This is not a practical guide. But it establishes core principles that need to be understood, from which specific practices and policies can be developed.
The Three Classic Levels of War
The three classic levels of war – strategic, operational, and tactical – still exist in Fourth Generation war. But all three are affected, and to some extent changed, by the Fourth Generation. One important change is that, while in the first three generations strategy was the province of generals, the Fourth Generation has given us the “strategic corporal.” These days, the actions of a single enlisted man can have strategic consequences, especially if they happen to take place when cameras are rolling.
What succeeds on the tactical level can easily be counter-productive at the operational and strategic levels. For example, by using their overwhelming firepower at the tactical level, state forces may in some cases intimidate the local population into fearing them and leaving them alone. But fear and hate are closely related, and if the local population ends up hating the state forces, that works toward their strategic defeat.
Fourth Generation war poses an especially difficult problem to operational art: put simply, it is difficult to operationalize. Often, Fourth Generation opponents have strategic centers of gravity that are intangible. These may involve proving their manhood to their comrades and local women, obeying the commandments of their religion, or demonstrating their tribe’s bravery to other tribes. Because operational art is the art of focusing tactical actions on enemy strategic centers of gravity, operational art becomes difficult or even impossible.
Three New Levels of War
While the three classic levels of war carry over into the Fourth Generation, they are joined there by three new levels which may ultimately be more important. Colonel Boyd identified these three new levels as the physical, the mental, and the moral levels. Furthermore, he argued that the physical level – killing people and breaking things – is the least powerful, the moral level is the most powerful, and the mental level lies between the other two. Colonel Boyd argued that this is especially true in guerrilla warfare, which is more closely related to Fourth Generation war than is formal warfare between state militaries. The history of guerrilla warfare, from the Spanish guerrilla war against Napoleon through Israel’s experience in southern Lebanon, supports Colonel Boyd’s observation.
This leads to the central dilemma of Fourth Generation war: what works for you on the physical (and sometimes mental) level often works against you at the moral level. It is therefore very easy to win all the tactical engagements in a Fourth Generation conflict yet still lose the war. To the degree you win at the physical level by utilizing firepower that causes casualties and property damage to the local population, every physical victory may move you closer to moral defeat, and the moral level is decisive.
Some examples from the American experience in Iraq help illustrate the contradiction between the physical and moral levels:
- The U. S. Army conducted many raids on civilian homes in areas it occupied. In these raids, the troops physically dominated the civilians. Mentally, they terrified them. But at the moral level, breaking into private homes in the middle of the night, terrifying women and children, and sometimes treating detainees in ways that publicly humiliated them (like stepping on their heads) worked powerfully against the Americans. An enraged population responded by providing the Iraqi resistance with more support at each level of war, physical, mental, and moral.
- At Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, MPs and interrogators dominated prisoners physically and mentally – as too many photographs attest. But when that domination was publicly exposed, the United States suffered an enormous defeat at the moral level. Some American commanders recognized this when they referred to the soldiers responsible for the abuse as, “the jerks who lost us the war.”
- In Iraq and elsewhere, American troops (other than Special Forces) quickly establish base camps that mirror American conditions: air conditioning, good medical care, plenty of food and pure water. The local people are not allowed into the bases except in service roles. Physically, the American superiority over the lives the locals lead is overwhelming. Mentally, it projects the power and success of American society. But morally, the constant message of “we are better than you” works against the Americans. Traditional cultures tend to put high values on pride and honor, and when foreigners seem to sneer at local ways, the locals may respond by defending their honor in a traditional manner – by fighting. After many, if not most, American military interventions, Fourth Generation war has tended to intensify and spread rather than contract.
The contradiction between the physical and moral levels of war in Fourth Generation conflicts is similar to the tension between the tactical and strategic levels, but the two are not identical. The physical, mental, and moral levels all play at each of the three classic levels – tactical, operational, and strategic. Any disharmony among levels creates openings which Fourth Generation opponents will be quick to exploit.