Small Wars Journal

Why America Remains a 2nd-Generation Military

Mon, 07/01/2019 - 2:37pm

Why America Remains a 2nd-Generation Military

Michael Gladius

War is a human endeavor, and armies of nations naturally match the temperament and attitudes of the civilian population from which they are drawn. This applies to all 4 Generations of Modern Warfare, and while most commentators focus on the warfare aspect, the underlying cultural prerequisites are normally presumed or underappreciated. Since warfare is an extension of politics, and politics is downstream of culture, then a military cannot change unless the culture of its nation changes.

In this article, we will examine each of the 4 generations from a cultural standpoint. Focusing purely on warfare only scratches the surface but understanding culture as the basis of the 4 generations explains why America seems to be incapable of waging 3rd- or 4th-Generation warfare. Any system can use the same tactics, so the actual difference between generations is found the soul of the nation. Knowing the soul of each generation illustrates the real risks of imitating these systems, and why we may inevitably become the monster we wish to destroy.

1st Generation Warfare- Warrior Artisans

It’s very easy to laugh at 1st-Generation warfare from a modern perspective. Bright, colorful uniforms, centralized control, linear tactics, and so many other elements seem counterintuitive and/or arbitrary. In order to understand why these were the norm, we must remember what the previous era had been like. The most revolutionary change in 1648 was not technological, but political: private armies all but disappeared, or were no longer allowed to compete with the Regular Army.[i] Although private armies were on their way out, the purpose of warfare remained essentially the same: dynastic and territorial disputes. Although the petty, squabbling nobility were no longer able to fight wars over their private interests, monarchs still could. The peasantry, craftsmen, and church were sidelined, and merely funded or supplied the king’s army through taxation and plunder.

This attitude of limiting war to dynastic disputes meant that only a fraction of the population was actively involved in the war effort. Soldiers were not the Average Joe, but rather a limited social class. They functioned like the guilds: war was their art. Rather than base efficiency, refinement in the art of war was their goal, and this was learned over a lifetime of experience. This applied to the aristocracy in particular, as they supplied the cavalry and officers. Commoners who enlisted also served for life. It was common for those nations not at war to rent their armies to other nations who were, as happened during the American Revolution: the Hessians[ii] were not soldiers of fortune, they were trained professionals whose regiments were rented out by their princes when their own kingdoms were not at war.

This lifetime of experience resembled the warrior societies of the previous century more than the modern soldier. Such a mindset was not immune to new ideas or innovation, as armies in this period constantly experimented with new weapons (such as the breech-loading Ferguson Rifle and ideas (such as open-order and ranger tactics). This warrior caste mentality was also the main reason for the invention of uniforms: different social classes wore different outfits. Thanks to the Christian Just War Theory, it was further desirable to make soldiers distinct from noncombatants, as deliberately targeting the latter was frowned upon by the Church. The traditional rules of plunder were not seen as violating this credo, as plundering was a method for paying soldiers, rather than a weapon of terror. War was therefore much more limited, physically and socially, in comparison to modern conflicts.

2nd Generation Warfare- Republicans go to War

The development of 2nd-Generation Warfare coincided with the Rise of the Republics. Under monarchs and aristocrats, war was fought over matters that had little to do with the commoners’ daily living. Only those who lived in combat zones were affected beyond taxation increases. When France and the United States became republics, however, the business of war and politics suddenly became the business of every man. The very notion of a republic demanded that the public at large become more active and invested in the nation and its interests. War became inseparable from popular will, and mobilization now featured popular support. Conscription existed but was merely a backup solution when popular support from volunteers was insufficient. These new citizen-armies could be rapidly raised, mobilize the X-factors of social cohesion and morale, and then demobilize once the conflict ended, the proud citizenry seamlessly returning home. Soldiers’ public image changed from brutish social outcasts into models of virtue and manhood. By comparison, only the French Foreign Legion retains the 1st-Generation culture of lifelong soldiers drawn from the fringes of society.

Another change occurred in the military’s culture: It ceased to be artisan. The new army was bourgeois, following the culture of the merchant class and banks rather than the artisans and guilds. This paralleled a similar shift in larger society and was therefore not an isolated incident. It is debatable, though, whether the two actually influenced each other or if they developed separately. The banker’s mindset greatly enhanced the efficiency and organization of the army, and allowed conventional battles in the 19th century to achieve a staggering scale. Many European Powers who observed the American Civil War were stunned at how quickly the war escalated, and at how many large battles were fought and sustained over such vast distances. By comparison, the Crimean War ten years earlier was a fundamentally different experience for all sides.

2nd-Generation war was a break from the warrior tradition in favor of part-time volunteers and conscripts, and furthermore came to regard peace as the natural state of affairs. The new system also wished to be a meritocracy, and to treat everyone equally (at least within the same rank). This was done mostly to spite the notion of hierarchy and aristocracy, but also changed the notion of professionalism from the ideal of refinement into the ideal of efficiency, effectiveness, and raw power.

These social changes are also why the notion of careerism exists in 2nd-generation militaries, but not in 1st-generation ones. In 1st-generation armies, men who volunteer for a lifetime often come from dynasties of warriors and/or the criminal underbelly of society. Their long service produces experienced campaigners, and keeps violent men separated from the civilian population. Both of these are beneficial to society and inspire some sense of adventure, as the French Foreign Legion still does today.

In contrast, second-generation cultures often attract technocrats to these same long-term positions. What we call the Military-Industrial Complex occupies a middle ground between a true technocracy and a first-generation oligarchy. When there is no war to fight for a 2nd-Generation army, both the adventure-seekers and society’s best-and-brightest go into the private sector where they can earn more money. Being fiercely proud of themselves, they look with disdain on those who do remain in the military, and interpret it as a sign that these men are not good enough for life outside the military. This derisive attitude towards career military men was the norm throughout America’s history and through the post-Desert Storm 1990s when the Cold War existential threat had passed. The present trust and love of America’s Military by the public is an anomaly.

It would be disingenuous for this article to suggest that either a warrior caste or a technocracy is superior to the other when it comes to career soldiers. Both have their drawbacks, since both are specialists. Warrior castes struggle with glory-seekers and men who neglect staff work for a variety of reasons. Among the technocrats, there are many men who go beyond using science and technology as force-multipliers, and attempt to eliminate the human variable completely.[iii] What experience has taught us is that a decentralized command system which places generalists at the top, and incentivizes specialists to remain in positions where they can lead from the front  is the optimal solution. This decentralization in command is not contradictory to 2nd-generation warfare, as some critics will claim, since it was done in the Civil War and both World Wars. It was only when hostilities ended that the institutions reverted back to centralized control, a preventable process.

3rd Generation Warfare- Total War

While 2nd-generation is usually associated with the French and American armies, the early successes of Germany in using 3rd-generation warfare has led many to assume it is an innately superior doctrine. Reformers have long complained about America’s inability to adopt Maneuver Warfare, and blamed entrenched careerists as the cause. The careerists, however, are the symptom, rather than the root. American culture is fundamentally at odds with a culture capable of producing true 3rd-Generation warfare.

Third-generation warfare comes primarily from autocracies and militarized nations who wage total war. An excellent example of this is found in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. France was a 2nd-Generation military because it did not utilize conscription; even its reservists were volunteers.[iv] France’s army was impressive, but their society was far from militarized. There were no comprehensive plans for mobilization, and much of their efforts when the war broke out were ad-hoc and uncoordinated. In fact, there wasn’t even a system in place for moving troops by rail and all rail lines in Alsace-Lorraine ran the wrong direction, since private companies did not factor in military needs when constructing them. Prussia, on the other hand, had its entire population trained and registered for conscription, comprehensive streamlined plans for rapid mobilization, and had built many miles of internal rail specifically for movement of troops prior to the outbreak of war against any opponents. Thus, while Prussia had a smaller population than France, it mobilized a much bigger army than the French did, and more quickly. The Prussians’ decentralized command system and General Staff proved superior to the fragmented French approach, and their superiority in artillery (in both quality and quantity) turned the defensively-focused French forces into fish in a barrel.[v] After Napoleon III’s capture at Sedan the Third French Republic arose, and continued the fight using both regulars and guerrilla warfare. Although the Prussians defeated the regulars, they struggled to cope with guerrilla attacks. They resolved the problem by attacking Paris and forcing a peace treaty.

Although both 2nd- and 3rd-generation militaries use conscription today, it is far more integral to 3rd-generation warfare. Second-generation militaries ride up and down the waves of popular support, while 3rd-generation militaries have a more constant supply of manpower. Thus, 2nd-generation militaries will often resort to maximizing firepower and technology in order to cover for expected shortages in manpower, while 3rd-generation militaries will not. Conscription by a 3rd-generation military does not expire when the war ends, either. America normally demobilized much of its military after every conventional war up until the Reagan Buildup in the 1980s, while Germany’s army was shrunk only by treaties. Widespread conscription also accustoms civilian populations to the notion of service to the state, and it becomes the new normal, regardless of public popularity. This disconnect from popular support is why America can’t adopt true 3rd-generation warfare: the military answers to the republic, which is ruled by popular support. There is a reason why there were no Draft Riots in Germany during any of its wars.

Mass mobilization of all national resources and manpower were not only hallmarks of Prussianism. The USSR also oriented their society towards waging total war from 1917 to 1991. This not only included nationalization of strategic resources and sending all food supplies to the military first, but also by imposing a common vocabulary on all military and civilian services to ensure inter-operability. Prussia maintained some of its aristocracy and monarchy, but the Soviets embraced total scientific management and rule by committee. They fully submitted all aspects of life to the managerial state. The mental and physical conformity to the will of the state enabled the Russians to rebuild their Army three times during WWII (The French rebuilt theirs twice in 1870), and finish the war with 6 million men and women in uniform after losing 20-27 million.

Like the Germans, the Soviets used maneuver warfare to ensure that their large armies would not become sluggish or risk defeat in detail. While smaller armies are inherently more nimble (rapiers among scythes, as B. L. Hart put it), vast armies require a dedicated focus on mobility, lest their efforts become fragmented or piecemeal. It is also worth noting that the Soviets successfully used Maneuver Warfare with a centralized command system, and defeated the Germans’ version, which had a decentralized command system. Many proponents of 3rd-generation warfare will argue that the German model is the ‘correct’ version, but the Soviets demonstrate an alternate form of maneuver warfare in Deep Battle, which utilized mass and mobility far better than the Germans. When combined with their newly-invented Operational Art, the Soviets defeated both the German and Japanese Armies.

Like 1st-generation armies, in a 3rd-generation military career officers are not held in disdain since all members of society are required to serve. Militarized societies take great pride in their leaders, and will hold them rigorously to high standards. Since 3rd-generation societies do not demobilize during peacetime, they can slightly reduce the degree of doctrinal stagnation that all armies suffer when there is no war to fight. Mobilization of entire societies is also conducive to applying scientific management to all procedures and aspects of said societies. While republics pioneered scientific management, it was invented by philanthropists who sold it as a voluntary pact between leaders and employees. A 3rd-generation military does not need to bother with popular support, and can therefore push its limitations. Socialists generally accept this as naturally symbiotic with collectivism and other quantitative mindsets.

In the end, 3rd-generation warfare is less about running in circles around an opponent (who is supposed to automatically surrender no matter what), and more about the absolute power of the state over individual freedoms. Every man now exists to serve the state and has a duty to sacrifice and die for the state. The absolute power of the state turns scientific management into a social tool, and demands militarism to pursue its interests. Total war and total mobilization of every aspect of society to fight is the norm, rather than a desperate last resort. America would need to become an entirely different nation before this could happen.

4th Generation Warfare- War to the Hilt

After total war, it is still possible to go further downhill. Total war involves the state utilizing all available methods to win conventionally, but 4th-generation warfare involves total weaponization of existence. This is more often associated with Soviet-backed political movements, and these include Islamic movements, as Admiral Lyons pointed out in his intro to the book “Islam and the Suicide of the West.”

This culture and mindset required for 4th-generation warfare emerged after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Prior to this event, the socialist and communist movements around the world believed that their systems were irreversible. Marx’s ideology concluded that class distinctions between the bourgeois and proletariat would grow sharper over time, and eventually the dam would break. Once the closed world of the bourgeois was swept away by popular sentiment, he followed, all proletarians would be united in an international fraternity. Thus, no challenge to communism could come from the proletariat; it could only come from the bourgeois. The Hungarians shook this worldview, as it was a spontaneous, organic, grassroots rejection of communism from those whom it claimed to represent. As a result, communists in the west shifted their thinking. The revolutionary struggle was still kept, but the categories of bourgeois and proletariat were expanded to encompass “oppressors” and “oppressed.” Thus, anyone, for any reason, could start a communist revolution by virtue of being oppressed, rather than requiring membership in a particular social class.

This shift in thinking imported the brutality and violence of communism into every issue, no matter how minor. Every expediency now demanded violent revolution, and accusations now were the only acceptable form of proof. The existence alone of an “oppressor” justified limitless physical attacks against them by groups like Antifa. Buying certain products or shopping at certain stores became “hate speech.” Swarm tactics were imported to all fields, be they financial, journalistic, economic, or cultural. Propaganda and censorship came from a wider variety of sources, including freelancers. Speech became “violence,” and violence became “speech.” Islamism, too, uses these tactics by framing itself as locked in an eternal struggle with nonbelievers, whose mere existence is an insult to Allah, and therefore deserving of death and enslavement.

Weaponization of existence makes every action, no matter how small, an act of war on behalf of either the “oppressors” or the “oppressed.” It forces everyone to take a side and to submit their individuality to the interests of their group. Since merely existing is an act of war, the only way to survive and win is to exterminate the other groups by any means necessary. Everyone must deny that the “oppressors” have the right to exist physically, mentally, culturally, and spiritually, and members of the “oppressors” must submit to suicide and death. Even the memory of their existence must be purged. A 4th-generation war is always a war of total extinction.

This is the meaning of legitimacy in the context of 4th-generation warfare: the willingness of individuals to submit to the herd and commit genocide on its behalf. Instead of a monolithic, class-based herd, 4th-generation warfare is more akin to a Brazilian prison riot, contained within a single, global prison with no walls.Within this invisible prison, the state acts as the indifferent wardens who allow the gangs to remain trapped in an endless vortex of stone-age violence against one another. This 4th-generation culture makes militarism look pacifist by comparison, since the latter uses violence as a means to some end. A 4th-generation culture, on the other hand, teaches that existence itself is war, and the purpose of existence is brute survival at all costs. When one sees the world through this lens, then the only rational solution is communism, since it imposes order on the chaos and offers the most efficient method of liquidating the “oppressors.” All other solutions look like suicidal, masochistic weakness.

Despite appearances, 4th-generation war is not the most powerful kind of warfare. A crippling weakness of this generation is its reliance on expediency and boldness. Despite framing life as a struggle on every conceivable front, 4th-generation opponents generally lack long-term vision. Since every action could prove fatal, it is not irrational for them to conclude that every short-term advantage must be seized. Of course, it is exhausting to seize every fleeting advantage and keep one’s eyes on the long-term, so the survival-minded generally focus on what is near and close. This leaves them highly vulnerable to baited traps and opponents who have a long-term plan. A good example of this is the pro-segregationist attacks in Birmingham 1963: The city commissioner(Eugene “Bull” Connor) had been removed from office and lost his campaign for mayor. He was merely a lame-duck waiting for his term to expire. Martin Luther King Jr. had planned a protest in case he won either election but did not cancel the march when the raison d’être was no longer relevant. Rather than ignore the pointless march, Connor lashed out using dogs and fire hoses on adults and children alike. The undisciplined violence accomplished nothing of substance and had long-term implications that only benefitted the desegregationist movement. Simply put, King played Connor and beat him at 4th-generation warfare because King was on the side that actually had a long-term plan.

Most 4th-generation cultures’ methods are highly predictable, despite their guerrilla mystique. What makes them dangerous is an ideology that has a long-term goal, such as Sharia Law. Without a long-term goal, 4th-generation war is nothing but destruction, dissolution, myopia, and anarchy. Against an opponent with a long-term plan, or against the power of Faith, they cannot win. This is why Poland, and not Hungary, defeated the USSR: The USSR returned to Hungary and crushed the rebellion by force. Poland, on the other hand, had Karol Wojtyła elected as Pope John Paul II. Despite all attempts by the USSR to dissolve Poland’s indigenous culture, Poland’s faith in God proved to be stronger than belief in the power of the state, and its worldview centered on eternal life gave a long-term goal that the Soviets could not effectively counter.


The 4 Generations of Modern Warfare are the 4 generations of modernity. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and can all be beaten. So long as America remains a republic, it will remain a 2nd-Generation military. Our main strengths and vulnerabilities will remain in the rise and fall of popular support, and our greatest weapons against 4th-Generation war are long-term goals and faith.

End Notes

[i] The British East India Trading Company had a private army but operated outside of the British Army’s jurisdiction. When Britain invested more into colonizing India, the British Army took over all security duties.

[ii] Although they came from many kingdoms, not only Hesse

[iii] This technology-only mindset is sometimes jokingly referred to as ‘5th-generation warfare’

[iv] There were plans to introduce conscription, but this had not been accomplished before hostilities broke out.

[v] French rifles outranged the Prussian Needle Gun, and French marksmanship routinely tore apart Prussian infantry attacks. The Prussians depended on their artillery to dislodge the French before they could successfully maneuver or assault.

About the Author(s)

Michael Gladius is the pseudonym for a budding commentator in the fields of military history and theory. His goal is to blend the lessons of history, principles of human behavior, and practical wisdom in order to draw upon a wide array of factors for optimized solutions and problem-solving. He is currently studying in Europe.