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


he United States is what Niall Ferguson calls an “empire-State,”1 depending upon grand strategy in projecting both force and ideas. American export of force has been based on planning for a conflict that will be big, kinetic, morally crisp, statist, and winnable—the World Wars I and II (WWI and II) model of wars. In reality, our next conflict could well be small, morally confusing, and idea centered, and could end in an ambiguous stalemate, combining all of the worst ends of Saigon, Mogadishu, 11 September 2001 (9/11), and Baghdad. At the upper bound of conflict, Americans know how to win air-land-sea battles with large conventional forces. At the lower bound of conflict, counterinsurgency and irregular warfare experts2 deftly explain small, discrete revolutions in the jungle or the urban wasteland; put causes to the reasons men rebel; and think about how to stop the next Marxist or 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 them. It is this seam in which the next actors will grow. The rising global jihad, the insurgency that is the “vehicle of the coward,”3 presents the first such set of actors, and the old rules of warfare will not apply. First, America’s fifth-generation warfare (5GW) irregular opponent will not have a traditional great man leader (who could be killed) or a field army (which could be destroyed)

as its center of gravity. It will not have even the centers of gravity, such as pride or religious fervor, that theorist William S. Lind describes. As radical Islam fractures—and becomes more dangerous—similar, associated, or even dispassionate fellow traveler movements will observe and exploit al-Qaeda’s success in becoming more powerful by losing mass. This enemy will not have centers of gravity at all. Second, the accelerating chaos of the Third and Fourth Worlds, shifting transnational alliances, and the increasing interest of transnational actors in fomenting and supporting chaos will lead to the end of the state as prime mover and redresser of grievance, putting paid to Lind’s “crisis of legitiOn the Web

Read more about Lind 4GW at www.mca-marines.org/gazette/5GW.

>LtCol Coerr is a Cobra pilot and forward air controller. He has deployed with a Marine attack squadron, a rifle battalion, and an air/naval gunfire liaison company (ANGLICO). LtCol Coerr was a liaison to the 1 Royal Irish Battle Group during OIF I. He is currently assigned to the Aviation Department, HQMC. LtCol Coerr assumes command of 4th ANGLICO in January.

Photo: We must ensure that our unit leaders are capable of dealing with the conflicts that fall between major theater war and counterinsurgency. (Photo by Cpl Daniel J. Redding.)
Marine Corps Gazette • January 20 09 www.mca-marines.org/gazette 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 force. Third, and because of reasons one and two, success in this type of warfare will vary inversely with military force. As the state declines, unitary actors will be less powerful as they use military answers to political questions. We will not be able to kill our way to victory. 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 stalemate, because ideological or military 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 might. A rifle is no match for an idea. These fighters win by not losing, while we lose by not winning. Fighting this opponent requires us, as Marines, to do two things: • Prepare for 5GW.6 • Think of conflict itself in a different way, not by coming up with different answers but by reframing the questions. Our new model will be QTW—the Quantum Theory of War.

Figure 1.

that atom are electrons, orbiting around a nucleus, that do not have positions but probabilities of positions. Though bound by a force, they move through valences, closer to and farther away from that center, depending on energy states. The electrons closer in have more energy, and as they lose energy they move farther away into empty atomic space. In one stroke, quantum mechanics married the observable with the unknowable, the measurable with the imagined, and the traditional, rational, and observed with the bizarre, unimagined, and unprovable. 5GW: Background The first generation of war arose from the first generation of the state as the coherent governing entity and describes an arc of regimented, linear combat beginning from the Romans at Cannae and Zama, pausing at the formalizing of the state in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, and accelerating the killing up to and through the horrors of the American Civil War.9 The second, attritionist generation of war, began as man realized what the state, massed and determined, could do— the horrors of World War I trench warfare and a stubborn Prussian insistence on demanding an orderly battlefield imposed on chaos. If battle wasn’t organized, armies could be. (See Figure 2.) The third generation of war began at the point where the British Empire’s fall intersected10 with America’s rise from power to empire and corresponds directly with a rise in the mechanization of war. Conflict moved from up-close murder to distant engagements with hardware, and the raw violence
Marine Corps Gazette • January 20 09

“Real revolutions . . . don’t just provide a new answer, they change the very questions being asked.” —Caitlin Flanagan7
The Model: Quantum Mechanics In the early- to mid-1900s, groundbreaking research on the structure of the atom yielded quantum theory,8 (see Figure 1) which discarded linear thinking based on empiricism alone. Giants of science—Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrodinger, Kurt Godel—were dealing with issues so complex that they invented not just new answers but new questions. Quantum physics asserts that the atom is almost an idea rather than an object, and that within
64 www.mca-marines.org/gazette

Figure 2.

looms above both Boyd and Lind and applies such operational theory to the state level. Now states do not fight for land and treasure, but rather small groups fight for ideas.14 Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF) was the warfighting segue into 4GW, which intersects with Posen’s view of America’s fourth new phase of national policy, adjusting 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 ideological counterweight to what retired Marine and professor Dr. Mackubin Owens calls American “benevolent primacy.” 5GW: The Fight While Americans focus on winning battles, our opponent will be focused on winning wars. The threats he will present will be “the marriage of instability and initiative,” not standing and fighting but in projecting “the smallest force at the quickest time at the farthest place.”15 Such a place will not be a battlefield of our choosing; such a force will not be an infantry squad, or an airplane, or a ship. The weapon will not be a club but a stiletto. The battlefield will be something strange—cyberspace, or the Cleveland water supply, or Wall Street’s banking systems, or YouTube. The mission will be instilling fear, and it will succeed. The lessons of the last two theater wars in Iraq are the wrong ones. Our next opponent will have watched and quietly learned the lessons of both Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein (the “only jerk stupid enough to go toe-to-toe with us”16) and will not strike into the teeth of the behemoth empire-state with conventional force. It will strike where we are weakest, remain in the shadows, and promote chaos. We will be attacked not with a club but with a stiletto. (See Figure 3.) Centers of Gravity in the Forever War The Third and Fourth Worlds, those countries far from the means of commerce and which Dr. Jeffrey Sachs defines as the most likely to slip,17 create a matrix in which the 5GW will grow. These “nonintegrating”18 regions are characterized by shifting (or ignored) borders, diaspora of the dispossessed, growing poverty, lack of state control, and unrelieved deprivation of the common man. The emerging enemy does not need the support of one population. He is what LtCol Frank
www.mca-marines.org/gazette 65

of war decreased in direct proportion to the beyond-visualrange externalization of violence. With its roots in World War I, this generation carried Western armies through DESERT STORM, emerging from German staff officers’ cleareyed views of the chaotic battlefield and a concomitant willingness to embrace chaos and substitute maneuver for men marching into the bullets. This third generation, with its emphasis on surfaces and gaps and on speed, tempo, shock, and the independent action of young officers, is the cradle of military thinking from which today’s American officers were raised.11 This set of ideas meshed nicely with Huntington’s ideas on the progression of war—from an emperor’s acting to expand kingdoms to states’ acting in raw national interest. As the state grew more nimble, so did its backbone of military leadership. In the midst of this third generation, and himself a product of it, arose Air Force theorist Col John Boyd, a startlingly original thinker on war and vectors of force. Boyd was tangential to the stepwise, progressive, chronological views of everyone else, and his ideas crosscut these generations, dividing war into Napoleonic attrition (a bin into which he lumps big wars, everything from WW I to nuclear conflict); maneuver warfare focused on speed, shock, and tempo (from the Mongols to Stonewall Jackson to GEN Hans Guderian); and ending with moral war, starting with Sun Tzu and arcing to modern insurgency.12 Boyd viewed military force, though interesting, as simply one node (a physical one), which along with mental and moral nodes, creates a web of power centers that must be interwoven, exploited by American forces, and denied to opponents.13 Samuel Huntington
Marine Corps Gazette • January 20 09

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 difference. 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, attacking, 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 and ideology that Americans cannot penetrate. Under QTW, field. Destroy that thing, and you destroy the force. Dr. Milan the 5GW irregular forces, such as those we will face, revolve Vego of the Naval War College describes the center of gravity around the central belief of an irregular actor, bound by the as a “source of massed strength” which “provides a locus togoals of a unifying belief that we cannot see, and floating ward which all sources of power should be directed.”21 freely and without apparent pattern, without regard to names Under QTW, for precisely Vego’s reasons, the 5GW and lines on a map. enemy will have no center of gravity. He will not mass, will not present a locus, and will not draw strength from a source of nonmilitary power. To do so would give the American military machine something to shoot at. Indeed, to him, the “Only three percent of the 550 mil“[American] military will simply be irrelevant”22 as he looks 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— worldwide, are in the hands of govthose with the most energy the closest to the center, those more disinterested farther away, gaining or shedding energy ernment, military or police.” as they move.23 His approach may be nihilist, irrational, fun—Moises Naim25 damentally bizarre, militarily unsound, or transparently selfdefeating. 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 defeat, and accept his own death. “We keep killing these guys, and Loss of Monopoly on First Loyalty:24 The Decline of the State The fundamental characteristic of a state is a monopoly on lethal force. However, the state as a concept lasts only as long as governing forces can answer grievances of the populace. The war in Iraq and the rise of the global jihad has introduced the nonstate actors to the arena—ad hoc groups linked to one another through webs of religion, tribe, race, family,
66 www.mca-marines.org/gazette

they just keep coming.” —LTC Michael Fenzel, USA, Commander, 1/503d (Airborne), Afghanistan, February 2008

Marine Corps Gazette • January 20 09

“We finished the fight, and we had a few prisoners. I sent out the troops to clean up, and I grabbed the guy who looked most senior. I finally asked him straight up: ‘Why are you fighting us? What is it you want?’ He said, ‘I don’t want anything. I’m just here to kill Americans.’” —Marine infantry officer, Iraq26
The fifth-generation force, currently nucleated around radical Islam, is growing. The war in Iraq has placed before such a protean enemy sharp targets, in the form of American soldiers and Marines. Bin laden has now set the world on the course to 5GW, not by entering the conventional military contest in which he would be outmatched, but because he has set up a counter to Western secular thought. His is the alternative ideological system. Yet, as states cleave along the lines of ethnicity, tribe, and religion, “the people may not be the prize,”27 thereby upending all modern theories about fighting these types of war—insurgency, guerrilla campaign, revolution, irregular war—against a formless foe. We want to promote American ideas overseas, but the “common man is apolitical and is impervious to such abstract ideals as democracy and representative government.”28

The common man is not, however, impervious to suffering and poverty, and it is here that the insurgencies that will characterize 5GW will rise. As groups of people—whether nations, states, polities, tribes, or clans—see their capabilities and their expectations diverging, their frustration will grow. The driver of anger which the Fourth World must suffer is not only the raw, grinding deprivation that horrifies Americans, it is a relative deprivation in which people see others leaving them behind and in which their values of welfare, power, and interpersonal pride are thwarted or ignored. (See Figure 4.) This is why insurgencies do not grow in places like Calcutta, Darfur, Cite Soleil, or Abidjan, despite their grinding hand-to-mouth poverty, but rise strongly in (relatively) affluent places like Watts or San Salvador or Cape Town. There is a larger, wealthier group at whom the desperately poor direct anger. In such places will 5GW flourish, as the state fades as a competent entity for delivering political goods to its people. In its place will grow “big man” leaders, finding a seam; retaining a monopoly on lethal force; providing a resonant narrative of anger at the previous government as the agency of final disappointment; mobilizing anger; uniting those otherwise separated by religion, class, race, or tribe into an insurgent vector; and fomenting internal war.29 The QTW, therefore, applies. Radical Islam is not a Communist pole, a Marxist line in the sand, a Meadian node, or one of Boyd’s power centers, but rather it is scattered entities—boys, gangs, militias, soldiers, clerics—floating incoherently around an idea. Radical Islam is not an organized hierarchy. It is a clearinghouse for violence.30 (See Figure 5.) S = 1/Ve: Success Will Vary Inversely to Exported Violence The American focus on military technology, winning by killing, creates a fundamental problem: precisely the same technology that wins conventional wars loses unconventional ones. A counterterrorism framework perpetuates 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 trillion,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, and ignited a two-front war. For
www.mca-marines.org/gazette 67

Figure 4.
Marine Corps Gazette • January 20 09

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.
Notes 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 Fertig. These men are all experts in insurgencies 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 Marines on the Street Without Joy in Vietnam in 1967. 3. Chisholm, Dr. Donald, Naval War College, Joint Military Operations faculty, discussion with author, 9 January 2008. 4. Lind, William S., Fleet Marine Force Manual 1A (FMFM 1A), Fourth Generation War: The Austro-Hungarian Marine Corps, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Quantico, June 2007. 5. Ullman, Richard, “Redefining Security,” International Security, Vol. 8, Summer 1983, p. 129. Ullman insists:
Defining national security merely, or even primarily, in military terms conveys a profoundly false image of reality. [Such definition] causes States to concentrate on military threats and to ignore other, and perhaps more harmful dangers.

Figure 5.

the 5GW fighter, such terror is an inexpensive tool of instability:
[T]errorist attacks themselves do tend to be relatively cheap. The 9/11 attacks cost between $300,000 and $500,000, and according to UN estimates no other al-Qaeda-related attack, including the Bali, London, Madrid and East Africa embassy bombings, has cost more than $50,000, and most have cost a small fraction of that.33

America reacted to 9/11 precisely as Bin Laden knew we would and hoped we would: with a huge, public, angry, unilateral, military lashing out in Muslim lands. In doing so, we allowed Bin Laden to become the voice for the Muslim world, to point out the presence of armed Christian armies on Muslim holy land, and to become the cave-dwelling Arab Muslim authentic in the face of First World mechanized overkill. It is as if Bin Laden had read Boyd, who seems to have foreseen the American military overreaction to the 9/11 attacks when he explains:
[You must] repeatedly and unexpectedly tie-up, divert, stretchout, or drain-away adversary attention and strength in order to expose vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and (thereby) keep pressure on and continually force adversary to adapt to many abrupt and irregular changes when the adversary is strung-out, or disconnected. Pull adversary apart by causing him to generate or project mental images that agree neither with the faster tempo nor rhythm nor with the transient maneuver patterns he must compete against. Enmesh adversary in a world of uncertainty, doubt, mistrust, confusion, disorder, fear, panic [and] chaos.34
68 www.mca-marines.org/gazette

6. Several scholars and thinkers have made stabs at defining 5GW. This is because 5GW will itself be almost undefinable. William Lind provided a definition in 2004 with a blog entitled “5GW?” See note 17 for further discussion of Lind. Next came Tom Barnett on his weblog entitled, “My Own Personal 5GW Dream,” available at www.thomaspmbarnett.com, 16 October 2006. 7. Flanagan, Caitlin, “A Woman’s Place,” Atlantic Monthly, January 2008, p. 118. 8. See Figure 1. It is critically important to understand that though the Bohr atom presented, and the QTW next to it, appear neat and orderly, like stars orbiting a planet, they are not. The depictions created are a way for the Western mind to organize the idea of entities’ gaining or losing energy as they move closer to or farther from a center and are acted upon by a force. These diagrams don’t show the position of objects; they show the probability 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,
Marine Corps Gazette • January 20 09

2004); Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters (Morrow, 1979); and Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (Broadway, 2003). 9. Numerous works cover this topic, from the time (and works) of Cicero to the work of Shelby Foote and Douglas Southall Freeman. Niall Ferguson and Max Boot have looked at such first-generation war from the state perspective. 10. See Figure 3 on empire-states. 11. Ideas on the generations of warfare come from several sources, most notably William Lind, who has published a draft of FMFM 1A. Lind was a favorite of Marine Commandant Alfred M. Gray, and Lind’s ideas have permeated all Marine Corps professional education for 20 years; as the number “1” would suggest, these manuals are the bedrock on which Marine officer instruction is based. See also Walter Russell Mead’s discussions of hard and sharp power in Chapter Two, Power, Terror, Peace and War, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004, and Frank Hoffman, Parameters, Summer 2007, who delineates crisply the debate between the classical school of rational actor-driven war and this uncomfortable fourth generation in which we find ourselves. 12. Boyd, Col John, USAF, Patterns of Conflict, 1986 (no copyright), p. 111. Boyd is particularly interested in how to “pull an opponent apart.” Such action need not be, and properly expressed, often is not, military or even kinetic. Just like Sun Tzu, Boyd would rather win without fighting. His ideas correlate directly with those of Osama bin Laden. 13. Lind, FMFM 1A. These ideas permeate the book. See also Boyd. 14. Huntington, Samuel, The Clash of Civilizations, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1986. Huntington takes a hard-eyed, realist view of the world, insisting that the West and the “non-West” are rising in concert and insisting that one cannot understand conflict without understanding culture. Huntington is academic, dour, and contrarian—and invariably right. 15. Boyd, pp. 64 and 107. 16. Zinni, Gen Anthony C., USMC(Ret), breakfast meeting with author, University of San Diego (USD), April 2004. The discussion has been transcribed, recorded, and published by USD’s Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. 17. Sachs, Jeffrey, “The Geography of Economic Development,” Strategy and Foreign Policy, Naval War College Press, Newport, RI, 2006, p. 272. 18. Barnett, Thomas P.M., The Pentagon’s New Map, Putnam, New York, 2004. This idea permeates the book. 19. Hoffman, LtCol Frank G., USMCR(Ret), “Neo-Classical Counterinsurgency,” Parameters, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, PA, Summer 2007, p. 78. 20. Department of Defense, Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept, 11 September 2007, p. 7. 21. Vego, Milan, Operational Warfare, United States Naval War College, Newport, RI, Lesson 1004, p. 309. 22. Lind, FMFM 1A. 23. See Figure 1. Bohr atom versus QTW model. 24. Lind, 5GW blog.

25. Naim, Moises, “The Five Wars of Globalization,” Foreign Policy, January-February 2003, p. 30. 26. Boyce, Maj Giles “Russ,” Operations Officer, 3d Battalion, 4th Marines, and commander of forces in Haditha, Iraq. Interview with author, February 2005. 27. Hoffman, p. 80. 28. Fertig, LTC Randall, USA, Symposium on Counterinsurgency, RAND Corporation, 1963, p. 80. 29. The ideas of drives being frustrated, of the agency of final disappointment, and of the power of crowd dynamics comes from Ted Robert Gurr, Why Men Rebel, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1970. Gurr is a sociologist but truly understands crowds and violence. See Figure 5 that was created to illustrate these points. 30. David Kilcullen is a former Australian Army infantry officer and an expert in counterinsurgency and was, until fall of 2007, senior counterinsurgency advisor to GEN David Petraeus, USA. To Kilcullen goes the credit for the idea of al-Qaeda as the “clearinghouse” for the global jihad. He points out that the jihad is not what the insurgency is; it is what the insurgency does. Nonetheless, the global jihad and the global insurgency are right now one and the same. 31. Johnson III, COL James, USA, Joint Military Operations final paper, Naval War College, Newport, RI, November 2007, p. 9. 32. See Linda J. Bilmes and Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, W.W. Norton, New York, March 2008. These researchers used econometrics to figure out how much the war, in and of itself and separated from normal military spending, will cost. 33. Bennett, Drake, “Small Change: why we can’t fight terrorists by cutting off their money,” (sic) The Boston Globe, 20 January 2008, p. K2. 34. Boyd, pp. 155, 177. 35. Marine officers are seasoned on the Powell Doctrine, but such insistence on overwhelming force draws from the underpinning provided by BG Fox Connor, USA, the little-known mentor to both GENs George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower. See Mark Perry, Partners in Command, (Penguin Books, 2007). Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, in his article, “Reflections on Leadership,” in the Summer 2008 issue of Parameters, provides an interesting analysis of this intellectual thread. Connor’s three rules of war are never fight unless you have to, never fight alone, and never fight for long.

>Editor’s Note: The author holds a master’s degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and graduated with highest distinction from the Naval War College in 2008. While at the Naval War College, his thesis, “Don’t Trust the Big Man,” delved further into the ideas explored in this article, using Africa below the Sahel as the case study on which this article is based. His thesis is available at the Defense Technical Information Center website.
Join the Debate

Agree or Disagree? Join the discussion at www.mca-marines.org/gazette/Coerr.

Marine Corps Gazette • January 20 09

www.mca-marines.org/gazette 69

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful