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Fifth-Generation War
Warfare versus the nonstate
by LtCol Stanton S. Coerr, USMCR

he United States is what Niall Ferguson calls an as its center of gravity. It will not have even the centers of
“empire-State,”1 depending upon grand strategy gravity, such as pride or religious fervor, that theorist William
in projecting both force and ideas. American ex- S. Lind describes. As radical Islam fractures—and becomes
port of force has been based on planning for a more dangerous—similar, associated, or even dispassionate
conflict that will be big, kinetic, morally crisp, statist, and fellow traveler movements will observe and exploit al-Qaeda’s
winnable—the World Wars I and II (WWI and II) model of success in becoming more powerful by losing mass. This
wars. In reality, our next conflict could well be small, morally enemy will not have centers of gravity at all.
confusing, and idea centered, and could end in an ambigu- Second, the accelerating chaos of the Third and Fourth
ous stalemate, combining all of the worst ends of Saigon, Worlds, shifting transnational alliances, and the increasing
Mogadishu, 11 September 2001 (9/11), and Baghdad. At interest of transnational actors in fomenting and supporting
the upper bound of conflict, Americans know how to win chaos will lead to the end of the state as prime mover and re-
air-land-sea battles with large conventional forces. At the dresser of grievance, putting paid to Lind’s “crisis of legiti-
lower bound of conflict, counterinsurgency and irregular
warfare experts2 deftly explain small, discrete revolutions in On the Web
the jungle or the urban wasteland; put causes to the reasons
men rebel; and think about how to stop the next Marxist or
Read more about Lind 4GW at
Islamic irregulars.
Yet as the primacy of other “states” recedes, and we stand
nearly alone, into the vacuum will step irrational actors,
united by a radical core belief in Islam. We are prepared at
the top and bottom of conflict, but not in the seam between >LtCol Coerr is a Cobra pilot and forward
them. It is this seam in which the next actors will grow. The air controller. He has deployed with a Ma-
rine attack squadron, a rifle battalion, and
rising global jihad, the insurgency that is the “vehicle of the an air/naval gunfire liaison company (AN-
coward,”3 presents the first such set of actors, and the old GLICO). LtCol Coerr was a liaison to the 1
rules of warfare will not apply. Royal Irish Battle Group during OIF I. He is
First, America’s fifth-generation warfare (5GW) irregular currently assigned to the Aviation Depart-
opponent will not have a traditional great man leader (who ment, HQMC. LtCol Coerr assumes com-
mand of 4th ANGLICO in January.
could be killed) or a field army (which could be destroyed)

Photo: We must ensure that our unit leaders are capable of dealing with the conflicts that fall between major theater war and counterin-
surgency. (Photo by Cpl Daniel J. Redding.)

Marine Corps Gazette • January 20 09 63


macy of the State.”4 Islam has no

state and is the stronger for it.
America is the ultimate expression
of the state,5 and as 4GW moves
to 5GW, we may be the weaker
Third, and because of reasons
one and two, success in this type
of warfare will vary inversely with
military force. As the state de-
clines, unitary actors will be less
powerful as they use military an-
swers to political questions. We
will not be able to kill our way to
Radical Islam is not a problem
that can be solved. It is not a thing
that can be destroyed. It is not an
army that can be outmaneuvered.
5GW fighters will win by stale-
mate, because ideological or mili-
tary stalemate, such as that on the
streets of Baghdad or in the
madrasas in Peshawar or in the
slums outside Paris, points up the
impotence of secular military Figure 1.
might. A rifle is no match for an
idea. These fighters win by not losing, while we lose by not that atom are electrons, orbiting around a nucleus, that do
winning. not have positions but probabilities of positions. Though
Fighting this opponent requires us, as Marines, to do two bound by a force, they move through valences, closer to and
things: farther away from that center, depending on energy states.
• Prepare for 5GW.6 The electrons closer in have more energy, and as they lose
• Think of conflict itself in a different way, not by coming energy they move farther away into empty atomic space. In
up with different answers but by reframing the questions. one stroke, quantum mechanics married the observable with
Our new model will be QTW—the Quantum Theory of the unknowable, the measurable with the imagined, and the
War. traditional, rational, and observed with the bizarre, unimag-
ined, and unprovable.

5GW: Background
“Real revolutions . . . don’t just pro- The first generation of war arose from the first generation
of the state as the coherent governing entity and describes an
vide a new answer, they change the arc of regimented, linear combat beginning from the Romans
very questions being asked.” at Cannae and Zama, pausing at the formalizing of the state
in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, and accelerating the killing
—Caitlin Flanagan7 up to and through the horrors of the American Civil War.9
The second, attritionist generation of war, began as man re-
alized what the state, massed and determined, could do—
The Model: Quantum Mechanics the horrors of World War I trench warfare and a stubborn
In the early- to mid-1900s, groundbreaking research on Prussian insistence on demanding an orderly battlefield im-
the structure of the atom yielded quantum theory,8 (see Fig- posed on chaos. If battle wasn’t organized, armies could be.
ure 1) which discarded linear thinking based on empiricism (See Figure 2.)
alone. Giants of science—Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, The third generation of war began at the point where the
Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrodinger, Kurt Godel—were deal- British Empire’s fall intersected10 with America’s rise from
ing with issues so complex that they invented not just new power to empire and corresponds directly with a rise in the
answers but new questions. Quantum physics asserts that the mechanization of war. Conflict moved from up-close murder
atom is almost an idea rather than an object, and that within to distant engagements with hardware, and the raw violence

64 Marine Corps Gazette • January 20 09

looms above both Boyd and Lind
and applies such operational the-
ory to the state level. Now states
do not fight for land and treasure,
but rather small groups fight for
(OIF) was the warfighting segue
into 4GW, which intersects with
Posen’s view of America’s fourth
new phase of national policy, ad-
justing from our orientation, to
full-scale war with the Soviets.
The 4GW, the generation in
which we are now, is a dynamic,
frightening, freewheeling type of
360-degree violence, with centers
of gravity unlike any to which the
American military has trained. It
is driven by and motivated by the
rise of radical Islam as an ideolog-
ical counterweight to what retired
Marine and professor Dr. Macku-
bin Owens calls American
Figure 2. “benevolent primacy.”

of war decreased in direct proportion to the beyond-visual- 5GW: The Fight

range externalization of violence. With its roots in World While Americans focus on winning battles, our opponent
War I, this generation carried Western armies through will be focused on winning wars. The threats he will present
DESERT STORM, emerging from German staff officers’ clear- will be “the marriage of instability and initiative,” not stand-
eyed views of the chaotic battlefield and a concomitant will- ing and fighting but in projecting “the smallest force at the
ingness to embrace chaos and substitute maneuver for men quickest time at the farthest place.”15 Such a place will not
marching into the bullets. This third generation, with its em- be a battlefield of our choosing; such a force will not be an
phasis on surfaces and gaps and on speed, tempo, shock, and infantry squad, or an airplane, or a ship. The weapon will
the independent action of young officers, is the cradle of mil- not be a club but a stiletto. The battlefield will be something
itary thinking from which today’s American officers were strange—cyberspace, or the Cleveland water supply, or Wall
raised.11 This set of ideas meshed nicely with Huntington’s Street’s banking systems, or YouTube. The mission will be
ideas on the progression of war—from an emperor’s acting to instilling fear, and it will succeed.
expand kingdoms to states’ acting in raw national interest. The lessons of the last two theater wars in Iraq are the
As the state grew more nimble, so did its backbone of mili- wrong ones. Our next opponent will have watched and qui-
tary leadership. etly learned the lessons of both Osama bin Laden and Saddam
In the midst of this third generation, and himself a prod- Hussein (the “only jerk stupid enough to go toe-to-toe with
uct of it, arose Air Force theorist Col John Boyd, a startlingly us”16) and will not strike into the teeth of the behemoth em-
original thinker on war and vectors of force. Boyd was tan- pire-state with conventional force. It will strike where we are
gential to the stepwise, progressive, chronological views of weakest, remain in the shadows, and promote chaos. We will
everyone else, and his ideas crosscut these generations, di- be attacked not with a club but with a stiletto. (See Figure 3.)
viding war into Napoleonic attrition (a bin into which he
lumps big wars, everything from WW I to nuclear conflict); Centers of Gravity in the Forever War
maneuver warfare focused on speed, shock, and tempo (from The Third and Fourth Worlds, those countries far from
the Mongols to Stonewall Jackson to GEN Hans Guderian); the means of commerce and which Dr. Jeffrey Sachs defines
and ending with moral war, starting with Sun Tzu and arc- as the most likely to slip,17 create a matrix in which the 5GW
ing to modern insurgency.12 Boyd viewed military force, will grow. These “nonintegrating”18 regions are characterized
though interesting, as simply one node (a physical one), by shifting (or ignored) borders, diaspora of the dispossessed,
which along with mental and moral nodes, creates a web of growing poverty, lack of state control, and unrelieved depri-
power centers that must be interwoven, exploited by Amer- vation of the common man. The emerging enemy does not
ican forces, and denied to opponents.13 Samuel Huntington need the support of one population. He is what LtCol Frank

Marine Corps Gazette • January 20 09 65


G. Hoffman, USMCR(Ret) calls

a “transdimensional actor”19—not
local but global, not tribal but
transnational or supranational,
not focused on near-term success
but on long-term victory. The
world is not necessarily moving
toward al-Qaeda but toward the
idea of al-Qaeda and away from
the United States and her ideals.
This is a distinction without a dif-
ference. There is now somewhere
for the angry, alienated underclass,
anywhere in the world, to turn.
Radical Islam is a unifying force
for 5GW violence.
Military action is traditionally
predicated upon defining, attack-
ing, and overwhelming an enemy
center of gravity, and protecting
one’s own. Traditional thinking,
formed around “European-style
armed forces of the Industrial
Age”20 placed such centers of grav- *OP TELIC is the British name for OIF.
ity in the place a rational actor
would have it—a physical place, a Figure 3.
general, a military force in the
field. Destroy that thing, and you destroy the force. Dr. Milan and ideology that Americans cannot penetrate. Under QTW,
Vego of the Naval War College describes the center of gravity the 5GW irregular forces, such as those we will face, revolve
as a “source of massed strength” which “provides a locus to- around the central belief of an irregular actor, bound by the
ward which all sources of power should be directed.”21 goals of a unifying belief that we cannot see, and floating
Under QTW, for precisely Vego’s reasons, the 5GW freely and without apparent pattern, without regard to names
enemy will have no center of gravity. He will not mass, will and lines on a map.
not present a locus, and will not draw strength from a source
of nonmilitary power. To do so would give the American mil-
itary machine something to shoot at. Indeed, to him, the
“[American] military will simply be irrelevant”22 as he looks “Only three percent of the 550 mil-
for other weaknesses. His followers will not be an organized lion small arms and light weapons,
military force but will float freely around a belief or an idea—
those with the most energy the closest to the center, those worldwide, are in the hands of gov-
more disinterested farther away, gaining or shedding energy ernment, military or police.”
as they move.23 His approach may be nihilist, irrational, fun-
damentally bizarre, militarily unsound, or transparently self- —Moises Naim25
defeating. He will kill his own people, use children to
murder, strap explosives to the mentally retarded, destroy his
own “state” inside a border, remain immune to military de-
feat, and accept his own death. “We keep killing these guys, and
Loss of Monopoly on First Loyalty:24 The Decline of the they just keep coming.”
State —LTC Michael Fenzel, USA,
The fundamental characteristic of a state is a monopoly on
lethal force. However, the state as a concept lasts only as long Commander, 1/503d (Airborne),
as governing forces can answer grievances of the populace. Afghanistan,
The war in Iraq and the rise of the global jihad has intro-
duced the nonstate actors to the arena—ad hoc groups linked February 2008
to one another through webs of religion, tribe, race, family,

66 Marine Corps Gazette • January 20 09

The common man is not, however, impervious to suffer-
“We finished the fight, and we had ing and poverty, and it is here that the insurgencies that will
characterize 5GW will rise. As groups of people—whether
a few prisoners. I sent out the troops nations, states, polities, tribes, or clans—see their capabili-
to clean up, and I grabbed the guy ties and their expectations diverging, their frustration will
grow. The driver of anger which the Fourth World must suf-
who looked most senior. I finally fer is not only the raw, grinding deprivation that horrifies
asked him straight up: ‘Why are you Americans, it is a relative deprivation in which people see
others leaving them behind and in which their values of wel-
fighting us? What is it you want?’ He fare, power, and interpersonal pride are thwarted or ignored.
said, ‘I don’t want anything. I’m just (See Figure 4.)
This is why insurgencies do not grow in places like Cal-
here to kill Americans.’” cutta, Darfur, Cite Soleil, or Abidjan, despite their grinding
—Marine infantry officer, Iraq26 hand-to-mouth poverty, but rise strongly in (relatively) af-
fluent places like Watts or San Salvador or Cape Town. There
is a larger, wealthier group at whom the desperately poor di-
The fifth-generation force, currently nucleated around rect anger. In such places will 5GW flourish, as the state fades
radical Islam, is growing. The war in Iraq has placed before as a competent entity for delivering political goods to its peo-
such a protean enemy sharp targets, in the form of American ple. In its place will grow “big man” leaders, finding a seam;
soldiers and Marines. retaining a monopoly on lethal force; providing a resonant
Bin laden has now set the world on the course to 5GW, not narrative of anger at the previous government as the agency
by entering the conventional military contest in which he of final disappointment; mobilizing anger; uniting those oth-
would be outmatched, but because he has set up a counter to erwise separated by religion, class, race, or tribe into an in-
Western secular thought. His is the alternative ideological sys- surgent vector; and fomenting internal war.29
tem. Yet, as states cleave along the lines of ethnicity, tribe, and The QTW, therefore, applies. Radical Islam is not a Com-
religion, “the people may not be the prize,”27 thereby upend- munist pole, a Marxist line in the sand, a Meadian node, or
ing all modern theories about fighting these types of war—in- one of Boyd’s power centers, but rather it is scattered enti-
surgency, guerrilla campaign, revolution, irregular war—against ties—boys, gangs, militias, soldiers, clerics—floating inco-
a formless foe. We want to promote American ideas overseas, herently around an idea. Radical Islam is not an organized
but the “common man is apolitical and is impervious to such hierarchy. It is a clearinghouse for violence.30 (See Figure 5.)
abstract ideals as democracy and representative government.”28
S = 1/Ve: Success Will Vary In-
versely to Exported Violence
The American focus on mili-
tary technology, winning by
killing, creates a fundamental
problem: precisely the same tech-
nology that wins conventional
wars loses unconventional ones. A
counterterrorism framework per-
petuates U.S. vulnerabilities over
the long term, as U.S. methods
will have to become more violent
to achieve continued success in
killing and capturing terrorists.31
Using our military strength
against us, Osama bin Laden
destabilized the entire Western
world, drove us into spending
what could end up as over $3 tril-
lion,32 turned both the angry
world underclass and the educated
European elite against the very
idea of American power, ground
world financial markets to a halt,
Figure 4. and ignited a two-front war. For

Marine Corps Gazette • January 20 09 67


America, in the end, does have

that preponderance of military
power that the Powell Doctrine35
prescribes. But as the 5GW
dawns, radical Islam is providing a
central idea—a unifying force—
to which those angry at American
preeminence are drawn. They
aren’t a coherent army and give us
nothing to shoot at. In the 5GW,
that may be enough to win.

1. Ferguson, Niall, The War of the
World, Penguin Group, New York, 2006,
title of Part II, beginning p. 189.

2. Chief among these are Kitson, Galula,

Vann, Halberstam, Boot, Nagl, and Fer-
tig. These men are all experts in insur-
gencies and small wars, though mostly
wars of Maoist bent and Asian and Latin
American foci. They all, however, stand
in the shadow of Dr. Bernard Fall, the
preeminent thinker on small wars, who
was killed while on patrol with the
Figure 5. Marines on the Street Without Joy in
Vietnam in 1967.
the 5GW fighter, such terror is an inexpensive tool of insta-
bility: 3. Chisholm, Dr. Donald, Naval War College, Joint Military Operations
faculty, discussion with author, 9 January 2008.
[T]errorist attacks themselves do tend to be relatively cheap.
The 9/11 attacks cost between $300,000 and $500,000, and 4. Lind, William S., Fleet Marine Force Manual 1A (FMFM 1A), Fourth
according to UN estimates no other al-Qaeda-related attack, Generation War: The Austro-Hungarian Marine Corps, Marine Corps
including the Bali, London, Madrid and East Africa embassy Combat Development Command, Quantico, June 2007.
bombings, has cost more than $50,000, and most have cost a
small fraction of that.33 5. Ullman, Richard, “Redefining Security,” International Security, Vol. 8,
America reacted to 9/11 precisely as Bin Laden knew we Summer 1983, p. 129. Ullman insists:
would and hoped we would: with a huge, public, angry, uni- Defining national security merely, or even primarily, in military terms conveys
lateral, military lashing out in Muslim lands. In doing so, we a profoundly false image of reality. [Such definition] causes States to concen-
trate on military threats and to ignore other, and perhaps more harmful dan-
allowed Bin Laden to become the voice for the Muslim gers.
world, to point out the presence of armed Christian armies
on Muslim holy land, and to become the cave-dwelling Arab 6. Several scholars and thinkers have made stabs at defining 5GW. This is
Muslim authentic in the face of First World mechanized because 5GW will itself be almost undefinable. William Lind provided a
overkill. It is as if Bin Laden had read Boyd, who seems to definition in 2004 with a blog entitled “5GW?” See note 17 for further
have foreseen the American military overreaction to the 9/11 discussion of Lind. Next came Tom Barnett on his weblog entitled, “My
Own Personal 5GW Dream,” available at,
attacks when he explains:
16 October 2006.
[You must] repeatedly and unexpectedly tie-up, divert, stretch-
out, or drain-away adversary attention and strength in order 7. Flanagan, Caitlin, “A Woman’s Place,” Atlantic Monthly, January 2008,
to expose vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and (thereby) keep p. 118.
pressure on and continually force adversary to adapt to many
abrupt and irregular changes when the adversary is strung-out, 8. See Figure 1. It is critically important to understand that though the
or disconnected. Pull adversary apart by causing him to gen- Bohr atom presented, and the QTW next to it, appear neat and orderly, like
erate or project mental images that agree neither with the stars orbiting a planet, they are not. The depictions created are a way for the
faster tempo nor rhythm nor with the transient maneuver pat- Western mind to organize the idea of entities’ gaining or losing energy as
terns he must compete against. Enmesh adversary in a world they move closer to or farther from a center and are acted upon by a force.
of uncertainty, doubt, mistrust, confusion, disorder, fear, panic These diagrams don’t show the position of objects; they show the proba-
[and] chaos.34 bility that an object will be in a locus at a given moment. For discussion of
quantum theory, see Palle Yourgrau, A World Without Time (Basic Books,

68 Marine Corps Gazette • January 20 09

2004); Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters (Morrow, 1979); and Bill 25. Naim, Moises, “The Five Wars of Globalization,” Foreign Policy, Jan-
Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (Broadway, 2003). uary-February 2003, p. 30.

9. Numerous works cover this topic, from the time (and works) of Cicero to 26. Boyce, Maj Giles “Russ,” Operations Officer, 3d Battalion, 4th
the work of Shelby Foote and Douglas Southall Freeman. Niall Ferguson and Marines, and commander of forces in Haditha, Iraq. Interview with au-
Max Boot have looked at such first-generation war from the state perspective. thor, February 2005.

10. See Figure 3 on empire-states. 27. Hoffman, p. 80.

11. Ideas on the generations of warfare come from several sources, most 28. Fertig, LTC Randall, USA, Symposium on Counterinsurgency,
notably William Lind, who has published a draft of FMFM 1A. Lind was RAND Corporation, 1963, p. 80.
a favorite of Marine Commandant Alfred M. Gray, and Lind’s ideas have
permeated all Marine Corps professional education for 20 years; as the 29. The ideas of drives being frustrated, of the agency of final disappoint-
number “1” would suggest, these manuals are the bedrock on which Ma- ment, and of the power of crowd dynamics comes from Ted Robert Gurr,
rine officer instruction is based. See also Walter Russell Mead’s discussions Why Men Rebel, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1970. Gurr
of hard and sharp power in Chapter Two, Power, Terror, Peace and War, is a sociologist but truly understands crowds and violence. See Figure 5
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004, and Frank Hoffman, Parameters, Sum- that was created to illustrate these points.
mer 2007, who delineates crisply the debate between the classical school
of rational actor-driven war and this uncomfortable fourth generation in 30. David Kilcullen is a former Australian Army infantry officer and an ex-
which we find ourselves. pert in counterinsurgency and was, until fall of 2007, senior counterin-
surgency advisor to GEN David Petraeus, USA. To Kilcullen goes the
12. Boyd, Col John, USAF, Patterns of Conflict, 1986 (no copyright), p. credit for the idea of al-Qaeda as the “clearinghouse” for the global jihad.
111. Boyd is particularly interested in how to “pull an opponent apart.” He points out that the jihad is not what the insurgency is; it is what the
Such action need not be, and properly expressed, often is not, military or insurgency does. Nonetheless, the global jihad and the global insurgency
even kinetic. Just like Sun Tzu, Boyd would rather win without fighting. are right now one and the same.
His ideas correlate directly with those of Osama bin Laden.
31. Johnson III, COL James, USA, Joint Military Operations final paper,
13. Lind, FMFM 1A. These ideas permeate the book. See also Boyd. Naval War College, Newport, RI, November 2007, p. 9.

14. Huntington, Samuel, The Clash of Civilizations, Simon and Schuster, 32. See Linda J. Bilmes and Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Three Trillion Dollar
New York, 1986. Huntington takes a hard-eyed, realist view of the world, War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, W.W. Norton, New York, March
insisting that the West and the “non-West” are rising in concert and in- 2008. These researchers used econometrics to figure out how much the
sisting that one cannot understand conflict without understanding cul- war, in and of itself and separated from normal military spending, will
ture. Huntington is academic, dour, and contrarian—and invariably right. cost.

15. Boyd, pp. 64 and 107. 33. Bennett, Drake, “Small Change: why we can’t fight terrorists by cut-
ting off their money,” (sic) The Boston Globe, 20 January 2008, p. K2.
16. Zinni, Gen Anthony C., USMC(Ret), breakfast meeting with author, Uni-
versity of San Diego (USD), April 2004. The discussion has been transcribed, 34. Boyd, pp. 155, 177.
recorded, and published by USD’s Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice.
35. Marine officers are seasoned on the Powell Doctrine, but such insis-
17. Sachs, Jeffrey, “The Geography of Economic Development,” Strategy tence on overwhelming force draws from the underpinning provided by
and Foreign Policy, Naval War College Press, Newport, RI, 2006, p. 272. BG Fox Connor, USA, the little-known mentor to both GENs George C.
Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower. See Mark Perry, Partners in Com-
18. Barnett, Thomas P.M., The Pentagon’s New Map, Putnam, New York, mand, (Penguin Books, 2007). Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, in his
2004. This idea permeates the book. article, “Reflections on Leadership,” in the Summer 2008 issue of Param-
eters, provides an interesting analysis of this intellectual thread. Connor’s
19. Hoffman, LtCol Frank G., USMCR(Ret), “Neo-Classical Coun- three rules of war are never fight unless you have to, never fight alone, and
terinsurgency,” Parameters, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, PA, Sum- never fight for long.
mer 2007, p. 78.
>Editor’s Note: The author holds a master’s degree from Harvard’s
20. Department of Defense, Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept, John F. Kennedy School of Government and graduated with high-
11 September 2007, p. 7. est distinction from the Naval War College in 2008. While at the
Naval War College, his thesis, “Don’t Trust the Big Man,” delved
21. Vego, Milan, Operational Warfare, United States Naval War College, further into the ideas explored in this article, using Africa below the
Newport, RI, Lesson 1004, p. 309. Sahel as the case study on which this article is based. His thesis is
available at the Defense Technical Information Center website.
22. Lind, FMFM 1A.

23. See Figure 1. Bohr atom versus QTW model. Join the De-
24. Lind, 5GW blog.
Agree or Disagree? Join the discussion at

Marine Corps Gazette • January 20 09 69