The cultural tradition of combat plays a role in defining a society’s concept of war. The environment and the society’s political, economic, and cultural systems unite to create an engine of warfare.
Heavy Infantry tradition: A style of combat favored by Western Europeans, drawing on traditions dating back to the Greek hoplite phalanx and the Roman Legion.
• Professional and militia forces obedient to the state
• Very high unit cohesion and subordination
• Shock tactics. Seeks close combat and decisive battle
• Excellent siege and amphibious capability
• Total war capability designed to destroy enemy states
Irregular tradition: A catch-all term. Of particular importance are the horse riders and light infantry armed with the composite bow who served as the principle fighting force in the Middle East and the Asian Steppes.
• Tribal, mercenary, slave soldiers fighting as a loose confederation
• Low unit cohesion and low subordination
• Hit and run tactics. May swarm or disperse as needed
• Extremely high mobility but weak siege capability
• Prefers limited warfare, harassing and raiding
Technology and culture mixed to form unique war-making styles.
European sedentary farmers had easy access to metallic mining and agricultural territory. They formed ranks of armored infantry to stand their ground and defend immovable cities and farmland.
The Steppe nomads were horse riders using a mobile pastoral and herding economy. Their economy and environment enabled the creation of the powerful composite bow. Steppe warfare favored harassing attacks by horse archers who could freely retreat because they did not have to defend fixed territory.
In the past, Heavy Infantry and Horse Archers reached a strategic stalemate, unable to successfully fight outside their favored terrain. The arrival of gunpowder and industrialization tipped the scales towards modernized European heavy infantry, but did not render irregular tactics obsolete.
Initially, Western states monopolized the industrial equipment needed to produce comparable weaponry and were thus able to conquer much of the world. This military system broke down after World War II. Nuclear weapons made traditional Western warfare less likely to occur between major nation-state. Irregular warfare became common due to the collapse of European Empires and the Cold War.
The United States acquired familiarity with 4th generation warfare in the Cold War. To bypass the nuclear stalemate, the US and USSR sponsored militant non-state actors to wage proxy wars against their enemies. The US developed an elaborate intelligence community and gained considerable experience in fighting small wars against non-state actors.
Unfortunately, the laws and customs of Europeans are built on the artificial foundation of the Treaty of Westphalia. The modern nation-state exists on the shaky premise that a modern nation-state will use professional heavy infantry. It believes the population is loyal to an abstract state and not non-state actors such as tribes or religious organizations. The nation-state system failed in many regions, especially in the Middle East and Africa.
Chivalry and warrior codes, culminating in the Geneva Conventions, only regulate heavy-infantry warfare according to European notions of honorable conflict. It simply outlawed irregular warfare, reclassifying traditional tribal conflict and tactics as unacceptable in the modern world and permits execution of violators. These international laws made logical sense as a warrior code – Uniformed warriors would engage each other directly and confine the war to a set time and place of a battlefield and so spare the civilian population. Irregular warfare obeys no code of honor and freely attacks or hides behind civilians. The Geneva Conventions and its predecessors explicitly deny rights to irregulars in combat and defined them as war criminals to be punished (guerrillas, pirates, privateers, mercenaries, Cossacks, terrorists, partisans, etc).
Outlawing the most common form of warfare and refusing to label it warfare leads to an intellectual failure to understand the world system. Labeling irregular warfare as a crime and a mere “law enforcement” problem demonstrates a misunderstanding.
The public needs to understand the nature of 4th generation warfare. They should not be denying that it is a true war because it does not follow the norms of Western warfare. They will adapt or suffer.