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The Canon and Four Generations of Warfare – Part 4

The Canon and Four Generations of Warfare – Part 4

The Land Power Forum papers, The canon and four generations of warfare Parts 1, 2 and 3,[1] note that in June 2004, the writer William S. Lind published an article titled Two Marine Corps [one the manoeuvre warfare Marine Corps, the second the programs, budgets and policy Marine Corps], which introduced the idea of the canon to military professionals:

…the seven books [that]…take the reader from the first generation of modern war through the second and third generations and into the fourth.[2]

This paper examines the seventh and final book of the canon. Martin van Creveld’s The Transformation of War examines the nature of war, emphasising that, in the late 20th Century, the character of war is once again changing to what is known as Fourth Generation war.

This paper also reviews an eighth book. Written collaboratively in 2015 by William S. Lind and Lieutenant Colonel Gregory A. Theile, United States Marine Corps, the 4th Generation Warfare Handbook is a 21st Century addition to the canon which currently includes books written between 1980 and 1995. The 4th Generation Warfare Handbook continues The Transformation of War’s thesis emphasising the need, in the early 21st Century, for Western leaders to adapt to the changing character of modern warfare.  

The Transformation of War  

Martin van Creveld’s The Transformation of War is the canon’s seventh, and final, volume. Van Creveld aims to provide a ‘new, non-Clausewitzian framework for thinking about war, while at the same time trying to look into [war’s] future’. The Transformation of War’s ambition is vast, including chapters addressing:

  1. Contemporary war
  2. By whom war is fought
  3. What war is all about
  4. How war is fought
  5. What war is fought for
  6. Why war is fought
  7. Future war

Written in 1991, as the Soviet Union dissolved and after a United States-led coalition cleared Iraq’s military from Kuwait, The Transformation of War proclaims that nuclear war (and nuclear war’s attendant balances), conventional war (including the Korean War, 1950-53) and low-intensity conflict (most other wars since 1945, especially in terms of casualties suffered and political results achieved) dominated the last 50 years of the 20th Century. Van Creveld concludes that in 1991:

…the most powerful modern armed forces are largely irrelevant to modern war – indeed that their relevance stands in inverse proportion to their modernity.

In exploring the relevance of modern armed forces, van Creveld examines Carl von Clausewitz’s notion that ‘war is a social activity’ and an ‘act of violence carried to its utmost bounds’ conducted by the dominant form of government: the state. Clausewitz’s familiarity with the state meant he ‘saw little point in a detailed study of those periods in history which antedated the state’; in other words, earlier than the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.[3] As states developed, ‘both before and after [the French Revolution of] 1789 it was not the people who made war, nor armies on their own, but governments’. In short, after Westphalia, ‘organised violence should only be called war if it were waged by the state’.

To protect soldiers, ‘defined as personnel licenced to engage in armed violence on behalf of the state’, a series of international agreements were approved. Most agreements date from the period between ‘1859 (the battle of Solferino, providing Henry Dunant the inspiration to establish the International Committee of the Red Cross) and 1907 (the Second Hague Conference, adopting several conventions relating to the employment of force), which codified these ideas and converted them into law’.

Prior to the Peace of Westphalia, van Creveld explains that governing entities, such as Greek city-states, the Roman Empire or the feudal Middle Ages, were not ‘able to mobilise anything like the military resources available to the modern state’. These governing entities lacked capabilities enabling permanent military forces, including: a ministry of defence; staff support; statistical information; enlisted professional fighters; accurate maps; time-keeping devices; communications systems; medical and spiritual care; standardised centrally issued equipment; and, laundry services. Following the Peace of Westphalia, as nation states evolved, ‘almost every function of civil society came to be duplicated in the army’.

`Van Creveld’s point is that Clausewitz’s idea of trinitarian war evolving from 1648, the interaction of governments or states, armies and peoples, is a ‘comparative recent phenomena’ – in fact only 370 years old. It follows that, ‘where there are no states, the threefold division into government, army and people does not exist in the same form’. Van Creveld concludes that ‘trinitarian war is not war with a capital “W” but merely one of the many forms that war has assumed’ and that ‘trinitarian war was unknown to most societies during most of history.

With war conducted exclusively by the state now in question, equally questionable are various agreements on the conduct of war. For example, international agreements and laws of war on the treatment of prisoners, non-combatants and the employment of weapons. These international agreements were agreed by states. If states no longer possess a monopoly on fighting wars, then these agreements become vulnerable or, worse, irrelevant.

Van Creveld describes ‘low-intensity conflict’, which includes terrorism, insurgency, hybrid-war and organised crime, as the ‘coming revenge’ of people ‘refusing to play…according to the rules that “civilised” countries established for their own convenience’. Prophetically, van Creveld writes that these disaffected people will ‘develop their own form of war and began exporting it’. Combined with cheap ‘ubiquitous technology’… ‘battles will be replaced by skirmishes, bombings and massacres’. Van Creveld contextualises this view, emphasising:

…the contemporary strategic premise that sees wars as making sense only when they are fought for reasons of policy or interest (as opposed to communities fighting for their existence) represents a point of view that is both Eurocentric and modern (i.e. since 1648).

Van Creveld notes pessimistically that the ‘rise of the modern state is explicable largely in terms of military effectiveness vis-à-vis other warmaking organisations’ and if the ‘state cannot defend itself … then clearly it does not have a future in front of it’.

Van Creveld concludes with a challenge to military professionals:

…the essential principles of strategy will continue to be determined by its mutual, interactive character; that is, the fact that war is a violent contest between two opponents, each governed by an independent will and, to some extent, free to do so as they see fit. The need to concentrate the greatest possible force and deliver a smashing blow at the decisive point will continue to clash with the need to outwit, mislead, deceive and surprise the enemy.

Victory, as always, will go to the side that best understands how to balance these two contradictory requirements, not just in the abstract but at a specific time, at a specific place and against a specific enemy.

4th Generation Warfare Handbook

This review includes the 4th Generation Warfare Handbook, co-authored by William S. Lind and Lieutenant Colonel Gregory A. Theile, United States Marine Corps, as an addition to the canon. The main reason for this addition is that the seven books currently in the canon were written between 1980 and 1995. The 4th Generation Warfare Handbook updates and connects the canon to the 21st Century. The Lind - Thiele thesis is that ‘all over the world, state militaries find themselves fighting non-state opponents’ and ‘despite technology, weapons, techniques and training…more often than not, state militaries end up losing. In response to this thesis, Lind & Thiele propose an intellectual framework called ‘The Four Generations of Modern War’.

Like van Creveld, Lind & Thiele emphasise that post-Peace of Westphalia state-armed forces have existed for only 370 years. Before 1648, war was fought by families, clans, tribes, ethnic groups, races, religions, cultures, legal and illegal business enterprises. Lind & Thiele conclude that ‘these wars were often many-sided, not two-sided, and alliances constantly shifted’. The ‘lines between civilian and military, between crime and war, were either hazy of non-existent’.

Therefore, ‘much of what state-armed forces now face in Fourth Generation wars is simply war as it was fought before the rise of the state and the Peace of Westphalia’. Lind and Theile call this ‘a crisis in the legitimacy of the state’.  Many people ‘no longer fight for their state’ but will fight for their ‘primary loyalty’ including tribes, ethnic groups, religions, gangs, ideologies and “causes”. Lind & Thiele conclude that ‘when the state vanishes, everything becomes local’.

Lind and Theile acknowledge that the ‘three classical levels of war – strategic, operational and tactical – still exist in Fourth Generation war’. However, they emphasise that success today at the ‘tactical level can easily be counter-productive at the operational and strategic levels’. For example, when state forces employ ‘overwhelming firepower at the tactical level’ intimidating local populations and causing ‘fear and hate of state forces’ resulting in ‘strategic defeat’.

Therefore, Lind and Theile utilise the-late Colonel John Boyd’s levels of war: physical; mental; and, moral. Boyd argued that:

…the physical level [of war] is the least powerful, the moral level the most powerful, and the mental level lies between the other two.

Boyd’s levels of war, lead 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’. In other words, ‘every physical activity may move you closer to moral defeat, and the moral level is decisive’. Modern examples of this dilemma include: disproportionate raids on people’s homes; behaviour at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison; and, the existence of deployed coalition base camps containing air conditioning, medical care, fresh food and pure water. 

In addition to Boyd’s levels of war, Lind and Theile encourage the ‘carry over’ of ideas from Third Generation (manoeuvre) warfare to modern warfare, including:

  • Outward focus – ‘a state military must focus outward on the situation, the result and the action the situation requires’… ‘not inward on set rules, processes and methods’.
  • Decentralisation – ‘authority, information flows and intelligence’ decentralised to the ‘most junior level of command [including] individuals’.
  • Accuracy – employing Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) loop ‘faster than our enemies.’ Ensuring tactics are ‘reconnaissance-driven, not intelligence-driven’.

Lind and Theile emphasise a ‘de-escalation model’ in fighting Fourth Generation war. When a state’s armed service is ‘given a mission to intervene in a Fourth Generation conflict’ it must:

  • Employ the Golden Rule: ‘do not do anything to someone else that, if it were done to you, would make you fight’. Note the Golden Rule’s corollary, ‘when you make a mistake – and you will – apologise…pay up fast…repair and rebuild quickly’. Most importantly, never overpromise.
  • Employ consistency in words and actions. Demonstrate patience in empathising with local people, politics, culture, conditions and requirements. Maintain a policing mindset in place of a warfighting mindset.
  • Keep deployed footprints, in extent and duration, as small as possible.
  • Preserve enemy states at the same time as defeating them, including respect for prisoners, civil servants, intellectuals and business / economic leaders.
  • Employ self-reliant dispersed dismounted troops to directly fight irregular forces, employ discriminate force, de-escalate situations, live/integrate with local populations and visually record all engagements. These troops require:
  • patience
  • speed
  • self-discipline
  • physical fitness
  • hunter mindsets
  • ambushing skills
  • friendly and enemy weapon proficiency
  • night capabilities
  • demolitions skills
  • broad cultural perspectives.
  • Talk to local citizens through local interpreters, language applications or flash cards with key engagement words.


Quoting William Lind, this Land Power Forum paper, The canon and four generations of warfare Part 4, concludes a series of papers examining ‘the seven books [that]…take the reader from the first generation of modern war through the second and third generations and into the fourth’. The aim of this Land Power Forum series is to introduce readers to various authors and their ideas on warfighting so that we may continue to think, modernise and adapt as a responsive, ready and relevant Australian Defence Force.


[1]Chris Field, The canon and four generations of warfare, Land Power Forum, Australian Army, 20 October 2016, </the-canon-and-four-generations-of-warfare> [accessed 30 September 2017], Chris Field, The canon and four generations of warfare – Part 2, Land Power Forum, Australian Army, 22 June 2017, <the-canon-and-four-generations-of-warfare-part-2> [Accessed 30 September 2017] Chris Field, The canon and four generations of warfare – Part 3, Land Power Forum, Australian Army, 02 July 2017, </the-canon-and-four-generations-of-warfare-part-3> [accessed 30 September 2017]

[2] William S. Lind, Two Marine Corps, 04 June 2004 <,13190,Lind_060404,00.html> [accessed 30 September 2017]

[3] Peace of Westphalia: European settlements of 1648, which brought to an end the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and the Dutch and the German phase of the Thirty Years’ War. The peace was negotiated, from 1644, in the Westphalian towns of Münster and Osnabrück. The Spanish-Dutch treaty was signed on January 30, 1648. The treaty of October 24, 1648, comprehended the Holy Roman emperor Ferdinand III, the other German princes, France, and Sweden. England, Poland, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire were the only European powers that were not represented at the two assemblies. Some scholars of international relations credit the treaties with providing the foundation of the modern state system and articulating the concept of territorial sovereignty. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2017 <> [accessed 27 August 2017]

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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