of support both at home and by allied powers(Guantanamo Bay and the Iraqi prison abuses being some of the most prominent examples).

The sad part is that, IMHO, this is not so much a military problem as it is a diplomatic and political one. The fact is that the United States armed forces are arguably the best and best prepared in the world, but they CAN’T DO THEIR JOB. Political considerations and public image are more of a problem to them than to any other army on the planet. The US government is the US Army’s worst enemy. In the present administration, this is the most apparent it’s been in probably the whole of American military history. The fact is that our involvement(or, more accurately, our administration’s) in Iraq and Lebanon is not righteous at all. It is motivated by economic and political factors quite far from any actual consideration for human life. It is also an unwinable conflict: the Muslim states will ALWAYS be at war with Israel. They’ve been for literally THOUSANDS of years, for reasons older than any of the countries involved, and we have no business in meddling in their affairs. This is also a great example of the need for energetic independence: our reliance on foreign fuel drags us into conflicts we are not entitled to participate in. Hell, Brazil is completely energy self-sufficient! Why can’t the United States be??

I think the Army needs to find ways to be more effective without as much scrutiny. I think we need to take a more “Cold War” approach: more covert action and direct attack against enemy resources. The Navy SEALS, SPETSNAZ, the CIA, the former KGB and Mossad have demostrated how effective covert operations can be in weakening military opponents, and in today’s high-tech world, this approach not only would keep civilian(in fact, ALL) casualties at a minimum, but it would also permit much more focused and UNTRACEABLE warfare.

Some may say that it is immoral to use such methods for warfare(after all, it would be attacking foreign powers without public knowledge or approval), but newsflash: war is the ultimate immorality. It destroys lives, weakens men’s resolve, it lessens us all. But it is an inevitable thing. Since the dawn of human history, we have been at each other’s throats. We might as well try to do it as far from the average Joe as possible.

SFAM said:

Hi Danny, interesting post. Just to point out, we aren’t really involved in Lebanon, although we’ve clearly had an impact politically (not for the better). For the most part, I agree with you that the “strut our stuff and make you scared” approach (shock and awe as its now called) hasn’t worked at all. This, I think, was really at the heart of Bush Administration’s decision making process to invade Iraq - they thought that if they intimidated a random Arab country that everyone would back down. Instead, they opened up a powderkeg of Arab disagreements, all wrapped up in an ever-increasing hatred of outside invaders. In a conventional war, sure, this would be great stuff, but it doesn’t seem like we’re going to be fighting too many of these.

Your thoughts towards the clandestine side of things while scary, may be a successful response to a 4th generation warfare enemy. But in a sense, its acknowledging and stooping down to the beheading mindset, which I’m not really sold is the best course. I think possibly though, the answer lies in maximizing our leverage in all aspects - militarily, economically, politically, etc. I have no problem with the US keeping their economic and political interests in mind when dealing with foreign countries - in fact I expect them to, just as I would any country. The problem is when we miscalculate - horribly in some cases. We also still need to “feed the beast” that is our military industrial base. Unfortunately, these big ticket items seem pretty useless in today’s conflicts.

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