War, the Fourth Generation

Saddam's strategy of exploiting civilian casualties to win a propaganda war and force a U.S. retreat hasn't worked -- not yet, anyway

By Stan Crock

America and the world are getting a look at what many military tacticians believe will be the face of war throughout much of the 21st century. Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen irregulars rise up, taking random pot shots at U.S. and British troops. Iraqi soldiers doff their uniforms for plain clothes and hide out in villages, threatening to kill civilians who cooperate with the Allies. Saddam loyalists hold up white flags to surrender, then open fire. Special Republican Guard units use hospitals and mosques as forts. And suicide bombers roll their vehicles up to checkpoints, detonating bombs inside that kill and maim U.S. soldiers. That last tactic then results in the all-too-predictable tragedy of U.S. soldiers firing on a van filled with women and children, because the vehicle's driver fails to obey signals to stop.

In military parlance, it's called fourth-generation warfare. All of these moves by the Iraqis are designed, not to win battles, but to achieve victory in the propaganda war. If bloody combat on the streets of Baghdad drags on long enough and causes enough civilian suffering, Saddam's generals hope, the U.S. public will tire of it, world outrage at mounting innocent casualties shown on Al Jazeera will undermine American confidence, and the Pentagon will be forced to withdraw. Success in this style of warfare lies in generating popular support for the gritty but outgunned warriors, disgust with the arrogant, militarily superior invaders, and manipulation of global communications networks.

First-generation warfare refers to the way armies fought way back when -- think of Napoleon at Waterloo. Armies were arranged in lines and columns and armed with smoothbore muskets. The second generation was similar except soldiers switched to rapid-fire weaponry -- repeating rifles in the final days of the Civil War or the machine guns of World War I. Tactical change characterized the third generation, with the advent of maneuvers such as blitzkrieg, which saw Hitler's army bypass France's Maginot Line, rather than frontally assaulting it.


  In the fourth generation, combatants and civilians are interspersed, enveloping entire societies, as was the case in warfare between primitive tribes. But the goal now is to erode support for the war effort among the opponent's public. That has been the route to success for the Somalis, for the Viet Cong before them, and for the Palestinians -- until suicide bombers hardened Israeli attitudes. Indeed, it has been quite difficult for Goliaths to defeat Davids in this kind of public relations warfare.

Could the Iraq war be different? Maybe. Still unknown are the motivations for the resistance to American and British troops in Iraq. Saddam evidently bet that some combination of loyalty to him, intimidation, and nationalism would rally Iraqis to his side. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his old friend Vice-President Dick Cheney have come under withering criticism for underestimating the suspicion inside Iraq of the U.S., which left both Kurds and Shiites to be slaughtered a decade ago.

The U.S. gambled that hatred for Saddam would cause resistance to rapidly dissolve. That assumption has proven unfounded, with unexpected and still evolving consequences. But in truth, U.S. intelligence before the war concluded that opposition to Saddam's brutal rule was widespread. Euphoria over the arrival of Allied troops hasn't been much in evidence so far, but whiffs are appearing in Shiite towns closer to Baghdad, where people are eager to be rid of Saddam. If such hints become overt, the PR (and military) victory may still go to Goliath.


  The second lesson about fourth-generation warfare that Iraq may yield for military tacticians is the importance of surgical bombing. Normally, bombardment steels the resolve of those under attack. That was true in London during World War II, Hanoi during the Vietnam War, and during the Balkans operations. Even today, three years after the bombing of Belgrade, many Yugoslavs express anger at the U.S.

In those cases, the military and civilians seemed to be in it together. In Iraq, only military and government buildings are under attack, precisely because Washington doesn't want to alienate Baghdad's 5 million residents or destroy facilities residents need. Sure, some errant bombs have landed. But Al Jazeera presumably would show every episode, and it hasn't broadcast that many. (The source of two bombings of Baghdad markets is still in dispute.) This approach may cost some American lives in the short term -- but it could save many more in the long term if the delicacy of U.S. bombing means fewer Iraqis are prompted to take up arms in the street battle to come.

Even the killing by U.S. soldiers of at least seven women and children in a speeding van didn't seem to have the psychological impact adherents of fourth-generation warfare might have expected. Details of the incident are still murky. No evidence indicates that those shot were part of a guerrilla action. But instead of universal repulsion, reaction has been muted. The Pentagon feels justified in stepping up its shoot-first-ask-questions-later security procedures. "The climate established by the Iraqi regime contributed to this incident," declares General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Few are disputing him, not even in the Arab world.


  Equally important is the failure so far of the Iraqi tactic of maximizing civilian casualties to force the U.S. to change its strategy. A slightly different version was the Beirut bombing that killed 241 Marines and Navy personnel in 1982. That had a strategic impact, prompting the U.S. military to leave the country. The publicity surrounding either civilian casualties in Iraq or U.S. casualties so far isn't having the same impact.

The biggest test is still to come: the looming Battle for Baghdad. But as American troops mass for the final push through the city's streets, I think the U.S. has notched far better results than believers in the power of fourth-generation warfare would ever have imagined for a modern-day Goliath.

Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.