Mobs loot, burn, and vandalize while politicians advocate defunding the police. A commune was established in Seattle and turned into Lord of the Flies while government did nothing. Blacks demand equal treatment from police despite a violent crime rate many times greater than that of whites, and mainstream media will not report honestly the differences in crime rates. “Wokeness” spreads among idle youth who flunked English 101. What is going on?
What is going on, right here on American soil, is war; a new kind of war that is also very old, waged by entities other than states. I call it Fourth Generation War and, to paraphrase Leon Trotsky, you may not be interested in Fourth Generation War—but it is interested in you.
In the 1980s, when working with the Marine Corps, I came up with an intellectual framework I call the Four Generations of Modern War. Military historian Martin van Creveld’s books The Rise and Decline of the State and The Transformation of War are foundational works in my framework, which flows from one of the defining elements of the modern age, the rise of the state.
The Four Generations framework begins in 1648, when in the Peace of Westphalia the state claimed and subsequently enforced a monopoly on war. This seems automatic to us today; war means armies, navies, and air forces of a state or an alliance of states fighting similar armed forces belonging to other states.
But war’s definition was not always so narrow. Before Westphalia, many different kinds of entities fought wars: families (think of the Montagues and Capulets from Romeo and Juliet), clans, tribes, races, religions, and even business enterprises. India was conquered not by Great Britain, but by the British East India Company, a business with an army and a fleet. They used many different tools to fight; for the most part, armies and navies as we know them did not exist. Fighters ranged from every male able to carry a weapon, through poisoners inserted in a rival’s kitchen, to highly specialized mercenaries who hired themselves out to anyone with cash. The Grimaldis, whose descendents still rule Monaco, got their start as galley fleet entrepreneurs.
People fought for many different reasons, not just raison d’état (political reasons). They fought for eternal salvation, for slaves to sell, for booty, for land, for pay, and because young men with idle hands like to fight—and the local women liked fighters. War flowed not like the Arno but like the Everglades, slowly inundating everything.
The state, as it arose beginning around the year 1500, gradually put an end to this. The state came to impose and sustain order and the safety of persons and property. War not made by states threatened that order. So, the state rounded up the non-state fighters and hanged them from the nearest tree, to the loud huzzahs of the population.
The First Generation War ran from Westphalia to about the middle of the 19th century. I discuss this period in detail in my book co-authored with Lt. Col. Gregory A. Thiele, 4th Generation Warfare Handbook (2015). It was a time characterized by tactics of line and column, which led to (for the most part) orderly battlefields which led in turn to a military culture of order.
That culture continues in almost all state armed forces today. That’s a problem, because starting in the mid-19th century the battlefield became steadily more disorderly. Part of the reason state militaries now so often lose against rag-tag opponents is that they have in effect one foot on the dock and one foot on the boat.
Second and Third Generation War were both attempts to deal with the growing disorder of the battlefield, and both came out of World War I. Second Generation War was developed by the French Army. It reduced war to a highly centralized process of putting firepower on targets, a process that both upheld and required a culture of order. Third Generation War came out of the German experience in World War I. Commonly known as “Blitzkrieg” in its World War II manifestation, it sought not to control but to use the disorder of the battlefield through a military culture of maneuver, speed, decentralization, and encouragement of initiative.
When the Second and Third Generations met in 1940, the latter defeated the former in six weeks, even though the French had more and better tanks than the Germans. Ideas, not weapons, were decisive—which has not prevented the U.S. armed forces from clinging to Second Generation tactics even today. They don’t work, but no one seems to care anymore that we lose wars, so long as the money keeps flowing.
Enter Fourth Generation War. All over the world, state militaries find themselves fighting not other mirror-image state armed forces but the ghosts of premodern war. Once again, many different kinds of entities are fighting wars: clans, tribes, races, religions, businesses we call drug cartels, and so on. They use many different means, not just armies; invasion by immigration is perhaps the most dangerous. And almost always, the state armed forces, despite vast combat power superiority, lose.
At the crux of Fourth Generation War is a crisis of the legitimacy of the state. This crisis varies greatly in intensity from one state to another, but almost everywhere we see people in growing numbers transfer their primary loyalty away from the state to non-state entities: race, religion, ideology, or political causes such as animal rights, etc. Many of those people, who would never fight for their state, are willing, even eager, to fight for their new primary loyalty. The consequence is that the state loses the monopoly on war it claimed at Westphalia. As van Creveld says, the key change in the Fourth Generation is not how war is fought (although that does change), but who fights and what they fight for.
That is much of what we have seen going on in our streets over the past few months. Fourth Generation War has come to a theater near you. A variety of Fourth Generation “causes” have intersected with what I call a “supply-side war.” We have millions of kids who have been cooped up for two or three months. They have no work or school. They want an excuse to go out and fight, because that is what bored young people like to do. Especially young men; young women will demonstrate but when fighting starts they usually disappear.
These youths need a cause to plead in answer to adults’ demand for “social distancing.” It doesn’t matter what the cause is; saving the pangolins could work as well as “Black Lives Matter.” Supply-side war provides the raw material in youthful fighters, while Fourth Generation War gives them something to fight for, a new primary loyalty to replace duty to country. And the state proves itself impotent against its own progeny. We have seen this same supply-side war dynamic in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and most of West Africa. Now we are seeing it in Chicago and Portland.
Conservatives know that the fall of the state is catastrophic. Life becomes, as our old friend Thomas Hobbes said, nasty, brutish, and short. A friend of mine has used Hobbes’ name as a pseudonym to pen a novel about this situation erupting in America, entitled Victoria: A Novel of Fourth Generation War (2014).
Security forces may put down individual disorders (and they should), but the only way to defeat Fourth Generation War is to restore the legitimacy of the state, to the point where it again becomes the primary loyalty of most of its citizens. What is the prospect for that in the United States of America in the year 2020? As President Trump would say, “Not good.”
We face a bifurcated culture. The elite that controls the state has for decades waged war on the common culture in the name of the ideology of cultural Marxism, also known as “wokeness.” While many Americans who cling to our historic Western, Christian culture also remain loyal to the state, their position is unsustainable because the Deep State is dominated by cultural Marxists.
Conservatives’ loyalty to America is to an America that has largely disappeared among elites. At some point, they too will transfer their primary loyalty to something other than the America we know now. Probably they will transfer it to many things, not just one, adding to the disintegrative forces working on the state.
Restoring the legitimacy of the state requires a federal government that actually cares about America “beyond the beltway,” and neither political party offers that. Washington has become a classic royal court toward the end of a dynasty. Court politics is everything; the rest of the country is only a stupid cow to be milked and beaten.
Some years ago, when I lived in D.C., I enjoyed a lunch with the third secretary of the Russian Embassy. We agreed that the United States had become a one-party state, which is something Russians know something about. The one party is the Establishment Party, and no matter which of its wings win, the Democrats or the Republicans, nothing important changes. The same people get the same old jobs, the money keeps flowing into bottomless sinkholes (welfare spending for Democrats, military spending for Republicans), everyone in town prospers and the rest of the country becomes poorer.
The 2016 presidential election broke from this script. Donald Trump, who was not a member of the one party and who dared defy cultural Marxism (any member of the Establishment who does that instantly becomes an “un-person”), grabbed the brass ring. That is the one party’s ultimate nightmare, that someone breaks their lock on policy, power, and money. The Establishment’s bitter, rabid hatred for President Trump springs from that fact and that fact alone. What he says or does is immaterial. Were he St. Francis of Assisi returned to mortal life, their vitriol toward him would be no less.
Regrettably, even if Trump wins re-election, he will be able to do little to restore the state’s legitimacy—a legitimacy he represents to many who voted for him, who in turn are further alienated from the state by the Establishment’s hatred of their champion. The one party owns the Deep State, which has served them well by sabotaging almost everything the president has tried to do. What he has attempted has often been right and good, but the list of his accomplishments is short.
The Deep State’s lock on effective action by the state makes the quest to restore its legitimacy nigh on hopeless. Only a state that works for all Americans, that effectively provides order, competent services, and gradually increasing prosperity for all, not just more riches for the royal court, can be legitimate. The one thing Americans, right and left, can probably agree on is that the chances of that occurring are slim to none.
So, is the future of the American state hopeless? Probably. I can see three possible outcomes to the crisis of legitimacy of the American state.
The first is that the dynasty falls and a competent new establishment class replaces it, one that can make the federal government work for everyone and that ceases to wage ideological war on its own people. In theory, this is possible, but I see no signs of it happening, nor any forces on the horizon that are capable of doing it. The system is so loaded against third parties that this route is effectively blocked. The Democrats are hopelessly in thrall to cultural Marxism because their base either believes in it, profits from it, or both. President Trump has shown himself incapable of remaking the Republican Party in his anti-Establishment, politically incorrect image. Could his successor do it, perhaps someone such as Tucker Carlson? Hope springs eternal, but hope is also a fool.
A second possibility is that both left and right could see the horrors that widespread Fourth Generation War on American soil would bring, step back, and work together to avoid it. There is a way to do that, by returning to American federalism as it was practiced before 1860.
When the Constitution was drafted and ratified, none of the men involved ever imagined that life in, say, Massachusetts and South Carolina would become the same. Still less did they conceive that the Constitution gave the federal government authority to make them the same. Were we to return to their understanding of federalism, we could maintain the union while accommodating cultural differences. Some states would be right, others left. If you found yourself being governed by people you despised, you would not need to fight. You could simply move. We would still be one country for foreign policy, defense, macroeconomics, and infrastructure. But leftists would be free to misrule the West Coast to their hearts’ content, while conservatives enjoyed the neighborliness and good food of the Old South.
The third and most likely possibility is that the country breaks apart in widespread Fourth Generation War. Welcome to Libya, Syria, and a growing portion of the world.
If the third possibility becomes reality and America as we know it disappears from the world’s landscape, its vanishing will be part of something larger: the end of the modern age that gave birth to the state.
As the late Jeffrey Hart wrote, the modern age began when Western men discarded metaphysics and said, in effect, “We are no longer interested in questions of ultimate meaning; from now on, we care only about the physical world.” From that time onward, a focus on the practical defined modernity. Out of it came ships that could cross oceans and navigation to guide them; steam power, then electricity, medicine that allowed Western men to live anywhere in the world; and, by the beginning of the 20th century, world domination by the Christian West.
We threw away that domination in three great Western civil wars: World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. Now, the West is just one contending culture among many, the state to which the West gave birth is failing everywhere, and the questions of ultimate meaning that modernity discarded are returning to haunt its senescence.
Can the times be redeemed? Probably not, but as men of the West, we must try.
William S. Lind is a columnist for The American Conservative and the agent for Thomas Hobbes’s novel Victoria, which is a follow-on to his earlier smash hit, Leviathan.