The Generational Warfare Model

26 October 2010


A diagram of the generational warfare model from Chet Richards' “4GW and Grand Strategy.”

Recent strategic thought has made extensive use of what we may call the generational warfare model. Of what is this a model? Not of war itself, but of our attempt to understand war, our representation of war to ourselves. The generational warfare model, then, is a theoretical construct intended to help us to better understand, and perhaps to better act upon, our strategic situation. Interesting summaries of all the “generations” of war are to be found at The Committee for Public Safety. I also recommend Chet Richards’ 4GW and Grand Strategy (from which the above chart is taken).

Within the idiom of the generational warfare model there is a clearly established tripartite division between first, second, and third generation war. This neatly schematic division is so closely parallel to the traditional division of Western history in ancient, medieval, and modern that I cannot resist pointing out that a scheme like the generational warfare model is the conceptual equivalent of historical periodization. Moreover, the generational warfare model includes its own periodization, as the generations of warfare succeed each other in history. Thus the generational warfare model is both a periodization and a categorization of war. (The dual character of the generational warfare model — being both periodization and categorization — will became significant further along. For the moment, I will only note it in order to return to it later.)

Notice in the Chet Richards’ diagram that, on the left of the image, the period prior to the advent of 1GW is consigned to “precursor activities.” This is very much like traditional Western historiography, in which all of prehistory — the bulk of the history of our species on earth — was consigned as an afterthought on the far left side of any historical diagram — the historical terra incognita before classical antiquity. On the far right side of the diagram, representing the present and the future yet to unfold, we see the trends that have dominated the center of the chart rapidly dwindling, while below, almost surreptitiously, there emerges from the shadows the rapidly growing spectre of 4GW.

Here are the canonical first three generations of war as delineated in Wikipedia:

1st Generation: tactics of line and column; which developed in the age of the smoothbore musket. William S. Lind (2004) explains the generations of war as the First Generation beginning after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 ending the Thirty Years’ War and establishing the state’s need to organize and conduct war. 1GW consisted of tightly ordered soldiers with top-down discipline. These troops would fight in close order and advance slowly. This began to change as the battlefield changed. Old line and column tactics were now suicidal as the bow and arrow/sword morphed into the rifle and machine gun (Lind 2).

2nd Generation: tactics of linear fire and movement, with reliance on indirect fire. This type of warfare can be seen the early stages of WWI, where there was still strict adherence to drill and discipline of formation and uniform, but the dependence on artillery and firepower to break the stalemate and move towards a pitched battle.

3rd Generation: tactics of infiltration to bypass and collapse the enemy’s combat forces rather than seeking to close with and destroy them; and defense in depth. The 3GW military seeks to bypass the enemy, and attack his rear forward, such as the tactics used by German Storm Troopers in WWI against the British and French in order to break the trench warfare stalemate (Lind 2004). These aspects of 3GW bleed into 4GW as it is also warfare of speed and initiative. However, it targets both military forces and home populations.

These first three generations of war are typically abbreviated as 1GW, 2GW, and 3GW, and sometimes as 1GMW, 2GMW, and 3GMW, if one wishes to stipulate that one is discussing modern war. These canonical first three generations of war were formulated only in order to introduce fourth generational warfare, or 4GW, or 4GMW. Strategic thought in terms of fourth generation warfare (4GW) appears to focus on the relative decline of the nation-state, the emergence of non-state actors as global powers, and the rise of insurgencies, the use of terrorism as a tactic, and decentralized, low-intensity conflict. Beyond fourth generation warfare lies (obviously) fifth generation warfare (5GW), which already has its own anthology and which has attracted the attention of several noted bloggers on strategic questions.

The above-referenced post at The Committee for Public Safety characterizes 4GW as follows:

4GMW (also 4GW) or “Fourth Generation Modern Warfare” describes a school of strategic thought focused on warfare dominated by small, decentralized groups within a civilian population who engage in attacks intended to generate media attention that contributes to political loss of will in an opponent. The advent of 4GWM could be dated to anytime between the late sixties to the late eighties.

And the same post characterizes 5GW as follows:

5GW, which may or may not stand for “Fifth Generation Warfare” or, more likely, stands for nothing, is a school of strategic thought focused on the indirect and surreptitious application of influence. More can be learned by reading The Handbook of 5GW, now available in mass market paperback (disclaimer: Internet crackpot Joseph Fouche contributed an essay to The Handbook of 5GW under the name of Pablo “Puff Daddy” Escobar).

In my recent post on Epistemological Warfare (which I intend to expand in the near future), I implied that 4GW might be defined in terms of traditional dichotomies and distinctions overcome (or collapsed by the collapse of the traditional institutions that supported them): the breakdown of the division between state and non-state actors, between regular and irregular forces, between insurgency and counter-insurgency, between combatants and non-combatants. Similarly, 5GW could be defined in terms of an even more radical collapse of distinctions between war and peace, violence and non-violence, between agency and non-agency, and (I now realize) between intelligence or espionage (which are essentially epistemic functions of conflict) and declared war or open battle (which are essentially ontological functions of conflict).

That aspect of 4GW and 5GW thought that focuses on historical periodization and the emergence of “novel” forms of conflict and combat have difficulty integrating examples of conflict and combat apparently conforming to 4GW principles from earlier periods in history. How, for example, are we to understand the Boer War in this schematization? When the major cities of South Africa were conquered the Boers didn’t surrender as they were expected to do, they turned to guerrilla operations and continued to fight. This was a violation of the social contract of war that held at that time. This is but one example among countless that we might pull out of history. Similarly, since, on the Richards’ chart, on both the far left and the far right we have the conflict of state and non-state entities, why are we not to consider pre-1GW as consisting of 4GW and 5GW operations? Have there not always been exceptions to the state-system of warfare, to a greater or lesser extent?

In contradistinction to the generational warfare model we could define what I will call the perennialist school of thought. The perennialist maintains that there is nothing new under the strategic sun. There have always been non-state actors, there have always been insurgencies, and insurgencies have always called forth counter-insurgency efforts. There have always been asymmetrical operations undertaken by irregular forces. If I had to pigeonhole myself, I would call myself a perennialist Clausewitzean.

This being said — by which I mean, these observations about the perennial presence in human history of diverse strategic dilemmas and opportunities — we also know that historical contingencies have radically changed the influence of various factors over time. In some historical periods, conflicts have been almost exclusively between nation-states, while during other periods historical conditions have favored the emergence of non-state entities that have challenged nation-states both asymmetrically and on a peer-to-peer basis. Similarly, changing technology — including changing social technologies such as tactics and doctrine — have shifted the balance one way or the other, so that perennially true generalizations about the battlefield environment seem to have changed, and a revolution seems to have occurred. Technological innovations have sometimes favored the offense, and they have sometimes favored the defense, but on the whole, and given the big picture, we know that only an offensive with a quantifiable objective achieves decisive results.

The perennialist is a skeptic of revolutions; the perennialist sees evolutionary change everywhere and at all times, but is very cautious about conferring the status of a “revolution” on a change that may turn out to be short-lived and not of a permanent nature. The perennialist does not outright deny the possibility of revolution, but he demands that changes be understood in the context of the strategic longue durée, in which context developments which might otherwise appear revolutionary are seen as evolutionary. The difference between evolution and revolution is a difference of scale, and the perennialist always takes the perspective of the longest scale, and thus is likely to see all things in terms of continuity. This is as much to say that the perennialist knows the difference between what is faddish and fashionable on the one hand, and that which is classic.

The perennialist skepticism to claims of revolutionary change is applicable to the idea of a Revolution in Military Affairs. This idea has become so common that it has a widely known abbreviation as an acronym: RMA. This latter quality the RMA shares with 1GW, 2GW, and so forth. I am going to save an extended discussion of the postulated revolution in military affairs for another post, as many of its claims are of the greatest interest and need to be considered in detail and on their own merits. But for the moment I will only observe that those who think in terms of the generational warfare model implicitly accept that each new generation of warfare represents a revolution in military affairs.

Who might be counted as a perennialist? One author that has been influential for my own strategic thinking, but whom I have not seen widely cited, is Colonel T. N. Dupuy. One of the first books I acquired that dealt with strategy was Dupuy’s The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare. Perhaps I take the perennialist perspective that I do because of the early influence of this book on my thought. In the last chapter, Chapter XXXIII, titled “The Next War and the Timeless Verities of Combat”, Dupuy formulates thirteen principles of combat that he has found to be true throughout the whole development of weapons and warfare.

The whole attempt to formulate principles of war — an attempt that more or less began with Clausewitz, and which has continued down to the present day, with revision and refinement — assumes that there are what Dupuy calls timeless verities of combat, or what I would call perennial truths of war. As I would define it, a true revolution in military affairs would mean that we would have to throw away the principles of war and start anew with new principles of war specific to the changed conditions of war. I could also formulate this in terms of the generational warfare model: each generation of warfare, if it represents a true departure from past theory and practice, would require new principles of war specific to that generation.

Now, I do not completely disagree with that last formulation, though I have defined myself as a perennialist in contradistinction to a generationalist. It is all a matter of degree. I could also formulate my position with a little more analytical rigor with reference to the Euclidean distinction between axioms and postulates. Contemporary formal thought has done away with this distinction and refers only to axioms (or rules, or what-have-you, depending on the context of exposition), but the Euclidean distinction remains theoretically sound, and in some contexts in useful.

For Euclid, axioms are principles that are valid for all reasoning, while postulates are principles that are specific to some particular mathematical subject matter. So one way to formulate my position in regard to perennialist and generationalist conceptions of military change is that the perennialist focuses upon the axioms of war, while the generationalist focuses upon the postulates of war. The axioms of war are true at all times and at all places. The postulates of war are true for a particular generation of war, if you prefer this formulation, though I could also observe that postulates of war may be specific to a particular kind of war (say, for example, naval war) or to a specific political context (say, for example, war between nation-states), and so on.

The careful reader, then, will see that I am not saying that the generational warfare model is wrong, only that it is a more limited conception that the perennialist school of thought. The axioms of war may remain the same, even while the postulates of war change with each generation. I am more interested in the axioms, but I am also interested in the postulates, and I am most interested in the whole picture, and how the axioms and postulates of war are related. This, perhaps, will need to be the focus of a future inquiry which we might simply call the theory of war.

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5 Responses to “The Generational Warfare Model”

  1. Joseph Fouche of The Committee of Public Safety blog is by no means the first nor the most prolific blogger treating the subjects of GMW, or 1GW-5GW. He actually came to it rather late.

    As early as May 2008, the theory of GMW branched into a new theory, xGW theory, or “x Grade/Gradient Warfare”, which more resembles a “perennialist school of thought” approach. Rather than describe a linear temporal emergence of different modes of warfare occurring only in our modern era (GMW), xGW uses various characteristics to describe modes of warfare that may co-exist and may have always existed. (For instance, the idea of dispersal of kinetics: each x+1 gradient involves more dispersal of kinetic activity within the battlespace; and besides which, the shape and size and types of battlespace may differ.) The linear, sequential emergence of GMW has always been a sticking point; xGW theory has sought verifiable metrics for describing modes.

    • geopolicraticus said

      As usual, I find myself a bit behind the times, so I greatly appreciate your telling me about these more recent developments. Obviously, I need to educate myself about gradient warfare and then return to my exposition of perennialist strategy in order give it a formulation that accounts for these recent developments.

      I hope that my being behind the times does not prevent readers from seeing the value of the distinction between axioms and postulates of war. If we conceive of war in terms of a gradient rather than an historical succession of generations, we can still distinguish between those axioms of war that hold good for all gradients, and those postulates of war that hold only for some specific gradient.

      I hope that you’ll continue to peruse my posts in the interest of keeping me up to date.

      Best wishes,


  2. T. Greer said

    The more nuanced xGW-theorists, I have noticed, have moved away from the periodization found in Mr. Lind’s first formulation of the model. One can recognize various stages of armed conflict without tying them to arbitrary chronological divisions. This has caused some of these folks (example) to abandon notions of x-generation-war in favor of the more plausible x-gradient-war.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Thank you for making me aware of this. It sounds like a reasonable approach, and I will look into it.

      Best wishes,


  3. […] Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon has two interesting posts up that touch on 5GW themes: Epistemological Warfare and The Generational Warfare Model. […]

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