Straw Man

William Lind recently attacked the concept of fifth-generation warfare (the only well-accepted generation of modern warfare he did not first describe) as follows:

Between February 8 and February 14, four American schools suffered attacks by lone gunmen. The most recent, at Northern Illinois University on February 14, saw five killed (plus the gunman) and 16 wounded. Similar attacks have occurred elsewhere, including shopping malls.

Is this war? I don’t think so. Some proponents of “Fifth Generation war,” which they define as actions by “superempowered individuals,” may disagree. But these incidents lack an ingredient I think necessary to war’s definition, namely purpose. In Fourth Generation War, the purpose of warlike acts reaches beyond the state and politics, but actions, including massacres of civilians, are still purposeful. They serve an agenda that reaches beyond individual emotions, an agenda others can and do share and fight for. In contrast, the mental and emotional states that motivate lone gunmen are knowable to them alone.

The whole “Fifth Generation” thesis is faulty, in any case. However small the units that fight wars may become, down to the “superempowered individual,” that shrinkage alone is not enough to mark a new generation.

John Robb, Mark Safranski, and I have criticized Lind’s article, noting his straw-man attack on 5GW theory.

Lind has earned sympathy from Shlok Vaidya, however, who has previously described 5GW as “an incoherent amalgam of a variety of perspectives.” However, as Shlok’s definition (“the emergent pattern formed by a distributed multitude of empowered individuals acting in concert by acting in their own self interest, without any collaboration“) argues that 5GW is not competitive-cooperative, his concept of 5GW is not war at all.

2 thoughts on “Straw Man”

  1. Hmm.

    1) Lind says 5GW isn't SEI centric. I say it is. Not sure how I'm the sympathetic one.

    2) We're limited by a lack of 5GW datapoints. Given that constraint, my definition, which is grounded in what we have seen thus far. As more datapoints emerge, the def can further develop.

  2. Shlok,

    Apologies for implying more sympathies than exist!

    1) My point was that Lind does not believe 5GW exists as a form of war, and your definition excludes it from existing as a form of war.

    2) There's two ways to approach understanding of 5GW: as a theory (in which one extrapolates trends, makes a conjecture, and accepts the possibility of refutation) or also a categorization scheme (in which one lumps similar cases together). The first approach is scientific, the second trivially easy. My approach is the first.

  3. Or, you could argue that the development/discussion of a theory, devoid of real world evidence, is akin to calculating/discussing the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.

  4. John,

    “Or, you could argue that the development/discussion of a theory, devoid of real world evidence, is akin to calculating/discussing the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.”

    Indeed, but besides the point.

    Theories, by their nature, are conjectures based on partial evidence that predicts the nature of future evidence. When the future evidence comes in, the theory is either tentatively supported, or else refuted.

    While I am unaware of conjectures you have made that can be refuted, for example, everyone agrees that you did not just wait for all the evidence to come in, and then describe what is apparent from that brute data.

    Shlok's categorization is particularly strange because he simultaneously denies that any form of war known as 5GW exists, while pleading ignorance as to what the data says. His definition of 5GW is without use in the study of war, because it's not a definition that includes any form of war.

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