When we went into Vietnam, I heard the Pentagon say that if you have air superiority and land superiority and sea superiority, you win. Well, in Vietnam we had air superiority and land superiority and sea superiority, and we lost. So I said to myself that there is obviously something more to it.
In the context of the Four Generations of Modern War, a "generation" is shorthand for a dialectically qualitative shift. As the originator of the framework, I adopted the term because I was speaking to and writing for Marines, and "dialectically qualitative shift" has more syllables than the average Marine mind can readily grasp. Think of the Emperor Joseph II's response when he first heard Mozart's music: "Too many notes." Most Marines vaguely remember that Hegel pitched for the Yankees in the late 1940's.
As that old German would be quick to tell us, dialectically qualitative shifts occur very seldom. In my view, there were only three in the field of warfare since the modern era began with the Peace of Westphalia; the fourth marks the end of the modern period.
One simple test for whether or not something constitutes a generational shift is that, absent a vast disparity in size, an army from a previous generation cannot beat a force from the new generation. The 2nd Generation French Army of 1940 could not defeat the 3rd Generation Wehrmacht, even though the French had more tanks and better tanks than the Germans. The reason I do not think the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon mark a generational shift is that Wellington consistently beat the French, and the British Army he led remained very much an 18th century army.
Fourth-generation warfare (4GW) uses all available networks--political, economic, social, and military--to convince the enemy's political decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit. [...] Still rooted in the fundamental precept that superior political will, when properly employed, can defeat greater economic and military power, 4GW makes use of society's networks to carry on its fight. Unlike previous generations of warfare, it does not attempt to win by defeating the enemy's military forces. Instead, via the networks, it directly attacks the minds of enemy decision makers to destroy the enemy's political will. Fourth-generation wars are lengthy--measured in decades rather than months or years.
Contrary to what a number of writers on 4GW have said, 4th Generation war is not merely a new name for insurgency or guerilla warfare. What is at stake in 4GW is not who rules the state, but the fate of the state itself.
Not only is 4GW the only kind of war America has ever lost, we have done so three times: Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia. This form of warfare has also defeated the French in Vietnam and Algeria and the USSR in Afghanistan. It continues to bleed Russia in Chechnya and the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in other countries against the al-Qaeda network. The consistent defeat of major powers by much weaker fourth-generation opponents makes it essential to understand this new form of warfare and adapt accordingly.
The way Lind sees it, the only Western commander who ever mastered third-generation warfare was George Patton. All others remained stuck in second-generation warfare, a blunt, clumsy instrument that had long outlived its usefulness and only worked because of the overwhelming advantage in firepower they enjoyed over Germany. Meanwhile "the rest" did not stand still. Unable to match the West in terms of technology and firepower, it switched to fourth-generation warfare in the form of terrorism, guerrilla, and insurgency of every kind. The outcome was that, starting at the end of the Korean War--itself, from the end of 1950 on, a classic example of second-generation warfare--and with the sole exception of the 1982 Falkland War and the 1991 Gulf War, Western armies have been going from one defeat to another. Lind's scheme has been widely adopted.
Two points of military theory are important here. First, a higher level dominates a lower. If you win on the tactical level but lose operationally, you lose. If you win on the tactical and operational levels but lose strategically--Germany's fate in both world wars--you still lose. Second, in most wars, including 4th Generation wars, success on higher levels is not merely additive. That is not to say, you cannot win operationally or strategically just by adding up tactical victories. We tried to do that in Vietnam, and the 2nd Generation U.S. military still does not understand why it didn't work. In 2nd Generation theory, it is supposed to work, which is why we are trying it again in Iraq and Afghanistan, and again not understanding why we are losing.