Book Review: 4th Generation Warfare Handbook, William Lind

3.6 / 5.0

Bottom Line: Good read from a great thinker. This is an important book for people trying to understand 4th Generation War (4GW). Light on coverage of the internet, immigration, corporations, and NGOs, which I believe are key pieces of the 4GW battlefield.


A most appropriate title for this book would be “The Infantry Commander’s Guide to 4th Generation War.” The meat of 4GW Handbook is discussion of the shortcomings of traditional military forces in the information age, and how commanders and senior NCOs might retool those forces for a 4GW fight.

William S Lind is one of the preeminent military thinkers of our age. In January 2004, Lind correctly called that the Iraq war would be a loss for the US, and would set in motion a chain of disasters for the west:

Will Saddam’s capture mark a turning point in the war in Iraq? Don’t count on it. Few resistance fighters have been fighting for Saddam personally.

I suggest that the war we have seen thus far is merely a powder train leading to the magazine. The magazine is Fourth Generation war by a wide variety of Islamic non-state actors, directed at America and Americans (and local governments friendly to America) everywhere. The longer America occupies Iraq, the greater the chance that the magazine will explode. If it does, God help us all.

In the appendix of 4GW Handbook, Lind gives readers a brief explanation of the four generations of war. In short, the first generation begins with the nation-state, after the Peace of Westphalia. Tight control of formations governs the battlefield. Second generation war came about as a result of industrialization. In this generation of war, nation-states use artillery and aircraft to bombard enemies prior to ground assaults.

Third generation war is the tactics of Rommel, Patton, and Forrest. They key is mobility. Third generation commanders use their mobility to cut off enemies, and to rapidly change the battlefield. The United States military fancies itself a third generation force. Lind argues, successfully, that the US military is in fact a second generation force.

4GW is modern war for the information age. The Vietnam war was a preview of this confusing type of war: perception beats reality. The bomb is 1/5th of the fight, the Tweets and social media posts afterward are 4/5th’s the battle. But the elevation of propaganda over reality really misses the big point of 4GW.

4GW: Total War

4GW is the making of every single aspect of life a battlefield. Much as every aspect of our lives has been politicized by partisans, in the fourth generation of war, everything is an act of war. It’s vicious and nasty, and debases us all. Having a baby is an act of war, because it slightly alters the balance of power between two groups. Boycotts are an act of war to punish those who think differently.

Some parties now use the law, once considered a way to ensure fairness in society, to punish one another. Rival groups use internet mobs to create controversies and chase one another off the digital battlefield. 4GW is one part guerrilla warfare, one part terrorism, one part Sharia-style population control, one part Rules for Radicals, and one part 1984. 4GW is low intensity war, everywhere.

Lind’s book focuses on the military aspect, and how commanders can avoid the poor optics of well-equipped militaries slaughtering freedom fighters. At times, the book feels like a primer on counterinsurgency for infantry commanders.

Where the book falls short is in discussing the unique battlefield of the internet. Lind also spends very little space on non-state actors, global governance organizations, and big business. Overall, the book is a worthwhile read from a truly great and fearless mind in the world of military strategy.