Age of Terror: The New Norm

     At the time of writing this (December 2nd, 2015), a shooting in San Bernardino has left 14 dead and 17 wounded at the Inland Regional Center, this is the 355th mass shooting in the United States this year (2015) and the second this week. The afternoon of the shooting, President Obama conceded that “we have a pattern of mass shootings in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world”. Meanwhile, conflicts rage across Africa and the Middle East carried out by innumerable rebel factions, terrorist cells, and insurrectionist movements. Ever so slowly, the violence has been spilling into the supposed untouchable bastions of stability as seen with the two attacks in Paris this year. Why, all of the sudden, is there such a spike in terrorism both domestic and abroad? Perhaps there is just more media coverage of such events in this information era. Surely not though, forty years ago the threat of being nuked by communists seemed more real than being blown up or shot in a public setting by lone wolves or infiltrated terrorists. Something has obviously changed.

     While the causes are evidently all wound up in a complicated web of multiple simultaneous events and trends, one of the driving factors for the spike in terrorist activities can be attributed to states losing their monopoly on warfare and the facility with which people can communicate ideas. This requires some delving into more recent military science and philosophy. The concept that there are four ‘generations of war’ was conceived by William S. Lind and a group of U.S. Officers. The theory states that since the Thirty Years’ War, modern warfare has advanced through three generations. First generation warfare is the classic era of line-and-column tactics using massed formations of muskets in a very slow and controlled style of warfare not unlike a game of chess. As technology developed, particularly rapid fire weaponry and improved artillery, war entered a second generation. The second generation sees increased autonomy among smaller groups of troops coupled with classic line tactics applied on a much larger scale resulting in attritional warfare characteristic of World War I. Third Generation Warfare sees a break from lines as troops become even more autonomous, also called maneuver warfare, third generation warfare relies on encirclement rather than brute strength and firepower to overcome opponents with the German tactic of blitzkrieg being a prime example.

     The Fourth Generation is where things get tricky, and requires a bit of background information. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) that ended the Thirty Years’ War, ended a medieval style of carrying out war. Under a decentralized feudal system, local lords were able to equip and maintain troops with relative ease. At the end of the Thirty Years’ War, which highlighted the importance of new and expensive gunpowder weaponry, it was evident that local lords and nobles no longer possessed the meabs to raise sufficient numbers of modern troops. As monarchs began consolidating their countries into the modern nation-state, they gained a monopoly on warfare; nobody else except states were capable of raising large modern armies.

     This brings us to the modern day where, if we look around, we see no states engaging in open warfare with each other, yet there are numerous wars raging. Most of the conflict today is perpetrated by non-state actors such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS (which seeks to become a legitimate state), Syrian Opposition factions, the YPG, Boko Haram, the Donetsk People’s Republic, Ukraine’s volunteer defense battalions, and seemingly anybody with an AK-47 in a destabilized region. According to the first three generations of war, states should be the only organizations capable of waging an effective war, yet today non-state entities are the main combatants in the majority of the world’s conflicts. Good examples are the Syrian and Iraqi Civil Wars and that time Putin tried to carry out a ‘true’ state vs. state war in Ukraine and it almost immediately collapsed into a quagmire of non-state pro-Russian rebels fighting other non-state pro-Ukrainian militias.

     Fourth Generation War is the theory that the warfare of today has reverted to its original decentralized form with the use of irregular tactics (such as insurgency tactics, guerilla warfare, and terrorism), blurred lines between noncombatants and combatants, the lack of a true territorial bases, and longer, lower-intensity conflicts. Also distinct to fourth generation warfare is the considerable emphasis placed on psychological warfare, propaganda, and media warfare. In short, fourth generation warfare becomes very complicated and less concrete than marching out in a line to exchange volleys with an opponent. One of the reasons that non-state actors can carry out Fourth Generation warfare, which as we’ve seen, is very hard for a traditional state to combat, is that weapons have once again become cheap and accessible enough for ‘local lords’ to procure in meaningful quantities.

     Additionally, the average person can communicate with extreme rapidity in today’s world, and can voice their opinions to a large international audience via the internet. Unfortunately, this also has the effect that, because people can communicate quickly and efficiently, they assume that their message must be correct. If you need evidence of this just visit any online forum to see an unending stream of dead-end debates. Obviously not everybody can be satisfied with the way things are and we’re living in an age where any person or group of persons who has an axe to grind and who possesses even meager funds are capable of procuring cheap weapons to get their message across. Given this trend, fourth generation warfare seems to be the new norm, which means that terrorism is the new norm. To address this problem, traditional nation-states will have to adapt and perhaps begin looking into longer term solutions to stemming a continuous stream of terror perpetrated by anybody with an agenda and the motivation to do something about it. Failure to adapt may mean that we could be living in the twilight of the modern nation-state. Personally, this author prefers to live in a centralized nation rather than a neo-feudal society populated with constantly warring groups with unending arguments to settle.

One Comment

  1. Well said.

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